A couple of days ago I stumbled across this article in the Fortean Times about Dennis Wheatley, an occult thriller writer of the mid 20th Century. Wheatley was insanely popular in his day, mostly forgotten about now: his first success and most famous book was The Devil Rides Out, which I read when I was a teenager – probably because Wheatley’s books usually had naked women on the covers.
I’ve been meaning to re-read this book for years, and the Fortean Times article inspired me to track it down. The Victoria University library is a research library – not that great for fiction, but for some reason it has a huge collection of mid-20th century pot-boilers called ‘The Lyell Boyes Crime Fiction Research Collection’, which features a number of Wheatley novels. The first thing I did was check the author’s preface, which had stuck in my mind over the decades – with good reason. It is a masterpiece of marketing:
I desire to state that I, personally, have never assisted at, or participated in, any ceremony connected with Magic – Black or White….Should any of my readers incline to a serious study of the subject, and thus come into contact with a man or woman of Power, I feel that it is only right to urge them, most strongly, to refrain from being drawn into the practice of the Secret Art in any way. My own observations have led me to an absolute conviction that to do so would bring them into dangers of a very real and concrete nature.
The VUW edition of The Devil Rides Out doesn’t have a naked chick on the front cover, but it does have an ad for Oxo stock cubes on the back. And on the inside back cover we find:
This is why the publishing industry is in trouble: lack of revenue diversity. They’re not even trying any more.
Anyway, I’m about half-way through The Devil Rides Out. It is (a) a completely brilliant thriller, and (b) an unintentionally hilarious comic novel, due to Wheatley’s reactionary politics and incidental bigotry. The villains of the book are – in best Famous Five tradition – mostly foreigners, including ‘a bad black’ from Madagascar, ‘a grave-faced Chinaman wearing the robes of a mandarin, whose slit eyes betrayed a cold merciless nature’, ‘a fat oily Babu (he means Indian) in a salmon pink turban’, and a ‘red faced Teuton, who suffered the deformity of a hare-lip.’ The hero of the book is the wise and erudite Duke de Richleau, an exile from France after a failed attempt to overthrow the evil socialist government and restore the rightful Monarchy. Richleau is an endless font of pseudo-scientific wisdom. My favorite of his lines (so far) is when he’s contemplating a terrible Satanic ritual and warns his companion ‘Be careful. Half of those Satanists are probably epileptics.’