Sometimes, in the dark of my shed, I wonder why i'm attempting this: certainly not financial reward. The book industry, like every other content creation industry, is on its knees. So let's look back on happier times, when a man could dust himself down from failing as a wine merchant and become a multi-millionaire just by hammering away at the typewriter.
Dennis Wheatley was the Dan Brown, the Steven King, the John Grisham of his day; a paperback author with a specialism in paranormal conspiracy thrillers. Here was a guy that didn’t need to panhandle his buddies to crowdfund his book launch: by the time of his death in 1977 he had shifted over 20,000,000 units.
It has to be said that much of Wheatley's oeuvre has not aged well. Take his 1936 pageturner, They Found Atlantis.
In summary, the plot of the novel is this: Herman Tisch, a Germen deep-sea explorer, accompanied by a square jawed British salt, Captain Nelson MacKay and his girlfriend Sally Hart, plus her friend, the Countess Camilla and a trio of sweaty suitors (Prince Vladimir, Count Axel and a “dago” (1) film star, p.k.a. Nicholas Costello), are hijacked in the ocean depths by a Bond-esque supervillain, glorying in the name of Oxford Kate. Marooned in their bathysphere on the seabed by this dastardly adversary, our motley heroes stumble upon the lost world of Atlantis. As it turns out, the Atlanteans are a nude, group sex loving, quasi-immortal race, who spend time observing events on the surface world, travelling by astral projection. After observing Atlantis for a while, the cast makes a nail-biter of a getaway, escaping up a volcanic pipe to emerge unscathed back on the surface.
I don't know why I'm sniggering. Somewhere, Dennis Wheatley is shouting, "Laugh when you've got 20,000,000 pledges, loser!" Anyway, no one ever said a best selling paperback has to be true. They Found Atlantis is no more intended to be a factual account than another equally successful book Wheatley wrote around the time: The Devil Rides Out (1934).
Sex, snobbery and sadism are supposedly the key ingredients for successful pulp fiction and for The Devil Rides Out Wheatley stirred some Satanism into the mix. Plunging into the research for the book with his usual thoroughness, he hung out with the renegade priest Montague Summers and bought Aleister Crowley a lavish Hungarian lunch to pump him for insider knowledge. As a thankyou, the aging occultist sent him a signed copy of his Magick in Theory and Practice, from which the Egyptian plot link in the book is contrived.
Burping reflectively on his goulash, Wheatley decided to use Aleister Crowley as the basis for the baddy in The Devil Rides Out, the sinister cabal leader “Ipsissimus” Mocata. Naturally he embellished the character with his usual flourishes, tying him directly to devil worship and throwing in sinister ideas like the witches’ Sabbat and the Black Mass. Crowley was already notorious but after the book was published he became forever tarred with the brush of Satanism (2). Footnotes aside, The Devil Rides Out might well have gathered dust with They Found Atlantis as an early period Wheatley curiousity. But more than thirty years later it came to have a powerful influence on the perception of the occult in the UK.
By the 1960’s, cinema censorship over Satanism was loosening up and Britain’s Hammer Films decided the time was ripe for a film adaptation of the book. Directed by Terence Fisher, The Devil Rides Out (1968) turned out to be a classic. The movie features Hammer’s enjoyably low budget effects, with signature performances from Christopher Lee as Richelieu and Charles Gray as Mocata. Just as in the novel, the satanic cabal is a wealthy, secretive group that practices abuse and cannibalism - and their devilish rituals naturally feature plenty of posh young ladies who find their morals loosening faster than their corsets in the heat of the orgiastic moment. Devil was a smash. After that, Satan went big box office. The Exorcist, The Omen: in the 1970’s, hellish Hollywood movies came thick and fast.
Of course, it was all just fiction.
Or was it? To the growing number Charismatic and Evangelical communities (3) there was nothing remotely funny about this. All of the tropes first introduced in Devil; demons possessing human minds, cabals that abducted young people and occult influence in high places, chimed exactly with their own experiences. In 1972 the Christian Exorcism Study Circle was founded. By the 1980’s the group claimed that it was counseling some two hundred defectors from occult groups (4), warning that, “some satanic groups will sacrifice a human being if they possibly can: often these victims are unwanted babies or tramps taken from the streets at night... Satanists can be found at the highest levels in our society, in political life and on the boards of multinational companies." To Evangelical Christians The Devil Rides Out looked not so much like fiction as a well researched docu-drama.
Until about 1975 this kind of worldview was confined to the fringe of the new churches. The mainstream UK media covered the occult rarely and they winked when they did. The focus of most stories was that witches were rumoured to worship in the nude (a good excuse to print some sexy pictures), or occasionally that they sacrificed cats or goats. (In Britain, cruelty to animals being of course the most heinous of crimes).
Then came the events that marked the turning poing and that for the first time bought the reality of a living Devil to the attention of the British public: the Ossett case.
NEXT TIME: THE LATTER DAYS - GOD AND SATAN SQUARE UP FOR THE FINAL SHOWDOWN
(2) Please don’t feel sorry for Aleister Crowley. He loved it. Professor Lawrence Sutin, one of the Great Beast’s more assiduous biographers, sighs wearily, “There is no sense in trying to whitewash Crowley's reputation. Aleister spent most of his life systematically blackening it.”
(3) See my previous post, The Charismatic Revolution.
(4) Even in the past year, I have spoken directly to Christians who claim to minister to victims of abuse, extortion, rape and even the threat of murder from occultists.
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