The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley
When I first saw the 1968 horror film “The Devil Rides Out” several years back at one of NYC’s numerous revival theatres, I thought it was one of the best Hammer films that I’d ever seen, and made a mental note to check out Dennis Wheatley‘s 1934 source novel one day. That resolve was further strengthened when I read a very laudatory article by Stephen Volk on the book in Kim Newman and Stephen Jones‘ excellent overview volume Horror: Another 100 Best Books. Now that I have finally read what is generally deemed Wheatley’s most successful and popular novel, I can see the Hammer film for what it is: a watered-down adaptation that can’t hold a Black Mass candle to its superb original. The great Richard Matheson’s screenplay condenses much, simplifies more, excises whole sections and changes the central plot entirely. In short, the book is where the real thrills and chills reside.
In The Devil Rides Out, readers once again meet the Duke de Richleau and his friends Rex Van Ryn (an American), Simon Aron (an English Jew) and Richard & Marie Lou Eaton, whom Wheatley first introduced to the world in his earlier novels Three Inquisitive People and The Forbidden Territory. When Simon comes under the power of a group of Satanists and their Aleister Crowley-like leader, Mocata, the Duke must take quick steps to save his young friend from their sinister hold. Wheatley obviously did a prodigious amount of background research before the writing of this, his first of an eventual nine novels dealing with black magic and the supernatural. He throws reams of information at us dealing with witchcraft, numerology, werepeople, vampires, the undead, seances, Egyptology, Kabbalah, and Crowley’s The Book of the Law. The effect of all this detail is to make the reader really buy into the increasingly evil events and suspend disbelief. As our heroes one by one find their skepticism eroded by the book’s horrifying events, so too is ours.
As in the film, the book’s two main set pieces are the midnight Sabbat (more atmospheric and chilling in the novel, taking place on the Salisbury Plain; not to mention more licentious) and the defense of our heroes within the pentacle as Mocata visits on them one evil conjuration after another. The film’s oversized giant spider in this scene cannot possibly compare to Wheatley’s leprous, sluglike blob creature that leaps, laughs and pulsates. These two passages alone would guarantee Wheatley’s book a place in the horror pantheon, but almost as fine are the scenes dealing with Simon’s party, the initial materialization of the demon in the observatory, a minutely detailed car chase, Mocata’s attempt at hypnotizing Marie Lou and, finally, a breakneck trans-European plane chase, culminating in the crumbling tombs of a Grecian monastery, and a showdown with Mocata for the legendary mummified phallus of Osiris — the Talisman of Set — which will enable its possessor to start a world war. Matheson jettisoned the entire central plot point of the Talisman in his screenplay — unwisely, I feel, as it is necessary for increased suspense and a greater atmosphere of urgency.
Wheatley has been justifiably accused of racism and bigotry in his writings (55 novels over a course of 39 years), but happily, this early novel of his contains no statements that should grate on modern-day PC sensibilities. At worst, he can be accused of some fuzzy writing on occasion, of having his characters lecture at times rather than speak realistically, and of continuously mistaking the word “aesthetic” for “ascetic.” Minor quibbles, indeed, for a book as exciting, innovative and, yes, downright scary as this one. At one point in this longish tale, Rex Van Ryn tells us that his taste in literature tends to “popular novelists who can turn out a good, interesting story.” I think that Rex would have been a fan of Dennis Wheatley, based on that statement. Although enormously popular from the 1930s to the 1960s, Wheatley today seems to be little mentioned, but I for one am going to be seeking out more.
Sounds fantastic! Thanks for the great review!
My pleasure, Brad! And thanks for the kind words, as always!