07 October 2009

The Devil Rides Out: The Novel

The Devil Rides Out (1934)
By Dennis Wheatley

Here we are in wonderful October Country, so how about a Gothic classic?

Dennis Wheatley was once one of England’s most popular writers of adventure and espionage novels. Today, when he’s read at all, his occasional forays into the supernatural are what receive the most attention. The Devil Rides Out, the second of his novels published, remains Wheatley’s most popular book, and was made into one of the greatest Hammer horror movies in 1968.

The heroes of The Devil Rides Out weren’t new ones when the novel came out: the exiled polymath Duc de Richleau, Englishman Simon Aron, and robust American Rex Van Ryn had already appeared in Wheatley’s 1933 thriller set in Stalin’s Russia, The Forbidden Country, and he had also written an even earlier novel featuring them, Three Inquisitive People, but that wouldn’t be published until 1940. The Forbidden Territory was a breakthrough success. Wheatley then took an interest in modern occult practices, did a little research (although he points out that he never attended any rituals himself), and proceeded to put Duc de Richleau and company from The Forbidden Territory into a dark fantasy thriller about Satanism in 1930s Great Britain.

The novel begins when De Richleau, who knows pretty much everything as the plot requires it, discovers that 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 actually interviewed for the book. The Duke (as the book usually calls him) and Rex Van Ryn have to pry their friend away from the Satanists and the bewitching Miss Tanith, but De Richleau warns that they are not merely going up against criminals with black magic trappings. No, the supernatural evil they face is quite real:
“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. Makes a fun book premise anyway and perfect Halloween reading if I take the demons and summonings as genuine.

The Duke realizes that with the approach of April 30th, Walpurgis Nacht, he and Rex must hurry to save Simon Aron from the clutches of the Witches’ Sabbat that will allow Mocata to gain complete control over him. Further revelations make the fight for Simon Aron more desperate, since Mocata needs a man of Simon’s particular birth and astrological properties (mumbo jumbo, mumbo jumbo) to retrieve a special talisman and unleash devastation, perhaps even a second world 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 De Richleau can locate Simon. But Tanith has her natural feminine sorcery already working on Rex, so he manages to louse it up and lets Tanith steal his car. This results in a bizarre chapter that Wheatley writes like a police description: each paragraph begins with a notation of the time, showing the progress of Rex, De Richleau, and the police in tracking and stopping the beautiful woman in the 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 striaght, about five miles east of Newbury.
At 8.20. I realized we were going to have a whole chapter of this. It seems a touch mechanical, but in the middle of this plot of Satanists and the bringing forth of demons, this car chase procedural adds a good dose of the realistic thriller—and a reminder that this is really Wheatley’s principle genre. It feels like a modern police television show, with a teletype font spilling out the time at the bottom of the screen with each cut.

This doesn’t last long. Wheatley spills out the full Dark Arts ritual of sacrifice, cannibalism, and cavorting naked people in front of a goat-monster in the following chapters. It’s outrageous but intensely readable—and must have sparked prurient interests of the mid-‘30s while assuring the readers that this was, indeed, evil and reprehensible behavior.

The highlight of the novel, and later of the 1968 movie, is the heroes’ stand-off in the pentacle in the library of two of De Richleau’s friends, Richard and Marie Lou Eaton. De Richleau and Co. have to fend off an enormous black magic attack that manifests around the protective circle in various guises, such as creating thirst, uses images of their loved ones as lures, a disgusting slug-like creature, and finally the Angel of Death itself astride a horse. Wheatley does remarkable work here at sustaining the atmosphere of mounting fear and besiegement. It’s the most “horror friendly” part of the novel.

The novel never reaches this same height again, and the climax depends on a deus ex machina that provides too pat an ending.

Although this is a supernatural story, and sometimes frightening with its manifestations, it’s still in Wheatley’s comfort zone of the thriller and adventure story. The Satanic has dropped into the proceedings, but De Richleau and Co. are still swinging into action as they would against Stalinists and Wheatley’s hero Gregory Sallust would against the Nazis. Car chases, fistfights, and a cross-continental chase in a plane to an ancient Greek ruin . . . it’s all classic thriller material.

Wheatley sometimes plunges into overlong lectures about the occult with De Richleau as his mouthpiece to show that he did his homework. Anyone with some knowledge of occult history might shake their heads at Wheatley’s superficial approach, but The Devil Rides Out isn’t an anthropological study. The one place where Wheatley mires himself too deep in an infodump is a series of pages where Tanith scribbles numerological patterns from people’s names. It’s a great example of trying to create meaning out of an assortment of unconnected numbers by twisting them around until you get the answer you need—yet the book wants the reader 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!

The Devil Rides Out was the hit action thriller of its day, the 1930s equivalent of a Dan Brown novel—although I’ll take the 1930s pulpy craziness any day.

Absurd as all the book’s Satanist plotting is when taken at face value (despite Wheatley’s coy avoidance of the question, I don’t think he actually believed in the real workings of black magic) there are still people out there in the twenty-first century who think that children can learn to cast dark magic spells from reading Harry Potter novels and playing Dungeons & Dragons. That’s almost as weird as anything in The Devil Rides Out.

Through the 1940s and into the ‘50s, Wheatley mostly wrote spy thrillers some historical adventures starring Duc De Richleau and Gregory Sallust. He returned sporadically to supernatural horror: Strange Conflict (1941), The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948), To the Devil—A Daughter (1953) which was filmed as the very last Hammer horror movie, and The Satanist (1960). As his career ended, his occult tales had eclipsed his other works, and today mention of his name almost immediately brings up the topic of “witchcraft.” The Devil Rides Out is currently in print in the U.S. from Wordsworth, and it’s a great read for anybody with an interest in supernatural literature of the twentieth century and the changing Gothic novel. If you’ve seen the film (I’ll review that in a few days) it’s also worth reading the source material.