Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. This was supposed to be a short series of three posts: Introduction, Review, Appraisal, and this post would have been an excoriation of Dennis Wheatley, writer and Arch-Conservative, based on the consideration of a single book.
But a momentary impulse, answered by a synchronistic discovery, has led to a more substantial project. Instead of one, I have read four books, have been able to comment directly on more writings, and in doing so I’ve reduced the task for this final appraisal. Patterns of mind and habits of writing have been looked at in more depth: having jumped up and down on a few more books than I’d intended means I have less that needs to be said here.
It doesn’t make any difference that the four books I’ve reacquainted myself with are all from the same series, that of the Duc de Richleau, with and without his fellow ‘Modern Musketeers’. There were eleven de Richleau books in the series, three of which took Wheatley’s brand of Crowley-inspired Black Magic as their theme, so what I’ve read covers about a third of the series in more or less the correct proportion.
In addition to de Richleau. Wheatley also wrote two other lengthy series, featuring Roger Brook and Gregory Sallust respectively. Brook’s series, at twelve books marginally the longest, was straight historical fiction, covering the entire period of the French Revolution, from pre-Revolutionary France all the way to Waterloo. Brook is an unofficial British spy, under the direct orders of Prime Minister Pitt the Younger, who works his way up to become a close and trusted aide to Napoleon himself. Needless to say, Wheatley’s sympathies are firmly on the side of the aristos throughout.
The Sallust series, also of eleven books, is a bit harder to categorise. The heart of it is a seven book sequence covering the whole of the Second World War in which Sallust, a journalist, operates as an unofficial British spy against the Nazis. This run was preceded by a rather ridiculous book, extending the contemporary circumstances of the Great Depression into a future created out of all Wheatley’s prejudices, of a Communist-but-quasi-Fascist takeover, the rebellion of freedom fighters under Sallust and resolution occurring in the form of a restoration of the Monarchy. Post-War, so to speak, Sallust became just another globe-trotting Peter Pan hero, shagging strange woman and getting involved with Black Magic.
Sallust’s series, being set in contemporary times with modern weaponry to hand, was by some measure the most brutal of the three, with an underlying barbarity and sadistic grimness, which can be partially justified, I suppose, by being set in the Nazi period, and a response to their inhuman savagery, but it’s there in the first book, the embodiment of Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s claim that ‘Extremism in the defence of Liberty is no vice.’
But by now we’ve had fair exposure to Wheatley’s key characteristics, the most important of which is his Conservatism, served up with big and little ‘c’s. Wheatley, who had no upper class status or claims of his own, a Wine-seller whose business ineptitude brought the long-established family business to its knees, forcing him to turn to writing to keep a roof over his head, nevertheless believed in a stratified society, with a Monarch at the very pinnacle.
What followed was old-established aristocracy, who were the only and natural rulers, thanks to their centuries of experience of rule making them the only ones capable of the breadth of mind and knowledge to be wise, fair and just in leading their country. Then the rich, but not the crass, money-obsessed nouveau riche, who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.
To these were the privileges of rule reserved, with anyone else, meaning everybody lower in the social spectrum, being hopelessly inept through looking only to contemporary concerns instead of appreciating a true historical perspective formed over centuries.
And to these people, and these alone, were the privileges of life arrogated, for only they could appreciate them, not like the plebs, oiks and common scum beneath them (sorry, did I suddenly start getting too direct there?).
It covers the Modern Musketeers like a comfort blanket. The Duc, tenth of his line, connected to the monarchy of France, openly regretful that he cannot indulge his whims that display his wealth and status. Rex van Ryn, heir to a massive Banking fortune. Simon Aron (but dammit, the man’s a Jew!), financial genius. Richard Eaton, landed gentry. Neither privation nor Law apply to gentlemen of this caste, such things are for the lesser orders, who don’t matter, and who probably need such things to keep them in their place. Wheatley unashamedly boasted that, whilst engaged in Intelligence work in the Second World War, that he and his fellows wined and dined extravagantly as if Rationing didn’t apply to them, and it shouldn’t: after all, they were important.
As I said above, in the Sallust book, Black August, dear old Britain is truly up shit creek, its world as shattered and dangerous as any in a John Wyndham catastrophe novel, bt as soon as the Prince Regent tales over, all magically becomes well. A place for everybody and everybody in his place. And all the privileges belonging to the likes of the Duc and his acolytes, whose sophistication, intelligence, taste and their attachment to a stratified social system which cannot and must not be overthrown is self-evidently right.
Lacking any such qualifications himself, but clearly believing he was entitled to them, Wheatley was a classic case of a would-be hanger-on, elevating what he worshipped to not just an ideal but an inviolable state of nature.
The only time I saw actusally saw and heard him was a BBC TV interview late in his life. Here was an elderly buffer in a white smoking jacket with a self-important manner. All I can remember was his insistence that all rock’n’roll music was the work of the devil and that before they were released, Satanic priests were brought in to ‘bless’ the master tapes. Even now, and after being advised by someone in a position to know that there is far more of that in pop and rock than you’d ordinarily give credit for, and having had certain signs pointed out to me, I find it next to impossible to take his claims remotely seriously.
As I was still enjoying his writing, the interview was a bit of a balloon-pricker. Not too long after it began to dawn on me that Wheatley despised me: not personally, he despised all of us who were ordinary, or from working class backgrounds, and thought of us as ignorant and unwashed. Literally, in the case of his book, The Ka of Gifford Hillary.
Clever as it is on one, Magic oriented level, the book stinks for its attitudes. Hillary, a successful businessman, has re-married richer and younger and his snobbish second wife doesn’t like her stepdaughter, who lives a working class life. She doesn’t like the girl visiting at all, even before she and her friends have the temerity to try on some of wifey’s clothes. Then she goes incandescent. Daughter being working class and not bathing three or four times a day has sweated all over wifey’s clothes and they have to be thoroughly washed to remove the stink of working class bodies, and no doubt the lice as well.
And there’s a deeply unpleasant, voyeuristic scene where Hillary, who spends most of the book undergoing an out-of-body experience, watched his chauffeur in his bedroom and is condescendingly pitying towards the man over the fact that his working-class wife is flat-chested.
Which brings me to Wheatley’s attitude to women, which is simple: they are there to be screwed by the hero, sometimes in loving relationships, but always disposable. The hero ends the boom having got the girl but somehow or other she’s not there in the next book, so as to make room for him to set his cap for another conquest. Lady Felicity. Tanith. Angela Syveton, killed whilst pregnant by an anarchist’s bomb in the first chapter of the sequel to The Prisoner in the Mask. Ilona Theresa, marrying but soon to die of consumption.
Off the top of my head I can think of only three women who weren’t ditched or despatched in between books to give the hero someone new to defile, and these were Princess Marie Louise in the de Richleau’s, Lady Georgina in the Roger Brooks and Gregory Sallust’s fit blonde German shag-mate. Without looking this up, I can’t remember her name, but I vividly remember Wheatley repeatedly describing her as having breasts capable of fitting perfectly into vintage, balloon-like champagne glasses.
Which says it all, really.
Very late in his career, indeed in his penultimate novel, Wheatley’s produced The Strange Case of Linda Lee, tackling the unusual subject of a young woman’s experiences in the late Sixties (hint, she screws her way to the top). Ian Fleming was criticised, then and since, for The Spy Who Loved Me, an offbeat James Bond novel that is told first person by a young woman whose path he crosses, criticised for his appallingly ignorant approach to seemingly incarnating a young woman. Wheatley makes him look like Margaret Atwood.
If you must read a Dennis Wheatley book, make it an early one (but not Three Inquisitive People, and I’d advise you miss out Such Power Is Dangerous too). These books at least have the advantage of freshness, and whilst the odd post-WW2 book has its moments – To the Devil a Daughter is perhaps the best – Wheatley starts to drown in horrific notions.
The political aspect gets more strident. Curtain of Fear stars a left-oriented teacher originally from Czechoslovakia, whose brother was a prominent scientist. Our teacher has an English girlfriend. At the start of the book they differ over what is most important: he is for liberty, equality and truth whilst she believes in God, the Queen and Britain.
This difference in attitudes threatens to break them up but he gets kidnapped back to Communist Czechoslovakia over the weekend, trying to stop his brother – a double agent? – defecting back there, sees Communism at first hand, escapes back in time for Monday and when he next sees his girlfriend, equality and liberty can go take a flying fuck, he’s a fully paid-up God, Queen and country man and they can marry and produce patriotic babies.
All sorts of shitty attitudes crop up. One latish novel is about a young man – inevitably called Benny – who’s a bit mentally, well, slow, and who violently rapes this pretty woman whilst she’s changing into her bathing costume because he thinks that’s what you should do. You’ll no doubt be stunned to learn that she’s completely fine with it and agrees to marry him.
There’s a comment elsewhere by the mother of a marriageable daughter, in casual conversation giving her opinion that rape is probably not as bad an experience as it’s made out to be because, after all, it’s usually the woman’s first experience of sex anyway.
And from start to finish, the writing itself, the choice of words and their yoking together in sentences, is at best undistinguished, but primarily flat and banal. Sentences are churned out with no thought for elegance or style but merely the conveying of fact. Dialogue is largely pointed and awkward. Everybody has their preset character and Wheatley is only concerned with having them talk up to what they are supposed to be.
Even as early as The Devil Rides Out there were phrases and paragraphs that will go on to be repeated interminably, like Rex’s exhortations about cocktails or Simon’s inability to correctly pronounce the word ‘No’ of all things, it coming out as ‘Ner’ because of his full-lipped Jewish mouth that he can’t close fully. I’ve already commented, in the book, about Richard’s pig-headed obsession with his luxurious food and drink, or more aptly given where his pettishness points, drink and food.
And, tying back into the class stratification, all this food is fresh, of the highest unadulterated quality and, it is heavily intimated, far too good for the common folk who would never appreciate it in the the first place (yeah, the snobs would get so far up my nose, I couldn’t appreciate the bouquet).
Save that the writer of children’s fiction is much more of an ordinary man whose concern lies with ordinary people than an aristocracy suck-up, there is no more subtlety in Wheatley than in Malcolm Saville’s Marston Baines books.
In making Dennis Wheatley my first favourite adult writer, I was following in my father’s footsteps, both consciously and unconsciously. Of all the things I wish that I had had the chance to ask him, about his life and feelings and opinions, the one I miss asking the least is almost certainly, “What the Hell did you see in him?!”