Guest Post by G. Connor Salter
G. Connor Salter has a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. He has presented on the Inklings and related figures to Inkling Folk Fellowship, and contributed his thoughts to A Pilgrim in Narnia and the Tolkien Experience Project. He works as an editor in Colorado.
In 1936, Charles Williams reviewed a book that wasn’t a book. Murder off Miami by Dennis Wheatley was “not so much a book as a dossier of reports, photographs, documents, and even human hair with blood-stained cretonne, with the final confession and solution neatly sealed up at the end” (Williams 307). Williams called Murder Off Miami “a very good piece of publishing work and everyone who had a hand in producing it should be congratulated,” but found the concept “all wrong” (ibid). He felt the realistic clues kept readers from imagining the plot or solution:
“We must always maintain that a murder-book is still primarily a book; its purpose is to live in the world of the mind and to achieve its effects by the powers of the mind. Humanism and realism cannot (in this sense) co-exist, for one reason—you can never get realism.”Charles Williams, G. K.’s Weekly, Vol. XXIII, p. 307
Williams couldn’t have predicted that Dennis Wheatley would become “second only to Agatha Christie as Britain’s bestselling author.” Nor could Williams have seen that 40 years later, Wheatley’s words would be helping his book sales.
Born in 1897, Wheatley was a WWI veteran and wine merchant before turning to prose. In Lives of the Novelists, John Sutherland notes that Wheatley started writing in 1932 amidst bankruptcy, when his wife mentioned the “King of Thrillers” Edgar Wallace (406). Wallace had just died in Hollywood writing the script for King Kong, but was best known for pulp thrillers: cheap novels featuring high adventure and less-than-plausible twists.
“Wallace’s books were for the day—the hour, almost.”John Sutherland, Lives of the Novelists, p. 299
Pulp thrillers were important to both Williams and Wheatley. In his 1933 review of Sax Rohmer’s The Bride of Fu Manchu, Williams says Rohmer’s work inspired him to write a novel (Lobdell 104). As Mark Valentine obverses in his Wormwoodiana article on Williams and Rohmer, one can see Rohmer’s influence in Williams’ first finished novel.
Shadows of Ecstasy opens in London, with Nigel Considine giving a speech on Africa. Afterward, several listeners discuss the speech, and one realizes he met Considine decades earlier… and Considine looked the same age then. From there, we learn about Considine’s immortality-granting powers and the African armies he has raised to challenge the British empire. Heroes debate whether Considine is the antichrist, while he delivers lines like, “I think you dare encounter darkness.” (Charles Williams: Five Novels 501)
Summarized, Shadows of Ecstasy sounds like what you’d expect from a Rohmer fan-turned-novelist. There is magic and a dark master from “one of the world’s pagan places” (Dr. Fu Manchu from Asia, Considine from Africa). The British heroes must decide how to face this foreign threat. There are also battles in the street and travel by submarine. It sounds halfway between a Fu Manchu story and Rohmer’s Egyptian sorcery thriller Brood of the Witch Queen.
When read, Shadows of Ecstasy is distinctly not a pulp thriller. Its style lacks melodrama. It has a recognizable writer’s voice (unlike Rohmer, who had great set pieces but no writer’s voice). Its plot sets up Considine to be a Bond villain… then defies that expectation. Considine’s ambiguity may hurt the novel’s quality, but it shows Williams was not only writing above pulp style: he was also violating pulp conventions. Thus, Williams’ problem is partly the same problem Kingsley Amis had when he wrote a James Bond sequel: his style surpasses the material.
Wheatley never had that problem. His first book, Forbidden Territory, follows Russian-French aristocrat Duc de Richleau and his friend Simon Aron, rescuing their treasure hunter friend Rex Van Ryn from a Soviet prison. Wheatley wrote the book in several weeks and had a spy novel (Such Power is Dangerous) and a biography (Old Rowley: A Private Life of Charles II) out the same year. Wheatley released something closer to Williams’ area the following year: an occult thriller.
The Devil Rides Out begins with Richleau and Rex checking in on Simon. They find him hosting a “spiritualist group,” and Richleau removes Simon by force. At Richleau’s home, he tells Rex about modern Satan-worship and why Simon’s soul must be protected. Unfortunately, Damien Mocota, the Crowley look-alike who runs the Satanist group, doesn’t give up easily. By the time Mocata is defeated, Richleau and his friends have experienced black and white magic, traveled through the fourth dimension, and prevented a world war.
“All this bears not the slightest relation to literature, but it’s all a gloriously exciting romp….”Roger Dobson, “He Wrote of Dark Forces” (24)
Wheatley’s biographer Phil Baker argues The Devil Rides Out invented the popular image of “hardcore occultism” (322) and a new subgenre: “Occult fiction had tended to be a relatively subtle affair, like the quality ghost story, but Wheatley dragged it firmly into the thriller genre, combining black magic with hand grenades and car chases” (332).
Wheatley also added ingredients Edgar Wallace and John Buchan hadn’t considered. He wrote adventure, but with strong romantic subplots that attracted many female readers (Baker 11). They also featured details imported from Wheatley’s wine merchant days about “the finer things,” heroes sampling Hoyo de Monterrey cigars and Imperial Tokay wine. In A Spy is Born, Jeremy Duns shows how Wheatley’s emphasis on consumer brands influenced one of his dinner party guests: Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.
Wheatley wrote over 60 books, from adventure to science fiction. However, supernatural thrillers became his brand, especially in the 1960s. The alternate spirituality counterculture that made J.R.R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield into celebrated figures also loved Wheatley’s stories about “real Satanism.” After all, Wheatley maintained the magic was all researched.
This windfall lasted until 1977, the year Wheatley died and punk killed the occult revival (Baker 597). From 1974-1977, Sphere Books published The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult. The collection of 45 books, each with a Wheatley introduction, included nonfiction (Studies in Occultism by Helena Blavatsky), classic horror (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley), and forgotten books (Moonchild by Aleister Crowley). It also included War in Heaven and The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams.
Wheatley praises Williams highly in his introduction to War in Heaven: “Among writers of the supernatural, Charles Williams stands apart. He is a true mystic…” (5). In his introduction to The Great Trumps, Wheatley says, “few authors possessed a more profound knowledge of the occult than Charles Williams” (9).
However, after these compliments, Wheatley gives perfunctory plot summaries with general praises—“this strange war between a group of Satanists and the Powers of Light represented by the Archdeacon, Lionel, and a Catholic Duke cannot possibly fail to intrigue any reader” (War in Heaven 6).
A look at Wheatley’s introduction to Goethe’s Faust shows he wasn’t just perfunctory toward Williams. Wheatley praises Goethe’s book as “a conception of the relation between the physical and the supernatural” (11) and compares Mephistopheles to Shakespearean fools (ibid). Later, he pokes fun at “the literary egg-heads” who prize ancient Greek drama over everything else (11-12). Beyond that, Wheatley devotes his introduction to history lessons about Dr. Johann Faustus, Faust stories before Goethe, and Goethe’s career.
All told, Baker said it best when he called The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult “an inexpensive series of reprints with undemanding introductions” (597). Wheatley’s thoughts didn’t add anything to Williams scholarship. However, he put two Williams novels in circulation when the author was mostly forgotten.
Today, the opposite is true: Wheatley is mostly forgotten, and Williams is rising again. Why their fortunes took such opposite directions, then flip-flopped, requires looking deeper at their prose.
(Come back Next Week for Part 2!)
Print Sources Cited:
Baker, Phil. The Devil is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley. Dedalus, 2009, pp. 11, 322, 332, 597.
Dobson, Roger. “He Wrote of Dark Forces: The Weird World of Dennis Wheatley.” Wormwood 19, Autumn 2012, p. 24.
Lobdell, Jared (ed.) and Williams, Charles. The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams, 1930-1935. McFarland, 2003, pp. 104.
Sutherland, John. The Lives of the Novelists. Yale University Press, 2011, pp. 299, 406.
Wheatley, Dennis (ed.), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust: Parts 1 and 2 (The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult #15). Translated by Taylor Bayard with alterations by Dennis Wheatley. Sphere Books, 1974, pp. 11-12.
Wheatley, Dennis (ed.) and Charles Williams. The Greater Trumps (The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult #35). Sphere Books, 1975, pp. 9.
—. War in Heaven (The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult #44). Sphere Books, 1976, pp. 5 6.
Williams, Charles. Charles Williams: Five Novels. Benediction Classics, 2020, pp. 501.
—. “Letters to Peter—VI.” G. K.’s Weekly, No 593, Vol. XXIII, July 23, 1936, pp. 306-307.
Note: the writer would like to thank Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center for graciously providing scans of this review.
I should probably explain Wheatley’s comment about “literary egg-heads.” This is the full version of what he said: “The literary egg-heads declare that had Goethe’s Faust been written by him in ancient Greek, so perfectly had he captured their spirit that, had it been dug up in some Mediterranean ruin, it would have been declared to be an unknown master of the classic period. However, if we are going into Greek playwriting, give me a good translation of Aristophanes every time, for his wit is of the type that makes us laugh today.” (pp. 11-12). Does anyone know which scholars Wheatley might be poking fun at?
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Thanks for this very interesting and informative post – I look forward to Part 2 eagerly!
I ‘m not sure if I, or anyone else, ever mentioned the fact the Williams’s friends and avid documenters of his work, Raymond Hunt and Margaret Douglas, discovered that they shared a keen interest in the works of Edgar Wallace (as witnessed by references in their unpublished correspondence).
It is intriguing to think of Dennis Wheatley helping keep Williams in the public eye in the UK – while in a very different ‘atmosphere’ Eerdmans started to reprint his novels around the same time in the US.
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Interesting info about Wallace – I have wondered what it must have been like for readers of Williams’ generation, grown on the Wallace thriller format and then seeing this “supernatural action thriller” mutation Wheatley brought… and then Williams twisting it around in new directions. I have to say I like the 1970s Eerdmans covers: vaguely psychedelic, but in a way that has aged better than, say, Michael Moorcock covers of the same period.
In picking up R.H. Benson books second-hand where and when I can, I have (if I recall correctly) encountered reprints from the late 1920s – we know both Williams and Lewis knew some of them – I wonder whether some readers might have had a fairly immediate transition from Benson to Williams.
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I just made the acquaintance of Margery Allingham’s novel, Sweet Danger (October 1933), and one strand of it seem to fit in interestingly, here. I’m not sure if we know if this is one of the ones Williams read, but the ‘plot strand’ in question reminds me of the early drafting of what was eventually published by him as Descent into Hell (1937).
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