Saturday, May 1, 2010
The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley
The plot here is basically the same as in the later movie version: two of Wheatley’s three modern day (by which I mean the 1930s) ‘musketeers’, the aristocratic Duc de Richleau and two-fisted American playboy Rex Van Ryn suspect that their close friend Simon Aron is in a spot of bother. Why? Well, neither of them have seen him for months because he’s been so busy with his new ‘friends’- a dodgy conglomerate of Johnny foreigners and deformed people. Clearly, something is not right. The friends bust Aron right in the middle of an ‘astronomy’ session at his new house, and the Duke forces him to admit that he’s been messing about with ‘black magic.’ Of course, the sacrificial black cockerel and white hen kind of gave the game away.
The rest of the novel details the three chums’ attempts to outwit the grand Epissimus, one Mr. Mocata, and his coven of acolytes. There are some memorable set-pieces, including a car chase through the English countryside, a black Sabbat on Walpurgis Nacht, and a tense night spent within the safety of a specially-prepared pentangle.
I’d sandwich Wheatley somewhere between Iain Flemming and P.G. Wodehouse. He was massively popular in his day for writing page-turning thrillers, but with a very early 20th century British twist. Even though his attitudes have not aged well, his writing certainly has: he uses a very clean, economical style that feels oddly modern, especially compared to other works from this time. In a way, he’s a bit like a 1930s Stephen King- known not only for his gripping books about the supernatural, but also for his smooth, no-nonsense prose style.
Wheatley has been frequently criticized for the racist, elitist elements in his books. In The Devil Rides Out, the Duke and his friends reflect Wheatley’s own sympathetic vision of the European aristocracy that he feels is about to pass into history. In an early chapter, the Duke’s living style is described-
'His forebears had ridden with thirty-two footmen before them, and it caused him considerable regret that modern conditions made it impossible for him to drive in his Hispano with more than one seated beside his chauffeur on the box. Fortunately his resources were considerable and his brain sufficiently astute to make good, in most years, the inroads which the tax collectors made upon them.'
Spoken like a true enemy of socialism (which Wheatley certainly was). We also learn that the Duke-
'-did not subscribe to the canon which has branded ostentation as vulgarity in the last few generations, and robbed nobility of any glamour which it may have possessed in more spacious days.'
All the characters in The Devil Rides Out live in a world that has since passed into memory- a world of footmen, butlers, country houses and private aeroplanes. Of course, for the reader today all this is part of the charm. Wheatley was also an expert on wines, and an inordinate amount of dialogue in the book is spent discussing when and what the characters shall have to drink. When the plot calls for them to fast for a time, one character bitterly laments that he has been denied that most basic and necessary of civilizing things- a fine rose with Morecambe bay prawns.
The racism in the novel is slightly trickier. Non-whites are treated as being inherently different rather than inferior- in fact, it’s mentioned that many Eastern races are formidable in matter of magic because they are more accepting of it.
'Very few white men can really get inside a Negro’s mind and know exactly what he is thinking- and even fewer blacks can appreciate a white’s mentality.'
This is a kind of Orientalism rather than outright racism (though many believe them to be the same). Knowledge of the power of magic is said to be an especially Eastern thing- the Duke learned all he knows of it during his time in the East, and the various magic practitioners have roots in the rituals of Africa, Madagascar and the Deep South. Mocata’s servant is a Malagassy, and he has the power to appear as a terrifying specter in an early chapter.
Over the course of the book, pretty much every supernatural or mystical idea you could think of is mentioned by the Duke, as he’s a shocking know-it-all, and he’s the mouthpiece for Wheatley’s impressive research into the occult. He is liable to bring up any aspect of the paranormal- witches, werewolves, Egyptian mythology- and give it a good airing. I’d imagine this book was the most elaborate and accurate rundown of the occult most people in England at the time were familiar with. Most of these ideas are introduced with astonishing clarity and consistency. Early on, the Duke convinces Rex of the reality of the supernatural using reasoning that is oddly persuasive even today.
The place of religion in The Devil Rides Out is rather unusual- for a novel about ‘satanism’, there’s surprisingly little mention of Christ or God. Wheatley’s characters are up against genuine Dark Forces, and while they do use crucifixes and prayers, the Duke explains that these are merely symbols that have been charged by centuries of powerful spiritual thoughts; had they been in the East, a Hindu swastika or horseshoe symbol would have been just as effective. ‘He who thinks right, lives right,’ he explains to them as they seek sanctuary in the positively charged (if pagan) shrine of Stonehenge, in the absence of any Christian churches. Makes a refreshing change from righteous religious dogma, doesn’t it?
But, as it turns out, thinking and living right are quite conditional. Early on, the Duke twigs that Simon’s new friends are clearly up to no good because they look unsavoury- an Oritental, an albino, etc. Their diabolical celebration of the Sabbat consists of everything any right-thinking 1930s Englishman would consider downright evil- eating and drinking to excess, dancing naked and engaging in a little free love. Wheatley makes much of their unattractiveness when naked- each is bloated or swarthy or just plain old. Compare this to the American Rex, whom the narrator is constantly telling us is tall, strong and totally in tune with Wheatley’s uptight mores.
Despite any such misgivings, it’s a cracking novel, and the abhorrent attitudes remain but a culturally interesting artifact of times gone by. The plot moves quickly, the set-pieces are excellent, and you’re never more than a page or two away from one of De Richleau’s lectures about the occult.