For me, October is “Hammer Country”—the season of watching Hammer Films’ Gothic horror classics from the 1950s–1970s. Since we finally have a North American Blu-ray release of The Devil Rides Out (1968), that’s the first film from their catalogue I want to examine this October.
But since The Devil Rides Out is based on a best-selling and influential novel, I’ll take a literary horror detour first and look at Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 thriller before moving on to the film.
Who is Dennis Wheatley, you might ask? Funny that anybody has to ask that, since Wheatley was once one of the world’s most popular writers. But like many best-sellers of yesteryear, Wheatley has faded from popular consciousness to the point that he’s now relegated to the domain of pop culture scholars and people like me who watch Hammer Horror movies.
From the 1930s until his death, Wheatley was primarily an author of espionage thrillers and historical adventures. Early in his career he discovered that black magic and Satanism made interesting topics to add to his formula. The Devil Rides Out was the first of his “Black Magic” series and an enormous success on first publication. Wheatley returned to black magic themes sporadically over the decades: Strange Conflict (1941), The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948), To the Devil—A Daughter (1953, filmed by Hammer in 1976), The Satanist (1960), and They Used Dark Forces (1964). By the 1960s, Wheatley’s occult tales had eclipsed his other works, and today mention of his name almost immediately brings up the topic of “witchcraft.”
After his death in 1977, most of Wheatley’s books fell out of print and stayed that way for decades. His estate has revived them in digital editions, although I can’t imagine many people will want to read these antiquated thrillers and their stuffy Imperial British attitudes. Even his biographer, Phil Baker, called Dennis Wheatley “one of the all-time great bad writers.” From what I’ve read of Wheatley, I wouldn’t either praise him or damn him that much: he was a middle-of-the road author of pulpy thrillers who wasn’t as interesting as his predecessors John Buchan and Herman Cyril McNeile (a.k.a. Sapper) or as skilled as his successor Ian Fleming. But in his black magic books he executed vibrant flashes of dark fantasy that hold up as horror fiction. Wheatley may have resented how much his Satanist novels overtook his reputation, but he did tap into something genuinely weird that has appeal today, even if it’s a cozy appeal, like the appreciation of antique furniture.
And The Devil Rides Out is indeed a pleasant carved dark oak side table from the 1930s. It’s one of the few of Wheatley’s novels that stayed in print through the fallow years after his death. It was the first of his books I ever found available in print: I purchased a new copy in 2009 when Wordsworth released it as part of its “Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural” line. It makes for a decently entertaining read that rises above the conventional action-adventure writing thanks to Wheatley’s unusual approach to horror fiction. In the introduction to the Wordsworth edition, crime writer Anthony Lejeune observed that “there are not many novels quite of its kind, because The Devil Rides Out deals not with insubstantial weirdness nor flagrant horror but with the technicalities of magic, black and white, and exchange of supernatural blows, a clash between masters of good and evil.” In other words, a contemporary espionage thriller, but with the villains using Satanism rather than secret weapons.
This materialistic approach to the supernatural may not be to my own personal tastes—I’m an Algernon Blackwood fan, after all—and the proclamations of the global dangers of Satanism to the world read as pure hysteria today. But I agree with Lejeune that The Devil Rides Out is the best of these, or at least of the ones I’ve read. When Wheatley wants to crank up the black magic, the book gets genuinely nasty and strange.
The three heroes of The Devil Rides Out weren’t new when the novel was published: polymath Duc de Richleau, Englishman Simon Aron, and robust US-American Rex Van Ryn had debuted in Wheatley’s 1933 thriller set in Stalinist Russia, The Forbidden Country, which was a massive best-seller. Wheatley then took an interest in modern occult practices, did a bit of research (although he claims he never attended any rituals himself), and cast De Richleau and Co. in a dark fantasy about Satanism in contemporary Great Britain and Europe. It’s Satanic Panic long before the 1980s, but with more pulpy action.
The novel opens when De Richleau, who knows pretty much everything as the plot requires it, discovers his friend Simon Aron has fallen in with a wealthy Satanist society under the auspices of a Mr. Mocata. The fleshy Mocata is a thinly veiled version of Aleister Crowley, whom Wheatley interviewed for the book. The Duke (as the book usually calls De Richleau) and Rex must pry their friend from the Satanists and the bewitching Miss Tanith, but De Richleau warns that they are not merely going up against criminals using black magic trappings: “These are facts I’m giving you Rex—facts, d’you hear, things I can prove by eyewitnesses still living. Despite our electricity, our aeroplanes, our modern scepticism, the power of Darkness is still a living force, worshipped by depraved human beings for their unholy ends in the great cities of Europe and America to this very day.”
Okay, Duke, if you insist. Contemporary readers will find this difficult to take seriously, especially after the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s showed it was hysteria and nothing more. But as the basis for an eighty-year-old pulpy occult thriller, let’s roll with it.
The Duke realizes that he and Rex must hurry to save Simon Aron from falling under the complete control of Mocata before a ritual on April 30, Walpurgis Nacht. Further revelations make the fight for Simon Aron more desperate, since Mocata needs a man of Simon’s particular birth and astrological properties to retrieve a special magical object, the Talisman of Set. With this talisman, Mocata can open a passageway to summon the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and ignite another Great War.
Rex tries to use the beautiful Tanith—who serves as a channel for Mocata—as a wedge into the Black Magic circle so he and the Duke can locate Simon. But Tanith puts her natural feminine sorcery to work on Rex, so he louses it up and lets Tanith steal his car. This results in a bizarre chapter where each paragraph begins with a time notation, showing the progress of Rex, De Richleau, and the police in tracking and stopping the woman racing away in a stolen 1934 blue touring Rolls:
At 8.10. Tanith had turned up a rough track leading north through some woods in the hope that it would enable her to get past the Military Camp at Tidworth without going through it.
At 8.12. Rex was hurrying into The Bear Inn at Hungerford.
At 8.14. Tanith was stuck again, the track having come to an abrupt end at a group of farm buildings.
At 8.17. The Duke was hurtling along the straight, about five miles east of Newbury.
[At 8.20. I realized the entire chapter was going to be like this.]
In the middle of a tale of Satanists and the summoning of demons, this car chase procedural is bizarre. It feels like a ‘60s police TV show with a teletype font spilling out the time at the bottom of the screen with each cut. However, this is Wheatley’s standard genre and a better representation of what most of his other novels are like.
The book then gets back into the occult groove. In the following chapters, Wheatley spills out the full Dark Arts ritual of sacrifice, cannibalism, and naked people cavorting in front of a goat-monster. It’s ludicrous but enticing and must have sparked prurient interests of readers of the mid-‘30s while assuring them that this was evil and reprehensible behavior. I see what you did there, Dennis. You’d deny it, but you know what readers came for.
The highlight is the heroes’ stand-off in a magical circle in the library of two of De Richleau’s friends, Richard and Marie Lou Eaton. De Richleau and companions must fend off a black magic assault that manifests around the protective circle in various guises: thirst, images of their loved ones as lures, a disgusting slug-like creature, and finally the arrival Angel of Death itself astride a horse. Wheatley does remarkable work sustaining the atmosphere of mounting fear and besiegement. The description of the slug-thing is the book’s best piece of writing:
The Thing had a whitish pimply skin, leprous and unclean, like some huge silver slug. Waves of satanic power rippled through its spineless body, causing it to throb and work continually like a great mass of newmade dough. A horrible stench of decay and corruption filled the room; for as it writhed it exuded a poisonous moisture which trickled in little rivulets across the polished floor. It was solid, terribly real, a living thing. They could even see long, single, golden hairs, separated from each other by ulcerous patches of skin, quivering and waving as they rose on end from its flabby body …
That’s quality queasy horror. It has echoes of the ocean stories of William Hope Hodgson, whose collection Carnacki, The Ghost-Finder was an inspiration on the magic circle scene. (Wheatley seems to have liked Hodgson, since his 1938 novel Uncharted Seas reads like Hodgson fanfic.)
The novel never reaches the same heights after the magical circle siege. The plotting switches into a cross-continental chase to Greece and a deus ex machina climax that delivers too pat an ending. Putting in a pursuit across Europe would seem like a good way to ratchet up the suspense, but in Wheatley’s hands it ends up diluting it.
Wheatley occasionally plunges into lectures about the occult with the Duke as his mouthpiece to show he did his homework. Anyone with knowledge of occult history might shake their heads at Wheatley’s moralistic approach, but The Devil Rides Out isn’t an anthropological study. The one place where Wheatley mires himself too deep into an infodump is a long passage where Tanith scribbles numerological patterns from people’s names. It’s an example of trying to create meaning out of an assortment of unconnected numbers by twisting them around until you get the answer you need; but the book wants readers to take the numerological significance seriously. Okay, Dennis, but just for this book, all right?
Oh, did you know that World War I was caused by the black magician Rasputin summoning the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? I did not know that. Thanks, De Richleau!
Absurd as all the Satanist plotting is when taken at face value (despite Wheatley’s coy avoidance of the question, I don’t think he believed in the real workings of black magic) there are still people in the twenty-first century who think children can learn to cast evil magic spells from playing Dungeons & Dragons. That’s as weird as anything in The Devil Rides Out.
Next: The 1968 Hammer movie, with a screenplay by none other than Twilight Zone master scribe and I Am Legend writer Richard Matheson.