Of Once and Former Heroes: Dennis Wheatley, ‘Prince’ of Thriller Writers (Part 1)


When I was a boy I read boy’s things, books and comics, English and American. When I entered my teens, I still enjoyed reading some of the books I had accumulated but, in the natural run of things, I started to grow out of them. I was reading adult books at school, in English classes, Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte. Not my first choice of reading matter, though I’d already been introduced to the former at home, when my parents bought me a copy of A Christmas Carol (actually, I preferred the Mr. Magoo cartoon version). But Enid Blyton’s Famous Five weren’t really cutting it, and nor were The Lone Pine Club, despite the enthusiasm I have lavished upon them in the last few years.

There was a problem. My Dad was ill, and would eventually die when I was still only fourteen. My mother, who was one of only two people to know that his cancer was irreversible, had much on her mind: her husband and the limited time they had left, two children, work. Frustrating as it was to experience, and destructive as it was in several aspects of its application, I can understand her wanting to simplify the pressures on her, one of them being my entering adolescence.

Some of it was being over-protective, but a lot more of it was being repressive. She didn’t want to have to deal with me growing up at the same time as everything else, so she consciously or unconsciously stood in the way of me growing and developing, both during Dad’s illness and after, when we were a diminished family and she solely responsible for maintaining my sister and I.

One of the ways in which this showed was in my reading. I was not encouraged, I was not allowed, to expand the range of my reading. Dad had been an avid book reader and we had a couple of hundred books stacked in the two-shelf bookcase he’d constructed to go all along one wall of the front room, but woe betide me if I wanted to pick up anything that had entertained and interested him: I was a boy, and I was going to stay that way.

So, frustrated at being unable to expand, I would choose occasions when Mam and my sister were out of the house to sneak into the front room, my head below the window sill in case a neighbour saw me, and look at these books. Especially anything that might have anything relating to sex in them, because that was very definitely an area into which my consciousness was not going to be allowed to extend!

Though I read some other books – How to Win Friends and Influence People, something or other by Alastair MacLean, one book by Frank Yerby which didn’t tempt me to read any others – I gravitated towards Dennis Wheatley, the so-called ‘Prince of Thriller Writers’. The only book I actually remember seeing Dad read was Wheatley’s The Prisoner in the Mask, because of the vivid cover to the paperback. He favoured thrillers, and had a dozen or more Wheatley books. That may well be what drew me to try the man. If it wasn’t the first of his books that I actually read, it was certainly a very early choice.

And Wheatley became, for a time, my favourite author. Of course, this was still a secret for some time. But then the problem went away in an easy instant: we were at Burnage Library after school one day, my sister burrowing away industriously and me wandering around looking glum. My mother asked what was up with me. I complained that there was nothing interesting here. Well, why don’t you look in the adult section, she said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. I looked at her in shock then zoomed over there as if cadging a lift off Dan Dare in Anastasia.

Naturally, the first thing I looked for was any Wheatleys Dad didn’t have. Thus began a spell of five, maybe six years, in which I set out to read every novel he’d ever written. Some we had at home, some I got through the library, the rest were available in paperback in bookshops and newsagents, and I accumulated them. According to Wikipedia, there were 54 in total, and I read them all.

Then I got rid of them all.

Why? A large part of it was that my discovery and reading of The Lord of the Rings between October 1973 to January 1974 transformed my reading interests, turning me towards SF and Fantasy on a near-exclusive basis for the next twenty years. An equally large part of it was that, slowly but inevitably, I started to understand Wheatley’s character, his opinions and belief. It wasn’t as if he made any attempt to conceal his thinking, his books embodied it, he was true blue patriotic, aristocratic (with no real grounds to be) and Conservative with the biggest of Big Cs. I knew all this, yet somehow the real message that lay behind all that only seeped into me very slowly, which was that Wheatley looked down on me. Not merely looked down upon but despised me. It’s the kind of thing that can undermine your relationship with an author.

And the last part of it was that, as I was exposed to stylish, thoughtful, elegant and beautiful writing from a host of sources – not merely SF/Fantasy but such things as Damon Runyan’s short stories about his invented Broadway, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe books and Peter Tinniswood’s Brandon Family books and more, to choose three disparate examples – I couldn’t avoid the realisation that Dennis Wheatley’s writing was shit. And by that I mean not its content but the actual words. His dialogue. His descriptions. The actual sentences. He was a completely awful writer.

What brought all this about was a chance comment from my friend and guest poster, Garth Groombridge, who is writing a series on his favourite films and mentioned he was working on the Christopher Lee-starring Hammer adaptation of Wheatley’s most famous novel, The Devil Rides Out, made in 1967 and seen by me in a late night horror showing at my local cinema a decade later.

It was the first time I’d seen a film adaptation of a book I knew well, and it was a telling experience. I knew, intellectually, that film adaptations involved changes to the original, but I was unprepared for the impact of this in practice, particularly changes that seemed to have no logic behind them. The book was part of a series of books featuring the Duc de Richleau and his three young friends, Rex van Ryn, Simon Aron and Richard Eaton, all of whom were much the same age. But the film made Rex into a much older man, a contemporary of the Duc instead of the other two friends, for reasons I couldn’t comprehend. It also radically de-emphasised Simon Aron’s Jewishness, though that might be a bit more understandable thirty years and a World War on.

Garth’s mention of the film triggered my recollection of my days as a Wheatley fan, and that usually ends in the urge to write something about it for this blog, which is why we are here. Usually, when I fixate upon an author, I like to go through all their books, in chronological order, tracing their development. There’s no way I’d doing that with Wheatley! I’d choke on the crap prose if I tried.

But I can’t go ripping into the guy without some kind of contemporary familiarity with his actual writing. So I hunted out a cheap copy of The Devil Rides Out, to hold up as an example for the rest. And that will be the basis of Part 2.

6 thoughts on “Of Once and Former Heroes: Dennis Wheatley, ‘Prince’ of Thriller Writers (Part 1)

  1. Aye, well, um, I don’t think I’ve ever read any of Peter Tinniswood’s Brandon Family books, but I loved the TV version I Didn’t Know You Cared, even have a DVD box set of it.

    As for Dennis Wheatley, you’ve managed to kill any thoughts I might have had of reading some of his works.

    1. The books are about ten times as good as the TV version, especially the one the series was named for.

      As for Wheatley, you should be grateful to me.

  2. I suspect that this—your own story of how you embraced and eventually rejected Wheatley, with all its poignancy, thrills of discovery, and the constant reevaluation that comes with growing up—is far more moving, insightful, and engaging that anything that actually lies between the covers of a Wheatley novel.

  3. Somehow, and I have wracked my brain to figure out how with no success, I got my mitts on an Arrow 1961 edition of The Devil Rides Out (original price 2/6) with a VERY lurid cover around the time it was published. This is quite peculiar because UK editions back then were thin on the ground, even in the New York Metro area. The US paperback publishers by the beginning of the 1960s were booming. I have to assume that the cover appealed to me, although I was a skeptic. Even my parents, Episcopalians, believed in God but not in the Devil, Hell or Damnation. Those were concepts for our less enlightened Christian brethren. This is also in stark contrast to Wheatley who, in addition to being a Tory, believed (according to Kim Newman) in the Devil and Satanism and everything he wrote about. I only read a few of them, also including To the Devil – a Daughter (filmed in 1976 with Christopher Lee, Richard Widmark, Denholm Elliot, Honor Blackman & Nastassja Kinski). His prose was certainly dreadful, but his plots were kinda propulsive. This was before I’d discovered Tolkien, Peake, le Carré & Deighton, let alone Edgar Rice Burroughs & Ian Fleming, or I would have had an even tougher time with his prose and politics.

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