A lot of fascinating books pass unjustly from immense popularity to relative obscurity as time passes. I just finished reading one such book, The Devil Rides Out (1934), by Dennis Wheatley. Wheatley (1897-1977) was an amazingly prolific author who wrote stories in the adventure, mystery, and occult genres. The Devil Rides Out was his sixth book, and is a fascinating hybrid adventure/occult thriller.
The story centers primarily around two men, The Duke de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn, and their attempts to save their friend Simon Aron from the influences and infernal plans of a genuine cult of English Satanists. This is in fact the second story of the three; the first, The Forbidden Territory, was a straightforward adventure story involving Rex’s rescue from a Soviet prison.
The tale starts quickly, and has all the twists, turns, and action-packed scenes typical of classic adventure novels such as The Prisoner of Zenda and The Thirty-Nine Steps. Rex, coming from America to England to visit the Duke, finds that Simon has mysteriously broken off contact. The pair travel to Simon’s house to find a party ongoing, attended by odd and sinister characters – and a lovely woman who Rex is instantly smitten with. The Duke quickly perceives that Simon has fallen under the sway of the black arts, and he and Rex nab him from the party, starting a battle of wits, strength, and powers of light and dark.
Overall, I found the book quite entertaining, though it has more of an adventure feel than horror, in the end. Despite this, there are a number of stunningly chilling scenes, including the interruption of a black mass attended by an inhuman demon, a nighttime vigil against evil spirits and their clever tricks within the protection of a pentagram, and a confrontation against the villainous Satanists within the underground ruins of an ancient Greek temple. The Satanists seek an object of power, and it is interesting to note that the MacGuffin in this case is perhaps the most unusual ever; it’s amazing that Wheatley managed to get away with it, considering the era he was writing.
The major flaw in the book is the inordinate amount of time Wheatley spends explaining the ‘finer points’ of White and Black Magic. The characters spend lots of time arguing for and against the existence of the supernatural, and describing ‘case studies’ that support their argument. I found myself skimming over them as mostly unnecessary, and nearly missed the important one that explains the origin of the aforementioned MacGuffin (hint: it has to do with ancient Egyptian mythology). These long interludes made me impatient to reach the end of the novel.
A lot of the discussions of White and Black Magic seemed completely illogical to the point of breaking suspension of disbelief. It is interesting to note that Wheatley investigated ‘authentic’ black magic, even having an interview with Aleister Crowley! Wheatley seems determined to include everything he had learned in one extended novel.
Overall, though, it is an interesting and entertaining story of supernatural battles of good and evil, and I can recommend it to those who are interested in such tales. I’m planning to read a few more of Wheatley’s occult novels, if I can find them, and will eventually write a ‘horror masters’ post on him.
The Devil Rides Out was actually made into a film by Hammer Horror, starring Christopher Lee as the Duke. I can imagine no one better for the role! As another connection to horror masters, it’s worth noting that the screenplay was written by none other than the incomparable Richard Matheson!