Monday, May 23, 2011

The Devil Rides Out - Dennis Wheatley

 As with horror movies I've never been a great aficianado of horror novels. I can honestly say I haven't read a horror novel in ten years now. I can't even remember the name of the author now, but I do re-call he was an Australian, and his novels were actually quite scary. Before that I had had another ten year hiatus as The Stand was the last horror I read way back in 1990-91-ish.

The Stand is also the novel that turned me off Stephen King. At the time I had read a raft of his novels but eventually got sick of his characters 'wanking' off in every novel. He went from horror to just gross. Gross isn't good horror writing I'm afraid. Of all the novels I have read of his Salem's Lot is the stand out. But over all I'm not a King fan. Each to own though. I also read Clive Barker and a few others, but over all I have found the horror writing genre completely barren and uninteresting.

 The Exorcist wasn't a particularly good novel which the film absolutely surpassed. For me horror is a genre that doesn't translate well within the written word. It is more visual, and I find it much better as a cinematic experience. Even then it is deeply flawed genre with most movies being garbage. Constant gore is a substitute for genuine scares, and yet it does produce some chilling movies to save itself. The Exorcist, Paranormal Activity, Rosemary's Baby, etc, are scary because they play on our beliefs of the unknown.

 The idea of the occult and satanism itself has always fascinated me. I'm a strict atheist and yet the idea of the Devil unsettles me. That is why say Paranormal Activity is so scary because it is all too believable. It beats hands down cute girls being butchered by a masked maniac in the endless stream of slasher movies. Demons, possession, satanism, is much scarier, and far more unsettling, than a knife wielding Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers could ever be.

 So surprisingly amongst all of this there is actually a novel written that is satanic and damn scary to boot. Denis Wheatley made a name for himself writing historical novels, and more famously, of an occult nature. He was ahead of his time, and his novels were somewhat frowned on as it was felt the public wasn't ready for such material in the 1930's. At his height Wheatley was selling a million novels a year world wide in the 1960's. He came to be regarded as an authority on the occult, exorcism, black magic, and the supernatural, even though he neither practised or believed in any of it. He did join a group called the Ghost Club, but it was more to further his knowledge than as a practise of the occult.

Denis Wheatley in 1975.
 During his writing career he wrote over fifty  novels. He is now somewhat forgotten as his works are difficult to re-print due to copyright issues. Recently Heron Books published all his novels in a set, so hopefully this presages a wider re-issuing of them. It is hard to believe that I have real trouble finding his novels. You would think after selling millions of copies over many years that the books would still be in supply. I have found the opposite, and the copy of The Devil Rides Out was severely beaten up with no dust jacket. The only other novel I have read of his was The Man Who Missed the War, and that was in 1987, my last year of high school. That was also a beat up copy, and twenty four years later I have rarely seen  a novel of his anywhere. 

The poster for the movie

  To many now he is a complete unknown which is a crying shame considering he was such a prolific writer. I cannot possibly say which of his novels is regarded as the best, but possibly The Devil Rides Out may be his best known. It was of course made into a film by Hammer Film Studios in 1968. It was re-named The Devil's Bride for the U.S market though. I have seen it although over twenty years ago now. There are minor changes from the book but as I re-call it captured the satanic essence of the book well. Christopher Lee for once was cast as the goodie in a Hammer film. He actually met Wheatley after reading the book, and approached Hammer to make the book into a movie in 1963. The studio was reluctant due to its satanic content and yet relented in 1968. It is now considered one the best films Hammer ever made.

 I have been unable to find out how many copies this novel sold but I do re-call as a kid my mother amongst many talking of this book. I remember hearing people saying how terrified by it they were even in the middle of the day with the curtains open!! Admittedly it has dated somewhat as it is definitely a 1934 book in style, but if you read it as a 1930's novel you will only appreciate how ahead of its time it was. It has to be remembered that no one else was writing such stuff back then. To me it mirrors Tolkien in Lord of the Rings in being the book that started a whole genre in the modern age. Bram Stoker's Dracula aside in the horror genre, but that wasn't scary as Devil proved to be.

 Modern audiences may sniff at this as they are more attuned to King and co, but for me this is what horror is all about. It doesn't delve into gruesomeness or the gross. The best, and possibly most famous scene of the book is still terrifying. It has three of the characters subjected to a night of satanic attacks by Mocata a devil worshipper who summons the Angel of Death. Honestly it is the most satanic thing I have ever read and nothing, upon nothing has ever come close to it. It is dark ,scary, black, satanic, occultism at its best, It is a shame the scene isn't well known to modern audiences. It is far better than anything the horror community can produce today.

 The Devil Rides Out for me is one of the greatest horror novels ever written. Modern horror writers should take note of it as it puts their efforts to shame. It is supremely satanic and very, very black. My skin crawled during the Angel of Death's attack!! It is a very famous scene and sadly somewhat forgotten as Wheatley's novels are as a whole. I would love to see his works re-published and brought to a new generation of readers, especially this novel so that modern horror readers can read it and experience its occultism. I feel occultism as a horror genre has gone by the by somewhat as the idea of demons, rather than Satan himself, has taken over. I personally find the occult disturbing and somewhat frightening. Meddling in those types of things you get what you deserve!! This then is a truly scary novel that should satisfy the most discerning ( and jaded ), horror aficianado!! But I recommend it to all as it is a fine stand alone novel regardless of genre, written by a novelist who is now sadly somewhat forgotten.

 Click here for a short biography of Denis Wheatley which has a link to the book and film:


  1. Very good review. One of the best books on horror I have ever read. Of course, through Hammer film played down the key elements. Would love to see a modern film, complete with all the CGI effects, so horrifyingly visualised by Wheately almost a century ago. Perhaps Liam Neeson the role of Duc de Richlieu

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