Toby Jugg has a major problem. Every evening, during the nights of the full moon, a thing of unspeakable evil and unnatural provenance lurks outside of his window, seeking to claim him. He cannot flee, because he was wounded in the Battle of Britain and is now bedridden, paralyzed from the waist down, living in a country house managed by his late father’s estate. He cannot ask anyone for help, because he would seem to be a madman. The force at the window preys on his nerves and saps his will, threatening his very soul.
What follows is a tense battle of wits and wills, making Dennis Wheatley’s The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948 ) a compelling tale of supernatural horror. Some thoughts on the book and its story follow beneath the fold…
I’ve discussed Dennis Wheatley before, in particular describing his first and most famous tale of horror, The Devil Rides Out. Whereas The Devil Rides Out is to a significant extent an adventure story dressed up in horror trapping, The Haunting of Toby Jugg is a pure tale of terror.
Wheatley (1897-1977) is one of those authors, like Richard Marsh, who was immensely popular in his own time but has inexplicably vanished from the popular consciousness. I found one reference to Wheatley online that referred to him as the “Stephen King of his time”, which seems accurate: he wrote dozens of novels during his lifetime and was prolific right up to his death in 1977.
I suspect his work fell out of popularity because it was originally buoyed by one of the popular fears of the time: Satanism! Most, if not all, of Wheatley’s works involve secret societies of Satanists and their dealings with their lord and master. Broadly speaking, it seems that Satanism became somewhat passé as a bugaboo in the late 1980s, and Wheatley’s work was lost along with that fear.
It’s definitely worth a look for horror fans, though. Returning to ‘Haunting, the story is told in the form of Toby’s personal diary, which he begins to write as a catharsis for his fears. This format has its advantages and limitations: the advantage is that it makes the story much more personal, but the disadvantage is that all events described are in the past, which reduces the tension somewhat.
The biggest difficulty I had with the book was its rather overt political moralizing. A significant amount of time is dedicated to lamenting the evils of communism, so much so that for a while I started to cheer on the monster, just to make Toby stop lecturing! The moralizing does have an important point later in the story, but it is done rather heavy-handed for my taste. Wheatley himself was very much a conservative, and even an elitist, and this attitude peeks through often in his writing.
The story also seems somewhat slow-going at first, due to Toby’s detailed descriptions of his family history and past experiences with the supernatural. Again, all of these descriptions are very important later on, but for an attention-deficit reader such as myself I found the early chapters hard to get through.
Once the story does get going, though, it is absolutely compelling. Ordinarily, much of the tension of a horror story is broken when the origin of the threat is explained. In ‘Haunting, however, the explanation of the thing at the window only served to heighten the suspense. In the end, ‘Haunting is a story of cat-and-mouse maneuvering, which leads up to an excellent and satisfying, at least to me, climax.
The Haunting of Toby Jugg is another neglected classic of horror, and well-worth a look; just be prepared for a little bit of preaching!