PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Cover design: Marie Lane Cover illustration: Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes
For readers of a certain age, the mere mention of the name Dennis Wheatley (born in 1897) summons up images of naked virgins splayed across altars, goats’ heads, chalices of blood and fat men in robes. In a word: satanism. At the height of his career, Wheatley’s chunky paperbacks crammed bookshop shelves: The Devil Rides Out (made into a memorable Hammer film), To the Devil — a Daughter (also a Hammer film), Gateway to Hell. Wheatley wrote in all sorts of genres, from historical romance to science fiction, but it was his satanic novels that really shifted units. By the end of his life, in 1977, he had sold some 50m copies, and was firmly established as Britain’s best-loved occultist.
It might seem reasonable to guess that Wheatley had himself plunged deep into satanist circles, perhaps even been a practising magus like the infamous Aleister Crowley. Well, yes and no, though mostly no. Wheatley was not entirely a calculating cynic, and though he wrote these tales of devilry mainly because he had discovered that they were highly profitable, he also genuinely believed in supernatural forces of some kind. Not, though, quite the kind you might have expected. The heroes of his books, in which good always triumphs over evil at the 11th hour, are usually Christians, and use prayer and the cross as holy weapons, but Wheatley himself privately despised Christianity as a life-hating, killjoy thing. Quite widely read in world religion, he came to a firm belief in reincarnation, and prayed daily to nebulous entities he called the Lords of Light.
As to supernatural encounters, he claimed to have had at least three or four terrifying experiences of evil, including an alarming night when he called on the devil to help him win at cards — and started winning with eerie success; and a grotesque exorcism, at which a black cloud floated out of a possessed woman’s mouth and disappeared into a cold leg of mutton, which began to swarm with maggots. As Phil Baker points out in this first full biography of Wheatley, this last anecdote is suspiciously similar to a tale by RH Benson; and even if Wheatley did not simply lift it from Benson, it is striking that most of his supernatural reminiscences were written in his later years, when he had an image to sustain, and are seldom mentioned in his earlier diaries or notes.
Baker also shows that Wheatley’s apparently profound learning in the black arts was mainly a matter of deft note-taking or good old fashioned plagiarism. Until 1934, when he hit on the fresh idea of combining the traditional spooky tale with lots of car chases and hand-grenade attacks, Wheatley had shown next to no interest in matters occult.
The splash was made with The Devil Rides Out; Wheatley occasionally chafed against being solely identified with devilish romps, but he was a good enough tradesman to recognise a cash cow when he saw one. Sadly, he lived just about long enough to notice that his books were beginning to fall out of popular favour. In more brutal times, his action scenes had started to seem a trifle pallid, not to say corny; and his sex scenes, which helped boost his popularity with adolescents, were no longer raunchy enough. And then there was the matter of his politics. Almost every one of his novels has a generous dollop of right-wing propaganda, cheerful enough in the earlier books, but increasingly rancid in the welfare-state years. It reached the point where Wheatley was seriously proposing that satanism was at the heart of British trade unionism and black militancy.
But this career profile is only part of the story told in Baker’s thoroughly entertaining biography. Wheatley’s life is also the fairly ripping yarn of a young man who, by a combination of industriousness and sheer luck, managed to accomplish his boyish dreams of becoming a wealthy gentleman. His family had done well in the wine trade, and though he yearned for a more aristocratic way of life, for a while he did quite well in the family business, too. He just about scraped a commission in the army for the great war, but for a writer of thrillers, he had a disappointingly placid life: the sole melodramatic event of his early years was the murder of a good friend, Eric Tombe, a fascinating, self-created decadent and con man.
The real adventure of Wheatley’s life came in the second world war, when he worked as an adviser to the War Office. His greatest achievement in this field was the production of a 15,000-word paper entitled The Invasion and Conquest of Britain, an imaginative exercise in what the Nazis were planning, which shook our high command to their boots with its sheer “swinishness”. This was probably Wheatley’s finest hour, though he seems to have made a valuable contribution to other parts of the war effort, too. Baker has uncovered a fascinating episode in which Wheatley produced an anonymous novel aimed at the Islamic nations, calculated to make the faithful distrust all Nazis. What a shame to see this rather gallant, swashbuckling entertainer decline into a sour and vulgar reactionary in his later years; but what fun the old devil gave us in his day.
This biography has surprises as strange and as unexpected as anything in Wheatley's own novels. Meticulously researched, Baker never stifles his material by presenting it as dreary facts, but vividly and deftly creates an entirely credible portrait of Wheatley in the round, with an enviable lightness of style. A book worthy of its subject, and likely to be one of the biographies of the year.
Dennis Wheatley's novels were enormously successful.It is not difficult to see why. He provided clear conflicts of Good and Evil and had a talent for nailing archetypes, coupled with a simple determination to entertain . . . Wheatley is almost forgotten today . . . and one might wonder if there is a case for 609 pages about him. In fact Phil Baker, critically sifting the evidence and placing Wheatley with perfect accuracy in the English class system, makes his case admirably. He provides us with a good story, well told, and plenty of jokes. Wheatley would have been delighted."
In 1966, a young editor named Giles Gordon joined Hutchinson and was handed the latest Dennis Wheatley manuscript. Some streak of devilry made Gordon remove the title page and send it to the publishing house's most intolerant reader. "The book is terribly hackneyed," came the reply, to Gordon's delight. "Above all, [the author] cannot write. Regretfully decline,”
At the time, Wheatley had 55 titles in print, he had sold more than 20 million books and, as Phil Baker, makes clear, he was not writing for the liberal likes of Gordon, whose objections were briskly overruled, but for a more traditionally minded readership. Wheatley's style and values are laid out in the opening pages of his bestselling work The Devil Rides Out, first published in 1934. The central character is the Duc de Richleau, whom we discover in the library of his West End flat, dressed in "a claret-coloured vicuna smoking suit", drinking "wonderful old brandy" and smoking one of the long Hoyos de Monterrey that were "his especial pride".
Discovering that "an age-old evil" is stirring in St John's Wood, he and Rex van Ryn, a "virile and powerful" young American, interrupt a satanic gathering. Among those present is a mandarin "whose slit eyes betrayed a cold, merciless nature", a "fat, oily-looking Babu in a salmon pink turban" and a "red-faced Teuton" with a hare lip. "A most unprepossessing lot," reflects de Richleau, as he defends himself against a mute Madagascan ("a bad black, if ever I saw one").
Wheatley was born in south London in 1897 and, following his expulsion from Dulwich College, was schooled on board HMS Worcester, a naval training ship. Commissioned into an artillery regiment, he had a goodish first world war, picking up women in Richmond Park with his battery commander, Major "Shitty Bill" Inglis, and, in France, wallpapering his billet in a ruined chateau so that it was "really tophole".
Demobilised, Wheatley struck up a friendship with a literate fraudster named Eric Gordon Tombe. Together, the pair lived the fast life, quaffing champagne in nightclubs and enjoying "hectic nights" with women.
Tombe, who would disappear in suspicious circumstances, was one of a number of colourful acquaintances whose exploits Wheatley would draw on when, in 1933, financial crisis led him to try his hand at fiction. Others included Montague Summers, a gay satanist who dressed as a priest and was sexually aroused "only by devout young Catholics"; a black magician named Rollo Ahmed, whose teeth had fallen out after he had "bungled a ritual and failed to master a demon"; and Maxwell Knight, the MI5 spymaster.
Knight was the inspiration for Ian Fleming's M, although, according to Baker, he was not the forceful figure of the James Bond books but a rabidly antisemitic closet queen. Wheatley, by contrast, despite his predilection for racist stereotypes, actively cultivated Jewish friends. Indeed, as Baker perceptively suggests, it may be that to Wheatley, "painfully aware that he was merely middle-class, Jewish company could offer a little holiday from the English class system".
As the years passed, and his books, with titles such as To the Devil a Daughter and They Used Dark Forces achieved huge sales, he grew to resemble one of his own characters, living the "suburban baronial" existence of the smoking-jacketed connoisseur until his death in 1977. At least as interested in politics as occultism, he seeded his novels with ultra-conservative ideals. To describe him as "a covert Platonic shaper of his people's consciousness" may be overstating the old boy's influence, but Baker's exhaustively researched biography is a terrific read.
A treat for anyone whose adolescence was spent greedily devouring novels such as The Devil Rides Out.
The Devil is a Gentleman ... is a brilliantly illuminating biography.
Baker does the old spellbinder proud. Now that several of Wheatley's books are back in print this will serve as an invaluable companion volume.
A Catholic bishop appreciated the film The Devil Rides Out because "Evil is vanquished and Good triumphs". Baker convincingly illuminates the master of the occult novel, because he never inflates his talent.
The pleasure of Baker's biography is in being reminded how daft Wheatley could be ("These birds are out to wreck the old firm of J Bull, Home, Dominions and Colonial"): voodoo Nazis and Satanists; astral projection; a power-mad dwarf smuggling agitators into Britain; a story in which a deep-sea explorer, a young duchess, a Russian count and a "dago" film star are hijacked at sea by a super-crook known as Oxford Kate.
By today's standards, Wheatley is a monument to political incorrectness, but, as Baker notes, the world was at least as daft as he was, with an acquaintance causing a diplomatic incident in Spain as a wartime agent fraternising with German agents while dressed as a woman, and the US government pouring millions into cold war clairvoyant experiments. Star of Ill-Omen (1952) worried about how Argentina's nuclear capabilities might affect Britain's ability to fight for the Falklands. Baker highlights this mind-bogglingly improbable potboiler as the essence of (lesser) Wheatley, in its combination of children's comic strip and adult derangement, like a cross between Dan Dare and, in a scene where insects show black and white films of great moments of human history, the weirdness of French proto-surrealist Raymond Roussel. Wheatley was never literary, but his world of jumbled pulp and esoteric was, in its own way, as distinctive as that of Borges.
He wrote for material success and to ingratiate himself with those he perceived to be his social betters. His father had been a Mayfair vintner who sold fine wines to the aristocracy and royalty of Europe, which gave the young Wheatley a world to aspire to.
A leg up the social ladder came with an officer's commission in the first world war, spent almost entirely away from the front, on courses or sick leave or in the brothels of Amiens. He fell in with a con man, named Tombe, later murdered, who brought him up to speed. ("You know Dennis this orgy business is all very well – in fact it is necessary to me.") Under Tombe's influence Wheatley's reading became racy – sexology and cultured erotica – a taste reflected in his library, which included a first edition of Ulysses ("Ravings of a lunatic possessed of extraordinary erudition").
He was close to fraud when the family business ran into trouble, but under the settling influence of his second wife, and with his libido in check after consulting a clairvoyant, he soon cracked the business of writing, hitting his stride with The Devil Rides Out (1934), which took the brilliant idea of grafting a literature of the occult on to the thriller. With, as Wyndham Lewis put it, so much of Europe having "gone Crime Club", Wheatley produced the perfect formula for the zeitgeist.
At the time he was quasi-fascist and in favour of appeasement, and among his fans was Hermann Goering, who urged him to come and meet the Nazi leaders (although Wheatley's Duke de Richelieu series was not published in Germany because one of its heroes was Jewish). He was recommended as possible gauleiter for north-west London in the event of a German invasion, but, as it turned out, spent the war writing secret, speculative papers for British intelligence. Later on, he contributed to a Foreign Office department for anti-Communist propaganda, producing a pulp novel for the Islamic market.
Like Maugham, Greene and Le Carré, Wheatley's career was influenced by his intelligence contacts, as was that of another writer whose debt to him is nearly always overlooked. Ian Fleming stripped down Wheatley's model to three essentials identified by Cyril Connolly as the winning formula for the Bond series: sex, snobbery and sadism. Wheatley was more a product of censorship than Fleming, but he still managed to appear dangerously well-informed to a gullible (and often young) readership keen for any hints of depravity, as in the masterfully suggestive, "Yet it is not only in Africa that such abominations are practised. A few years ago women were giving themselves up to hideous eroticism with a great carved ebony figure, during Satanic orgies held in a secret temple in Bayswater, London W2."
It was mostly bluff. In his smoking jacket, with his Hoyo de Monterrey cigars and well-stocked cellar, Wheatley was more suburban baronial than the English gent he pretended to be. He ended up being treated as a comic figure. In 1966 Giles Gordon, working for Wheatley's publisher before becoming a literary agent, sent out an unidentified Wheatley manuscript for a reader's report which, predictably, came back saying it was unfit for publication. The joke was on Gordon because, even then, Wheatley could shift 100,000 copies in 10 days. There was also an unlikely friendship with Anthony Powell, who had him down (not unkindly, given how he rated other writers) in the category of "relatively intelligent men who write more or less conscious drivel", but considered him sufficiently skilled to seek plotting advice from.
Phil Baker’s knockout ‘The Devil Is A Gentleman’ gives us the biography of Dennis Wheatley, war propagandist and author of Satanic novels read by millions but loathed by critics.
The nearest that I have ever come to practising Satanism was at the age of sixteen, when I attended what was supposed to be a Black Mass. It was actually a spoof entertainment, devoid of all religious content and designed to spice up a party held by friends from school. What is significant here is that everybody present understood the model that it parodied: the portraits of devil-worship in the novels of Dennis Wheatley.
As Phil Baker explains in The Devil is a Gentleman, this was entirely appropriate, because not only was Wheatley best known for his accounts of black magic, but he was very influential in forming the contemporary public stereotype of it. It is true that he wrote more stories on other subjects, mostly history, espionage and love. He had inherited a family wine business, but broke it through extravagance and turned immediately to writing, which was his natural vocation. In one sense, he did it badly: he could never spell properly, had a poor literary style and committed howlers. His editors weeded out most of these, but one story still made Copenhagen the capital of Sweden. What he provided were superb plots, designed to build and release tension expertly, in wave-like patterns. His characters, though stock, were vivid, the settings luxurious and the historical and cultural backgrounds usually carefully researched. He published on an industrial scale, completing two new books per year in the first half of his long career and one thereafter. His experience of business enabled him to excel at marketing them, and though they never earned him honours from the literary world or the nation, they did make him rich. Baker argues plausibly that, in his range of subjects and the associations that his name evoked, Wheatley was the greatest nonliterary writer in twentieth-century Britain.
To a historian interested in following up its findings, Baker’s book is slightly under-referenced: largely because of an understandable desire to appeal to the widest possible audience, the author provides endnotes for all his quotations but not all his assertions. The arguments and information in the text, however, are excellent, so that a consistent and well-rounded personality is constructed for Wheatley and the sources of his ideas and images carefully traced. Although the whole of his career is explored, and with it all his different kinds of writing, the fullest analysis is saved – quite rightly – for the novels that deal with Satanism in modern Britain. The inspiration and much of the material for these were provided by the revival of interest in occultism in the late Victorian period, which had in turn created the genre of occult fiction. Wheatley was the person who blended this with the format of the thriller, giving it a much larger audience. He thus exerted a powerful influence on, and found an even bigger readership in, the second wave of enthusiasm for the occult in the 1960s.
Baker carefully exposes the traits in Wheatley’s own nature which facilitated this achievement. One was a fascination with sex, which resulted in numerous visits to prostitutes in his youth and the acquisition of a large collection of written and visual erotica. He instinctively associated sexuality with the Devil, making it easy for him to manage a classic puritan double-take in his novels: lushly describing the sexual orgies of Satanists and in particular their sexual degradation of beautiful women, while deploring them and having his heroes rescue his heroines from a similar fate. He also possessed an instinctive belief in a cosmos divided entirely into warring powers of absolute good and evil: a rare case, in modern times, of an adherent to the ancient heresy of the Manichees. Wheatley was never content to keep these beliefs to his novels, for throughout his life as an author he delivered public lectures and broadcasts on the threat posed by Satanism to modern society.
He swiftly amassed a stock repertoire of examples, and Baker has carefully traced every one of these to an older work of fiction. Why, then, was Wheatley so anxious to publicize an imaginary danger? Again Baker provides a full answer: that he always made Satanism stand as a metaphor for the bogies of his embittered brand of politics. His novels portrayed it as the hidden force behind, variously, Communism, Nazism, the trade union movement, avant-garde art and music, and Black Power. Hatred and fear of the working class, non-whites and cultural modernism were his propelling emotions.
Having devoted so much space to the “life”, Baker has only a small amount for the “times”, but that suggests some fascinating lines of future enquiry. One is the link between right-wing politics and occultism in the early twentieth century. Another is that between occultism and post-Christian culture: Wheatley despised Christianity, but his anti-Satanic crusade appropriated its imagery. How far did Wheatley engender the phenomenon that he claimed to oppose? The peak period of his popularity was also that at which forms of Satanism (or behaviour which imitated
it) actually appeared in Britain: my boyhood chums provided one tiny, mocking, echo of a much wider phenomenon. It would be wonderful to hear more from Phil Baker on all three points.
An enthusiastic later user of prostitutes was the novelist Dennis Wheatley. As Ronald Hutton describes in the TLS, he despised Christianity but instinctively associated sex with the Devil. In the words of Wheatley’s new biographer, Phil Baker, this allowed allowed him ”a classic puritan double take” in his novels, lushly describing the orgies of Satanists and their sexual degradation of beautiful women while deploring them and having his heroes rescue his heroines from similar fates. His novels showed Satanism as the hidden force behind communism, avant-garde art, black power, the working class, and everything else he hated. They also made him a very rich man.
It is not only the Hammer films based on Dennis Wheatley’s novels that are full-blooded, sensational entertainment, so was Wheatley’s life, brilliantly evoked by Phil Baker. This gripping biography draws out all the comedy from Wheatley’s history, from his childhood in a family of wine merchants who were dedicated to social climbing (the scrambling for status never left Wheatley either, even in his 70’s he was proudly joining gentlemen’s clubs such as White’s) to his experiences in World War One. Wheatley’s main ambition as a soldier was to join a socially acceptable regiment, but the Westminster Dragoons wouldn’t have him because he couldn’t ride (he claimed that he could but his first time on a horse rather exposed this lie), he was too short for the Artist’s Rifles and so he ended up in the Artillery. He spent most of the War attending training camps and hunting for casual sex (and writing his first, unpublished, novel), before being sent to the Western Front in 1917. A business disaster, along with the Depression, led him to turn his attention to writing novels as a means of escaping penury (an unconventional idea for becoming rich) and after selling 50 million books he succeeded. Wheatley lived on a grand scale, rather like a real-life bon vivant James Bond, of fine dining, expensive wines and even more expensive cigars. Phil Baker captures Wheatley’s personality, the Imperial quality of his racism is comically ridiculous, as well as the lurid extremes of his novels (their occult settings, the constant promise of orgies and threats to virgins).
For such a detailed book The Devil is a Gentleman is astonishingly readable, as page-turning as Wheatley’s own novels.
Any Cop?: A fantastically entertaining biography of one of the most popular writers of the twentieth-century whose work is still part of the public imagination.
I enjoyed this biography. It may not, in the reviewer's cliche, send me rushing back to Wheatley's novels. But I came away with an enhanced understanding of a complex and sociable man whose work epitomised some of the more lurid aspects of British popular taste.
Phil Baker’s The Devil Is a Gentleman recounts the extraordinary life of Britain's most prolific occultist, Dennis Wheatley.
It is lively and full of period evocation. Baker takes an amused, pin-pricking but affectionate stance towards his subject.
Baker’s biography at first astonishes by its length: 600 pages for Dennis Wheatley? The clue is in the title: it is a ‘Life and Times’. Normally this formulation is used by publishers to conceal the wretched inadequacy of a commissioned and paid for ‘Life’. In the case of Baker’s book, however, it is magnificently justified. Wheatley, unusual, overripe and positively fruity by the end, cries out for contextualization. This is provided by an elegant and skilful writer, possessed of an excellent wit which he uses sparingly and only ever to precise effect. Highly sensitive to period, Baker deals with areas such as appeasement and anti-Semitism (not a Wheatley failing) with much more intelligence than is usually encountered.
He, of all people, deserves to come back from the dead and win a new following of thrill-starved souls in thrall tp his dark magic.
Dennis Wheatley was an immensely successful purveyor of popular fiction (The Devil Rides Out, To the Devil , A Daughter, The Satanist) which fell out of favour after his death in 1977. Not quite a gentleman (he came from a family of wine merchants), Wheatley was involved in dubious to the point of criminal activities before he found fame and fortune with a series of over-written thrillers with heroes who could have been the inspiration for James Bond. Phil Baker’s The Devil is a Gentleman is the first biography of Wheatley and is both hefty (700 pages) and engaging. Wheatley comes across as a character out of time, somehow desperately sad.
Wheatley's mixture of sex, sadism, snobbery and Satanism proved irresistible to the reading public.
Here is a masterful account of a writer’s internal and external selves, revealing the degree to which any creative author’s life must necessarily be a work of fiction. Baker as a biographer, frankly, is some kind of God-damned life-archaeologist, approaching the famed occult novelist as a real,seriocomic man who was far more than the sum of his parts. It is difficult to imagine a more sensitive and knowledgeable investigation. Black magic stories? That was the least of it: the reader is left far more astonished by the magic Wheatley wove around his own life, as revealed by Baker. Superb, concise, insightful and sublime.
A biography is often the first sign that a writer is about to re-emerge from the shadowlands of obscurity. It'll take more than that,though, to resurrect Wheatley... As the subject of a biography, though, he's brilliant, and Phil Baker clearly regards him with affection. He recounts some wonderfully funny moments.A plethoira of witty asides, and a cast of nutters beyond anything Wheatley ever invented, add up to a very entertaining read.
it's lively, racy reading throughout. An enjoyable read, especially for those of us who remember all those occult novels as a guilty adolescent pleasure. As David Blundy of the Observer once wrote: "Wheatley has been grappling with the Devil for over thirty years now, and frankly, the Devil's been pretty decent about it.
The war was the high point of Wheatley's life; it's also the high point of Baker's biography.
I did read an excellent biography of Wheatley recently by Phil Baker entitled The Devil is a Gentleman. And despite having very little interest in the man’s writings after the age of 11, I found it an incredibly engrossing read, very instructive about someone who, even though I might have disliked much of the stuff he did, was a very influential writer.
Wheatley wrote fiction in all sorts of genres, but it was his satanic novels that really shifted units; by the end of his life, in 1977, he had sold some 50m copies, and was firmly established as Britain’s best-loved occultist. Baker’s thoroughly entertaining biography shows Wheatley’s apparently profound learning in the black arts was mainly a case of good old-fashioned plagiarism or deft note-taking. But this is only part of the story. Wheatley’s life is also the ripping yarn of a young man who, by industriousness and sheer luck, accomplished his boyish dreams of becoming a wealthy gentleman.
A racy Life of Dennis Wheatley, the bestselling author of 'luxury pulp fiction', credited with making Satanism sexy.
Phil Baker's superb biography, The Devil is a Gentleman, fills in the details and catches Wheatley's breathless appeal.
Dennis Wheatley was an English writer who, from the 1930s through to the 1960s, was one of the best-selling authors in the world, with a series of genre novels which took in historical fiction, war thrillers, and, most famously, the occult, where he put Satanists in smoking jackets in books such as The Devil Rides Out (which was made into one of Hammer’s most effective films of the period). He was also very prolific in his output, content to bang out pot-boilers - rather like a diabolical Barbara Cartland - and consequently any notions that he may have had of achieving literary merit were cast into the pits of hell. This weighty biography, however, is well written and a fascinating study of the man and his circle who indulged themselves in the arts of genteel bigotry, social climbing, class snobbery, the hatred of socialism, and all of those other foibles which made the moneyed, drink-soaked snobs of the 20th century so particularly wretched. Despite its length this is a gripping read, but it’s unlikely to have you rushing to investigate Wheatley’s back catalogue any time soon.
Phil Baker's book, 'The Devil is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley' is a HUGE book. I doubt there will ever be a more perfect biography about the man who was labelled the prince of thriller writers by the critics, but now is largely forgotten.
And on a long train journey, we are given a clue to the Duke's literary tastes: "They settled themselves comfortably on the wide seats, and the Duke took out Norman Douglas's South Wind, which he was reading for the fourth time". There is much more detail about Wheatley and his characters in Phil Baker's excellent biography, The Devil Is a Gentleman."
Phil Baker's exemplary biography
No. of pages: 702
Publication date: 22.09.2011
978 1 907650 32 1
978 1 903517 75 8
978 1 907650 50 5