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The Devil Rides Out

How Dennis Wheatley sold black magic to Britain

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Etienne Gilfillan/Getty Images/Keystone/Dave M Benett

FT256

William Blake’s verdict on Milton was: “Of the Devil’s party without knowing it”, and much the same could be said of Dennis Wheatley. He virtually invented the popular image of Satanism in 20th-century Britain, and he made it seem strangely seductive. If the appeal of Black Magic in popular culture was ultimately erotic, then this was largely due to Wheatley’s writing, with its reliable prospect of virg­ins being ritually ravished on altar tops.

By the time he died in 1977, Wheatley had shifted around 50 million books, helped by a massive surge in paperback sales during the “occult explosion” of the late Sixties and early Seventies. By then, his books seemed to be every­where, in a uniform range of black paperbacks, each one featuring a naked woman who seemed to be go-go dancing behind a splurge of flame.

She was the same on each cover, but the occult props varied: on different books you’d find a skull with a black candle, a leather-bound tome, a goat’s head, a crystal ball, a tribal mask, and so on: all the décor of the arts of darkness. Inside the books, it was secret Sabbats, Satanists in mansions, astral projection, masked orgies, and the rest. The public couldn’t get enough of it.

Thanks to Wheatley, people “knew” what Black Magic and Satanism – historic­ally an almost non-existent phen­omenon – were like. Professor Jean La Fontaine made an astute link to Wheatley-derived imagery in her debunking of the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic, and Ronald Hutton, in The Triumph of the Moon, remembers adolescents borrowing “risqué imagery” from Wheatley’s books to decorate parties: “For my generation of Essex teenagers, they represented the essential primer in diabolism.”

Their salacious promise of something impendingly kinky made Wheatley’s books particularly popular with adolescents, but they had a far wider appeal. There is a comforting air of luxury and connoisseurship about the world of Wheatley, particularly in the Duke de Richleau books such as The Devil Rides Out, where the Duke’s flat in Curzon Street has a Tibetan Buddha on a lotus, ancient bronzes, jewelled Russian icons and “curiously carved ivories from the East”. Along with his knowledge of the mystic arts, like a prototypical Doctor Strange, the smoking-jacketed Duke also enjoys his Imperial Tokay wine and his Hoyo de Monterrey cigars.

With their attention to drink and food (“the bécasse is a bird for which I have a quite exceptional partiality”), their old-style English values, and the pukka decency of their leading characters, the Duke de Richleau books have an almost Christmassy warmth. But it is not Dickensian; it is an aristocratic warmth – or an idealised suburban fantasy of it – creating a realm where pentagrams are drawn on the floors of country house libraries, and the Prince of Darkness rubs shoulders with rare books and fine wines.

Despite the fact that the Duke and his friends battle against Satanism, Wheatley infused the whole idea of the occult with something of his own snobbery, and the association stuck. “What really happens ‘after the Ball is over’ at leading country houses?” asked the blurb of June Johns’s 1971 book Black Magic Today (published by iconic paperback imprint the New English Library, which also published Richard Allen’s Skinhead books).

Another New English Library title, Sandra Shulman’s 1970 novel The Degenerates (“exposes the evil of Satanism in Britain today”) features an evil cult in swinging London. Young ingénue Jenny is taken to an extremely select party (“like one of those exclusive clubs – White’s or the Athenæum”) where she is wide-eyed at the carpets and tapestries: “[E]ven the wall of leather-bound books… suggested another unknown world. This, she understood with dismay, was real class.”

Incense drifts up from gilded burners and there is a candle burning between the horns of a gigantic goat-headed effigy. There are lobsters and caviar before the time comes for Jenny’s ritual ravishment (“[T]hey will hold you down until your initiation is accomplished”). It is a “rare sideshow of depravity”, but these people are not just any old degenerates: “Maxted and Mireille argued about the true value of a Chinese grey jade figurine which had recently been auctioned at Sotheby’s.” Jenny’s companion, David, recognises the ambience at once: “He had whiled away hours… in the company of too many Wheatley characters not to recognise the Satanic set-up.” Indeed.


BRITAIN'S OCCULT UNCLE

Along with Sex and Snobbery (two of the “three esses” that critic Cyril Connolly thought were central to successful popular fiction, the other being Sadism; he was thinking particularly of the James Bond books), people also got a certain amount of spiritual sustenance from Wheatley. Whatever the subject – and the occult was only a part of Wheatley’s output, although it’s the part he will be remembered for – Wheatley’s books were always research-heavy, and this has a special role in his occult books, where the relentless parade of factoids starts to wear down the reader’s disbelief.

The Devil Rides Out
is so insistently packed with esoteric lore that readers soon learn about the astral plane, elemental spirits, the inner meaning of alchemy, familiars, grimoires, scrying, and the rest. The effect is richly atmospheric, with an immersion in specialised jargon such as “passing the Abyss”, the “dispersion of Choronzon”, “St Walburga’s Eve”, the “Clavicule of Solomon”, “Our Lady of Babalon”, and the Golden Dawn levels of Magister Templi, Neophyte, Zelator, and Ipsissimus.

Plenty of modern occultists began with Wheatley’s books, although they might not always admit it. From The Devil Rides Out alone, the main planks of an occult worldview are clear: mind rules matter; spirit is transcendent; the soul is eternal; we move through successive incarnations “towards the light”; and there are “Hidden Masters” operating above and behind the scenes.

Coming largely from the wider cult­ural fall-out of Theosophy, this is an uplifting package with an undeniable popular appeal. Wheatley writes partic­ularly well about astral projection or out-of-body-experi­ence, which was also a powerful draw in the bestselling works of Lobsang Rampa (aka Cyril Hoskins; see FT63:24–26) and the anthropological fraud Carlos Castaneda (see FT117:42–44; 238:56–57).

Wheatley had an immense mailbag and he answered his fan letters diligently, but he noticed his occult books brought a different quality of post; a number of the writers were clearly deranged. Looking back on his life, he preferred to dwell on the letters he had received from physically sick people in hospital, who said his books had enabled them to forget their pain. His books would be doubly comforting in the circumstances, not just for their page-turning distraction but the transcendent occult message of mind over body.

By the time he published his non-fiction religious compendium The Devil And All His Works (1971), Wheatley had become Britain’s occult uncle, and his publishers cashed in on this towards the end of his life with a paperback series called “The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult”. Originally planned to include hundreds of books, it ended up running to 45 – Bram Stoker, Blavatsky, Sax Rohmer, William Hope Hodgson, Lord Dunsany and many more – with undemanding introduct­ions by Wheatley. Barbara Cartland lent her name to “The Barbara Cartland Library of Love” around the same time.

Wheatley’s identification with the occult – and his famously bad prose style – meant a certain comedy value grew up round his name, albeit affectionate, and it has been there ever since. Still, it was hard work being a national figure; batt­ing back letters from teen­agers, lecturing to Church of England clergymen about demonic possession, and even giving his specialist opinion on crimes that might have an occult angle, such as the Charles Manson Family murders.

In fact, Wheatley was getting remarkable mileage out a rather superfcial knowledge of the occult. It was based particularly on the works of the Reverend Montague Summers, along with Grillot de Givry’s Witchcraft, Magic and Alchemy.

In the 1930s, he befriended a number of occultists for his research, notably Summers and Rollo Ahmed, and he treated Aleister Crowley to a slap-up lunch at the Hungaria Restaurant on Regent Street. In later life, he was happy to give the impression of a more protracted acquaintance, but in reality he wasn’t keen to see Crowley again.

Wheatley believed in reincarnation, but he was less absorbed in the occult than his popular image suggests: he would like to have been equally remembered as a writer of thrillers and historical romances, but it was clear what his public wanted and by the end of his life he had to go along with it. His deeper interests were history and politics, and these were weirdly intertwined with his more clandestine personal mission as a writer, which we can now see hidden in full view.


SATANISTS AND SWASTIKAS

Like many thriller writers, Wheatley was a man of frankly reactionary opinions. In his Cold War thriller Curtain of Fear, a foolish left-wing professor remembers reading a book by none other than Dennis Wheatley, a “drum-banging” writer whose characters “glorified the sort of reactionary sentiments that had been current in Disraeli’s day. They were absurd and unreal, and wickedly calculated to inspire anti-social ideas in the young…”

Wheatley often wrote himself into his books. One of his early thrillers, Such Power Is Dangerous, is set in the Hollywood film industry, where a character plans to film a novel called The Forbidden Territory. We are told it has “sledge scenes in the snow – aeroplanes – a gun-fight with the Reds in a ruined chateau, and a dash to the frontier in a high-powered car… plenty of love interest… great spectacle… educative value”, and “It’s by a feller named Wheatley – who he is, God knows”. In another writer, this overlap between art and life might be almost avant-garde… if it wasn’t for the asterisked footnote announcing the book was available from Hutchinson at 7/6d.

The dangerous power of the title is media power, and it shows an acutely Thirties awareness of what a critic of the time, IA Richards, called “the more sinister potentialities of the cinema and the loudspeaker”. In the opening chapter, “A Plot to Dominate the World”, criminal dwarf Lord Gavin Fortescue explains that by means of a film monopoly he and his co-conspirators can not only achieve limitless wealth, but “…our sphere of influence would be unbounded. By the type of film which we chose to produce we could influence the mass psychology of nations.”

All his life, Wheatley had an intense consciousness of media power and propa­ganda. Propaganda was a particularly well-known concept in Wheatley’s intellect­ually formative years between the wars, when the press baron Lord Beaverbook described Christ as “the Divine propagand­ist”, and people woke up to the fact that there was as much, if not more, power in owning newspapers as there was in reaching elected office.

Wheatley had a more frivolous confirm­ation of media influence when he worked as a celebrity gossip columnist in the Thirt­ies. Reporting a dance, he conspired with some other society journalists to invent a fictitious beauty named Ermintrude Wraxwell. Next day, offers starting coming in from agents and film companies: “Had we named a real girl, we could have made a fortune for her.”

After being an army officer and then a Mayfair wine merchant, Wheatley started writing thrillers after his business was caught out by the Wall Street Crash. He had already written five books when he found his real subject in 1934 with The Devil Rides Out, a book with a special mess­age for contemporary readers.

Hitler had come to power in 1933, and already people feared another war. It was expected to be like the last, only worse. Along with the attrition of the Western Front trenches, there would be new weapons such as “death rays”, and the poison gas bombing of cities. The technology of bombing was known to have improved, and it was widely believed London could be completely destroyed in the opening stages of a new conflagration.

There was a further reason for avoiding war in some circles, which was that Hitler was thought to be preferable to Bolshevism, and even a useful antidote to it. Wheatley was in this camp, and he sympathised with Oswald Mosley and the Blackshirts. Press barons Beaverbrook and Rothermere were also opposed to war, in Rothermere’s case because he was another Fascist sympathiser, believing that “[T]he sturdy young Nazis are Europe’s guardians against the Communist danger.” Rothermere’s flagship paper, the Daily Mail, was also pro-Mosley; so much so that in January 1934 it carried a piece by Rothermere himself, with the headline “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”.

And so it was that on Hallowe’en 1934, the Mail began a thrilling new serial novel about a struggle to avoid a new war with Germany. It was The Devil Rides Out, by “master of sensation” Dennis Wheatley. The Thirties subtext, lost in the celebrated 1968 Hammer film and now largely forgotten, is that the Satanists are trying to start a new war, and the Duke de Richleau and his chums have to stop them. Rescuing his Jewish friend Simon Aron from the Satanists with a sock on the jaw, the Duke places a supernatural charm around his neck to keep him safe; in one of the weirder moments in Thirties fiction, it is a golden swastika, which the Duke explains is “the oldest symbol of wisdom and right thinking in the world…”

The swastika was not so associated with Nazism as it has been since the War: as an Eastern charm, it appeared on the covers of Kipling books (and, perhaps less innocently, it was given away as a lucky watch fob by Coca-Cola, which later sponsored the Berlin Olympics). The Duke’s comments are not pro-Nazi, and it may even be that Wheatley was trying to weaken the strong ‘brand identity’ of Nazism, prising the swastika loose from it.

At the same time, Germany is specific­ally exonerated from having caused World War I. “I thought the Germans got a bit above themselves,” says the Duke’s friend Rex van Ryn, to which the Duke says “You fool! Germany did not make the War. It came out of Russia.” It was caused by Rasputin, supposedly a black magician. This exemption from blame is part of the book’s inner message, which is (to borrow a line from Noel Coward) “Let’s not be beastly to the Hun.”

Given the strong overlap between the esoteric and far-right sensibilities – noticed by Orwell, among others, who mentions in his essay on WB Yeats that the French Fascist paper Gringoire was crammed with adverts for astrologers – it is extremely fitt­ing that the greatest popular occult novel of the 20th century should have a subtext of peace with Nazi Germany.


WHEATLEY'S WAR

Wheatley changed his mind about Mosley and Hitler, and he had an extraordinary war. He began by writing papers for the King and the Joint Planning Staff on subjects such as Resistance to Invasion, where he advocated a last-ditch civilian struggle of the kind never yet seen in Britain, with every village doing its bit to delay the German advance by digging in to die as an isolated unit.

His masterpiece of the period, however, was Total War, which had some quite sophisticated ideas about the war in general: Wheatley argued that while WWI had been a tribal war, WWII was better understood as a civil war (an idea which must have made particular sense after being a fellow-traveller of the other side only a few years earlier).

Further, “Total War” was idea war: “…the decisive sphere of Total War is the Mental Sphere,” and “The primary Power Instrument of Total War is not Armed Force, but propaganda.” Armed force came third in Wheatley’s estimation, below propaganda and military intelligence; in fact, “Armed force must be considered as the backing for propaganda power.” As for propaganda itself, “the science of influencing ideas”, it “loses its value if it is recognised as propaganda”.

Wheatley moved from writing these papers to working in deception-planning, with extraordinary characters such as Dudley Clarke and Johnny Bevan. Lieutenant-Colonel Clarke was the founding genius of British deception in WWII and he became a legendary figure to his coll­eagues, although his sanity was questioned after he caused a diplomatic incident in neutral Spain, where he was arrested while dressed as a woman.

When the Allies were ready to invade Sicily, Johnny Bevan had to convince the Germans that an invasion of France was imminent instead. He had banknotes printed saying “British Army of Occupation in Northern France”, and Wheatley and others would accidentally hand these over in restaurants and shops, snatching them back when they had been seen. Later, even as the D-Day landings were happening in Normandy, Bevan and his colleagues had led the Germans to believe they were only a feint, so they continued to keep the bulk of their armoured divisions uselessly in the Pas de Calais where they expected the real attack.

British deception was one of the great success stories of the war, and by the strat­egic legerdemain of arriving in decisive numbers where they were not expected, the Allies saved thousands of lives on both sides (See “Bodyguard of Lies”, FT185:38–45). It was also one of the great successes of Wheatley’s life, bringing him a new circle of friends and an enduring conn­ection with the military and intelligence establishments.

Wheatley continued to write fiction during the early stages of the war, particularly thrillers about British secret agent Gregory Sallust, but in 1941 he published his second occult novel, Strange Conflict. This had the Nazis in league with a Haitian practitioner of voodoo, and its central supernatural feature is astral projection, used for spying purposes (it might sound like the sort of nonsense that belongs only in the world of Wheatley, but the American government later poured an estimated million into military clairvoyance experiments under the concept of “remote viewing”, notably in the CIA’s notorious Stargate Programme.

The idea of flying around on the astral plane was also calculated to lessen the fear of death – the Duke discusses exactly this aspect, as he encounters the spirits of the departed rising from blitzed buildings – and to prepare a wartime readership to endure widespread bereavement.

Like a one-man Ministry of Information, Wheatley thought this would be good for public morale, and there was a further mess­age broadcast in Strange Conflict concerning the Blitz. Not only had the Blitz fallen heaviest on working class industrial areas, but many middle class people were able to leave London for the country, a freedom resented by those trapped in the capital. The King and Queen were booed in the East End, and the Blitz was proving socially divisive, as the Germans hoped it would. It is with this in mind that the Duke de Richleau makes a positive point of staying in London: “I loathe discomfort and boredom,” he says, “but no amount of either would induce me to leave London when there are such thousands of poor people who cannot afford to do so.”


RED DEVILS

With the War over and the Cold War gett­ing underway, Wheatley published The Haunting of Toby Jugg in 1948. Featuring a Satanic school, this was inspired by Wheatley’s inside knowledge of MI5’s investigation of Dartington Hall, a liberal arts-based school in Devon. It was in Jugg that Wheatley broached his great Cold War theme, suggesting that Communism was actually a cover for Satanism, and vice versa.

As a Satanist explains, Satan “mocks those who no longer believe in his existence by having them demonstrate in favour of rule by the Proletariat on the first of May. Have you never realised that it is his anniversary, and that it is born of May-day Eve – Walpurgis Nacht – on which we celebrate his festival?” Walpurgis Night or St.Walburga’s Eve should be familiar to Wheatley readers from The Devil Rides Out, while May Day, the old pagan festival and more recently international workers’ day, was the occasion of a massive military parade of troops, tanks and missiles through Moscow, once a familiar annual sight on British television.

The anti-Communist line continues almost routinely through Wheatley’s next occult thriller, To The Devil – A Daughter (one of Wheatley’s best books, featuring a girl with a split personality and a vill­ain – Canon Copely-Syle – derived from Montague Summers) but there was a more specific message to come in 1956 with The Ka of Gifford Hillary. This features a man who comes back from the dead – in his Ka, a kind of astral self derived from Egyptian religion – after being killed, and manages to re-animate his body, only to find himself on trial for a murder he didn’t commit. Along with a generous quota of thrills and spills, the novel contained a new and distinct message about nuclear armaments, making it very topical: CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) was founded in 1957, a year after the book was published. The crux is that Britain must reduce her conventional weapons in order to afford nuclear weapons, and the public, despite their sentimental attachment to the old-style Army and Navy, must be brought onside. As a well-placed friend tells Sir Giff­ord, the heaviest burden in a democracy is “persuading the mainly ignorant masses to accept a programme that sound evidence has shown to be best for them”.

The friend asks Sir Gifford if he will raise public awareness of the issues by rejecting a Ministry of Defence order for conventional warships, despite the knock to his firm’s profits, and writing a letter to The Times to explain why he has done so. The Ka of Gifford Hillary was a remarkably well-informed book, slightly ahead of the 1957 White Paper on Defence. In publishing a million-seller with these pro-nuclear arguments, Wheatley achieved exactly the same publicity mission that Sir Gifford is asked to undertake within the narrative.

Having revealed in Toby Jugg that Commun­ism in general was the new vehicle for Satanism, in The Satanist (1960) Wheatley turned his attention to the Trade Union movement in particular. Again, it makes the book very much a document of its time, published a year after the Boulting Brothers comedy I’m All Right, Jack, with Peter Sellers as the Stalinist shop steward Fred Kite.

Communist influence was widespread in some unions, furthered by rigged elect­ions, and The Satanist opens in the office of Colonel “Conky Bill” Verney, a character loosely based on Maxwell Knight, a friend of Wheatley’s in MI5. One of his agents has been crucified upside down with his throat cut, and his discussion of this horrible event slides smoothly into ballot-rigging and the spectre of Satanic Trade Unionism.

Society seemed to be falling to pieces in the late Sixties and early Seventies, with industrial unrest, student rebellion and terrorism. Britain was also coming to terms with multi-culturalism, Enoch Powell was talking about “rivers of blood”, and the Black Power movement was prominent in America. In the last of his major occult novels, Gateway to Hell (1970), Wheatley’s new worry was Black Power, and he tried to defuse the pro­spect of worldwide race war.

Wheatley’s anxieties about everything going to the dogs were equally visible in his non-fiction magnum opus The Devil And All His Works (1971). Wheatley was far from alone in this – as the Seventies crisis continued there was talk of “private armies” and plans in Britain for counter-revolution – but the particular spin he gave it was distinctly his own. “Is it possible that riots, wildcat strikes, anti-apartheid demonstrations and the appalling increase in crime have any connection with magic and Satanism?” he asked his readers.

Wheatley’s whole career is remarkable for its calculated propaganda angle. His books were a mixture of potboiling and public service – at least according to his own values – written to manipulate the national consciousness. It’s fascinating that this should be particularly true of his occult books.

There are several reasons for this, the simplest being that they tend to be contemporary (and obviously better suited to play with current fears than his Napol­eonic-era Roger Brook series, for example). They hold up a kind of magic mirror to their times. But over and above that, it is peculiarly appropriate to the overlap between propaganda and magic as means of influencing consciousness within an idea-led, thought-driven view of the world, tampering with reality by means of words and images. It was in this context that Capt­ain JFC Fuller – occultist, historian, tank expert, and associate of both Crowley and Hitler – told readers of the Occult Review that magic remained a “formidable weapon under the name of ‘propaganda’”. Talking of Germany’s chief PR man and “minister of public enlightenment”, he added: “Is not Dr Goebbels a magician?”


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Wheatley - young

A young Wheatley.
Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Sasha

  Wheatley - devil rides
  Wheatley - secret war
Wheatley - establishment

The successful establishment author at a fête at Hackness Hall, 1955.
Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Fox Photos

  Wheatley - controlling section

Wheatley with other WWII deception-planners at a London Controlling Section meeting.

 
Author Biography
Phil Baker is the author of The Devil is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley (Dedalus, 2009), among other works. His Critical Eye bio­graphy of William S Burroughs is due out next year.

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