The Devil Rides Out
Author: Dennis Wheatley
Publisher: Prion (GB)
This is one of several novels this year that I will be re-reading and reviewing. This one is probably my all-time favorite satanism volume. I'm not a fan of Dennis Wheatley: the man was way too much of a snob for my taste, and I'm not even a fan of all of his black magic novels, but this particular one is really good for its time. Indeed, Wheatley is just as deserving of the slur aimed and the creator of James Bond ("sex, sadism, and snobbery") as Ian Fleming is. Wheatley just has a little more snobbery and somewhat less sex and sadism, although that latter is arguable. Wheatley himself was an obnoxious and despicable royalist who actually advocated violence and even assassination in protecting the nobility and keeping the lower classes in their place.
This novel is written very much in the tradition of the swashbuckling adventures of some well-known novels which are even older than this one is (this was published in late 1934), and which feature a redoubtable team which is in the end, successful in its quest. There was the Three Musketeers, which strangely featured four guys, Aramis, Athos, D'Artagnon, and Porthos. Bram Stoker Chimed in with Dracula, which featured Jonathan Harker, Arthur Holmwood, Quincey Morris, Wilhelmina Murray, John Seward, and Abraham Van Helsing. In more modern times we've met in comic books and on the silver screen the four Avengers and their side-kicks. And there was of course Frankstein which featured Vic, Tor, Frank, and Stein....
Now comes Wheatley, piling on with his team of Simon Aron, Tanith Carlisle, Marie Eaton, Richard Eaton, Le Duc de Richlieu, and Rex Van Ryn. You might like to note the similarities with Stoker's characters, in that Wheatley brings to the table a nobleman, just as Stoker does, someone of Dutch ancestry, as Stoker does, who is also American, as Stoker does, and a married couple, as Stoker does. I have no idea if this was intentional or simply a coincidence. It's also interesting that a phrase (Gateway to Hell) and a chapter title (The Satanist) from this novel were re-tasked for use as novel titles for future satanic volumes from Wheatley.
The Devil Rides Out begins with a friends' reunion, but there's one person missing. The Duc de Richlieu, his young American friend Rex Van Ryn, and their young English friend, Simon Aron get together once a year for a reunion to celebrate their friendship and their survival of a story told in a previous (non-satanist) novel written by Wheatley (actually, it was his very first novel, a run-away best-seller titled The Forbidden Territory, to which this supernatural volume was a sequel). So this year, Simon has canceled, and neither the Duc nor Rex can understand why he would reject such an important reunion. They decide to visit him to find out why, and that's where things start going south in a hurry.
After mingling with the guests at Simon's "party", the Duc realizes that this is a coven of thirteen - a satanist coven. The way he arrives at this conclusion is through the most appalling bigotry and callousness on the part of Wheatley, by his noting, for example, that a man was missing his right hand, leaving only the left (the path of satanism is the path of the left hand; you know, 'sinister', and other bigoted assumptions). Their leader Damien Mocata, is fat. Another member is albino. Another has a hair lip. In short, the Duc's "assessment" arises solely from Wheatley being downright mean and nasty. You have to either let this go - keeping in mind that while it isn't right, this book was written the better part of a century ago (and Wheatley was a royal snob!), or you have to say no more! The choice I made was that this is fiction and these elements are just as pathetic as the entire idea of satanism and black magic, so I continued to do as I did when I was a naïve young adult myself and I first read this: I let it go for the sake of enjoying the other parts of the novel. So moving right along, then: under the ruse that he would like a minute to see Simon's little observatory up in the roof, the Duc hustles his young friend upstairs where he confirms his suspicions.
Acting precipitously, the Duc knocks Simon out and has Rex carry him out to the car, where they beat a hasty retreat to the Duc's flat. Once there, he hypnotizes Simon, sending him to bed protected by a swastika, which causes Rex consternation, since Simon is Jewish by heritage and apparently practices Judaism. The bizarre thing about that, is that there's a lot of mumbo jumbo about Jesus Christ in this novel, in the context that he is the son of a god, and Simon makes no objection at all to that! I think this is another example of insensitivity of Wheatley's part. He simply cannot grasp that there are other cultures which are at odds with cozy western religious fiction. The Duc explains to Rex that he had no choice in his actions (abducting Simon) once he learned what was at stake here, and Simon wouldn't listen to reason. His plan fails however, as Mocata calls Simon back to him from the Duc's care, and when Rex and the Duc return to Simon's house to recover him, no one is there save for an evil spirit which incarnates in the observatory after the Duc discovers an invaluable and ancient magical tome hidden there. The two of them barely get out with their lives. Now Rex has lost his skepticism!
The next day, Rex is tasked with trying to get a line on Simon's where-abouts by tracking down and chatting up the exotic young Tanith, a woman he met at the party at Simon's, and whom he has seen several times over the preceding couple of years, but only in passing. He manages to lure her out to the Duc's riverside country residence where they spend an afternoon together falling in love, but she cannot tell him where Simon is. She does tell him that she's a clairvoyant, and that she has seen that she has less than a year to live. Her powers are why she is so vitally important to Mocata, and before long, she tricks Rex and steals his car, leaving him stranded. That night is Saint Walburga's night (the original Black Sabbath!), and all of the covens will be meeting in the wild for an orgy and the casting of spells. Fortunately, the Duc has tracked down where it will be held and he heads over there with Rex, still intent upon saving Simon.
The two of them stage what is really a quite dramatic rescue (better than the movie depicts), and the three of them overnight at Stonehenge, supposedly protected from evil by the centuries of worship carried out here. I find that a stretch! Rex and the Duc sit and smoke a cigar (another snobbish trait of the Duc's which is reminiscent of James Bond's obsession with brand names). This seems odd because later they go eat a large breakfast and at the same time send a telegram to their friends, the Eatons, whom they intend to park themselves with, that they must eat no lunch! I don't get this business at all. These are the people who acknowledge Jesus Christ, who drank wine at the last supper, and they telegram their friends not to eat lunch, and later to avoid alcohol, after they themselves have smoked cigars and had a whopping breakfast. And why telegram? The Eatons have a phone! Yes, even successful authors routinely screw up; it's really nothing to be afraid of!
Moving right along, the group show up at the Eatons now tasked with convincing them of what has happened. Simon is wearing the most absurd of outfits, since he had been naked at the sabbat, and the only place Rex could "knock up" was a sports outfitters. Yes, in those days the lackey of a store keeper lived above the store and never had any objection to rich folk yanking(!) them out of bed at ungodly hours so they could ransack his store. Nor was money ever a problem for any character in this entire novel no matter what their circumstances! That simply doesn't remotely explain why he chose such a bizarre collection of clothes. I guess this is Wheatley's idea of a sense of humor? Anyway, Marie Lou is the easiest to convince since she's the most gullible, having been raised amongst outrageously superstitious peasants in Russia. Richard is much more of a hard sell, but the blatantly juvenile tales which Wheatley uses to 'convince' them, is the real joke here. There is a built-in assumption that every oddball and wacky tale of the supernatural is true! The funniest part is that Richard is supposedly the skeptic, but he clearly isn't, since he's making half of the Duc's arguments for him. All of these people in this little team swallow all of this satanist nonsense with barely a hint of skepticism to be found, but I guess this kind of writing worked in the 1930's. Indeed, it still does today in woefully many novels!
The Duc once again vanishes. His plan is to try and get some holy wafers, which would undoubtedly protect them no matter what Mocata did. How a cracker which some deluded people think is the actual body of a dead 2,000 year old Jewish rabbi would be of value is a mystery, but for some reason it takes all day for the Duc to visit one church (where the priest isn't even at home) and procure some supplies. In his absence, Tanith, who did not make it to the sabbat, phones Rex and he runs off to meet her abandoning his team for love! He doesn't return until the next day. Richard is upstairs watching over Simon as he sleeps, and poor Marie is left to face Mocata, who shows up unexpectedly at the house. This is one of the best scenes in the entire novel. In fact, I love this whole next section. Despite being quite an objectionable little man in appearance (so Wheatley tells us), Mocata has oodles of charm, and is in process of hypnotizing Marie just from the power of his voice, until their daughter, Fleur, bursts in unexpectedly and breaks the link, whereupon Marie Lou and her husband throw Mocata out. He tells them that he's not done with them. This scene really creeps me out! It's just as creepy in the movie.
The next part is one of my favorites in any book I've read. While Rex is off, deciding to keep Tanith away from Simon so Mocata cannot use her as a medium to overcome his friends, the Duc returns and draws a double chalk circle on the floor of the octagonal library. Within these two boundaries he draws a pentacle (although frankly, I am not convinced that that is technically feasible, although I've never done the actually geometry) and writes some Latin mumbo-jumbo, drawing some signs from several languages and cultures. Why a Latin phrase is supposed to be more powerful than the same thing said in English (or Hebrew, or Aramaic, for that matter) is a complete mystery not confined to Wheatley. It's common to all novels of this type. The most laughable fiction in the entire Harry Potter series, for example, is that shaking a stick and saying one or two Latin words makes amazing magic happen!
The Duc lights five candles, one at each point of the star, and fills a silver bowl with holy water at each valley. He, Richard, Marie, and Simon are within this protective pentacle. Why it's believed that candles and water and chalk can protect them from evil is a mystery, but apparently it works. It's more of a mystery as to why the Duc doesn't feel that the servants and the couple's young daughter need protection, and it's this which will come back to bite them in the morning.
The night passes amazingly: what's in the novel is much better than what's in the movie. Wheatley definitely does have a flare for the creepy and dramatic in his writing here. The assaults on the circle are creepy, and inventive. they start slowly, almost innocently and culminate in a visit from the Angel of Death himself, who, unlike in the movie, is invisible; his horse is the only thing you can see. The Duc repels this visit by calling out he last two lines of the Sussamma Ritual which must never be used unless the very soul is in peril! If they're that crucial, why are they even part of a whole ritual, and especially why are they the last two lines?! Wheatley describes the effect of uttering these words as putting the four of them into he fourth dimension, which he equates with the sky, since they find themselves looking down on the Eaton's home. Next thing they're back again, and poor Rex arrives with dead Tanith in his arms. She paid the price for Mocata's using her to call up the angel - who of course cannot return without a soul in hand.
Mocata has evidently used the time of their trip into the fourth dimension to kidnap poor Fleur (who is unaccountably named 'Peggy' in the movie, and who is older, for some reason - perhaps because an older girl is easier to film than a much younger one?). Simon talks the Duc into calling Tanith's soul back - not to reanimate her corpse, but to see if her soul will help them to locate Mocata and Fleur. A smokey haze in the form of Tanith appears over her body, and she reveals that Mocata plans on going to France (why, isn't explained), and that he intends to sacrifice Fleur to recall Tanith's soul to her body in the age old law of a life for a life, a soul for a soul. Why any god would set up an idiotic law like that is wisely left unexplored in this novel!
Next comes a chase across Europe, reminiscent of the chase in both Frankenstein and in Dracula, except that these guys are in a small airplane. Just as in Dracula, it culminates in an ancient chapel. As the chase is pursued, Marie dreams she is reading a skin-covered book whilst wearing an "iron circlet" on her head. Nothing useful is made of this until she is able to defeat Mocata when no one can by the simple means of saying (and in English yet! See, it does work!) "They only who Love without Desire shall have power granted to them in the Darkest Hour" (sic) and finishing off by uttering a five syllable word, which Wheatley doesn't share with us. Never was there a more deus ex machina moment in a novel! Suddenly, they're waking up in the pentacle and Rex arrives with Tanith in tow - and she isn't dead, meaning that Mocata must be. The Duc reveals that a Lord of Light has reversed time itself for them all because of that blesséd Sussamma Ritual.
However, despite several issues I have with this novel, I still like this story in general, and consider it one of the best satanist/supernatural/magical novels I've ever read. Some of Wheatley's other such novels are good (I haven't read any of his non-supernatural titles), but I don't feel that any of those come quite up to this standard. This is a worthy read despite its unworthy author!