As I have already noted on this site, Wheatley was an admirer of Mussolini.
Black August, set some fifty years after it was written in an imagined post-revolutionary England, cites him as one of the most influential figures of the recent past (while ignoring Hitler entirely), and as late as in the autobiographies he was preparing at the very end of his life Wheatley defended Il Duce for having "done a splendid job in cleaning up Italy", and mourned the "later megalomania (that) led him to throw in his lot with Hitler" as "one of the greatest tragedies in history."
(It is certainly ironic that history generally represents him as one of the monsters of the Second World War, almost when not entirely on a par with Hitler, while the truly monstrous Stalin is allowed a seat with the heroes.)
Wheatley took a keen and informed interest in international affairs through the thirties, and it is notable how often issues relating to Mussolini's Italy crop up in his pages around this time. It is just possible, in fact, that his interest in the subject may have influenced the return of Gregory Sallust in Contraband.
I must stress that what follows here is purest speculation: I am not making a case, indeed I have far from convinced myself. But it is at least persuasive, and at least consistent with Wheatley's established method and habit.
We have seen how Wheatley allows his reading to leak into his work. Often the pattern seems to be a stray reference appearing in one book (when the subject is new to him) followed by a more deeply threaded allusion in a subsequent one, after he has digested it more fully.
A good example is the use of Huxley's Brave New World as, first, the subject of a Hollywood film in Such Power is Dangerous and then as the major structural informant of Black August, while here at the excellent Dennis Wheatley website, a contributor notes how a stray reference to Powys's Glastonbury Romance in Black August likewise announces the book's more considered use as an influence on the plot of The Fabulous Valley. As well as receiving full length treatment in two non-fiction works, Wheatley's thirties novels similarly abound in references to the Russian Revolution and the life of Charles II.
His interest in Fascist Italy is most obviously reflected in The Secret War, which is set against the backdrop of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and reflects, I think, Wheatley's genuinely undecided views on that campaign: the book, as I shall explain further in the next post, reads almost like Wheatley's argument with himself on the subject. The use of the subject goes beyond background detail, and reflects a deep and informed interest. In Drink and Ink he writes of an occasion when he was travelling in Italy at the time of the invasion, and with the prospect of war between Italy and Britain seeming likely he considered hiring a fishing boat to take him to the South of France and avoid internment.
So we know for sure that this was a subject very much on his mind at this time: what grounds are there for linking it with the reappearance of Gregory Sallust?
The question I raised in my post on Contraband was this: why did Wheatley revive Sallust in a totally incompatible time period and with many of his most significant characteristics from his first appearance muted or changed? Why not simply invent a new character with a new name?
Well, let us begin with that surname. I haven't speculated on the nature of any link with his Roman historian namesake until now because I had presumed that there wasn't one, and it remains likely that there was no particular reason why the name had been chosen at first.
But by the time of the character's reappearance in Contraband it is possible that Wheatley's reacquaintance with the original Sallust may have prompted Gregory Sallust's comeback.
One of the few real-life figures namechecked in Secret War is General Graziani. The key military figure in Italy's African wars, he was a fascist cult hero, and a deeply charismatic individual who liked to portray himself as a romantic idealist and intellectual, and to compare himself with the great military leaders of Ancient Rome. I'm only surprised that he doesn't play more of a hands-on role in the book: he strikes me as exactly the kind of man to have appealed to Wheatley's sense of imperial grandeur. Whenever he needed guidance or inspiration, he would claim, he would turn to his "lords and masters": Caesar, Tacitus, Livy - and Sallust.
Sallust (more properly Gaius Sallustius Crispus) was Wheatley's kind of historian: partisan, rowdy, patriotic and with a reputation for immorality that resulted in his temporary banishment from the Roman Senate. His books have something of the sparky, belligerent flavour of Old Rowley and Red Eagle.
In 46 BC he joined Caesar in his African campaign, leading to his appointment as governor of the province of Africa Nova, hence his idolisation by Granziani. It seems certain that in his study of Graziani and the African campaign, therefore, Wheatley would have been reminded of Gregory Sallust by reading of his ancient namesake.
It may have been at this point that he first entertained the idea of reusing Sallust rather than invent a new character in his forthcoming Contraband. It's a slender reed on which to hang a hypothesis of this sort, I admit, but there is one other link that just might push it from possible to plausible.
The original Sallust was born at Amiternum in the country of the Sabines. Is it mere coincidence, therefore, that the all-new 1930s model Gregory Sallust should be given as love interest a woman named Sabine Szenty?
"... But don't you see that if silk can be smuggled in other things can as well. To bankrupt our business houses and cut our customs revenue in half is only their first objective. Unless we can checkmate them they'll start dumping anarchists and agitators here by the hundred - all the scum whose full-time job is to spread discontent and ruin. Then they'll send cargoes of illicit arms to their secret depots, and bombs, and poison gas and every sort of foulness to desecrate England's green and pleasant land. For God's sake man! Forget petty larceny for a bit and give me a free hand to stop that arch-traitor Gavin Fortescue staging a red revolution."
Wheatley speaks a little in Drink and Ink of how, having had the idea for Contraband, he went about plotting it, specifically how he found the right location for the criminals' base.
But he says nothing of how the idea came to him, or why he decided on his most audacious notion yet: to bring back Gregory Sallust, the anti-hero of his novel Black August, which had been set fifty years in the future, and relocate him in the thirties present.
There's no question that this is the most interesting and original aspect of the book that finally appeared.
Though time and familiarity - the latter itself a kind of backhanded tribute - may have blunted its innovations to the casual reader, it's worth remembering just how conceptually bold Contraband is.
Of course there was nothing new in authors reviving favourite characters and giving them new adventures, as Wheatley himself had done with 'those modern musketeers' the Duke De Richleau and his friends. (Though Wheatley had been unusual in bringing them back, after their successful debut in Forbidden Territory, not in another political spy adventure but in a supernatural horror story.)
But here is where he really begins to build his own alternative world, Wheatley Land, the endlessly self-referential literary theme park.
Not only does he bring back Sallust, blithely inserted in an entirely incompatible decade from his debut, but also pits him against another returning character from an entirely different and unconnected work: Lord Gavin Fortescue, last seen trying to buy out Hollywood in Such Power Is Dangerous. (And we also welcome Sir Pellinore Gwane-Cust, perhaps the greatest name conceived for a fictional character in the history of the written word, making his first appearance, in a chapter entitled 'Enter an Eminent Edwardian'.)
No reader could hope to keep up with such wild cross-referencing, so here are those faux-scholarly footnotes, so endearing a recurring feature in his later books, in which readers are directed towards the other relevant titles in the canon, complete with dates and publishers, like the citations in a scholarly thesis.
The decision to revive both characters is interesting (though Wheatley sadly makes us privy to nothing of his reasoning), Sallust for the reasons already given, and Fortescue because Such Power had been Wheatley's least favourite of his own works to date (more so even than The Fabulous Valley, which he felt was below par but at least distinguished by the thoroughness and research that the more knocked-off Such Power had lacked.)
Bizarrely, though the book begins by providing an entirely new backstory for Sallust (he's now a First World War hero, and Rudd, his landlord cum manservant, is his former batman) Wheatley still directs the reader to Black August for "further particulars of Gregory Sallust, Mr Rudd and his curious caravanserai in Gloucester Road".
But almost from the first this is a different Sallust as well as an uprooted one; he's markedly less cynical, opportunistic and self-motivated. In Black August he had been close to traitorous in his self-interest; here he is much more the classical Wheatley hero.
One wonders why, with so much altered, Wheatley bothered to call him Gregory Sallust, as so little of the original character remains. The only thing left now, really, of the original Sallust to distinguish him from any other Wheatley hero is his slightly greater physical ruthlessness.
At the beginning he attacks one villain with a broken bottle ("the ugliest weapon in the world") leaving him "clutch(ing) at the torn and bleeding muscle" of his arm, while the final discovery, on which the climax hinges, comes not as the result of serendipity or clever deduction but by the simple expedient of having Sallust torture the information out of the villain's chief henchman.
Having first suspended his quarry by the shoulder joints, he then threatens to burn his eyes out if he doesn't talk:
"Good God, sir, you can't!" exclaimed Rudd, suddenly paling. "It - it's fiendish."
Gregory swung on him. "You fool! My woman's life depends upon my loosening this brute's tongue and I mean to do it."
Rudd shuddered. "Sorry, sir. Looked at like that o' course you're right."
According to Drink and Ink, Rudd was based on "Lewis, my second cellarman when I was a wine merchant, of whom I was very fond", but here and there I thought I caught more than a stray echo of Lugg, manservant to Margery Allingham's detective Albert Campion:
They had hardly settled down when Rudd came in wheeling a dumb waiter with half the contents of a baker's shop spread out upon it.
"Mon dieu!" she exclaimed. "Do you expect me to eat all this - or have you a party of twenty people coming?"
"No, it's just Rudd," he laughed. "Rudd's fond of cakes and he gets all the ones that we can't eat."
"'Arternoon, Miss," Rudd said with a sheepish grin. "You won't take too much notice of Mr Gregory, I hope. He's always been a one what likes a leg pull."
Today, with intertextual hi-jinx so settled a feature of the postmodern literary landscape and no longer enough to surprise us, Contraband can perhaps be seen as one of Wheatley's least ambitious books.
The profusion of twists, interconnected subplots, and patented ante-climax, climax and post-climax formula with which he liked to dazzle readers are for the most part replaced with a straight arrow narrative and what most readers would by now be able to recognise as unabashed adherence to formula.
It's a short book, easily read in two or three evening settings, and for the first time in Wheatley I found myself less than carried away by it. In particular, I loved the ingenuity and charm of the smugglers passing secret messages using a code based on Ariel's songs from The Tempest, but I wasn't convinced, either that it would work, or that Sallust would have cracked it in the way he did. As an idea, it feels rushed. Equally typical of this corner cutting is a late sequence in which we and Gregory are brought up to speed on what has been happening in our absence by Wheatley's turning a large chunk of exposition into dialogue completely inappropriate for the character charged with delivering it. (If you know the novel, I'm thinking of Milly's update on what has been happening at Quex House after she finds the dead policemen.)
With the benefit of hindsight, we know that this was the beginning of a glittering career for Sallust, who would become one of Wheatley's most popular and enduring regulars over the coming decades. But when read - as I am reading it - in ignorance of those later books and with only Black August to compare it to, then this new adventure for a fresher, more upright, less dour and altogether more Robin Hood-like Gregory Sallust has to be counted a disappointment.
But this is all, of course, irrelevant.
Nobody bought this book and thought anything of the sort in 1936: they were just glad to get their hands on the latest Wheatley page-turner.
And it begins quite delightfully, with Sallust stumbling into an international espionage conspiracy by following an exotic woman from a Normandy casino, just twelve hours before he is supposed to return to England, purely in the hope of having his way with her.
The more he studied her, between making bets, the more the desire to do so strengthened in his mind. He could never bring himself to be anything but "uncle-ish" to "nice" girls, however attractive, and he barred respectable married women, except on rare occasions, on practical grounds. The aftermath of broken hearts and tear-stained faces with possible threats of being cited as co-respondent by an injured husband was, he considered, too heavy a price to pay. He preferred, when he took the plunge into an affair, a woman whom he could be reasonably certain was content to play his own game. Nothing too easy - in fact it was essential to his pleasure that she should move in luxurious surroundings and be distinguished of her kind, and so quite inaccessible except to men of personality even if they had the wealth which he did not. Then, when victory was achieved, they could laugh together over their ruses, delight in one another to the full and, when the time came as it surely must, part before satiation; a little sadly, perhaps, but as friends who enriched life's experience by a few more precious moments.
( I love that "except on rare occasions".)
And despite the fact that she almost gets him killed before he's even introduced himself, the minxy Miss Sabine Szenty fits the bill admirably, it would seem, being "no bread and butter miss but an adventuress, perhaps even a poule de luxe, one of those rare exotic women for the sake of whose caresses millionaires commit crazy follies and sometimes come to ruin, disgrace, and suicide".
Not only does she have the characteristic mysterious beauty of the Wheatley heroine ("the dark pencilled eyebrows which curved back like the two ends of a cupid's bow, the points rising almost to her temples, and the sleek black hair, parted on the side and flattened on the crown but spreading into a mass of tight jet curls behind her small pink ears"), she smells good too:
She seemed to radiate warmth by merely sitting beside him as they bumped over the pavé of the old streets back to the harbour, and a faint delicious odour, not so much a definite perfume as the scent of daily coiffured hair, freshly washed silks and a scrupulously tended person - the hallmarks of a superbly soignée woman filled the darkness of the taxi.
As who would not, it's not long before Sallust is displaying frankest adoration:
He bent above her. "The gods are being kind to me in my old age. Most beautiful women are either good, stupid or vicious. And you are the marvellous exception. Lovely as a goddess, clever as an Athenian and a bad hat like myself, yet one who still has decent feelings. I'm going to kiss the lips off you once we land in France."
If it's this Wheatley you're after, the unabashed master of heightened prose, you will not go unrewarded.
The Communist agitators are stirringly described as "red servants of evil", and there are the usual swipes at the higher literary critics: "Some people sneer at reading detective fiction but I don't," reflects Mrs Bird, the villain's housekeeper; "I could make a fortune writing thrillers if I weren't so darned lazy," opines Gregory. And there's the customary mention of friendly rivals, this time the Raffles stories. ("Good stories those," says Mrs Bird, "We don't get many like them now; more's the pity.")
Does anything frighten Sallust? According to Wheatley:
He possessed more courage than most men but one thing that really scared him was to see firearms in the hands of a woman. They were so much more likely to go off unexpectedly.
Amidst all the corn are two brilliant sequences in Wheatley's best manner. One is the heroes' near-death in treacherous quicksands (oddly, a feature of the previous Gavin Fortescue adventure too) in which Wheatley again displays his mastery of screw-turning slowed pace, so every second of their torment is stretched to nerve-snapping point.
The other plays the same trick but even more impressively, as Sallust, jumping from a plane for the first time, believes that his parachute ripcord has failed to work, and we share his terror as he plummets towards the earth. But he has simply not allowed for the slight time delay, and in fact the chute opens perfectly. The ordeal, which could have lasted only a few seconds, is stretched by Wheatley over two nail-biting pages. This is true literary sleight of hand.
When I laid out the ground rules of the Dennis Wheatley Project in my introductory post, I wrote the following:
Of the non-fiction, I will certainly be including his studies of Charles II (Old Rowley, 1933), the Russian Revolution (Red Eagle, 1937) and the history of Satanism (The Devil & All His Works, 1971), but will mention only in passing the 'crime dossiers' (1936-9) and the greater part of his autobiographical writings, for the time being at least.
The inclusion of the crime dossiers in the list made little sense, in that they were not works of non-fiction, and in truth, the only real reason I opted to give them a miss was because I didn't have them, and assumed they'd be hard to get hold of. (The remaining three still might be.)
But just as I was about to embark on a reading of Contraband, a reader with the splendidly Wheatleyesque name of Zack Urlocker called my bluff, and compelled me to rethink my decision and track down what he considered a delightful piece of the Wheatley jigsaw.
Duly shamed, I acquired a second hand copy of the book that actually came next in sequence: not Contraband, but Murder Off Miami.
Lest any readers be unfamiliar what these crime dossiers were, they were an unlikely collaboration between Wheatley and his friend J. G. Links, not the sort of chap one might have expected to have any great interest in murder stories, or in Wheatley for that matter, being a highly respected art historian, world expert on Canaletto, and author (my wife reminded me this morning) of that delightful guide book Venice For Pleasure. Links and Wheatley had in fact been close personal friends since they met when the former was still a teenager; in Drink and Ink Wheatley describes him as one of his "Jewish lifelong friends" and adds "I am very proud to have had such a man as an intimate friend for over fifty years."
According to his account in the same book, the two were engaged in literary speculation in the mid-thirties when Links suddenly opined that there should be a detective story that abandoned all flights of narrative fancy and instead just stuck to the raw material of the investigation. Wheatley, intrigued by the idea, then suggested that as well as being composed of 'undramatised' police reports, interviews, statements and the like, the book could also include actual physical evidence, as well as facsimiles of letters, postcards, telegrams and all the other materials relevant to the investigation. By arranging all this material in sequence, a narrative will therefore emerge, stripped of all but its essential components.
It was a brilliant idea, although anathema to those who felt that the English detective novel should be setting its sights at high literary status: to such an outlook Wheatley's and Links's notion was retrograde indeed. But to those who savoured such books specifically for the intellectual exercise of pitting their wits against the criminal, and by extension the author, the idea was a brilliant one. You can imagine Sherlock Holmes turning gratefully to such a concept in the lulls between cases: a more sensible alternative to the cocaine bottle as remedy for lack of mental stimulation.
Therefore, it seems, Links set about devising the whodunnit plot - for which Wheatley admitted he had little aptitude - while Wheatley concentrated on the narrative structure and dialogue. (It remains to be questioned how accurately he maintains the lingo of thirties American cops and robbers: much of the transcripts play fair by the linguistic rules of a Warner Brothers gangster movie, though occasional references to characters being 'befogged' and 'no better than they should be' perhaps qualify as lapses.)
Delighting in their task, they assembled a rich assortment of realistic documents, on various types of paper in varying colours, thicknesses and sizes, and interspersed them with samples of hair, a discarded match and a piece of bloodstained curtain. (A measure of the fun they must have been having is indicated by the fact that a copy of 'No Ordinary Virgin', the first novel published by Wheatley's wife Joan under the pseudonym Eve Chaucer, is clearly visible in the police photograph of the victim's state room.)
The result was so plainly original that they seemed assured of success. What they hadn't accounted for, however, were the various practical obstacles to successful publication.
The complicated physical nature of the work would make it extremely expensive and time-consuming to produce, with a specially-employed staff to insert the samples of evidence, all of which would have to be separately provided - they would need a lot of hair, fabric and matches, even for a relatively modest print run! And then, because the book was presented as a dossier, in a cardboard folder, it was difficult for book shops to stock and display. Furthermore, the fact that the solution was revealed in a sealed section at the back, and various pieces of evidence were included in packets, meant that it was difficult for lending libraries to keep satisfactory copies. And all this in addition to the question of whether readers would take to the notion in the first place: it all added up to something of a risky venture.
In the event, by Wheatley's count, the book sold 120,000 copies in six months, despite initial scepticism from booksellers. ("Hatchards took only six copies," Wheatley notes in Drink and Ink, before adding triumphantly, "Queen Mary came in on the day it was published and bought the lot.") Declaring itself "a new era in crime fiction" on the cover, and dedicated inside to publisher Walter Hutchinson ("who always has the courage to back a new author of promise or a new idea"), it was deemed another spectacular success for Wheatley.
Set entirely aboard a pleasure boat, the book details the police examination of what is at first thought to be the suicide of eccentric soap magnate Bolitho Blane. But when heel marks are spotted on the missing man's carpet, consistent with his body being dragged to the porthole, and sponged-out patches of blood found on the curtains, Florida's ace Inspector Kettering decides to investigate more deeply, and uncovers a deadly rivalry between Depression-struck businessmen desperate to corner the world soap market. Even Japan is interested, in the form of inscrutable Inosuke Hayashi of the Shikoku Products Company, suppliers of soap to the Japanese armed forces. Could he have killed Blane to get his hands on his suds?
And what of the boat's owner, himself a soap tycoon fallen on hard times, or his pretty daughter, or the weird Bishop who faints when people enter the room, or the feckless married couple, the Honorable Reggie and Mrs Jocelyn, travelling with her wealthy mother, the formidable Lady Welter, whose fortune, with which she finances a string of loss-making Christian evangelical newspapers, is all tied up in - yes! you earn yourself a gold star! - soap.
Clearly, there are three angles from which to judge the book: as a technical exercise, successful or not on those specific terms, as a crime mystery in its own right, and as a Wheatley book.
On the first count the book is a delightful if superficial exercise in structural inventiveness. It's great fun to work one's way through the documents and consider the samples of evidence, but we don't actually learn anything from looking at a real sample of hair that we wouldn't glean from the accompanying description: no actual revelations are contained within the 'authentic' components, and the book would be just as clear and effective as a narrative if reissued without them (as it apparently has been). They're cute but not actually clues in themselves, and the novelty of their inclusion remains just that.
As a murder mystery it is pretty effective, I thought: I like to think of myself as no soft touch to a wily novelist intent on sleight of hand, and the revelation came as a complete surprise to me, at least. I think it's fair to say that all but the most practiced mystery buffs will feel as useless as Inspector Kettering, who declares himself "completely at a loss" in his report's final summing-up to his superiors, only to then receive the cable from Florida Police Lieutenant Schwab that opens the final, sealed section of the book, and begins: "To Detective Officer Kettering, Solution of murder perfectly clear on evidence submitted..."
The clues are all there and I certainly didn't spot them - I'd love to hear from any other readers who did.
Obviously, if viewed as a Wheatley novel Murder Off Miami can only be counted a pleasing diversion, albeit an extremely pleasing one. The characters are at best sketches, and I found myself longing for Wheatley's authorial voice to blunder inappropriately in and give us his true measure of them, especially when they are so obviously Wheatley characters in all but the degree to which we are able to get to know them. From their names (Carlton Rocksavage, Nellie Orde, Silas Ringbottom) to their interests (a copy of 'The Saint In New York' is passed around between them, earning Leslie Charteris his second name check in a Wheatley adventure), they read like the working sketches for characters in some forthcoming, 'real' Wheatley novel.
In particular there is the delightfully typical figure of Count Luigi Posodini, an Italian nobleman and playboy, revealed almost instantly to be one 'Slick' Daniels, a sharpie and all-round bad egg, no more Italian than anyone else on board. (One of his many aliases, it is interesting to note, is 'George Gordon-Carr', an echo, conscious or not, of Wheatley's shady friend and mentor, the late Eric Gordon-Tombe, himself never short of an alias or two.) Not dissimilar to Nicolas Costello in They Found Atlantis, or for that matter to any of Wheatley's other selfish, immature and excitable Latin types, he surely merits true fictional immortalising. ("Fire away, friend, fire away!" he cheerfully exclaims when Inspector Kettering, having discovered his true identity, suggests a few further questions.)
The same goes for perky young Miss Ferri Rocksavage who, as the only entirely blameless suspect, ends up a virtually unknown quantity, whereas in a straightforward novel she would presumably take centre stage as the heroine. (As to who would be the hero for her to pair off with at the end: well, none of this crowd, that's for sure: presumably Wheatley would have taken the pleasure cruisers out of radio range and beyond police assistance, and rewritten Inspector Kettering as an amateur sleuth already on board.)
I wanted more than a mere thumbnail sketch, too, of the dodgy Bishop of Bude, terrified of having his part in a frustratingly unspecified 'unsavoury episode' in 1917 revealed to the world. Indeed, all the characters cry out for a full Wheatley pen portrait, especially when they come immortalised in such delightful staged photographs.
There's lovely Ferri Rocksavage, looking confidently at the camera, a thoroughly modern cigarette smouldering unapologetically in her raised hand. Smiling a little too raffishly for my liking is the Hon Reggie Jocelyn, a pair of noisy checked socks prominently on display. His wife Pamela is certainly lovely in her slicked-backed Kay Francis hairdo, but unlike Ferri is photographed in uncommunicative profile - what has she to hide? For my money Mr Hayashi looks about as Japanese as Count Posodini is Italian, and I challenge anyone to hold the intimidating gaze of the terrifying Lady Welter for more than a second.
And as for the oddball Bishop... well he's posing a little too nonchalantly for a man of the cloth, I'd say, bald but for a few patches of white hair but sporting a fine pair of jet-black eyebrows. Under normal circumstances, Wheatley the novelist would surely have drawn our attention to those.
I read most of They Found Atlantis in Cornwall, in early morning sessions by the sea, not far from Land's End, as the early morning breakers crashed against the rocks. The perfect backdrop for an entertaining if at times utterly insane fable.
The first half of the book is pretty straightforward stuff, a maritime adventure combining underseas exploration with a bit of high society intrigue, some sex, rivalry and a gangster plot above water level. Wheatley was by this time well practiced in the art of keeping two simultaneous plots on the move, and the opening chapters, mixing gangster thriller and sea adventure story, are as accomplished as ever.
But then, halfway through, it switches abruptly and - by me, at least - quite unexpectedly into outrageous sci-fi fantasy, as our intrepid heroes, stranded on the ocean bottom with no hope of returning to the surface, encounter an undersea kingdom of Atlanteans who grow plants in a sealed chamber, spend months asleep during which their astral bodies wander the surface of the earth and follow the lives of the inhabitants (on waking they then update their fellows with the latest developments, soap opera-style), see by earthlight, live for several hundred years, enjoy group sex, are forbidden from mentioning bad things lest they cause bad thoughts, and are plagued by a sub-race of blind, fish-eating sea humanoids and briefly glimpsed savage mermen.
Our heroes end up among them, get married and are then booted out again when sexual jealousy - long since evolved out of the gene pool of these enlightened ancients - leads to manslaughter. Not fancying spending the rest of their lives with the savage mermen they clamber up through the earth's crust to freedom.
Oh yes, and the one who's supposed to be an heiress isn't, and the one who's supposed to be just her dowdy relation turns out to be the heiress, and the attempt by smart-spoken gangster Oxford Kate (a man) to fleece her comes to nothing.
But I sense this is getting confusing. Let me retrace my steps.
What we have in They Found Atlantis is a Wheatley who has taken a gamble with fantastic and supernatural elements in The Devil Rides Out and seen that gamble pay off, plunging fearlessly into science fiction absurdity with a relish that I sometimes found myself wishing had been more cautiously applied. There is much wide-eyed fantasy, a schoolboy-like delight in the creation of alternative worlds, some left-over horrific detail from Devil (the description of the travellers' escape from the fish men is gruesomely described: "Tripping and stumbling over dead bodies and writhing wounded they literally hacked their way through the mass of short, naked, stinking, grey-white people"; Wheatley accurately describes the tableaux as "like a scene from hell conjured up by the vivid brush of some early Flemish painter"), and all combined with the usual clean-cut character dynamics of the straight, Rider Haggard-style adventure yarn.
Add to this the now customary fruits of his peripheral research, including lots of real, interesting scientific information about the techniques of undersea exploration that sits oddly indeed alongside the mermen, and you have a book that cannot fail to be interesting, but which must ultimately be counted among Wheatley's most eccentric diversions.
Of course, we don't doubt that they will find Atlantis - the title hints as much - but the discovery that it is still tenanted, and by a race of free-loving paganist weirdoes (this is the second book in a row in which characters have patiently explained to uptight western moderns the ancient glories of polygamy), will surely take most readers undefended.
"As with all other nations we had had in our midst from the beginning certain persons who practiced what, for want of a better name, I will call the Black Art. At first they were comparatively harmless, dealing only in spells, love-tokens and minor witchcraft, but the time came when they began to concern themselves with what you call 'science' and that proved the most unholy alliance which has ever entered the world.
"... the sorcerer-scientists saw their great chance to corrupt our people with their evil arts. They carried out many experiments in order to see if they could not succeed in creating life without the sanction of the Gods. 'Black' magicians in your upper world have endeavoured to do the same and have, as you may know, at times been partially successful. Such creatures are incubated in large glass containers and are termed Homunculi. They have the rudimentary form of man yet lack that God-given flame which you call the Soul. Our masters of Evil succeeded in the dread mystery at last, thus introducing a new and hideous race upon the earth. Beasts which moved and talked and functioned just like men although, unlike the lowest forms of true animal, they had not the faintest spark of the divine nature in them."
(That contentious swastika reappears too, in the pagan rites of the Atlantean women: "When she had done she kissed them both, made the sign of the Swastika on their foreheads, breasts, and thighs with a curiously scented oil from a tiny bottle...")
But another possible influence, of course, may have been his old mentor and prototype of Gregory Sallust, Eric Gordon Tombe (see here), who would have responded both to the wild esoteric fantasy and Greek classicism of the myth. Certainly the pagan Utopia that is Wheatley's Atlantis, all magic powers and no-strings sex, has a very definite touch of the Tombes about it:
"You see, each of us make what we require for ourselves and nothing more" Lulluma explained "and when we wish to eat we gather whatever fresh fruit is in season from the trees or net a fish in the lake and cook it. All waste is consumed immediately after by the earthshine."
I did find myself hoping, as the travellers become more and more enamoured of this dreary paradise, mooning about with a bunch of hippies twenty thousand leagues under the sea and never a thought for the world of fine wines and Hoyo cigars they have left behind, that the Atlanteans would suddenly prove less obliging than they seem, possessed of a sinister side, perhaps even that the whole thing may have been some kind of trap... but no, in true W. B. Yeats fashion it is we who are not worthy of the faeries, and when nasty human emotions cloud the antiseptic perfection of Atlantis it is time to travel back to the surface with all the other reprobates.
I get the feeling the champagne was flowing a little too freely at the Wheatleys' when much of this was being penned, and it is a relief on the occasions, not rare but not quite frequent enough, when the man's bluff cynicism shows through the hippy-dippy veneer. ("What do you hope to find if we go on," asks Nicolas in response to the suggestion that they should proceed further into the strange and perilous undersea world into which they have stumbled, "the Ritz-Carlton Grill Room round the corner or a handy Lyons?")
Sally's skin was good, her nose straight, her mouth full and red, her teeth excellent, the eyes wide set but not large enough to give her face distinction. She was attractive but not a real beauty.
Her cheeks were just a shade too full and nothing, she knew, could alter that any more than the most skilful plucking would ever convert her golden eyebrows from semi-circular arches to the long narrow Garboish sweeps which she would have liked. Besides, shame of all shames, her otherwise quite perfect figure was marred by thick ankles.
I say, steady on, old chap!
That reference to Garbo is one of a pair, by the way: elsewhere Camilla, the phoney heiress, contemplates breaking into movies and "outgarboing Garbo". Wheatley always took a keen interest in movies and movie people (a character called King Karloff is mentioned in passing, and one of the Atlanteans is likened to Mae West: a deliciously unimaginable image!), but it was perhaps ill-feeling towards their latest attempt to adapt his own work (The Secret of Stamboul, see here) that caused him to create the utterly repellent character of Nicolas Costello, crooning romantic lead of Hollywood movies, thief and coward, one of Carmilla's many jealous suitors and the ultimate cause of the travellers' ejection from Atlantis.
Sally and McKay have this exchange after the latter describes Costello as "that little filth":
"Nicky's not so bad. He's rather fun I think, and quite a famous film star. You've only got a hate against him because you don't like crooners - you said so the other day."
"I'd croon him if I had him in a ship with me," said the McKay grimly. "I took a dislike to that young man before I even knew what brand of idiocy he indulged in..."
Wheatley later describes Costello as "resplendent in a pale blue flannel suit that no man other than a film star would have dared to wear", and, as he exercises "the muted cross between a tenor and alto which he called his voice", observes:
Some people like listening to crooners. Obviously many people must, for the records of the theme songs from Nicky's pictures sold in their millions all over the world. Camilla certainly did, and lay back with half-closed eyes savouring to the full the primitive emotionalism of 'Dear baby God gave me, I'm holding your hands' and 'In all the world, Mother - there's no one like you'. Not so the McKay, who fifty feet away in the deck lounge, trumped his partner's trick, apologised and muttered fiercely: "God! how I'd like to tan that youngster's hide!"
It is in passages like these, rather than the more bizarre stretches of Jules Verne-like fantasy, that the authentic Wheatley voice is most clearly heard.
Odd, because whatever he might have thought of it at the time, by the time he was writing Drink and Ink, with The Lost Continent and To the Devil a Daughter behind him, it must have seemed a most uncharacteristically reverent production.
As an adaptation, it is probably the most solid of all the Wheatley movies.
It scores over The Forbidden Territory in particular in the better location work allowed by what seems to be a somewhat higher budget (both films were produced by Richard Wainwright; this one was directed by Andrew Marton). It also boasts a stronger cast, with early appearances from James Mason as Destime and Kay Walsh as Diana, and a gorgeous-as-ever Valerie Hobson as Tania (above).
The real star of the show, however, is actor-playwright Frank Vosper (who you may remember from Hitchcock's original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much) as the eunuch Kazdim. Vosper doesn't quite match the grotesque physical dimensions of Wheatley's description, but he catches fully the innate repulsiveness of the character. Sadly, it was his last screen appearance: the following year he drowned after falling mid-ocean from a transatlantic liner. Despite much initial speculation the death was officially declared accidental.
Of course, the screenplay comes with its full expected share of alteration, omission, concision and simplification.
Swithin Destime understandably becomes Larry Destime, and there seems to be no covert government involvement in his going to Turkey: he is employed by Diana's father just to sniff around on the off-chance that something's brewing that might affect his tobacco business. For this reason, Diana is not as heavily involved in the affair, and the entire dynamic of her relationship to Destime is reversed: she falls for him and more or less stumbles into the perils from which he must save her.
Tania, on the other hand, is completely reimagined and given Diana's centrality to the plot: she and Destime get heavily involved from the start, and we are made instantly aware of her double-agent status. She is working for the eunuch with extreme reluctance (she's not that bothered by the deception and duplicity in the book until she falls in love) and even before meeting Destime is engaged in attempting to double-cross him and escape his clutches. Since the plot no longer requires her to fall for Peter, his role in the action is also greatly reduced, and he is played (by Peter Haddon) almost as comic relief, as a Ralph Lynn-type silly ass.
To make things simpler, the revolutionaries' gun depot is at the tobacco plantation itself, and Reouf is an employee of the company and a chance acquaintance, rather than the source that Destime in the novel spends some time deliberately attempting to locate. More charmingly, the secret jihadists' rendezvous is no longer a covert gathering on a rooftop but a stylish nightclub, where the clientele sip cocktails and listen to lounge jazz in illicit fezzes and veils.
But while these changes make only a slight effect on the plot's initial trajectory, their combined effect necessitates a wholesale rewriting of the ending, not least in its complete removal of the British Embassy's involvement. It's an amateurs' job the whole way, with Destime and Tania, assisted by Peter and Diana, foiling the revolution themselves.
Under the circumstances it seems only fair that Tania should be allowed to live past the climax, and that she and Destime should walk into the future together.
This is what you call starting with a swagger:
If the postman who served the southern side of Belgrave Square that summer had not been a 'lewd fellow of the baser sort', many things might have panned out differently.
It is doubtful if Diana Duncannon would have met a certain distinguished foreigner who was then visiting London. Swithin Destime might have terminated his career, unusually brilliant to that date, as Chief of the Imperial General Staff. The life of an elderly Russian lady, then living in Constantinople as a refugee, might have been considerably prolonged, and a number of other people might not have had the misfortune to lose theirs in the flower of their youth. The Turkish Government would have found itself - but there, the postman was a 'lewd fellow of the baser sort' and, strange as it may seem, it is just upon such delicate matters as the glandular secretions of postmen and their moral reactions to the same that the destinies of human beings and the fate of nations hang.
So, just how do you follow The Devil Rides Out?
Do you attempt some bold new change of direction? Do you labour over a sequel that you hope will be twice as good but which will probably just be twice as long? Do you retreat into two years of indecision before daring to write again, only to have the new work tepidly received? Or do you get straight back in the saddle and come out blazing with a back to basics, business as usual barnstormer?
Wheatley, no surprise, chose the latter course, and re-entered the fray with a tale of political intrigue, exotic locales and dire peril: The Eunuch of Stamboul. It is a novel in the grand Wheatley tradition, a return to the meat and potatoes espionage thriller that he had not attempted since Forbidden Territory, and yet another unqualified success.
It also makes for fascinating reading just now, since its central question - whether Turkey will embrace Western modernity or retreat into Islamist medievalism - is as relevant as ever, especially in the light of current debates over the country's fitness or otherwise for EU membership.
The action is set against the background of Kemal Ataturk's modernisation drive, which enforces religious freedom through political coercion, and concerns the planned insurrection of a group of starry-eyed jihadists who yearn for the liberty of theocratic enslavement.
This is the very paradox consuming the Middle East today, and Wheatley's commentary on it, as surprisingly even-handed as it is characteristically robust, makes for a genuinely timely read. The pleasures of a Wheatley novel are usually to be found in the remoteness of their mores and concerns from modern life, and the insight they offer into the everyday concerns of generations past. The excitement here, by contrast, is to be found in how bizarrely contemporary so much of its backdrop seems.
At first he seems foursquare on the side of the Islamists, his Dumas-loving side identifying with their renegade romanticism and oppressed-status, and finding much humour in the vulgarity of Kemal's faux-Western innovations. In one scene he contrasts the authentic Turkish musical entertainment at a secret jihadi meeting with the "revolting crooning of some western barbarian" on a transistor radio in an adjacent building, and allows a Turkish woman over two pages to convince Swithin Destime, our hero, of the rightness of polygamy: "Monogamy might suit the West perhaps although even that was doubtful, and she produced statistics to hammer home her point."
It was a long speech and so admirably built up that Swithin had to admit the logic of the speaker's views - at least as far as the people she represented were concerned. If these Eastern women were content to share a man, as they had done for centuries, why should they not be allowed to continue to do so and, now that many of them were taking up careers there seemed a better reason than ever for two or more to divide the labours entailed by children and a home between them. Of course, few Western women, he realised, would be content to accept so short a sex life, that was the big snag, but apart from it and the question of Christian morality, the system, if adhered to, appeared wholesome when compared with the scandalous fraud and collusion which arise from the English divorce laws...
Destime is almost swayed by the rhetoric of heroic idealist Reouf:
"Kemal did much for Turkey in the War and after, but he has sacrificed the soul of our nation for the material trappings of the West. We are not a European people and we never shall be. No wearing of bowler hats, jazz music and the co-education will ever make us so. We are Asiatics and the ways of our fathers which endured for centuries are those best-suited to our needs."
"Yet, you admit that sweeping reforms were long overdue."
"Truly - and they have now been carried out - but that could have been done without laws which force us to sin fifty times a day in the sight of Allah, or treaties which tie us down to the permanent acceptance of territorial limitations making us into a Third-Class State."
Largely because of the potential threat to British interests, however, Wheatley gradually navigates the reader into opposition, precisely at the point when political activism gives way to religious fundamentalism:
For one awful moment Swithin held his breath. The word 'Jehad' flamed through his brain with all its terrible possibilities. Of the patriotic ravings of young Reouf he had taken little stock but this was a very different business. It even far exceeded the scope of the determined internal revolution of which he had learned in the last ten minutes, for a Jehad meant the preaching of a Holy War. These people were not out only to destroy Kemal and reinstate the old law of the Koran but, with all the bitter zeal of blind fanaticism, they meant to carry their full programme into actual practice. It meant the certainty of another flare-up in the Balkans, their co-religionists would probably rise in sympathy and begin massacres of Europeans in India, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria and, taking into consideration the unstable state of things in Europe, perhaps even be the kindling spark leading to the supreme horror of a war to the death between fresh combinations of the Great Powers.
How chilling is that line: "... their co-religionists would probably rise in sympathy and begin massacres of Europeans in India..."? As Wheatley has one character note in typical style: "there's no reasoning with these birds..."
Here, though, Britishness is still a force to be measured:
The Daimler's engine purred and, with a superior glance at Malik, the cockney chauffeur let in the clutch. The Turk stood watching with impotent fury blazing in his eyes. He would cheerfully have given five years of his life to be able to draw his gun and haul Swithin out of the car at the point of it - but he dared not. A small silk Union Jack fluttered gaily from a slim staff on the Daimler's bonnet. No policeman - be he black, white, yellow, or brown, lays hands with impunity upon the property of His Britannic Majesty's accredited representatives the wide world over - and Malik knew it. Stirred by profound emotion he spat, while Swithin, no less stirred by the portentous meaning of that little flag, looked away quickly and lit a cigarette.
As noted, our hero is one Swithin Destime, Wheatley's most delicious name for a hero since Black August's Kenyon Wensleydale. He's kicked out of the Guards when he comes to the aid of dishy Diana Duncannon at a dinner party, by punching a "garlic-eating bounder" pestering her on the lawn. When the bounder turns out to be Prince Ali of Turkey, a sensitive political situation can only be avoided by having Destime, and his fellow pugilist Peter Carew, resign their commissions. Later, however, Diana's father offers Destime a job at the Turkish depot of his tobacco company, so as to snoop undercover among the locals and discern if there is any truth to the rumour that some form of uprising in the offing, and if there is, what that might mean for Blighty.
Diana ("cool and lovely in an outrageously fashionable hat") is a slightly new kind of Wheatley heroine: not merely feisty and resourceful (as was customary in his books) but the controlling force, and coquettish to boot. She repeatedly makes a fool of Destime, who is still underestimating her to the very end. He, by contrast, is a pretty hopeless amateur, relying chiefly on luck, guesswork and fisticuffs: exactly like the literary heroes with whom Diana mockingly compares him.
And Wheatley being Wheatley, he can't resist making the comparisons explicit:
In his mind, he sought desperately for a way of escape, but he could think of nothing. Again Diana's taunt came back to him and he wondered miserably just what those gifted amateurs of fiction did when they had walked blithely into the arms of their enemies. Bulldog Drummond, he supposed, would have tackled the present situation with fantastic ease... Bulldog might not be exactly subtle, but at times he certainly possessed the advantage of being devastatingly heavy handed. Then there was that other fellow, an infinitely more dangerous gentleman adventurer, 'The Saint'. Swithin had followed his amazing prowess in many countries, through fifteen novels, and admired him greatly. The remarkable flow of cheerful badinage which he managed to sustain even in the most desperate situations was a joy to read, and his methods a perfect example of how matters should be handled in the present instance.
But Swithin is no Saint, and virtually every major suspense episode is motivated by him behaving foolishly:
He had failed - failed utterly from the very beginning. By not foreseeing that Tania's was such a likely post for the police to plant a spy he had given himself away to Kazdim through entrusting her with that letter. By failing to catch and warn Reouf of Kazdim's identity that night when they left the cafe together he felt that he had been largely responsible for the poor boy's death. By not troubling to take the most elementary precautions at his flat he had walked blindly into the arms of the enemy, then, when almost miraculously his life had been spared, he had been crazy enough to place himself in Ali's clutches, where the veriest tyro would at least have taken care to find out the name of the Military Governor of Constantinople before risking a visit to him - and now, by his supreme folly in asking Diana to meet him at the Tobacco Depot, he had given her away to Kazdim too.
He had failed, not only in carrying out his mission, which he realised now was a thing of comparatively small account, since it only concerned investing certain sums of money but, through his incompetence, new wars were to be sprung on an unsuspecting world and , above all - a thing far nearer home - that woman whom he had considered hard and selfish but who was brave and proud, and whom he now knew that he loved so that he would go down to hell itself to help her, was to be humiliated, befouled, broken and tortured, in body and spirit. His cup of bitterness brimmed and spilled over when he recalled his refusal to take her warning - that he had not the brain or nerve for the job he had taken on so arrogantly - and knew it to be true.
He does redeem himself, for sure, but thanks to a lot of luck.
As for Kazdim, the Eunuch himself, he's the head of the secret police, and a clandestine Islamist, much given to tying his enemies' limbs together and dumping them in deep water.
I suppose Wheatley must have realised that after Mocata his readers would no longer accept a mere ruffian for a villain. Kazdim, therefore, is a real showstopper:
He was a tall man with immensely powerful shoulders but the effect of his height was minimized by his gigantic girth. He had the stomach of an elephant and would easily have turned the scale at twenty stone. His face was even more unusual than his body for apparently no neck supported it and it rose straight out of his shoulders like a vast inverted U. The eyes were tiny beads in that vast expanse of flesh and almost buried in folds of fat, the cheeks puffed out, yet withered like the skin of a last year's apple, and the mouth was an absurd pink rosebud set above a seemingly endless cascade of chins.
The book offers the best example yet of Wheatley's climax-upon-climax formula: knowing, perhaps, that he wasn't going to top Devil Rides Out conceptually (though the astral bodies put in a reappearance), he has gone all out to top each action climax with another. The book just doesn't want to stop, and there are times when you wonder if it ever will. But it works: the effect is neither counterproductively exhausting, nor ridiculous.
Especially notable here is how the secondary character of Peter is used to achieve this effect, since it shows a genuinely clever awareness of narrative structure. The character is present at the beginning, cleverly reintroduced halfway through, and then held in reserve for Wheatley's cleverest 'last dash' yet, stepping in to foul up the works after Destime's efforts, finally, appear to have succeeded.
Our heroes are saved, ultimately, by the timely intervention of Tania, ("attractive enough to have caught the eye of the most hardened misogynist"), Kazdim's gorgeous paid agent. Swithin gets the measure of her halfway through, but Peter falls hard and naive for her, and as soon as he is entrusted with the important government commission to which all Destime's efforts have been directed, he promptly makes an ass of himself and allows her to betray him as ordered.
But now, tormented by conscience, and driven mad with guilt and hatred after the death of her mother at Kazdim's hands, her (literally) insane bravery saves the day at the cost of her own life.
This is also something new for Wheatley: his first tragic heroine, inspired perhaps by Devil's Tanith, whom he had shockingly killed halfway through, only to wimp out and bring back to life a few chapters later. Tania, who resembles Tanith in more than just name (the unwilling servant of the principal villain, loved by a secondary male hero who wants to 'take her away from all of this', a refugee) gets no second chance, and her death is powerfully woven by Wheatley into the breakneck action climax.
Ultimately, Swithin, Diana and Peter foil the revolution, avert catastrophe, earn the undying loyalty of Kemal (the first example in Wheatley of a real-life figure with a speaking role) and save the British Empire - temporarily at least.
The book ends with an official proclamation from Kemal to his people, to which one can only add 'Amen':
Those followers of the Prophet who wish to continue the practice of their ancient faith are free to do so, as also are the Christians and the Jews. But let them beware how they attempt to tamper with the machinery of State. Religion and nationality are things apart.
If you hate Wheatley's style, good luck to you and there's no more to be said.
But if you do have a sweet tooth for this kind of thing, this is one of his most efficient displays yet.
No sign yet of autopilot.
For every one person truly familiar with Wheatley's work there are many dozens who think they are, thanks to some formative encounter with this movie. To them, Wheatley is merely a writer of sensational black magic stories, populated by goat men, horse-back skeletons and giant spiders - but at least they can tell you something about him, which is probably more than you can claim for, say, Edgar Wallace. In the final analysis, the service the film has done his legacy almost certainly outweighs the not inconsiderable disservice.
Certainly Wheatley professed himself entirely happy with the movie, writing in Drink and Ink that:
... the script-writer [respected American fantasy author Richard Matheson] stuck, as far as film technique permitted, to the story. I wrote to him at Hollywood to thank him for that. His reply was, "I have written several novels myself and had their film versions murdered by the script-writers; so when I became a script-writer myself, I swore that I would never mess up another author's story."
Wheatley's benevolence towards the film may simply be attributable to the fact that, unlike almost all of the other screen adaptations of his work, it was a significant box office hit, and created a renewed interest in his books. Certainly his attitude is hard to explain on any other grounds, given his general antipathy towards the film versions of his books and his dislike for the way in which they tinker with his plots. For while the film is a definitive and enjoyable example of Hammer Horror, as an adaptation of the novel it cannot really be counted a success. In particular, his claim that it does not significantly deviate from his original plot is simply not true.
The driving force behind the film's production was its star, Christopher Lee, who admired Wheatley's novels (being sympathetic both to their morality and their metaphysics), and had recently become his neighbour in London and struck up a friendship. In his autobiography, Lee recalls:
After years of urging black-magic themes on Hammer, I had a breakthrough with The Devil Rides Out. Conservative, Hammer had always worried about the Church's reaction to the screening of the Black Mass. But we thought the charge of blasphemy would not stick if we did the thing with due attention to scholarship.
It is a consequence of this reticence that the film so relentlessly stresses its characters' Christian credentials (no reference here to Simon's Jewishness) and also, alas, nervously plays down some of the picturesque grotesquerie of the Satanism sequences. The replacement of Wheatley's bestial orgies with rather tame drunken revelry was inevitable, but it was a shame to ignore the visual potential of this:
While the crowd had been busy at the tables, their leaders had donned fantastic costumes. One had a huge cat mask over his head and a furry cloak, the tail of which dangled behind him on the ground; another wore the headdress of a repellent toad; the face of a third, still masked, gleamed bluish for a moment in the candlelight from between the distended jaws of a wolf, and Mocata, whom they could still recognise by his squat obesity, now had webbed wings sprouting from his shoulders which gave him the appearance of a giant bat.
Most significantly, the film removes all reference to the Talisman of Set, around which Wheatley's entire novel revolves, and the pursuit of which is Mocata's sole aim. Without this, or any clear alternative indication of what Mocata is doing (beyond general, unspecified Satanic stuff), his actions in the film actually make no sense at all. In particular, his relentless pursuit of Simon and Tanith and his substitution of Fleur (renamed Peggy in the film following the fair-enough decision to ignore Princess Marie Lou's exotic backstory and instead make her plain Marie Eaton, Englishwoman) seems irrational and self-defeating.
In the novel, Simon and Tanith are astrologically vital to his quest, and Fleur substituted for a specific reason:
"What is this Talisman? Rex mentioned it last night."
"It's the reason why Mocata is certain to make every effort to get possession of me again," Simon's voice came back. "It is buried somewhere, and adepts of the Left Hand Path have been seeking it for centuries. It conveys almost limitless powers on its possessor, and Mocata has discovered that its whereabouts will be revealed if he can practice the ritual to Saturn in conjunction with Mars with someone who was born in a certain year at the hour of the conjunction. There can't be many such, but for my sins I happen to be one, and even if he can find others they may not be suitable for various reasons."
The Duke nodded. "The prayers of a virgin woman are amazingly powerful in such instances, and the younger she is, the stronger her vibrations. You see, a little child like Fleur who is old enough to pray, but absolutely unsoiled in any way, is the nearest that any human being can get to absolute purity. ..."
But in the film Simon is simply the newest recruit to Mocata's circle, with no particular significance to his (unstated) plans. After De Richleau spoils their meeting by abducting him, Mocata continues to go after him out of pique, and abducts Peggy to punish them when he is thwarted, making him both petty and curiously self-destructive, since as things stand in the film it would surely be in his interests to stop annoying De Richleau once he realises how formidable an opponent he is.
Then, just as they had done with their version of Dracula ten years before, Hammer have for budgetary reasons kept all the action in one country, thus ruling out the entire climax, which saw the heroes travel to France and then to a mountain temple in Greece in pursuit of Mocata. While the loss of this final section is regrettable in itself, especially for anyone who comes to the film after reading the novel, it also has the more serious effect of undermining Wheatley's very carefully devised structure. As we have seen, his technique was to have one major action climax about two thirds in, and then, just when the reader is lured into thinking the danger is resolved, to suddenly plunge the heroes into greater peril and rush to another, even more dramatic climax. The substitution of a brief dash to a basement room and the relatively easy use of supernatural incantation to defeat the satanists is not merely disappointing on its own terms, it also seems even more anti-climactic for coming after the film's most dramatic sequence - the visitations in the library. If the cross-country pursuit of Mocata had to have been omitted, then the library scene should have been moved to the ending.
As sheer entertainment, the film deserves its ever-growing reputation as one of the key works of British horror cinema, and a few of its deviations do count as improvements, not least Charles Gray's performance as Mocata, more effective, I think, as a silkily sinister Englishman than a physically repulsive, bald European; fat, heavily perfumed and addicted to sweets.
Wheatley gives him a good line when his final effort to remove Simon from Richard's house fails - "I will send the Messenger to your house tonight and he shall take Simon from you alive - or dead!" - but Hammer's is better: "I'll not be back, but something will..."
Christopher Lee is pretty good as De Richleau, if a little too young and lacking somewhat in the bon vivant expansiveness of the character as written: Lee's austere interpretation is more ascetic than aesthetic. (Though Wheatley was, again, more than satisfied: "Christopher took the part of the Duke de Richleau and played the role magnificently.")
The film is also to be commended for its excellent art direction, sets, costumes and period look, all of which Hammer could have sacrificed to save money but wisely retained.
The special effects, on the other hand, could have made judicious use of a few extra pennies, and most of the miniatures and superimpositions are now showing their age. The giant tarantula is an understandable substitute for the pretty much unrealisable hideous slug-like something, but its appearance is haphazardly handled. Worse, the close-up of the Angel of Death's skull face is seen against the blue-screen background that should have been removed and replaced with the background of the room - a near-unaccountably careless mistake.
In his autobiography Lee argues for a remake, noting that he is now closer to the correct age of the venerable Duc, and admitting the room for improvement in the film's visual effects:
It wasn't possible in those days to show a winged horse charge in with reins held taught by unseen hands and stirrups extended by unseen legs. Our horse's hooves slipped about on the studio floor, and though the animal did some good stuff rearing up and trying to strike away vases of holy water, it was on the whole a relatively low-key spectacle by comparison with what we could do with computer special effects today.
I counsel caution, however. Special effects, and special effects alone, have improved since 1968! It is hard to imagine any future film version of the story retaining one tenth of Hammer's respect for Wheatley's original style and milieu. Indeed, for all its faults, one has only to watch five minutes of The Haunted Airman to realise how basically sound Hammer's film is in mood and conception.