Posted on: January 6, 2016

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Dennis Wheatley was an extraordinarily prolific author, ranking up over 70 books in his lifetime, covering history, adventure and spy stories, and yet it is the dozen which dealt with the Occult for which he is most known.  During his lifetime he had been incredibly successful, but by the time of his death in 1977 his star was waning.  Due to his dated, politically incorrect views, and his prudish discomfort with upping the sex-and-violence ratio (he condemned the 1970s Hammer offering of To The Devil A Daughter for being too explicit, and vowed that they would never adapt another of his books), it was felt for years after that he would suffer an irreversible eclipse.  It was even put out that no one would probably read him ever again.  Wheatley, with his smoking-jacket and cigars, banging on about the evils of Communism, was considered a dinosaur, too old school for comfort.  But not so.  In recent times his books have been reissued on Kindle, earning him a new fan-base.  I re-read The Devil Rides Out and The Haunting Of Toby Jugg last year, and still found them to be chillingly good stories.

Wheatley had always had an interest in the Occult.  As a boy he had seen a ghost, and during his time on the battlefield in 1918 he claimed to have felt an overpowering sensation of evil whilst trying to build a refuge behind the lines.  In the 1930s he decided to wanted to write a novel about the Occult, but was keen to research it as honestly as he could.  To that end he met up with some curious characters to pick their brains.  He had dinner with Aleister Crowley, and in spite of the fact that they were very similar in many ways (arch-Tories, snobs, and fond of the good things in life), Wheatley seems to have been left cold by the encounter.  The two didn’t become friends.

He also met up with the legendary ghost-hunter Harry Price, of Borley Rectory fame.  But it was his meeting with Montague Summers which was to be decidedly unsettling.  Summers was a very curious character indeed.  On the surface he seemed like a sweet English eccentric.  A jolly old buffer with nice manners, a twinkly-eyed mischievous sense of humour, who listed “talking to dogs” as his hobby in Who’s Who.  But Summers was an enigma.  He had a dark side, which could be  rather off-putting, as Wheatley was to find.

Born into a wealthy family in Bristol in 1880, Summers studied theology at Oxford, then became a deacon and converted to Catholicism.  His time as a member of the priesthood is shrouded in mystery.  Many argued he wasn’t entitled to use the title of Reverend, that he had in fact been defrocked, possibly for fiddling with young boys.  Some argue he was never in the priesthood at all.  It has been pointed out that there is a considerable gap, devoid of any detail, about Summers’ younger days.  It is thought he may even have dabbled in Black Magic, which scared him so much that he embarked on a personal crusade against it.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Summers certainly developed a hellfire-and-brimstone side.  In 1926 he wrote The History of Witchcraft and Demonology, in which he branded the witch – in terms which Matthew Hopkins Witchfinder General would have been proud of – as “an evil liver, a social pest, and a parasite … the devotee of a loathly and obscene creed”.  (He also arranged a reprint of Hopkins’ work The Discovery of Witches).  He said the death penalty should be implemented on witches.

Summers would go on to write books about vampires and werewolves, in which he seemed to passionately believe.  With his old-fashioned style of dress, where he would usually appear in a black cassock-like garment, black hat and buckled shoes, along with his thundering, dogmatic views, it wasn’t perhaps surprising that he was described in the press as throwback to the Middle Ages.   Summers revelled in his eccentric reputation, as it must have helped him to secure his image as an expert on the Dark Arts.

Summers was impressed by The Devil Rides Out, the result of Wheatley’s investigations into the dark side, praising him for the accuracy of the Satanic detail.  He invited him, along with Wheatley’s wife, Joan, to spend the weekend at his country-house, Wykeham House, in Alresford, Hampshire.  It was to be an unnerving break for them both.  The house was gloomy, stuffed with Gothick oil-paintings, and Summers’ own altar.  Some visitors described it as “sinister”, although others argued it was only what you’d expect in Montague Summers’ house.

When they arrived they took a stroll round the garden.  There, Joan spotted a large toad.  Nothing too scary about that perhaps, although Summers jovially explained that it was “reincarnation of a dear friend.  I’m just looking after him”. 

In their bedroom  they were to be unnerved by large spiders which scuttled across the ceiling.  The Wheatleys felt they were being tested by their host, that it was probably all part of a malevolent joke.  When Dennis complained, Summers simply replied “I like spiders”. 

After a night in this horrible accommodation, Summers asked Wheatley if he would like to have a look at his books.  Wheatley was a keen book-collector so he was happy to agree.  At one point Summers picked up a small leather-bound book, and offered to let him have it for £50 (not exactly a small sum in those days).  Wheatley never disclosed what the book was, but he was certainly repelled by it.  It is thought it might have been an instruction on the Black Mass.  He said he couldn’t afford it, and even if he could he wouldn’t want it.  What happened next was somewhat dramatic.  Wheatley recalled afterwards “never had I seen a man’s expression change so swiftly”.  Gone was the affable old eccentric.  Summers was consumed with a “demonic fury”.  In a rage he threw down the book and flounced out of the room.  Hmm, certainly something of the sociopath about Mr Summers.

The Wheatleys decided they should make a tactful withdrawal.  Wheatley sent himself a telegram, claiming their son was sick, and the couple fled back to London on the Saturday evening.  Although Wheatley and Summers continued to correspond for a while, the friendship cooled.

The Devil Rides Out , published in 1934, was a huge success, described by one critic as “the best thing of its kind since Dracula”.  Wheatley’s publishers were naturally keen that he should capitalise on this success, and pressed him for another.  Curiously, Wheatley wasn’t keen though.  He wouldn’t attempt another Occult novel until Strange Conflict in 1941, and The Haunting Of Toby Jugg in 1948.  Perhaps he was concerned about being typecast into writing horror novels, but I wonder if his brush with “the dark side” had all got too much for him.   It is said that Wheatley sometimes speculated that he may have been “cursed”, although in one interview he said he felt protected, and had a great belief that they couldn’t harm him.

In the foreword to his Occult novels he liked to warn readers about dabbling in the black arts.  Some have cynically said that this was simply a good publicity ploy, but I don’t think so.  Wheatley’s belief in the Occult seems to have been genuine.   Towards the end of his life he gave an interview in which he said that he believed there were “300 covens” operating in Britain, that  civilisation was fighting a constant war between light and dark, and that civilisation may be “crumbling”.  Of course, you can legitimately argue that this is just the ravings of an old man out-of-sync with modern life (and you may well be right), but it’s hard to see civilisation as being in particularly great shape at the moment.



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