Sympathy for the old Devil: an appreciation of Dennis Wheatley

From the 1930s right through to the 1970s, Dennis Wheatley was one of the best-selling authors in the United Kingdom and in the english speaking world. While his books remain in print (I understand for example that they’ve just been relaunched in e-book ‘editions’) his profile is nowhere near as high as it was in his heyday.

This is a shame, for like other writers who wrote well, were prolific and much loved in their day (John Buchan is another who springs to mind) Wheatley is in danger of not enjoying the audience that his talents deserve.

I can’t claim to have read much of his very large output, but I’ll try to summarise it thus: he wrote mainly thrillers, and these sometimes had an historical setting. He also made use of recurring characters. Unlike some authors who are famous for one main character (e.g. James Bond, Harry Potter and so on) Wheatley had numerous popular protagonists in his stable. Among these are the adventurer Gregory Sallust, Roger Brook, and the magnificent character of the Duke de Richleau.

One of Wheatley’s continuing claims to fame are his occult novels, which are all excellent, page0turning thrillers which combine the usual thrills and spills of the genre with a heavy dose of the macabre, the darker side of the Occult and satanism.

The book which set the tone for this aspect of the author’s output is the truly magnificent The Devil Rides Out.  Featuring a cast of characters headed up by the Duke de Richleau, a French aristocrat exiled in England, is is a true battle of god against evil. It sees the Duke and his close circle of friends literally battling to save the soul of their friend Simon Aron, a man who it turns out has extraordinary psychic powers which are of use to a highly sinister magus (who, it is widely believed, is probably a thinly veiled portrait of Aleister Crowley, a man personally known to Wheatley, and who advised the author on various- shall we say-  technical details). This is kind of rollicking thriller that is so well written that it makes its three hundred odd pages fly by as if there were only thirty.  It’s all magnificently over the top, with a plot as tight as anything you’ll encounter anywhere.

Ultimately whether you think the black magic elements are rubbish, there can’t be any denying of the tightness and excitement of the plot, and ultimately what we are left with is a throughly entertaining read. Another of Wheatley’s occult novels, The Haunting of Toby Jugg, was filmed as The Haunted Airman in the last decade. The Devil Rides out was filmed by Hammer studios in the 1960s. While that film still stands up today (and gets the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up too), it’s such a strong story that it would surely be box office gold in the right hands. So long as the producers did the decent thing and stayed true to Wheatley’s original plot. The term ‘master storyteller’ is perhaps too much the stuff of publishing cliche, but in Wheatley’s case it’s perfectly true.

There’s no question in my mind that he stands with Conan Doyle, the aforementioned Buchan, Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming, to name but a few, in the great tradition of British mystery/ thriller writers.

 

 

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Walter de la Mare: A fine English all-rounder.

Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) is one of those writers who are pretty thin on the ground at the moment, which is to say that he was something of an accomplished all-rounder. Or to give him more traditional description that would have had more currency in his day, he was a ‘man of letters’. Poet, short story writer, novelist, writer for children and essayist among others things, de la Mare is still read today, although perhaps not as widely as he deserves.

Many British schoolchildren are familiar with de la Mare thanks to one of (or perhaps THE) most famous poem of his, ‘The Listeners’. This is a great piece of verse to give to a child if you really want him or her to engage with the words, mood, atmosphere and meaning, mainly because it’s one of those poems that pose a myriad of questions while deliberately not stating anything clearly.

Sometimes this can be very annoying, but very often (as is the case here) the fact that it so open-ended is a great spur to the imagination and to discussion.

Here it is:

The Listeners

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

It’s a fabulous poem, right up there with a verse like Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” for simultaneously firing a listener’s imagination, while simultaneously demanding a response, by means of deliberately not stating who or where or when in time the protagonists in the poem actually are.

Subtle and memorable are two adjectives I’d apply to “The Listeners”, and the same qualities are present in a book I bought at the weekend. Published in 1942 by Faber and Faber, Best Stories of Walter de la Mare is a good book to turn to for anyone like me who knows a bit of de la Mare through his poetry and who wants to read further.

I need to sketch a little bit of personal history here. A few years ago I heard a reading on BBC Radio by Richard E Grant of de la Mare’s supernatural story “All Hallows”. It was billed by the BBC as a ‘ghost story’ so maybe for that reason i found it a little underwhelming, since de la Mare it seems didn’t really write in the ‘classic’ vein of writers like le Fanu or MR James. While they all write in the supernatural idiom, de la Mare is more of a man for mood and atmosphere, rather than the outright shock of an apparition or a demonic presence. If de la Mare’s approach is like anyone else’s, I think it’s similar to Henry James’s, in that the stories will definitely give you a chill, but it comes less from a ghostly hand tracing its finger down the spine and more from the unsettling and lingering thought that what the protagonist in the story has experienced could just as easily be explained by it being all in the mind, as much as being caused by any supernatural agency. Think of something like James’s “The Jolly Corner” where there IS an apparition, but its appearance might just be the result of a fevered imagination as much as anything emanating from an occult source. If you take the premise of the story as read, then either of these possibilities is as scary as the other.

So although I didn’t deny the strength, power and mood of “All Hallows”, I came away with the impression that this was a story that needed to be read carefully. and I resolved to try and read it whenever I got the chance. Tracking down a new copy of de la Mare’s stories wasn’t easy (though I admit I don’t really shop for new books). So, when I came across the old wartime copy of Best Stories in an Oxfam bookshop, and saw that “All Hallows” was one of the pieces it contained, that sealed the deal. Having now read it I think it really works well.

The collection also makes it clear that there’s more to de la Mare than being a master at evoking an atmosphere or a chilling mood. Though the supernatural is a key element to his work, he is not confined to this area at all, so in the short story collection are other pieces that, while they might not chill or unsettle, still get you thinking.

Book Review: LTC Rolt, “Sleep No More”: Railway, Canal and other stories of the supernatural.

LTC Rolt (1910-1974) was a writer who is chiefly known for his biographies of important figures in engineering (such as Brunel and Telford) and his many writings on Britain’s industrial heritage. As a sideline to his more well-known factual work, he also wrote ghost stories.

A collection of these, Sleep No More, was published in 1948. It was well received at the time and continues to be held in some regard. By all accounts, at the time of publication Rolt drew (and continues to draw) comparisons with MR James. Particularly in his lifetime, James exerted a lot of influence over other ghost story writers, and Rolt seems to have consciously written in the same grain. This doesn’t make him a mere imitator or plagiarist. On the contrary I think James himself would have been the first to admit that his own writing owed a debt to others who had gone before him (Sheriden le Fanu for instance). It’s best, then, to see Rolt as continuing the essential traditions of the ‘classic’ british ghost story. Among other qualities, this means that his stories have a naturalistic setting, and the main protagonists are recognisable types, none of whom is especially out of the ordinary but who, through bad luck or ill-judged curiosity, certainly end up having an extraordinary encounter with something of supernatural origin.

As suggested by the book’s subtitle, Rolt gave his own twist to the MR Jamesian formula, so that instead of the latter’s assortment of scholars, antiquarians and other seekers after knowledge getting more than they bargained for, Rolt’s protagonists mirror his own interests. As such the various central characters in the collection are made up of workmen, tourists, travellers, factory owners, railwaymen and the like. The settings are also different: canals, railways, woodland, country homes, mines, factories.

What Rolt shares with other British-based writers of ‘classic’ supernatural fiction is the ability to turn otherwise routine settings into places of malevolent supernatural intervention. Rolt’s story “The Garside Fell Disaster” shares this with Charles Dickens’ “The Railwayman” for example, where a railway cutting in the countryside is the scene of an accident which has possibly more to do with forces more malign than signal or mechanical error. In “New Corner” the modern literally crashes head on with the ancient, as a 1930s racing club’s decision to add an improved and exciting addition to their track cuts right through a site which the locals whispered should never be touched. “A Visitor at Ashcombe” provides a twist on the classic country house ghost story. This time the main protagonist is not a wealthy member of the landed gentry or a dissolute Lord of the Manor, but a Cradeley Heath ironmaker made very good indeed. He decides to move away and takes up residence in a large old house in the Cotswolds. As a hard-headed Black Countryman who fears nothing but God, he isn’t going to let any silly talk or superstition prevent him from using a hitherto locked room.

I think the stand-out piece in this collection is the story “Cwm Garron”, which is set in a beautiful but remote valley in the border country between England and Wales. Rolt takes a famously gnomic and enigmatic entry from Kilvert’s diary and turns it into a story. “An angel satyr walks these hills,” Kilvert once wrote, and to this day no-one knew what he meant. Rolt provides a potential answer to what it might be, in a tale that blends a strong plot and realistic characterisation. Fans of the film “The Wicker Man” might like this story, as it shares the effective plot device of putting the modern world at odds with an imagined community whose beliefs are far different and older than we know. For me, the most effective part of this story is the description of the landscape, which is obviously based on Rolt’s deep love for that part of the world. Yet again, however, his skill as a ghost story writer is in changing the perspective, so that a landscape which might strike us as beautiful and romantic, can easily be viewed a different way as being threatening and hostile. Edmund Burke with his notions of the sublime would have loved it.

Overall I don’t think Rolt reaches the standard set by MR James, but to be fair to him that’s an extremely high standard to try and reach. James’s narratives exhibit incredible finesse and dexterity, and if there’s one thing Rolt is guilty of at times it’s the tendency towards slightly clunky ‘gear changes’ in the narrative, a rather obvious pointing out when something scary is going to happen, the written equivalent of those “I have a bad feeling about this” lines that crop up in Star Wars scripts by George Lucas. Another mild criticism I have is that a couple of the stories have an undeveloped feel to them, and read more like vignettes than the fully developed stories they perhaps deserved to be (the short tale “Hear not my Steps” in which a psychical researcher Davies finally has an encounter with a ghost is really very good indeed, and would be a great start point for a contemporary ghost story writer to try and develop).

Overall, however, Rolt is certainly worthy of his reputation of one of the better writers of ghost stories in the ‘classic’ vein. It’s a shame that at present this book isn’t that easy to get hold of, so if you come across a copy or see any of his stories in an anthology, give him a try.

Review of “In a Glass Darkly” by Sheriden le Fanu.

Irishman Sheriden le Fanu is perhaps the doyen of Victorian  ghost story writers, and his five-story collection “In a Glass Darkly” is a superb introduction to the writer’s work. These are classic unsettling stories in the British/ Irish tradition, in that they are largely subtle tales that unfold slowly but surely, and usually climax with a suitably macabre, and sometimes truly horrific, ending.

The neat narrative framework for this collection is that they all purport to be papers from the collection of German physician Martin Hesselius. Hesselius is German doctor, prevented from going into practice by an injury to his hand. Instead he branched out into a different area becomes something of a specialist in afflictions of a more supernatural nature.

Though an intriguing character in his own right, Hesselius exists more of a framing device in the story. Each story is a ‘case history’ taken from his files. He only appears as a participant in the first story, the unsettling “Green Tea”, a tale of a clergyman whose studies in occult lore and love of said beverage bring on the unwelcome attentions of a particularly sinister creature that starts plaguing his existence.  But is it a real visitation or a hallucination? Is the clergyman mad or truly damned? As a doctor, Hesselius can only speculate as to the cause, something he does in each of the stories.

This pseudo-medical/ psychiatric aspect of the stories is interesting. Of course Le Fanu was writing well before the development of modern psychiatry and psychology, and some of Hesselius’s attempts to explain the various phenomena in the stories struck me as being quant or downright odd. They do help lend the stories a convincingly studious air nonetheless, and with his detached and determined air, Hesselius comes across as a true investigator, so much so that you could imagine his character being resurrected and used in stories set in the modern day.

Even without Hesselius’s comments, however, each story provides the intrigue, shocks and thrills you’d expect from good ghost/ horror fiction. Le Fanu is an inventive and original writer who is capable of producing some genuinely original plots. That said, perhaps the most famous story in the book is the final one called “Carmilla”, where he makes use of one of the oldest horror legends of all. One the great vampire stories, it was apparently an influence on Bram Stoker. Carmilla the female vampire is a fascinating character, and this story of her (literal and figurative) attachment to the other lead female character is justly seen as a classic of the genre.

If you read it for yourself you may come away with the impression, as I did, that a rather knowing Le Fanu got away with quite a lot with regard to the story’s sexual subtext. Not all Victorians, it seems, were as straight laced as they would have wanted us to believe, and just like us they liked a good scare now and then.

HP Lovecraft: bigger, badder, weirder.

Review of The Whisperer in Darkness: Collected Stories Volume 1, published by Wordsworth Editions. 

 

I have been aware of Lovecraft’s name for a long time but had never properly got round to reading any of his stories. Then I came across his story “The Call of Cthulhu” in an anthology of classic American supernatural fiction and I was hooked. The trouble is, there are quite a lot of Lovecraft editions out there, so where to begin?

A central aspect of his work is the “Cthulhu Mythos”, and in this volume Wordsworth Editions get right down to brass tacks by collecting together the main stories that fall into this category.

Downsides to this edition? Well if you like Lovecraft, after reading this you’ll probably render the book redundant as you’ll want to get the collected work. But Wordsworth books cost far less than the price of a packet of cigarettes or even a pint in some places, so this is hardly money wasted. There’s also the fact that the earliest stories in this volume are also among Lovecraft’s earliest work, so they’re not perfect and rehash certain narrative ideas and imagery.

A lot of what I’ve read by Lovecraft so far calls to my mind other writers. These are purely personal associations. I’m not accusing him of plagiarism, and I don’t even know if he read all of these writers. However, Poe is one who seems to loom large over a lot of Lovecraft’s work. He’s even mentioned in “At the Mountains of Madness”. But even simply in terms of being a writer who was unafraid to pitch things at the same high, nerve-wracking level, Lovecraft seems to have seen Poe as someone who threw down the gauntlet.  Little wonder Lovecraft’s work inhabits the same emotional landscape, and then gores even further.

MR James is someone else I like a lot, and who comes to mind when I read Lovecraft. Like James’s, many of Lovecraft’s characters have a scholarly background. “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Dunwich Horror” share the (M.R.) Jamesian device of scholars and other seekers of arcane knowledge go too far in their pursuits, thereby unleashing terrible forces. Like James as well, Lovecraft seems convinced that it is only the learned and well-versed who are truly capable enough to either a) solve the problem at hand (as in Dunwich) or b) at least make sense of it and to therefore warn others ( as in those ‘mad’ mountains).
H.G. Wells seems somewhere in the mix too, since the ultimate fate of the OLd Ones at the hand of their former slaves, in “At the Mountains of Madness”, has echoes of the future as foretold in “The Time Machine”. Then there’s the whole concept of malevolent forces arriving uncontrollably from outer space, a concept which exploded into the popular consciousness with “The War of the Worlds”.
I’m not at all trying to bring Lovecraft down a peg or two by highlighting what I find similar in the work of others. On the contrary. Whether he consciously borrowed from these men or not is by the by. What I’m trying to illustrate is how he took what already existed in horror/ supernatural fiction before him, and built massively built on those foundations. If Poe ramped up the horror and tension, Lovecraft proved he could go even further up the scale. In like manner, M.R. James’s gentlemen protagonists always seem to be scholars of independent means. If they are full-time academics their alma mater is barely alluded to (though the implicit assumption must be that they are Cambridge men). Lovecraft, however, went one better and created an entirely fictional educational institution, the wonderfully named
Miskatonic University, itself based on Brown University.
Also like James’s characters, Lovecraft’s are often well read and steeped in all manner of arcane lore, but the American weriter again adds a whole new extra dimension to this in his stories. This is by means of consistent reference to the secrets that many characters have learned by reading the dread book The Necronomicon by that “mad arab” Abdul Alhazred, printed in Spain in the sixteenth century, and now only found carefully guarded in a few select libraries. I love everything about this fictional book. There’s the idea f it being written by a demented oriental scholar,and the implicit pun in his name. (If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, total knowledge will drive you mad, it seems to imply.) There’s the book’s contents, which are so terrible that Lovecraft’s narrators can barely even allude to them. Then there’s the notion that the book was printed0 blasphemously so to use a key Lovecraft adverb- in a hostile place at a hostile time, Spain during the era of the inquisition. Then there’s the implication that those brave enough to dare its pages have their minds altered by its contents forever, such are the terrible secrets it tells of…
Great stuff, and just the kind of reading for a cold winter evening.
The supposed existence of The Necronomicon  gives greater weight to the whole cosmology of Lovecraft’s work, the macabre backdrop of the ‘Old Ones’ who were on Earth millions of years before mankind, and who wait patiently for a chance to re-enter our dimension to reclaim and dominate what is rightfully theirs. Such a massive fictional canvas makes ‘The War of the Worlds” in its way look like a little local skirmish.
If there’s a potential downside to all this for me, then it’s the fact that it’s on such a vast scale that it can seem overblown and silly. Yet that’s only if I cease to suspend my disbelief, and if I do that when reading this kind of stuff it’s fatal. I read these things for the thrill, and because ultimately it’s great entertainment. Besides, there’s the whole aspect of adventure and scale to his work. Take “The Call of the Cthulu”. If ther’s one short story that could claim to be epic in theme and setting that’s it.
By entering the gloriously mad fictional world of HP Lovecraft and suspending my disbelief, all I can do is cling on as best I can.

Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book.

ghost book

Strangely, the cover of my edition of the Ghost Book has a photo of David Cameron during his Bullingdon club days, but it’s good to see the PM has put on a bit of weight since then and has a ruddier complexion. 
 

I’ve always enjoyed Lord Halifax’s ghost book. There’s probably a current Lord Halifax, and the one most people have heard of was Foreign Sec in the 30s and a general political bigwig. The Lord Halifax who wrote the ghost book was the poltician’s father. There’s a reasonable Wikipedia entry on him, which is chiefly devoted to detailing M’Lord’s work in Church, in which he was both active and high up. It makes perfect sense to me, therefore, that he should have been interested in ghosts. After all, wasn’t it from an Archbishop of Canterbury that Henry James heard the germ of the idea that became The Turn of the Screw ?

The book consists of accounts of hauntings that Lord Halifax collected. It seems that he was well known for having an interest in the uncanny and supernatural, and therefore some of these tales are his own versions of what had been told to him by friends and acquaintances, while others are letters that people sent to him detailing their own weird experiences. What they all have in common is that they all purport to be true encounters with ghosts and apparitions.

This makes the book a nice companion volume to have on your shelves if you like classic ghost stories, especially those from the British Isles.  Like the works of Le Fanu, Jameses Henry and M.R., and so on and so on, Halifax’s tales don’t present you with a gore-fest. Instead they are often subtle tales of unsettling events in otherwise familiar surroundings. As with great ghost fiction, however, read these alone on a winter’s night, or out loud to family or friends, and the effect is chilling, thought-provoking and lingering.

One thing that a lot of us like to do is sit around from time to time and swap our own strange stories, and this book is a compendium of such tales as you might tell to your friends. As I say, they’re all understated but I think that’s the nature of events that normal people deem to be uncanny. Listen to any of the classic recordings of Art Bell’s Ghost to Ghost shows (a sort of modern counterpoint to a book like this) and you’ll know what I mean.

The introduction by the peer’s son makes it clear that Halifax’s children loved it when their father got out the ghost book to read a few tales before bedtime, and it’s that kind of work: the sort of thing you probably won’t read in a sitting, but will want to come back to again and again. With the nights quickly drawing in it’s about this time of year that I like to dip into the Ghost Book myself.

Such a shame it seems out of print. Someone is missing a trick here.