The True Believer?
What Dennis Wheatley put in to ‘The Devil Rides Out’
Released in 1968, The Devil Rides Out is a classic, schlocky occult horror from everyone’s favourite horror studio Hammer. In it, the always brilliant Christopher Lee plays the Duc De Richleau, an expert in the occult, who with the help of his brawny sidekick Rex, battles against the forces of evil in the form of very starey Charles Gray, on the way to rescuing his friend’s soul from the clutches of a satanic cult.
Once the viewer gets past the initial shock of seeing Christopher Lee in the hero role, something which long time horror fans will find strangely unnerving in itself, and accepts the fact that special effects may just have come on slightly since the days in which this movie was filmed (a notion confirmed by the appearance at one point of a tarantula that looks as if it was filmed several streets away and then inserted into the film by a six year old, using a pair of round edged scissors and some crazy-glue) what they are left with is a pacy plot, sharp script and some stellar direction courtesy of Hammer studios stalwart and director of a number of horror classics, Terence Fisher.
Aside from being very entertaining and a firm recommendation for any horror fan, what is particularly interesting about this film and the novel upon which it is based, is the extent to which its author believed in the supernatural elements he incorporated. Not least because of the impact that his belief in these dark forces would have upon his audience.
In his 1962 book ‘A Razor for a Goat’ the academic Elliot Rose described the contemporary approaches to studying the history of witchcraft by first identifying a number of distinct groups or camps. One such group, which Rose labelled ‘The Anti-Saducees’ and whose numbers included such prolific writers on such topic as Montague Summers, were especially notable for one reason- the fact that they approached the subject with absolute credulity.
That is to say, that in the eyes of these ‘Anti-Saducees’, tales of witches, black magic and the devil as an incarnate being were not merely delusions or matters to be discussed in cold academic terms.To them, it was all real. Which brings us to Wheatley.
In his book, Rose refers to Wheatley as an “ally” to these ‘Anti Saducees’ and indeed, a glance at the famed writer’s own statements on the subject of the occult make it easy to see why. Like an early twentieth century Dan Brown, Wheatley put together his novels by constructing fast paced adventure stories and peppering them with supposedly factual and well researched references to occult practices and esoteric knowledge.
Alongside enjoying a ripping yarn, the reader of one of Wheatley’s occult novels is invited to believe that the danger presented by the practices detailed is both real and Wheatley insists, imminently dangerous. More than the narrative itself, it was this suggestion -that a horrifying layer of fact lurked beneath the fiction- that made the original novel and later the Hammer classic, so terrifying for their respective audiences.
The truth is, Rose may have been somewhat generous to Wheatley by describing him only as an ally to those who took the dark side seriously. Not that Anti-Saducee would have been a label Wheatley would have shied away from. On the contrary, he would gladly have embraced it. Indeed, it was this image, of himself as a privileged insider with first hand knowledge of dark arts and forces he considered to be all too real, that Wheatley desperately sought to cultivate.
Wheatley’s desire to paint himself as an authority on the occult is clear. Despite having, by his own admission, no academic qualifications in that field, he authored a number of non fiction texts on the topic, including his ostensibly ‘comprehensive’ overview of the occult The Devil and All His Works which covered everything from hypnosis and mesmerism to palmistry and voodoo What is less clear however, is whether his motivation in presenting himself in this role was entirely selfless or a clever exercise in image construction intended to increase the potency of his work.
As a member of London’s Ghost Club and an acquaintance of both the legendary occultist and supposed ‘wickedest man in the world’ Aleister Crowley as well as the aforementioned Montague Summers, (who translated the Malleus Maleficarum and was regarded as quite an authority on the occult in his own right), Wheatley certainly wore his diabolic dabbling credentials on his sleeve.
In introductions to both his fiction and non fiction works, Wheatley vehemently warns the reader not to pursue the Left Hand Path and speaks in hyperboles of the dangers that wading in such dark pools presents, imploring readers to “refrain from being drawn into the practice of the Secret Art in any way,” all whilst enticing them to read on by dangling juicy morsels of forbidden knowledge before their eyes.
Wheatley’s carefully crafted image becomes all the more interesting when one re-watches The Devil Rides Out and considers the character of the Duc De Richleau, portrayed by the ever reliable Lee. Though his side man Rex is the more typical on screen hero, all square jaw and quick fists, De Richleau remains the undoubted star of the show.
It is his intimate knowledge of the dark arts, which allows he and his companions to triumph against the forces of darkness. The pervading theme in this narrative being that it is superior knowledge, brains rather than the brawn, that is the greatest weapon in this fight. It is not difficult to see how an audience familiar with Wheatley and his claims to expertise, might equate the character of De Richleau with the author and how Wheatley himself, consciously or not, may have been presenting an idealised vision of himself in this character.
Whether Wheatley was, as I suspect, being disingenuous when warning the reader against the very thing he was about to unfold for them, or whether he did truly regard himself as a Duc De Richleau figure, concerned with his reader’s welfare and considering them forearmed if forewarned, is debatable.
What is undeniably true, is that by giving his readers a glimpse behind the curtain, all whilst decrying the occult as the greatest of perils, Wheatley not only succeeded in pricking the reader’s curiosity, but also in terrifying them. After all, what’s more frightening than a supernatural threat that could turn out to be real?
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