Me & Horror: Three Attempts at Dennis Wheatley

In my last post I gave a few reasons why I didn’t think of Lovecraft, at first, as a horror writer — I mean, why I wasn’t scared by the idea of reading him. One reason I could have added was that Lovecraft’s monsters were obviously invented, obviously fictional, so they weren’t as immediately scary to me, as a kid, as were, for instance, vampires, ghosts and werewolves, all of which were real. (They were real because you could buy non-fiction books about them. Weird to think how, as a non-horror-reading kid, I nevertheless remember reading non-fiction books about ghosts, vampires and werewolves, and scaring myself silly that way.) Basically, there was less chance of my scaring myself with Lovecraft’s monsters — I wasn’t about to imagine opening the bathroom door and finding Yog-Sothoth on the other side. (What’s so scary, after all, about a “congeries of iridescent globes“? Nothing compared to the rat-toothed vampire from Salem’s Lot.)

But the next horror writer I tried to read — and I do mean tried, as in, didn’t succeed, at least at first — was Dennis Wheatley. Dennis Wheatley wrote about Black Magic, which, as far as I was concerned wasn’t invented, or at least there was the possibility that it wasn’t, which moved Wheatley (bizarre, not to say ludicrous, as it may seem) into a whole different league from H P Lovecraft. Black Magic, being a thing of the mind, might (I thought) conceivably have some power that could be transferred through the pages of a book, and that made the idea of reading about it all the more scary.

It was a friend at school who persuaded me to read Wheatley. (And would later persuade me to read Stephen King, which is the point at which I think of myself as finally reading proper horror fiction; but I’ll write about that in the next post.) This friend told me that Wheatley had scrupulously researched the subject of Black Magic, and prefaced all his books with a warning to his readers not to get involved in this dark and nefarious area, but to leave the facing of such dangers to Wheatley himself. This made the frisson of reading him, of course, all the more scary. The result of my friend’s persuasion was a three part comedy of misfortunes.

I started out by getting an audio tape of The Devil Rides Out from the school library. This was the first and only time I ever got an audio tape out from the school library, and I can only assume I did it because I thought it would make the potentially dangerous Black Magical effect of reading Wheatley a little less dangerous.

How wrong I was!

One evening after school I put the tape into my tape player (which was designed primarily to be plugged into a ZX Spectrum, and which would later serve as my first guitar amplifier, with a wonderfully fuzzy distortion sound I’ve never managed to reproduce) and tentatively — fearfully — pressed the play button. The narration started. Then — what was going on? Was the narrator’s voice going weird? It was slurring, then going suddenly deep and slow. At first, it was a subtle effect, subtle enough to make me wonder if it wasn’t my overly fearful imagination making me only think I was hearing it. Then it became too pronounced to ignore. Suddenly, the narrator’s voice was warping and growling like a man possessed. He actually started talking backwards. That did it! It was the voice of the Devil himself! I hit the stop button at stared at my little tape player like it was a Thing from Hell.

Of course, it was the tape getting caught in the player. When I popped it out, I had to extricate a crinkled yard of it from the rollers. My tape machine had occasionally done the like before, to old, slack or stretched tapes. It was all explainable. But one part of me thought that really it was a warning: I was not supposed to read Dennis Wheatley.

A little while later, once I’d recovered from that brush with Beelzebub, I decided to try again. This time with a book. A book, after all, couldn’t go weird on you. Surely. The Lion’s bookstall in Queens Walk had a secondhand copy of Wheatley’s To The Devil — A Daughter for 10p, so I bought it. But when I sat down to read it — and before the story itself had even started with the scary stuff — I started to feel a little bit sick. I gave up reading, then came back. The nausea returned. Was this Black Magic coming at me off the pages of the book? Some evil spell leaking from the pages? Then I realised the book stank. I usually like the smell of book mould (apparently, it can even have a light psychedelic effect from a long-enough exposure), but in this case the book just smelled rotten. I threw it away, but again there was a little voice in the back of my head saying: I was not supposed to read Dennis Wheatley.

I didn’t make my third attempt till a few years later, by which time I was reading Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell and had realised that Dennis Wheatley was just not going to be anywhere near as scary. I bought a (nice-smelling) copy of The Devil Rides Out and read it through. Wheatley is certainly a writer of his times. His villains are foreign; his damsels are often in distress; his heroes are resolutely upper class, wealthy, refined and accomplished. They fence, they yacht, they drink fine wines, and globetrot without a second thought. Still, at his best, Wheatley can be pacey. I remember being distinctly impressed by one brief chapter where Wheatley breaks into a series of short paragraphs, each headed by a precise time, as he cuts between several characters. The ending of the novel, though, was a bit of a disappointment. (It was all a dream, or, rather, it was all fought on the astral dream-plane, which is equally unsatisfying.)

Wheatley is, of course, in a different league to Lovecraft; just in a different direction to the one I at first assumed. But his tales are more meant to be thrillers than horror stories; even as occult thrillers, they’re about telling a compelling story in which good ultimately triumphs and the normal, civilised, often aristocratic values are restored to primacy.

This is, of course, not what horror is about. Real horror is about the opposite.

(There’s a page on the BBC’s site, with an audio clip of Wheatley talking about his interest in the occult. Unfortunately, the video clips on the page no longer seem to be there.)