Of Once and Former Heroes: Dennis Wheatley, ‘Prince’ of Thriller Writers – (Part 2 – ‘The Devil Rides Out’)


Dennis Wheatley’s series of books featuring the Duc de Richleau and his young friends, Rex van Ryn, Simon Aron and Richard Eaton, started with Three Inquisitive People, a murder mystery being investigated by the first three of these disparate figures. It was Wheatley’s first completed novel, but it would end up being held up in favour of the thriller, The Forbidden Territory, featuring the same trio of the Duc, Rex and Simon, and adding Richard, who would end up marrying Marie-Louise, a Russian Princess rescued by these ‘Modern Musketeers’, as Wheatley was wont to term them.
The de Richleau books were far from the only series, and indeed long-running series Wheatley would write. Three Inquisitive People would not be published until 1940, a fourth book in this series if chronologically first (until Wheatley, in later years, split the series by adding stories of de Richleau’s younger life). The Devil Rides Out was Wheatley’s fifth to see print, in December 1934, initiating another of his long-running series.
The novel was the first of Wheatley’s Black Magic books. It was researched thoroughly before it was written, Wheatley learning a great deal from the infamous Aleister Crowley (who gets credited in his works, more than once, as the most evil man in the world: free publicity). Whether you regard that as a good or a bad thing depends very much on your reaction to Crowley, though I have to say that I did always find The Devil Rides Out to feel authentic, rightly or wrongly, and a lot more so than many of Wheatley’s later novels in this stream.
Not only did it seem appropriate to pick this novel out for analysis, given that it set this whole thing off, if I was going to put myself through this I wanted to be reading one of Wheatley’s better works. This rather backfired on me, at first, because The Devil Rides Out is actually quite decent in terms of a gripping, and fast-moving thriller in its opening chapters, perhaps as much as a third of the book. Then it descends into slow-moving stodge which had me glumly wondering just when it would get a move on, an undigestable lump in the middle of the book from which it never really recovers.
A bit of background: M. le Duc, who is in his late fifties, is an aristocrat from a long-lived and very powerful French family who have exiled themselves from France since the Revolution. The Duc, whose given name is Armand, not that that is mentioned in this book (the closest we come to a first name is Marie-Lou’s insistence on calling him Greyeyes, but as a Princess she’s the only one who outranks him), was born and raised in Russia. He is banned from entering France after his involvement in a plot to restore the Monarchy in the 1890s (detailed in the later book The Prisoner in the Mask, the one I recall my Dad reading). He now lives in London with a full staff or servants, not to mention a second set that maintain his place on the river (i.e., the Thames) and regrets not being able to sweep through London in a magnificent carriage pulled by eight horses with as many footmen on the box to attend upon him. He deeply, but not openly regrets that in this decadent age, he is unable to flaunt his superiority in the manner to which he should be entitled. Your heart bleeds for him, really.
His ‘Musketeers’, if you accept the parallel, are all some thirty years younger than him, making de Richleau something of a reverse D’Artagnan, though in Wheatley’s eyes his equivalent was Athos. Rex van Ryn, the obvious Porthos of the group, is a young American, big, broad-shouldered, bouncy and brash, heir to an industrial fortune but without any apparent responsibility to start learning how to take it over when his Dad dies, because of course he’ll be naturally brilliant at it.
The parallels to the other actual Musketeers are far from being so obvious in the case of the other two. Simon Aron is a slim, narrowed shouldered, big-nosed, full-lipped, subtle-minded financier (very rich, of course), who is supposedly Aramis. In case you hadn’t worked it out from the description, Aron is also Jewish. Naturally, being a hero, he’s not subjected to the prejudices of the era, the stereotypical slanders, the general low-grade but universal anti-Semitism. I’ll give Wheatley that but only in this specific instance. Elsewhere in his works he’s every bit as nasty as anyone else. It was a fact of the times, that attitude, there in even the best works of John Buchan, who was as good as they came in the pre-WW2 years.
How these unlikely friends met was not to be explained until Three Inquisitive People was published, but basically it happened because the Duc, Rex and Simon individually started to investigate the murder of Richard Eaton’s mother, of which he had been accused, from their own different motives: I no longer remember why they turned out to be such inseparable friends, or if it was at all plausible.
Richard Eaton, Wheatley’s own candidate for D’Artagnan, was an equally unlikely friend, being completely different from the rest again. Richard’s the Englishman, you see, the true-blue – in all senses – heart of England stock, the landed gentry, easy-going because he has nothing to worry about except maintaining his laurel paths and oaks. Mind you, Richard is the only one who’s married and he’s married exotic blood in the lovely curly-haired petite Russian Princess, Marie-Louise, who in this book is Russian because we’re told she is, but she acts like a born and bred upper class English Lady.
It’s time now to look at the story, If Wheatley has any saving grace it lies in his plots. The Devil Rides Out is constructed on the classic Three Act model, although the stodgy middle Act bogs it down and blurs the transitions to some degree.
Rex van Ryn is in London for the first time in some time. It’s a tradition that the three should dine at the Duc’s home but Simon Aron is missing. de Richleau is concerned as Simon has been unusually distant of late and Rex is happy to join him in calling on their friend even at this late hour, to find out what is going on. The Duc is horrified to find Simon on the cusp of getting involved with Satanists of the worst and ugliest kind. The first Act becomes a tense and fast-moving story of their determination to prevent Simon damning his soul by undergoing Satanic baptism on Walpurgistnacht and, in passing, Rex’s determination to stop the beautiful, enigmatic and exotic Tanith – who believes she will die within the next twelve months and wishes to accumulate power over others whilst she has the time left – from doing the same and getting herself fucked for the first time by the evil Master, Damien Mocata, a defrocked priest.
Naturally, they succeed in both aims, though in Tanith’s case it comes about by her sudden, unmotivated and wholly unconvincing realisation that what she’s doing is Wrong. Alright, the girl’s already fallen in love with Rex – who wouldn’t? What girl doesn’t secretly relish the idea of being kidnapped, browbeaten and ordered about by a big American he-man who she secretly wants to have rape her? – but this abrupt turn to the good, prompted if at all by seeing the Sabbat at close range even though she’s been in the Satanic fold for ages yet, is far from an organic development.
Unfortunately, that’s not all. Tanith is the perfect medium for Mocata, who uses her to focus his spells, whilst Simon is astrologically vital to Mocata’s attempt to locate and possess the Talisman of Set, a potent and evil object whose discovery always causes widespread death and horror: what else did you think caused the Great War? The Talisman of Set is actually the shrivelled, blackened and semi-mummified cock of the Egyptian God Set and will turn out, at the end, to be so potent that you can burn it to ashes in an ordinary coal-fired boiler.
So Simon needs to be kept out of Mocata’s reach for a few days, until the stars pass over. The obvious solution is to take him to Priors Eaton, the not-quite stately home of Richard and Marie Lou, not to mention their golden-haired little girl, Fleur, for refuge. This is where things slow down to a crawl. Richard is the perfect English gentleman, not to mention a close, if slightly lower-stage friend to the worried trio, but he’s going to be a pain in the arse.
Yes, the obligations of English hospitality, not to mention close companionship, demand he take in his friends, but as far as their story goes… We’ve already gone through the whole gamut of scepticism about Black Magic through the medium of the hard-headed Rex, allowing Wheatley to pull out all his research… I’m sorry, de Richleau to draw on all his experience to refute him.
Now we have to go through the whole kit’n’kaboodle all over again, this time with the added dimension of personal pettiness and, dare we say it, incipient alcoholism. Kindly, tolerant Richard is willing to accept the obsessions of his normally sensible friends without entirely concealing his unshakeable opinion that they’ve all gone crackers, but when the Duc insists that, for maximum protection against a master of the Left Hand Path, they need to purify their bodies and sleep within the confines of a precisely drawn pentacle drawn on the library floor, that’s when he really starts to kick back. No alcohol? Seriously, no alcohol? No scotches or brandies? No fine wines from his cellar at an sumptuous evening meal? No roast hams, or roast beef, no venison? No meats of any kind? For one whole day???
You can literally feel the sympathy draining away through your no doubt working class brown boots.
This, and Wheatley’s determination to display every bit of knowledge Aleister Crowley has passed on to him, makes the middle act drag wearily. It’s not helped by a sub plot featuring the lovely Tanith, still determined she’s going to die with twelve months, can’t be avoided, just look where the Life-line on her delicate pink palm stops. Tanith’s down the pub in the village, seeking Rex’s protection, but is it a trap? He’s shot off down there, weakening the Priors Eaton defences, because he’s crazy about her, thinks he’s big enough and ugly enough to protect her against Mocata, and all he accomplishes is to fall asleep and let her be taken anyway.
Thus, having been dulled into submission, we go into the Third Act, which might well be subtitled ‘Midnight in the Pentacle’. First we have to go through another tedious outburst from Richard, treating the whole thing as a rather unsavoury and unfunny practical joke that he’s not going to put up with any more, he’s going to go and have a stonking great glass of wine and hop into a nice, soft, warm bed. Of course he’s being got at by the forces of Evil, and since he’s a reasonable man he’s easily talked out of it by an appeal to the trust he has in de Richleau, but it slows things down at a time when the book really needs to be speeding up.
Now we get to the action. It’s a bit unfair to describe these as the creepies and crawlies, ghoulies and ghosties, but these are definitely the nasties. But there are more subtle attempts as well, Rex’s voice outside the French windows, demanding to be let in, an apparition of little golden-haired Fleur.
And then it gets very serious indeed as Mocata loses patience and sends the Angel of Death to sort them all out, including Simon, despite needing him so much for this bloody ritual. And the Angel, a pale horseman, gallops around the library but the pentacle holds until Richard, rearing back from hooves flashing near his head as any sane person would, knocks a candle over. Instantly, the Angel is inside the pentacle. Which forces the Duc to pull out his ace in the hole, the last two lines of the dreaded Sussama Ritual which cannot and must not be spoken unless the soul itself is in peril of destruction (which may be spoken but which may not be written down).
This is one of those instances where your opinions of Crowley and how accurate, or rather truthful he’s been to Wheatley in the latter’s research, are crucial to the scene, but even though it all felt authentic to me back then, today it comes over as a convenient deus ex machina.
But the story is not yet over. Firstly, Rex – the real Rex – comes knocking on the French windows, carrying the limp body of Tanith in his arms. She is, as you might expect, dead. It’s all about the Three-Fold Law of Return: a curse turned aside by its intended victim rebounds with three times the force against the one sending it, or if he’s using a medium as a vessel…
Then there’s the discovery that whilst everybody’s been holed up in the Library all night, someone has sneaked in and taken little golden-headed Fleur and left a ransom note, demanding Simon in exchange. Simon, naturally, thinks of nothing but surrendering himself to save his friends’ daughter, but the others won’t let him. It’s not about her life, or even foiling discovery of the Talisman, but the fact that nobody trusts Mocata to keep his word and return Fleur anyway, not when there are so many, you should excuse the expression, good things for which the sacrifice of an innocent virgin can be employed. Nevertheless, Simon will sneak out and hand himself over anyway.
But de Richleau and Co. do have a lead and that comes from Tanith herself, or at any rate her spirit, raised from the dead, not unwillingly, by seance and spilling as many beans as she’s got about trailing after Mocata. This takes the gang, including Marie Lou, who will not be left behind, initially to Paris, using Richard’s private plane. By the way, there’s this strange low level mist surrounding Priors Eaton, and the airfield, and indeed the entire flight, which seems to slip out of everybody’s head. If you’re getting the impression that there’s something not entirely kosher about all this, you’re on the right track.
There’s a potential hold-up in Paris as the gang discover Simon, post-ritual. Mocata tips off the Police about the appearance of that hated Royalist de Richleau, but the Musketeers fight their way out of there, with Simon directing them way out to the Balkans, in the same plane under the same imprecise flight experiences, to where Mocata has only just arrived, though as he promptly paralyses all of them, they cannot prevent him finding this super-powerful dick.
So Mocata wins, and unleashes the Angel of Death again and, guess what, de Richleau repeats his unrepeatable deus ex machina. Frustrated, the Angel wheels round, the Three-Fold Law comes into force, his horse kicks Mocata in the head and he falls down, head first on the altar steps. The good guys win, the superpowerful penis goes into the furnace (so what caused the Second World War, then?), Fleur’s rescued and, to no particular surprise to the perceptive reader, suddenly they’re all back in the Library, waking up with none of this bloody dust anywhere, Fleur’s upstairs in bed, Rex is at the French windows carrying in a Tanith who may be limp (possibly because he’s now been shagging her all night) but who’s still alive, and Mocata’s dead body, head down, is found on the steps outside. Wonder how they explained that to the Police? It was all a dream.
And Tanith agrees to marry Rex, which is truly sweet, unless you’ve read the next de Richleau book and know that she’s going to die on him anyway so that he can find a new bird to… romantically pursue.
So it goes, people, so it goes.
In part 3 we’ll take a broader look at Wheatley, his attitudes and approaches.

One thought on “Of Once and Former Heroes: Dennis Wheatley, ‘Prince’ of Thriller Writers – (Part 2 – ‘The Devil Rides Out’)

  1. Yeah, that’s the cover that I have. It’s even at the same price: 2/6. How I got it in New Jersey will forever be buried in the mists of time because I just can’t remember.

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