Wednesday, June 3, 2009
It is one of the most charming features of Dennis Wheatley's debut novel that it came about more or less by chance.
To Wheatley fans, the story of how and why he embarked on a literary career is pretty well-known, but nonetheless bears retelling.
Following distinguished service in the First World War, he took on management of the Wheatley family wine merchant business in 1919.
(It was in this capacity, in fact, that Wheatley produced his first work as a writer: Historic Brandies , Old Masters: Catalogue of Old Brandies, etc  and At the Sign of the Flagon of Gold .)
The success of the business financed a lavish lifestyle during the roaring twenties, but Wheatley was hit hard by the Depression of the early thirties and ended up losing the business. Recently married, for the second time, and with many expenses, he found himself looking with some urgency for alternative forms of income.
From Drink and Ink, volume three of his autobiography The Time Has Come (1977):
Our most pressing worry was shortage of money. I was reduced to living on Joan, as my mother refused to help me, and I still had a number of debts... Joan was an excellent manager and we lived very quietly, practicing every possible economy. She sacked her cook and took over the kitchen. There were no more theatres, dining out or giving cocktail parties. For drink we had to limit ourselves, except on special occasions, to a glass of sherry each in the evenings.
But even economies this drastic proved insufficient:
I was perpetually harassed by letters from my new solicitor and accountant, enclosing long statements from Fearon, Block & Co. giving particulars of ways in which they claimed I had defrauded them... I could only sit, brooding, day after day in the flat.
It was my wonderful Joan who saved me from this ghastly, futile existence. I had shown her some of my short stories I had written years before, just for fun. One day she said: "Why don't you write a book? I'm sure you could."
I had little faith in my ability to do so and even if I did, and succeeded in getting a publisher to take it, I could not hope to make more out of it than about fifty pounds. But having a shot at it would at least take my mind off my worries; so I bought some paper and sat down to write a thriller.
It was accepted, and Wheatley made his fifty pounds:
The book was published on 3rd January 1933... The first printing of The Forbidden Territory had been 1500 copies, but only 800 had had the pictorial endpapers pasted in. The demand of the trade had been so large that the other 700 copies had had to be rushed out without endpapers; and orders to reprint the book had already been sent before it had even been published.
I had become a best-seller overnight.
The Forbidden Territory introduced the most celebrated of Wheatley's recurring characters: the Duc de Richleau, Simon Aron, Rex van Ryn and Richard Eaton. There were others: Gregory Sallust, of course, Julian Day, and Roger Brook. But, thanks largely to one of their later adventures called The Devil Rides Out, it is these, whom he sometimes referred to as "those modern musketeers" - inspired by his childhood love of Dumas, probably his greatest literary influence - that remain his best-known. The leader of the four, the Duke, is an elderly French aesthete and Royalist ("for us who preserve the loyalties of our birth, there is still a King of France"), unable to return to the country of his birth on account of his participation in a failed coup to restore the French monarchy, and now a citizen of the world who divides his time between wine, cigars and the imparting of a lifetime's wisdom to a coterie of younger accolytes. It was a character that, somehow, one cannot imagine anyone but Wheatley creating.
(Incidentally, my edition of the book - part of the beloved Heron series - spells the character's name throughout as De Reichleau - I have yet to discover if this is a misprint, or something that Wheatley deliberately revised - perhaps because of Nazi connotations - as the series progressed.)
Interestingly, however, The Forbidden Territory was not that first thriller he settled down to write at Joan's instigation, neither was it the first book he had accepted for publication, nor even was it the first appearance of the modern musketeers. The characters were originally created for a murder thriller inspired in part by Wheatley's feelings of resentment against his mother, in which he imagined her being drowned in her bath for her insurance. It is in the course of this narrative that the musketeers meet for the first time.
Inspired by his success at this first attempt, Wheatley then settled down to write a second adventure for the characters. It was this follow-up that became The Forbidden Territory, but both Wheatley and his publishers agreed it was much the superior of the two, and so it was duly published as his first book. (The murder thriller was eventually published as Three Inquisitive People in 1940.)
Wheatley and his wife Joan in the mid-thirties.
It is tempting to speculate what might have happened had Wheatley published his murder mystery first. Might it have typed him as a detective story writer in the Christie-Allingham-Sayers manner? Might it even, unthinkably, have been a failure, stifling his writing career at birth?
Whatever, the rousing mix of Boy's Own adventure, a very nineteen-thirties kind of sex and violence and sharply convincing incidental detail that characterised The Forbidden Territory catapulted Wheatley into the bestseller lists, where he remained until his death.
As seems to often be the case with the Modern Musketeers novels, the book deals with three of the team being assembled to rescue the fourth, in this case van Ryn, who has got himself locked up in Soviet Russia.
As a thriller, the book is virtually a textbook. Betraying none of its author's inexperience, it dives straight into the action, pencil-sketching the characters as it goes, building to climax upon climax, alternating chase and escape and cliffhanger, and always managing to offer just enough detail to make the settings vivid and believable. It was a justified success.
NB: It's definitely Richleau here.
The most interesting aspect of the novel to modern eyes, of course, is its attitude to Communism, which is one that goes well past condemnation and into hatred, characterised by a moral revulsion that remains surprising not in a man of Wheatley's class and experiences per se, but surely in a man of Wheatley's class and experiences settling down to write a crowd-pleasing thriller.
Neither should we underestimate the extent to which Soviet Russia was being sucked up to by English intellectuals and literary fellow-travellers at and around this time.
The year in which it appeared also saw the publication of Harold Laski's Democracy In Crisis (an "explanation of why capitalism and democracy are incompatible"), the year before saw Cole's Intelligent Man's Guide Through World Chaos ("I believe that the Capitalistic System has done its work, and outlived its strength and usefulness") and John Middleton Murry declaring that "Communism in some form is inevitable" in The Necessity of Communism ('32), while the Webbs contributed their comedy classic Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation in 1935. Then, of course, there was Bernard Shaw returning ecstatic from a visit to Russia, on what he seemed genuinely not to realise was a carefully orchestrated propaganda tour throughout which he was manipulated and deceived with heartbreaking ease, declaring that Russia was a more civilised country than his own. All them cornfields, and ballet in the evenings.
Then, smashing with an ingenue's incaution through all the sanctimony and sycophancy came Wheatley, blazing a path of burning vitriol through this swamp of vacuous credulity, and telling his readers that, far from heaven on earth, this Shavian paradise was a vile and inhuman hell. "I never did believe what they say in Moscow about being frightened of a combined attack by the capitalist countries," he has Simon say at one point; "they're out to conquer us - that's a certainty."
The anger that seems to underscore his convictions occasionally erupts into passages of extraordinary savagery for what is basically an escapist thirties thriller. In one sequence, the Duke kills a Russian, and Simon feels a wave of nausea at "this sudden slaying of a fellow human without warning." But De Richleau is quick to reassure him:
"There, there, my son," said De Reichleau, soothingly. "Do not waste your great heart on this scum. Praise be to God, I have killed many such. You would not pity him if you had seen, as I have, all that his kind accomplished in 1919 and 1920. I fought with Denikin's White Army, and we saw sights that froze one's heart. Little children burned to death - men with their eyes gouged out - women of our own blood, who had been kept in brothels, filthy with disease - a thousand horrors committed at the instigation of your friend Leshkin and his kind. It is a nightmare that I would forget. Come now, help me to hide the body of this dog."
Most impressively of all, Wheatley targets not just the brutality and despair beneath the surface of the Communist public image, but the actual propaganda mechanics of that image itself, the very things that made such a fool of Shaw.
The cinemas show "none of the productions of Hollywood or Elstree, only the propaganda films, in which the heroine was a strapping peasant wench or factory girl", and when naive Simon briefly considers remaining in Russia and marrying a Communist actress, he speaks for the useful idiots as he explains his thinking to Richard Eaton:
"Well - er - as a matter of fact, I'm not coming back to England, you see it's this way - Valeria Petrovna takes the New Russia very seriously. She simply wouldn't hear of coming to England - talked about her art - that it belonged to the Russian people. Besides, she really believes that the Communists are going to make a better world for everybody, and that Russia's the one place to live. I'll tell you - I think there's a lot in what she says."
"Simon, you're talking rot, and you know it. But seriously, are you really prepared to give up everything and live in a pigsty like this?"
And as for the constant loudspeakers:
"What's it all about?" asked Simon. "Loud-speakers never seem to stop here! I noticed them all morning, and again this afternoon - can't be news all the time, can it?"
"It is the Five Year Plan, my friend," the Duke shrugged. "Never for one second are the masses allowed to forget it. Those megaphones relate what is being done all the time - how many tractors have been turned out in Stalingrad today - how many new teachers graduated with honours from the University of Karkov last week - how many tons of ore have been taken from the great Kuznetsky basin, which they are now beginning to exploit - how the branch of the young Communist party in Nijni-Novgorod has passed a resolution giving up their fifth day holiday, for a year, in order that The Plan may be completed the quicker - and every five minutes the announcer says: 'You who hear this - what are you doing for the Five Year Plan? - what are you dong that the Five Year Plan shall be completed in Four?'" He shuddered.
"There is something terrible about it, my son. These fanatics will yet eat us alive."
Fittingly, somehow, the novel ends happily with the cold-blooded killing of the foursome's nemesis, Kommissar Leshkin, and the promise of more adventures for our heroes.
It is in the course of this adventure, incidentally, that Richard Eaton meets and marries the Princess Marie Lou, who becomes a decidedly unaristocratic Englishwoman - and he Paul Eddington, what's more - in the Hammer film of The Devil Rides Out...
De Reichleau raised one slanting eyebrow meditatively. Sly dog, that Richard; what a thing it was to be young and in Vienna, city of dreams. How fond he was of them all, and how fortunate he was - that, at his age, all these young people seemed to take such pleasure in his company. Life was a pleasant thing indeed. He drew thoughtfully on his cigar, and quietly strolled down the corridor.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
When I was growing up in the late nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties, every house had a bookcase, and every bookcase had at least one copy of a novel by Alistair Maclean.
At least, that's how it seemed to me. God knows how many copies he sold, but back in those days when even corner grocery shops sold paperbacks he was ubiquitous indeed.
Now, it is not simply that he is no longer widely read. I wonder if anyone of a generation younger than mine could even hazard a guess as to who he might be.
Are any of his titles still in print? I suspect not.
I do not absolve myself from this apathy and ignorance. I have never read an Alistair Maclean novel in my life.
But a part of me has always been drawn to forgotten popular novelists, and I love rediscovering them.
Their works are hidden, secret worlds; islands, almost, cut off from the mainland, where life continues as it has always done, untouched by change of any kind.
It is in their pages, in the words of these who wrote not for posterity but for an eager and receptive audience of contemporaries, and not to inform or impress but merely to divert, that we can most vividly see the exact mood and flavour of the past pass as if living before us.
Works of historical recreation may or may not do a good job of mimicking this immediacy, but in Wheatley we see decades past actually staggering to their feet and returning to life.
Dennis Wheatley, like Maclean, was one of the most popular novelists of the twentieth century, and an equally ubiquitous figure in the bookshelves of generations older than my own.
His first novel was published in the thirties, his last in the seventies, and throughout that period he maintained a phenomenal rate of output in a series of bestselling thrillers, ranging in theme from historical to political to supernatural.
For most of my life, one could find him in any jumble sale, any charity shop. In this way he remained a living presence, even among the increasing majority that never read him.
The first Wheatley paperback I ever saw was at my grandparents' house. It was definitely a black magic title, almost certainly The Haunting of Toby Jugg, and in the Arrow paperback series featuring a topless blonde woman on the cover. (This 'tits edition', as the series is known to connoisseurs, is among the most iconic and evocative of all Wheatley jacket designs; a number of people to whom I have mentioned this project have instantly cited it as their first, abiding and in some cases only memory of Wheatley as a 'live' literary presence.) Now, he is slowly beginning to disappear.
Gina Wisker wrote in Horrors and Menaces to Everything Decent in Life: the Horror Fiction of Dennis Wheatley (in Clive Bloom [ed]: Creepers: British Horror & Fantasy in the Twentieth Century ):
Most of the bookshops I have visited in an attempt to get hold of Wheatley's novels have declared him out of print, but he isn't... W. H. Smith, bastion of popular fiction, couldn't trace his work on their shelves in Cambridge, and returned my downpayment for those supposedly in print, declaring them no longer so. One Cambridge bookshop specialising in ordinary secondhand books said were they offered any they wouldn't touch them.
Though his supernatural novels represent a tiny fraction of his output, it is now thanks solely to them, and in particular to The Devil Rides Out, made into a successful Hammer Horror film, that his name endures to the extent that it does.
It is not, however, a respected name. Even in his heyday, higher literary critics scoffed at the perceived defects in his literary style, though his habit of cheerfully agreeing with them rather than taking up cudgels blunted their assaults somewhat.
Today, he is invariably dismissed, partly for this reason and partly for the crusty traditionalist politics that even the most fantastic of his novels usually find time to put the narrative on hold for, and have his characters espouse on his behalf.
Julian Symons in Bloody Murder, a guide to crime fiction, speaks for the consensus, more or less, in declaring that Wheatley's works "indicate how low is one literary level of popular success" and defining his style as "chunks of pre-digested history served up in a form which may appeal to readers with a mental age of twelve."
Critics invariably take him to task for what Wisker calls "all sorts of social stereotypes, as well as glaring and quite irritating (or satisfyingly predictable) examples of the ideology of the British people at a particular time" and "a fascinating perspective on the cultural norms of the time and the ideological implications of all the forces which stress the normative and reinforce the status quo." (In other words: for accurately reflecting the temper of his time and the mood of his readers: now as then the only safe way of selling books.)
Wisker writes disapprovingly of the fact that "Wheatley delivers an ultimately rational and controllable horror to a readership who desire flights of the imagination but wish to have their values reinforced at the end", and endorses a review of the film version of The Devil Rides Out that condemns the manner in which "the fatal attractiveness of evil is inevitably undermined... by (the) insistence on punishing the seductive." (In other words: the fact that the baddies lose.)
The villains, these people always point out, are "visibly so, usually deformed, not British" (Wisker again) and, most of all, physically ugly. (But, as we shall see, a surprising number of Wheatley's heroes are also explicitly described as ugly, Rex Van Ryn and Gregory Sallust among them. Wheatley, in fact, has a peculiar quirk of describing just about all of his characters, male and female, hero and villain, in terms of their physical flaws and imperfections.)
A recent BBC documentary, Dennis Wheatley: A Letter To Posterity, made for a particularly chilling warning of what may happen to his remaining reputation if this process is left unchecked. The Letter, as its title suggests, was written not for publication, and intended not for his popular readership but as a legacy to the future. It is a tract in which Wheatley envisages a future Britain enslaved to leftist totalitarianism, and urges action to stop this process in its tracks.
Needless to say, this is was tackled with all the open-mindedness you'd expect of a BBC documentary. While selectively misleading extracts from the letter are read by an actor doing a barking Blimp voice, pundits complain that the Letter "advocates meeting in secret societies to cook up a coup or plot, rather than advocating open, lively discussion"; another says that "the call to arms grates somewhat." Indeed it does - so long as both programme and panelists remain determined to obscure the fact that the work is a prediction, in which Wheatley is imagining a future of totalitarian subjugation, wherein armed resistance would be entirely reasonable, and open, lively discussion impossible. The way the programme slants it, it's as if he is advocating the assassination of Attlee's post-war government. (I will give a sober hearing to the Letter To Posterity in a forthcoming post.)
Wheatley was phenomenally popular, a fact that should warrant our serious attention in itself. He was read avidly by all classes of society (up to and very much including royalty) and his sheer longevity as an author means that we are able, if we are so inclined, to read his books chronologically and watch a century pass living and breathing as we go.
I am not sure that anybody since his contemporaries, who read each new book as it appeared, have felt so inclined, however, and even they, of course, would not have had the historical perspective to really see this process in action.This is where the Dennis Wheatley Project comes in.
Simply stated, the project is this: I am going to read all of Wheatley's books in order.
The majority of these posts, therefore, will document my reactions to each of Wheatley's books as I read them. I will also post on general topics pertaining to Wheatley's life, career and legacy, his outlook, his contemporaries and such ephemera as the film adaptations of his books.
What little socio-historical value there may be in this will, I suspect, be found in the fact that Wheatley does not merely reflect the temper of his age but actively engages with it (that he does so from a now unfashionable perspective is a detail you are at liberty to find dislikeable if you are so inclined, but which in no way invalidates or renders less worthy the task of analysing the process) and because, though his work has been more or less forgotten, I have yet to pick up a Wheatley book I have not enjoyed.
Many have surprised me, however, in what they reveal about the range of their author's interests, his literary inspirations and references, his knowledge and his unerring sense of what his readers will want of him. Even feeling I knew him as well as I did, I was quite unprepared for the actual content of such striking and bizarre works as Such Power Is Dangerous, Black August and The Ka of Gifford Hillary to name just three.
I must also come clean about one other thing here at the outset. I have the nagging feeling that those who snidely dismiss Wheatley's works as reactionary juvenilia are not just priggish bores but also very wrong: what Wheatley I have read (a lot, but a tiny percentage of the whole) points me strongly towards the conclusion that he was, no is - for books, unlike authors, do not die - a fine writer.
He is also an eccentric writer; that is to say a supremely individualist one: it is very hard to mistake his work for anyone elses. This surely calls into question the extent to which it can be waved away as formula writing. Perhaps his technique was naive and often imprecise, but in his marshaling of his materials and narrative style, his imagination, and above all his use of popular narrative formulae to articulate a consistent worldview and speak in a clear and unwavering authorial voice, he was by no means a negligible craftsman. Even his sternest critics concede that he could tell a tale, and that his dexterous blending of fact and fiction was innovative and influential.
I think his reputation suffers partly on account of his politics, and partly from the automatic tendency of one generation to look down on the frivolous diversions of the generation that preceded it. But there is such a thing as qualitative judgement in popular culture, and if the aim of this site is in part to examine Wheatley's work from that perspective, I make no bones of the fact that the likely outcome of that enquiry is predetermined, and I will be surprised indeed if I am given cause to moderate it.
I love the books of Dennis Wheatley. And as much as it is concerned with analysis, this site will be concerned with paying tribute to one of the most charming, cranky and enjoyable writers of the last hundred years.