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The Book Programme: Dennis Wheatley
- A Letter To Posterity (2005)

review by Andrew Darlington

As a human being, Dennis Wheatley was a fake. A fluent chancer, a self-promoting story spinner in slicked-back hair and a foppishly camp, velvet bow tie... and also an advocate of a hideous and repellent elitism. Although now neglected and seldom read, lost in time and out of taste, he's primarily associated - if at all, with novels about black magic, spiritualism and occult forces, despite the fact that the major part of his prolific output was clunky adventure-romance-thrillers, pulp espionage page-turners, racy Boy's Own fiction closer to John Buchan, Rider Haggard, or Ian Fleming than, say, Stephen King or Simon Clark. As a result, for four decades - it's claimed, his novel-a-year book sales were second only to Agatha Christie, with 25 million copies sold. If his sympathies really lay with the devil, it wasn't so much a pact with demonic forces, as a cosy commercial arrangement. But he did his research. He knew Aleister Crowley - the 'Great Beast' himself, seeking out an introduction through promiscuously gay politician Tom Driberg. He used the connection to authenticate elements of his The Devil Rides Out by basing it on Crowley's Moonchild, filching sections intact. And he was not averse to exploiting the kinkier and more salacious elements of satanic ritual. Yet the results were ponderously lumpy stuff, with an extenuating exception made for the creditable A Century Of Horror (1935), a massive genre anthology that he edited. Among his wackier literary preoccupations were witchcraft, the astral plane, hypnotism, Atlantis, Walpurgis night, the Great God Pan, devil-worship in the crypt, and furtive intrigue in dark corridors and locked rooms. All apparently harmless flimflam, until he confides to a youthful Melvyn Bragg straight-faced that now "the Devil is operating through the Communist states." Bragg, fronting the TV show Read All About It (1974), looks politely amused.

This 58-minute DVD has been rescued from another vintage Literary screen-slot, with a round-table invocation of various oddball talking-heads discussing aspects of Wheatley's bizarre career-path, from an occult devotee (Mogg Morgan), to a publisher (Kate Bradley), to an oldster who seems to share Wheatley's more eccentric and extreme political views (Anthony Lejeune, "friend and critic"). There are even some rare interview sequences with Wheatley himself, some movie excerpts and formally posed historical footage.

I first discovered Dennis Wheatley on holiday in Bridlington in 1966, when I encountered his shot at SF, Star Of Ill-Omen (1952), on my cousin's bookshelf. I'd already read better stuff by better writers and wasn't greatly impressed - especially by the sequence detailing the physics of his Martian UFO's non-grav lavatory! The book did accurately predict Argentina's threat to seize the Falklands, albeit crediting it to Peron. Nevertheless, his success and wealth from such stuff bought him a Georgian-style mansion - Grove Place, in Lymington, Hants. And it was here he wrote his Letter To Posterity (dated 20th November 1947) ranting against the "anarchists and agitators" of what he calls "the all-men-are-equal" school. Insisting, "all men are not equal." He opposes what he calls "the coming of the machine-age" and the 'baleful influence' of equality, which is causing the "destruction of the Old Order." This attack on the 'ruling elite' - represented by the 'socialist planning' of Atlee's Labour government of 1945, is a betrayal of all he claims to value. He advocates setting up Mosley-style secret societies of gentlemen's clubs and country houses, right-wing aristos intent on launching a coup, an insurrection - what he euphemises as 'extreme measures' against the "unjust tyrannous officials" responsible. "If need be, die for it," he declares boldly - then squirrels the document away in his mansion where nobody can find it. Until now...

Dennis Wheatley (8th January 1897 - 10th November 1977) was born in suburban Streatham, his father a remote authoritarian figure. He was unhappy in a 'detested' boarding school, escaping into the fiction of Dumas or The Scarlet Pimpernel. Then he was invalided from the field artillery as a victim of a World War I Ypres gas-attack, but coincidentally happens to meet Eric Gordon Tombe in the army. Tombe - gentleman crook, fraudster and con-man, helps broaden his intellectual, literary - and sexual horizons, with what he terms 'drink and ink'. Introducing him to the works of Proust, Nietzsche, and Joseph Conrad, in potent combination with in-debt hedonism. By age 31, deep into a troubled second marriage, bankrupted when the business he'd inherited was wiped out in the 1929 crash, he tries his hand at writing a book. The Forbidden Territory (1933) - his own re-branding of The Three Musketeers (Simon Aron, Richard Eaton, and Rex van Ryne) relocating their high-action exploits to Lenin's USSR. It immediately becomes a bestseller. But as early as his 1936 novel Contraband, he's claiming that: "Communism is the new face of Satanism." His heroes - like charming egoist Gregory Sallust, are all decent square-jawed chaps with patriotic motives, scarred by often-sadistic sexism and now-comic jingoism, versus sinister figures such as the twisted Lord Gavin Fortescue, and devious 'Johnny foreigners'. At first he merely lives vicariously through these character's high-action romantic adventures. Then, faced with a second global war, he finds himself at the heart of the British establishment as the King's favourite novelist, seconded to prepare theoretical strategy papers for the Joint Planning Staff, recommending misdirecting invading forces by switching rail-station names and spinning signposts around to face the opposite direction. Later, of course, the novels continue - To The Devil, A Daughter (1953, and a 1976 film), The Satanist (1960), with the addition of 'health warnings' about the power of black magic to elevate their dramatic power. His Duke de Richleau (Christopher Lee) is cautioned -

"In magic, there is neither good nor evil. It is merely a science. The science of causing change to occur by means of one's will. The sinister reputation attached to it is entirely groundless and is based on superstition, rather than objective observation. The power of the will is something that people do not understand. Attributing to it mysterious qualities that it does not posses."

But it's in that dangerously slippery interface where the fascist Triumph Of The Will elides with occult mysticism that he finds his place in the coven-revival of the late-1960s, raising his profile into the early-1970s. And it's the very-great Christopher Lee who advocates Wheatley to Hammer Studios, and is therefore instrumental in getting The Devil Rides Out (1934) onto the screen (scripted by Richard Matheson, 1968). And - admit it, it's among the best of the highly variable horror output. Yet Wheatley remains a deeply unpleasant snob, a rascally social-climbing popinjay, a nouveau riche fantasist who began to believe his own fantasies - not the harmless black magic ones, but the far more dangerously offensive class superiority ones.
Dennis Wheatley - A Letter to Posterity

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