Charles Williams & Dennis Wheatley: Writing of Dark Forces Part 2

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.

Part 1 described how, in 1936, Charles Williams reviewed Murder Off Miami by Dennis Wheatley. Wheatley ultimately became Britain’s second bestselling author behind Agatha Christie and reissued Williams’ books War in Heaven and The Greater Trumps for The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult.

It’s worth asking why Williams never achieved Wheatley’s success. After all, they were both students of pulp thrillers who “wrote of dark forces.”

They also both had ambiguous relationships with the occult. Williams was Anglo-Catholic but involved in A.E. Waite’s The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. Grevel Lindop’s research in The Third Inkling indicates Williams also belonged to a private group that used the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s rituals.

Biographer Phil Baker shows Wheatley doubted occultists and theism but believed in reincarnation (322, 374). While Wheatley’s thrillers had prefaces warning readers against Satanism, they depicted it as sexy in a forbidden way: the climax usually involved virgins (nearly) defiled in orgiastic ceremonies (Baker 495-496).

Both Wheatley and Williams were fascinated by what C.S. Lewis called “Inner Rings,” rings that informed their lives and fiction. Williams belonged to two occult groups and founded the Companions of the Co-inherence, a Christian discipleship group with mystical practices. Gina Dalfonzo and others have highlighted Williams’ quasi-sexual manipulation of female disciples, how the group’s exclusivity masked Williams’ behavior.

Meanwhile, Williams’ novels are built on what might be the ultimate conspiracy theory: all of humanity is involved in a mysterious network. This network requires we make “substitutions” for the master’s great cause. What is this network? The Co-Inherence: the spiritual ties binding us to each other and to God. Williams’ characters think they only belong to insider communities trying to retrieve the Holy Grail, hide the Stone of Suliman, or whatever. In fact, they can only navigate these supernatural dilemmas when they learn to live within the Co-Inherence, the inner ring containing all humanity.

Wheatley built an “inner ring of two” with Gordon Eric Gordon Tombe, a WWI buddy whom Wheatley credited with educating him about life. The education involved reading the right books (mostly 1890s aesthetes like Oscar Wilde) and learning private slang (ordinary people were “bimina,” women were “oggins”) (Baker 109-111). Wheatley’s bookplate shows Tombe as a satyr talking to a nude Wheatley, seated at Tombe’s feet like a Grecian initiate.

Tombe and Wheatley also engaged in “gentleman thief” activities; an insurance scam gone wrong led to Tombe’s murder in 1922. Wheatley mourned his friend’s death but didn’t take it as a warning of inner rings’ dangers. His novels follow insiders (Wheatley called them “modern musketeers”) fighting insiders (Satanists well-connected to British society). As we shall see, Wheatley’s heroic insiders follow a particular, exclusive ethos.

Despite their shared interests in pulp thrillers, inner rings, and the supernatural, Williams and Wheatley took different directions with their work. Wheatley stayed firmly in the pulp tradition, and his books are more about adventure than spirituality. Since his villains worship Satan, one expects the solution to be Christianity. Instead, Wheatley’s novels depict a Manichean struggle, an “all-out conflict between good and evil” (Baker 332).

For Wheatley, “good” didn’t mean Christianity as much as Edwardian values. His heroes are old-school British conservatives fighting “suspicious foreigners.” There are moments where God sneaks in—a flash flood kills the Satanists in The Haunting of Toby Jugg, thanks to “an inscrutable Providence” (Wheatley 305). Still, Wheatley’s heroes aren’t devout. They fight evil with fists, sacred pendants, hypnotism, and white magic… not exactly orthodox Christian methods. In short, Wheatley’s books are less about theology, more about preserving Olde England.

Williams was interested in Olde England in his own way via his Arthurian poetry. However, his novels have no socio-political agenda, and their theological themes (at least on the surface) seem heterodox. In fact, Williams’ whole approach to thriller novels was heterodox. Generally speaking, the difference between a thriller and a mystery is whether the puzzle or contest matters more. As Georgia E. Brown wrote in Mystery & Suspense, a murder mystery “is usually less concerned with the struggle between good and evil, and more with finding out who committed a particular crime.”

War in Heaven, Williams’ second novel, bridges mystery and thriller. It opens with a body found in a publishing office. The killer’s identity quickly becomes clear, the motive revealed later. While it has mystery elements, Sørina Higgins argues that Williams “departs from the rules that traditionally govern the murder mystery and manipulates the genre to serve his central purpose” (77).

The same can be said about War in Heaven’s use of thriller tropes. As police inspect the murder, an archdeacon visiting the publishing office peruses another manuscript. He finds a shocking reference: the Holy Grail exists, and experts believe it is in his parish.

At this point, Wheatley fans would know what to expect: The archdeacon would race home, arriving in time to see burglars driving away. The archdeacon would take trusted friends across England (with stops on the Continent, maybe Jerusalem) to get the Grail back. Between chapters 1 and 3, someone would give a Grail history lesson. At last, the archdeacon would deduce that the burglars belong to some conspiracy involving Bolsheviks, Kabbalists, breaking the astral dimension, and killing the Prime Minister.

None of this happens. In fact, Williams’ archdeacon is unconcerned. He finds the Grail at his parish, prays that God will trust him with it for now, and puts it back. When his friends worry about the Grail’s fate, the archdeacon says, “when the time comes, He shall dispose as He will” (Williams 180). When Kenneth asks if God wills the Grail-seeking Satanist Gregory Persimmons, the archdeacon replies, “Certainly He wills him… Shall there be evil in the City and I the Lord have not done it?” (ibid).

This “Chestertonian Archdeacon” (Higgins 79) takes Father Brown’s serenity to new levels. He believes so firmly in God’s will that intervention is unnecessary. If War in Heaven is a mystery novel, it’s one where the Father Brown figure believes so firmly in providence, he doesn’t even investigate the crime. If it’s a thriller novel, it’s one where he believes so firmly in providence that he doesn’t even enter the contest against evil. All things are “under the mercy.” Thus, Williams does to thrillers what his friend Dorothy Sayers did to mysteries in Gaudy Night: he breaks the mold, forcing the audience to rethink expectations.

Williams continued to subvert thriller tropes in his later novels, with more complex plots and themes. Since Williams subverts what most readers seek in supernatural thrillers, his books are fascinating but a niche taste.

Wheatley’s approach to thrillers was more conventional than Williams’s, and he got fame and fortune. Given how he merged supernatural material with action thrillers, we wouldn’t have writers like Frank Peretti, comics like Hellboy, or TV shows like Supernatural without Wheatley’s foundation. Some modern writers cite his influence—Neil Gaiman admitted his first issue of The Sandman is essentially a Dennis Wheatley plot.

However, Wheatley’s conventional approach also made him easy to surpass. Ian Fleming borrowed ideas from Wheatley’s Gregory Sallust novels, added a better writing style, and created James Bond. From Mike Mignola to Stephen King, countless horror writers used Wheatley’s occult-meets-adventure formula without his Edwardian snobbery.

While Wheatley may not be classic, his writing provides some things worth studying. He remains an important stepping stone in occult fiction, someone who “virtually invented the public image of Satanism” (Baker 9). Fans of Christian Suspense (particularly This Present Darkness) may be surprised to see how much the genre uses Wheatley’s style and Manichean tropes.

For Inklings studies, Wheatley matters because he shows another side of myth-making. Tolkien, Williams, and Lewis enchanted readers with tales about eucatastrophe and other images from “true myth.” Wheatley enchanted readers with another set of mythic images, taken from Boys’ Own Adventures and national images of Olde England. Somewhere in the back of Boys’ Own Adventures and Olde England was a Judeo-Christian bedrock that Wheatley never understood.

Wheatley’s lack of understanding may explain why, although he fought in the same Great War as Lewis and Tolkien, he missed what Lewis called “The Necessity of Chivalry” (warriors combining bravery and mercy). Wheatley’s adventurous, problematic thrillers show what men without chests look like at the halfway stage, but also hints of romance and sacrifice that show what the genre could become.

Print Sources Cited:

Baker, Phil. The Devil is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley. Dedalus, 2009, pp. 9, 109-111, 322, 332, 374, 495-496.

Higgins, Sørina. “Is a ‘Christian’ Mystery Story Possible? Charles Williams’s War in Heaven as a Generic Case Study,” Mythlore Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 77, 79.

Lewis, C.S. “The Necessity of Chivalry.” Present Concerns by C.S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper. HarperOne, 2017.

Wheatley, Dennis. The Haunting of Toby Jugg. Wordsworth Editions, 2007, pp. 305.

Williams, Charles. War in Heaven. Eerdmans, 1947, pp. 180.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a PhD student in English and Presidential Scholar at Baylor University. She also serves as Chair of the Language and Literature Department at Signum University, online. Her latest publication is an academic essay collection on "The Inklings and King Arthur" (Apocryphile Press, December 2017). Her interests include British Modernism, the Inklings, Arthuriana, theatre, and magic. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina blogs about British poet Charles Williams at The Oddest Inkling, wrote the introduction to a new edition of Williams’s "Taliessin through Logres" (Apocryphile, 2016), and edited Williams’s "The Chapel of the Thorn" (Apocryphile, 2014). As a creative writer, Sørina has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" (2007) and "Caduceus" (2012).
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5 Responses to Charles Williams & Dennis Wheatley: Writing of Dark Forces Part 2

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Wow, what an excellent Second Part! Thank you!

    Among other things, thank you for the reference and link to Gina Dalfonzo and her Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy L. Sayers and C. S. Lewis (2020). I now feel like I may have heard of it and her, but if so, it somehow did not really ‘sink in’ properly. It – and you – get me to think I ought to reread the volume of Sayers’ letters we own and finally get around to reading all the other volumes as well! And finally read the late Jared Lobdell’s edition, The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams, 1930-1935 (2003), too – and brood over the titles in Lois Glenn’s Checklist, in the meantime, to see just who and what he reviewed. What reading did those other interesting friends, Sayers and Williams, have in common – including, how much Wheatley? Was Williams, in War in Heaven, consciously playing with R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke stories where we learn whodunnit early and then see how that is discovered?

    Your saying “Wheatley’s heroes […] fight evil with fists, sacred pendants, hypnotism, and white magic” made me think of August Derleth’s Laban Shrewsbury and his associates in The Trail of Cthulhu, which I found hair-raising and disappointing on account of their analogous methods of fighting the Great Old Ones. I don’t know what Derleth may have thought of Williams or Wheatley (if he read them) but Wheatley’s readiness to reprint Williams compares favorably with Lovecraft’s rather dismissive remarks about his novels: “The Classic Fantasy Novel of an Occult Struggle for the Holy Grail” is a jolly thing to see on the cover of a paperback reprint.

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    • Glad you liked Part 2! I’m pleased that I introduced you to Dalfonzo’s Dorothy and Jack, it’s a wonderful look at the Lewis-Sayers friendship. She’s also edited a volume for Plough Books called The Gospel in Dickens, which I enjoyed. I’m intrigued by your bringing up whether Sayers read Wheatley; Phil Baker suggests that Wheatley’s novel “The Devil Rides Out” fits into the essentially religious Golden Age of Detective Fiction, even though it takes the religious themes in other directions. Given that Sayers edited 3 volumes of “Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror” from 1928-1934, she would have at least read many of the writers who influenced Wheatley, even if she didn’t read his books. I agree, it would be curious to see whether Derleth read Wheatley; he would have been writing in similar markets, just in America instead of the U.K., and seemed to read a bit of everything, so it’s certainly plausible. As you point out, we know Lovecraft read Williams’ novels, therefore it’s possible he mentioned Williams in letters to Derleth. Apparently, Derleth was Roman Catholic (http://www.catholicauthors.com/derleth.html), so he may have been more sympathetic to Williams’ brand of mystical Christian thrillers than Lovecraft was.

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  2. Pingback: Thoughts on Charles Williams & Dennis Wheatley Part 2 – G. Connor Salter

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’ve just learned that there are audiobooks of The Devil Rides Out and of Strange Conflict (1941) read by the late Sir Christopher Lee – I suspect an easy and delightful way to make their acquaintance!

    Like

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