The Haunting of Toby Jugg by Dennis Wheatley science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Haunting of Toby Jugg by Dennis Wheatley

Although English author Dennis Wheatley wrote a total of 55 novels before his death in 1977, his reputation today, I have a feeling, rests largely on the nine novels that he wrote dealing with the supernatural and the “black arts.” And if Wheatley’s name is not a familiar one to you, it is really no great wonder, as not too many of those 55 titles – mainly in the adventure/thriller genre – are in print today, and it would surprise me if you could walk into your local Barnes & Noble and purchase one. And yet, here’s a cautionary notice to all hugely popular modern-day authors, who may think their fame is of a permanent nature (are you listening, Stephen King?): For many decades, Wheatley was one of Britain’s biggest-selling authors (second only to Agatha Christie), who dependably sold 50 million books a year, even into his final decade. Many of those 55 titles comprised series featuring repeating characters; hence, a Duc de Richleau series (11 titles), a Gregory Sallust series (11 titles), a Roger Brook series (12 titles) and a Molly Fountain series (two titles). All but two of his supernatural outings can be found somewhere in those series. De Richleau featured in The Devil Rides Out (1934), Strange Conflict (1941) and Gateway to Hell (1970); Sallust in They Used Dark Forces (1964); Brook (a French Revolutionary character) in The Irish Witch (1973); and Fountain in To the Devil – A Daughter (1953) and The Satanist (1960). And then there are the two supernatural outings not related to any of the series, The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948) and The Ka of Gifford Hillary (1956). This reader had previously read and loved The Devil Rides Out, and on a whim, decided to give Toby a chance. Originally released as an Anchor Press hardcover in December ’48, this was Wheatley’s third black magic title, and one that Wheatley mentioned in an interview many years later: “Many people say that although there is little action in this tale, it has more suspense than any other occult story I have ever written … [it is] perhaps not as exciting as some of my other occult stories, but a pretty good study of the psychology of fear.” Well spoken, Dennis! I could not agree more!

The book takes the form of a journal being written by Sir Albert Abel “Toby” Jugg, a 20-year-old RAF pilot who was shot down during the Battle of Britain and is now confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. Toby is soon to become, on his 21st birthday, one of the wealthiest men in England, and heir to the Jugg conglomerate of businesses. But when we first encounter him, Toby is a very distraught man. Now convalescing in one of the family estates – Llanferdrack Castle, in a lonely section of central Wales – to escape the German air raids, Toby has been seeing the shadow of what appears to be an octopus, dancing outside his courtyard window in the moonlight. He senses a hellish intent emanating from the infernal whatzit, and pleads with his Czech mentor/tutor/guardian, Helmuth Lisicky, to have him moved to another room, but without avail. Eventually, Toby comes to suspect that a plot might be afoot to drive him mad, and before all is said and done, he uncovers a vast conspiracy involving Satanism, Communism, a giant spider from another dimension, a sinister prep school and an evil fraternal order, all arrayed against him. But paralyzed as he is and marooned in the lonely countryside, what can Toby do to protect himself from these diabolical forces, other than scribble daily entries into his journal?

As touched on earlier, Toby Jugg does not feature as many thrilling sequences as had The Devil Rides Out (probably Wheatley’s best-known book, and one that was turned into a fine Hammer film in 1968, starring Christopher Lee), but yet manages to dish out several exceptionally well-done scenes. In one, Toby is attacked in his room by every spider in Llanferdrack Castle; in another, Toby confronts that monstrous spider from another dimension; and finally, in a thrilling windup that admittedly makes for a literal deus ex machina ending, Toby battles a gathering of some 80 Satanists who are performing a ritual in the ruined castle chapel. The novel even gets a bit Gothic at one point, with Toby’s mad Aunt Sarah wandering the castle corridors, and it is Sarah’s initial appearance that might comprise the book’s single most chilling moment. As Wheatley mentioned, the novel does grow almost unbearably suspenseful as it proceeds, and each one of Toby’s escape attempts is fraught with tension. Toby turns out to be a terrific writer, giving us beautiful detail regarding the book’s many characters, and his short-chapter entries make the reader want to take in another, and then another. Jugg is a very likable character himself, a decent lad trying very hard to hold on to his sanity, and the reader is with him all the way. The book contains any number of genuine surprises (to my amazement, I anticipated early on the one about Toby’s beautiful Aunt Julia), and while I probably should not reveal too much about Helmuth Lisicky’s precise nature, I will say that the emphasis should most certainly be placed on the first syllable of his first name and the second part of his last!

During the course of his book, author Wheatley gets to reveal many of his feelings and opinions regarding such matters as Communism (which he literally equates with the Devil), sexual mores, taxes, unions, and British election policies. Though he was very much a Christian, the author’s Hindu leanings are given an airing here, as are his thoughts on extreme wealth. The book contains many British cultural references and many instances of British slang (“She was still a bit shirty….”), but nothing that some simple Interwebs research will fail to clear up. The novel is also largely free of the anti-Semitic and racist references that Wheatley has often been charged with, although Deb – Toby’s scheming, Communist first nurse – is shown to be a Jewess, and Lisicky himself, quite unnecessarily, is said to have a “dash of Jewish blood.” Other charges that might be fairly leveled against the book are the ease with which Toby masters the art of hypnosis after studying a book on the subject, as well as that “God out of the machine” conclusion. Still, once a reader has bought into the existence of the Devil, then why not God himself? All told, The Haunting of Toby Jugg is a hugely entertaining affair. It was, apparently, made into a BBC TV movie called “The Haunted Airman” in 2006, starring a pre-“Twilight” Robert Pattinson as Toby. I have not seen this film, which supposedly bears little resemblance to its source novel, and urge readers to stick with the Wheatley original. I have a feeling that most of them will strongly agree with Toby’s nurse Sally, who utters these words after reading Toby’s journal: “It is an extraordinary document … I was tremendously impressed….”


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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