Tomorrow I’m in Manchester introducing ‘The Devil Rides Out’ on the big screen.
In it, Christopher Lee takes a rare heroic turn as scholar and occultist Duc de Richleau, playing him with a dark elegance and intensity, in a trim goatee. He discovers that the son of a war buddy has joined a satanic cult lorded over by the malevolent and not a little camp Mocata (Charles Gray). Director Terence Fisher, working from a literate script by Richard Matheson, creates a handsome period piece set in 1920s England as Richleau and Mocata battle for the souls of two young lovers on both physical and spiritual planes (cue cheesy effects). Hammer’s budget did not stretch to a chase across Europe, and culminated in Buckinghamshire.
There’s a rumour going around that the climactic battle has been tarted up optically, and God, I hope so – anyway, if you’re in Manchester swing by The Dancehouse Theatre at 2:45pm. One of the film’s stars, Patrick Mower, will be doing a Q&A afterwards.
Dennis Wheatley was of the world’s best-selling authors (he shifted over fifty million copies from the 1930s to the 1960s), but he has faded away. It’s not hard to see why; in our dark modern world Satanists seem rather quaint, and certainly not worthy of the hilarious warning Wheatley placed at the front of his supernatural novels about the ‘very real dangers’ of witchcraft.
Dennis Yates Wheatley (1897-1977) was an inventive, prolific author who conjured forbidden thrills by selling the virtually non-existent ‘reality’ of black magic to aghast British readers. In ‘The Haunting of Toby Jugg’, a monstrous malevolent spider-thing taps at Toby’s bedroom window trying to get in, and it’s there night after night. Toby is a wounded Battle of Britain pilot and thinks he’s hallucinating, but there are Satanic forces at work and he’s powerless to stop them. It’s a book that gave generations of teenaged boys nightmares, written three years after WWII and filled with the dread of Nazi invasion.
Gregarious and clubbable, Wheatley hailed from an upper middle-class family who owned a wine business. His adventure stories were packed with sex, Satanism and snobbery, linked with shared-world characters and teeming with ludicrous incident, giving him the kind of popular appeal Ian Fleming enjoyed. He was drawn to creating titled heroes in the grand traditional vein, like Gregory Sallust, ‘The man the Nazis couldn’t kill!’, but his fantastical novels were less stiff-necked and offered more disreputable hi-jinks. The author of ‘They Found Atlantis’ also invented board games and created several interactive murder dossiers containing physical pieces of evidence, with a sealed last page revealing the killer.
Wheatley’s wife found him a job coordinating secret military deceptions for Winston Churchill, who asked him to suggest what the Germans were up to. Surprisingly, he was often near the mark, although his fears that they would invent a death ray proved unfounded.
‘The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult’ appeared in mass market paperbacks that brought new audiences. Phil Baker’s superb biography, ‘The Devil Is A Gentleman’ fills in the details and catches Wheatley’s breathless appeal.