Michael Gove recommends …

Robert Hanks

  • The Devil Is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley by Phil Baker
    Dedalus, 699 pp, £25.00, October 2009, ISBN 978 1 903517 75 8

In 1975, when he was 78, Dennis Wheatley finally achieved his long-held ambition of being elected to a really smart gentlemen’s club, White’s. On entering the building, so he told a friend, his first objective was to consult the membership book to find out how many had supported his candidacy – a gratifying 35. ‘Not bad for the Streatham born son of a shopkeeper.’

Wheatley was one of the most popular British writers of the 20th century, a fixture on the bestseller list for 40 years. A figure of 50 million copies sold in his lifetime is widely accepted, though the basis for it is elusive – the only source Phil Baker cites in his exhaustive biography is Wheatley’s own memoirs, and Wheatley was a relentless self-aggrandiser; but it sounds about right. In the mid-1960s, three decades into his career, he had 55 books in print, which collectively accounted for one seventh of Hutchinson’s turnover; Arrow, Hutchinson’s paperback imprint, was selling 1,150,000 Wheatleys a year, a quarter of their total output; in 1966, the paperback of The Satanist sold more than 100,000 copies in ten days. (Although his popularity extended overseas, he never caught on in America, perhaps because of the thoroughly unconvincing Americans he put in his books.)

In the public mind Wheatley is bound up with satanism, thanks to a couple of Hammer Horror films and countless lurid paperback covers in which soft-focus full-frontal nudity was combined with diabolical paraphernalia (horns, skulls). ‘Britain’s occult uncle’ is how Baker characterises him. In his best-known books he offered a cheap but potent blend of magic and sex, and a somewhat gaudy version of high living: dinner jackets and inverted pentangles; Imperial Tokay, Hoyo de Monterrey cigars and giant spiders; a menacing black servant with eyes glowing like coals; a naked young woman supine on a stone altar, breasts heaving, knife raised over her throat. But only a minority of his novels involve devil-worship; Baker’s title ties together the thing that brought in the money with the obsession that underpins all his work: social class.

Wheatley suffered from a sickly adoration of the rich and well-born, and a contrasting suspicion of the masses and any political system that allowed them any influence. One of the odder pieces of writing he produced was a ‘letter to posterity’ – it was buried in the grounds of his Hampshire home – to mark the wedding of the young Princess Elizabeth. In this, he told future generations how the seeds of social destruction were being sown in his own time by the mass media and the spread of ‘the false, pernicious doctrine that “all men are equal”’, and urged his descendants to rebel against the socialist dictatorship he saw as inevitable: ‘People can begin systematically to break small regulations, and so to larger ones with passive resistance by groups of people pledged to stand together – and eventually the boycotting, or ambushing and killing of unjust tyrannous officials.’ In 1955, proposing the motion at the Oxford Union ‘that equality is in theory a pestilential heresy and in practice a pitiful illusion,’ Wheatley argued that extra votes should be given to those of ‘superior mentality’. He was sure that he would come under that heading.

‘Son of a shopkeeper’ was misleading: Wheatley & Son were high-class grocers who expanded into the wine trade, with premises in Mayfair and a clientele that included dukes and Rothschilds; but still, trade is trade. There was even more money – earned, alas – on his mother’s side: at an interview for a nautical training college Wheatley heard his father explain that the boy needed discipline because he was to inherit a quarter of a million pounds, a sizeable sum at the time (in the event he inherited a tiny fraction of that). He was born in 1897, and had a more or less orthodox Edwardian upper-middle-class upbringing, to which he didn’t take. He was precociously interested in girls and sex, lazy, addicted to sweets and cakes (and not above stealing and swindling to buy them), not academically gifted. Baker thinks he may have been dyslexic, and he was certainly an abnormally bad speller all his life; but he read voraciously, mostly adventure stories, and seems to have enjoyed a rich fantasy life. An unhappy school career, punctuated by expulsion from Dulwich College, ended when he turned 16 and was sent to Germany to learn the wine trade. He was much happier there, but this was 1913 and he didn’t go back after the Christmas holidays.

He was an officer in the First World War, and had what most soldiers would have regarded as an enviably boring war: apart from a brief spell near but not quite at the front, he passed the time in training, in hospital with bronchitis, or hanging around London using his lieutenant’s uniform to pick up women. Others might write of the horrors of trench warfare but Wheatley was inspired to write a romantic novel, Julie’s Lovers, which was rejected by Cassell. More important so far as his literary development is concerned was his meeting in 1917 with Eric Gordon Tombe, of whom he wrote: ‘In mental development I owe more to him than to any other person who has entered my life.’ Tombe was only four years older, a clergyman’s son who had worked as a motor mechanic in Stoke Newington; but to Wheatley he passed for an intellectual and a sophisticate. He tutored Wheatley in his personal doctrine of ‘conscious hedonism’ – a half-baked mixture of Nineties decadence, quasi-theosophist ideas, and Krafft-Ebing et al. Wheatley, always glad of an excuse for self-indulgence, lapped this up. Tombe encouraged his literary aspirations: Baker says he ‘introduced’ him to the great Russian and French novelists – Dostoevsky, Proust and so forth – but their influence is hard to spot in his work, and given that the first volume of Scott Moncrieff’s translation of A la recherche didn’t appear for another five years, acquaintance with Proust seems out of the question. Tombe complimented his disciple on his prose: ‘Your style is excellent, and graceful,’ he told him in a letter, ‘while your soupçon of 17th-century manière titillates my artistic palate.’

Tombe’s influence is all over Wheatley’s work, in the awful prose and in the mystical terminology of the occult fiction, which was largely borrowed from the Temple of the Golden Dawn, the eclectic Nineties cult – closely allied to theosophy – of which Yeats was a member. Tombe also taught him to dismiss lesser mortals – more or less everyone – as ‘bimina’, Wheatley’s characteristic misspelling of Cuvier’s ‘bimana’, or ‘two-handed animals’. Postwar, the pair drank and womanised together in the evenings, while by day Wheatley worked in the family business and Tombe got on with a career in fraud – a fake anti-prohibition league, dubious share-offers and fake insurance claims (he burned down an associate’s farmhouse for the insurance money). Tombe vanished in April 1922. Wheatley’s somewhat half-hearted efforts to track him down were hampered by his reluctance to discuss his friend’s sexual and financial affairs – he was on close terms with Tombe’s mistress but had often lied to her on Tombe’s behalf, and was certainly aware of, if not actively involved in, a lot of the criminal stuff. Tombe’s corpse finally turned up a year and a half later in a cesspit in Surrey, at the farm he had burned down – his partner in that scam had tied him up and shot him through the head. Wheatley managed to stay clear of the ensuing scandal.

Not long after Tombe’s disappearance Wheatley married, and his wife produced an heir at the end of 1923; but he continued the life of conscious hedonism, dressing and dining beyond his means, chasing (at times his technique seems to have verged on stalking) women, at one point installing a mistress in a flat. He built up an expensive collection of books, mainly erotica and modern first editions; he was especially keen on Aldous Huxley, corresponding with him (‘I’m afraid you must be tired of the sight of my notepaper and bad spelling’) and even persuading Huxley to dine with him. His father’s death in 1927, leaving him in charge of Wheatley & Son, brought temporary relief from mounting debt, but by 1930 the firm had run out of money and he sold up, in a deal that was more or less fraudulent; he divorced in the same year, and remarried in 1931. His second wife, Joan, had money of her own; but with alimony and school fees to pay and no real job, he set about making a paying proposition out of writing fiction.

His first published work, The Forbidden Territory (1933), was an immediate hit: the initial printing of 1500 copies sold out within days and it was reprinted seven times in seven weeks. A thriller set in Soviet Russia, it introduced Wheatley’s ‘Four Musketeers’: the wealthy, worldly-wise Duke de Richleau, a monarchist exile from France, and his young friends Simon Aron, a brilliant Jewish banker, Rex Van Ryn, a brash, genial American multimillionaire, and the comparatively colourless Englishman Richard Eaton, supposedly a self-portrait. The plot (a hunt for tsarist treasure, a Bolshevik scheme for world domination – plus a bit of romance) is a helter-skelter mess. Wheatley liked to talk about his ‘snakes and ladders’ technique: in effect, a frantic up-and-down rhythm of triumph followed by disaster. Building tension and creating credible chains of motive and causation were beyond him. He was a writer of the ‘With one bound, Jack was free’ school; the gun that inexplicably jams, the knock at the door at the very second the blade is about to fall were his stock-in-trade. But abundance trumps incoherence, and it can’t be denied that an awful lot happens in The Forbidden Territory, as in most Wheatley novels: gunfights, grenades, fire; pursuits on foot, by wagon, by automobile and by plane; disguise, deception, sex. (At this early stage Wheatley’s allusions to sexual pleasure, especially his emphasis on the idea that women can enjoy sex, seemed unusually frank and modern; later on changing sexual mores overtook him, and lines about heroes ‘enjoying’ women ‘in the fullest sense’ or ‘storming the gates of paradise’ came to seem creaky.) The depiction early in the novel of a grey Stalinist Moscow riddled with informers, though melodramatic, stands up surprisingly well – better, perhaps, than the idealised Comintern agents who within a couple of years cropped up in Eric Ambler’s otherwise far more realistic and modern-seeming thrillers; after that the action is, as one critic observed, ‘essentially Ruritanian’, and Wheatley’s prose, overwrought and under-punctuated, barely readable.

What Wheatley lacked in literary talent he more than made up for in commercial nous. His previous life had revealed a flair for marketing – he was something of a pioneer of wine bullshit. Now he wrote to everyone he could think of – former clients, creditors, even Buckingham Palace – alerting them to the arrival of The Forbidden Territory, asking some of them whether they wouldn’t mind distributing publicity leaflets; and paid for 2000 promotional postcards urging potential readers to demand the book at their local library. His self-plugging was shameless: his second book, Such Power Is Dangerous (1933), a thriller with would-be satirical overtones about evil Hollywood studio bosses, which was turned out in a fortnight and reads like it, has a producer enthusing over The Forbidden Territory: ‘It’s got the makings of a master film – great spectacle, human interest – and educative value as well.’ A footnote informs the reader that the novel is published by Messrs Hutchinson & Co at the price of 7s 6d. He visited station bookstalls to check that they were stocking his books, and bought drinks for bookshop managers; he was an early and assiduous member of the Paternoster Club, a backscratching organisation for authors, publishers, booksellers and journalists – it was said that 85 per cent of all books bought in the British Empire passed through its members’ hands. Later, he had questionnaires inserted at the back of his books, asking readers what they had liked and disliked, what they would like to see more of – and happily gave them what they asked for.

In the beginning he was eager to experiment, at least as far as genre and setting went – the characters remained waxworks, the dialogue not quite human. Before the Second World War, he churned books out at an astonishing rate: historical romances, a Rider Haggardish diamond-hunting adventure, spy thrillers (often featuring Gregory Sallust, whose looks and personality were inspired by Tombe), an admiring biography of Charles II, melodramatic science fiction in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs, ‘Crime Dossiers’, in which a whodunnit is packaged with manufactured clues – a hair in a cellophane wrapper, a spent match from a hotel. In this prodigal context, Wheatley’s first occult novel, The Devil Rides Out (1934), looks like just another stab at a new genre: the Duke de Richleau and chums are here again, this time up against a satanist called Mocata, who has used the lure of untold wealth to tempt Simon Aron to dabble in the dark arts.

Over the next 20 years, he only wrote three more occult novels; but they caught the public imagination far better than anything else he produced. Black magic suited his Manichean morality and his weak plotting skills: favourite devices such as thought transference and astral projection enabled him to bypass anything faintly resembling logic, and the most outrageous contrivances were excused more than once as evidence of the power of good in the universe. (Wheatley’s own religious beliefs encompassed regular prayer to vaguely conceived ‘Lords of Light’ – presumably like the one who intervenes at the end of The Devil Rides Out, tying up some very loose ends by propelling the heroes back through time and space and resurrecting a major character.) Magic also inspired him to flights of imagination some way outside his usual range: the giant spider that creeps nightly towards the paraplegic hero of The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948), the army of laughing, venom-spitting toads, and jars full of mutilated homunculi in To the Devil – a Daughter (1953), show that while Wheatley couldn’t do scary, he could at a pinch manage unheimlich. With time, the supernatural elements came to seem like contractual obligations – there because the public wanted them. The plot of The Irish Witch (1973), for example, one of a dozen novels featuring the Napoleonic-era spy Roger Brook, is disrupted by obsessive ruminations on the use of pubic hair in love-spells and resolved by the physical manifestation of a Native American animal totem (‘The last that Roger saw of them through the mist they were being drawn inexorably through knee-high water towards the again open mouth of the giant frog’).

Writing made Wheatley rich, but not socially secure. Baker quotes a letter he wrote in 1939 to the chairman of Boodle’s, to Wheatley’s mind the smartest of the gentlemen’s clubs, in effect asking if he could become a member: it’s hard to think of a more effective way of branding oneself an outsider. During the Second World War, however, Wheatley’s connections landed him a job in the deception arm of the Joint Planning Staff, dreaming up what were mainly outlandish and impractical schemes for deceiving the enemy. His contribution to the war effort was minimal, but he got a reputation in Whitehall as a generous luncheon host and found a new circle of friends, including Ian Fleming and at least one duke (Bond’s enthusiasm for luxury brands seems to owe something to Wheatley’s style). He proudly related that the king, a professed fan of his fiction, had asked to see a copy of every report he wrote: all in all, a good war. His involvement in the world of spooks continued after the war when the IRD – the outfit for whom the dying Orwell prepared his list of suspected fellow-travellers – commissioned him to write a propaganda novel for distribution in the Arab world. The resulting melodrama, about a devout and beautiful Arab girl persecuted by a goatish Russian commissar, reads like a hoax got up by Edward Said.

The war was the high point of Wheatley’s life: it’s also the high point of Baker’s biography, which nevertheless putters on for another 200 pages, Wheatley’s dotty notions about politics and the evil effects of black magic occasionally nudging the reader out of the rut of celebrity and prosperity. He died in 1977, still a bestseller; but I can’t think of many writers of comparable popularity whose reputations have collapsed so swiftly and completely. None of his books is in print now (though you can find some of Wordsworth’s recent reissues online). The rights are owned by Chorion, Lord (Waheed) Alli’s organisation, which puts Wheatley in the company of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Georges Simenon and the Mr Men. When I asked about their plans for him they would say only that they hope to license publication soon and that several publishers have expressed interest: the corporate equivalent, I believe, of a shrug of the shoulders. It is hard to see what market there might now be: the best you can say about his books is that they are quaint, and that the hilarity may sometimes be intentional (‘Rollin’ his own daughter in the hay. What a thing to do! Takes a lot to shock me, but there are limits. Can’t see much fun in having a woman on a stone slab, either’). Responding to Baker’s book in the Times, one journalist wrote that Wheatley ‘of all people, deserves to come back from the dead and win a new following of thrill-starved souls in thrall to his dark magic’. That was Michael Gove; the idea that a man who admires Wheatley is now in charge of the nation’s schools is more genuinely terrifying than anything Wheatley ever wrote.