La Decouverte de l'Atlantide (They Found Atlantis);
Nouvelles éditions Oswald, "NéO Plus fantastique" series
№ 101
, Feb 1984
A (very) loose translation

Rediscover Wheatley

There is a Dennis Wheatley mystery. Because at the end of the day, I admit that Mediterranean and Anglo-Saxon sensibilities do not always agree, but to go from there to despising, as we do, a writer of the range of Wheatley, when he has the status of a veritable institution in Anglophone countries, is a tremendous abyss. Consider that in England, a few years ago now, when they wanted to sell Gaston Leroux, Bram Stoker and other writers of the same genre, they were linked with Wheatley, whose name appeared in larger letters on the cover of the book than that of the author concerned. Consider also that the printings and sales of his best titles tot up millions of volumes and that his most celebrated novel, "The Devil Rides Out", long ago broke the barrier of 2 million copies sold! However, when JC Lattes published a French translation in 1973, under the title of "The Virgins of Satan", it was a total failure. French critics and readers gave the cold shoulder to this book (from which Terence Fisher had nevertheless made one of his best films in 1968) with a touching unanimity. A little time afterwards, JB Baronian published another Wheatley novel in French in the Marabout collection "The Haunting of Toby Jugg". If the experiment had proved successful, the Marabout Library would without doubt have welcomed the whole series of Wheatley's "Black Magic Tales". But there still, the French remained unmoved and that was that. Since then, no-one else has risked translating Wheatley with the exception of Ramsay and his fictional "Crime Dossiers" which occupy a very particular place in the work of our author. And it is a great pity...

Yes, it is a pity, because it deprives us, quite simply, of the prose of one of the greatest popular story-tellers of the century, worthy heir of Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, and Stevenson.

Born in London on 8 January 1897, Dennis Yates Wheatley was the son of a wine merchant named Albert David Wheatley, for whom this only son had a fixed destiny in following him into the family business. The fact is that after having served in the capacity of cadet on HMS Worcester from 1908 to 1912, the young man rejoined the family trade, where the arcana and mysteries of the wine merchant were unfolded to him. But this was to count without Destiny, which, with the sole aim of turning Dennis from the path his father had chosen for him, caused WW1 to break out in 1914. Aged 17, Wheatley became a sublieutenant in the ranks of the brand new "Brigade of the Second Line" belonging to the first "City of Royal Field Artillery" [sic]. Sent to France in 1917, he was seriously gassed in 1918 and had to be discharged from his military duties. Back in civilian life he picked up work again at the family firm but something had taken place during those war years, something that was going to palpably turn his world upside down: Wheatley had caught the writing bug.

He began by several novels that would not be published until many years later and continued to sell wine but with less and less conviction. At the same time, that is to say, in the course of the 1920s, he married, had a son, (Anthony) divorced, then remarried a woman who was already a mother of four children. All of this would be no more than anecdote if that second marriage had not coincided with one of the gravest periods of Wheatley's existence. The fact of it was, he was on the brink of bankruptcy. It was then, at the beginning of the 1930s that, to pay his debts, he set himself to writing for real and definitively quit the barrels and bottles to the profit of the typewriter. The first of his books was "The Forbidden Territory". It appeared in 1933, scored an immense success and was adapted for the cinema in 1934. Initially, it was Hitchcock himself who was supposed to take charge of the adaptation but chance and contracts decided otherwise. The rights had been bought by a company for which Hitchcock no longer worked and the company he had had just joined refused to let him make the film. Thus it was Phil Rosen, a Hollywood Stakhanovite making films since 1916, who replaced him, to the great frustration of Wheatley, who would have far preferred the first set up. The tribulations of our author do not end there. Gerald du Maurier, who had accepted the role of Sir Charles Farringdon, the hero of "Forbidden Territory", died just before the shooting began. A call was made to Ronald Squire to take his place, but Squire, an actor who specialised in comedies, was entirely unsuitable for the role which had been entrusted to him! Despite these handicaps, the film had an honourable career, and its release in France inspired Gallimard to translate the novel that inspired it.

In the course of the same year, 1933, two other Wheatley books appeared, but it was in 1934 that his most famous and perhaps most successful novel came out, "The Devil Rides Out" ("The Virgins of Satan"). First of a long series devoted to the supernatural and black magic, this book had the distinction of resting on extremely precise and rigorous documentation. Never, in all likelihood, has fantasy literature given so many details of the rituals and the philosophy of Satanism. To get to this point, Wheatley had made friends with the majority of the great figures of the Occult of his era and had organised at his house a dinner party which brought together such personages as Aleister Crowley, Rev Montague Summers, Rollo Ahmed and Harry Price [not true]. He wanted a nerve to do it, you might say. Nevertheless, it must be said that the dinner bore fruit because when the book appeared, enthusiastic critics wrote that it was the best thing done in the genre since Dracula.

In spite of this success, Wheatley did not confine himself to the fantastic. His oeuvre, comprising around 80 novels and several hundred novellas [? is M. Riche just making this up as he goes along ?], is certainly that of a great popular novelist who wanted to explore all the highways and byways of literature: history, mystery, espionage... and even science fiction. For this latter genre, it seems that one theme especially claimed his attention, that of lost worlds and vanished continents. Five novels are devoted to this theme, of which "The Discovery of Atlantis" was the first volley of a mini-series, made up of two volumes, the second entitled "The Man Who Missed The War" (1945)

Like "The Devil Rides Out", "The Discovery of Atlantis" rests on a precise and abundant documentation, but the body of information which Wheatley deploys had already inspired many of his fellow novelists at the time the novel was published. The reader would probably have little difficulty in deciphering the traces left by certain of his confreres in the authors imagination, and no one will be surprised to learn that DW was a great admirer of Conan Doyle among others.

Nevertheless, Wheatley has his own style. And his own ideas. Ah, Wheatley's ideas! It is these, without doubt, that have put the kybosh [literal French more like 'put the brakes on'] on the export of his success. It has to be said that from a strictly philosophical point of view, he never went in for lace-making [presumably means he wasn't delicate or hair-splitting] and likewise, he never sought to conceal his sympathy for all that is situated on the far right of the political field. In "Toby Jugg the Possessed", for example, Satanists and Communists are one and the the same group of people, and the Russian Revolution is explained by the intervention of the Prince of Darkness! This is only one example. There are many others. This clearly has its funny side, but in 1974, when the book appeared in France, fantasy fans had little taste for this kind of humour. Thus the reception this book received, although its only flaw, fundamentally, was to express openly a problem that gothic fantasy novelists generally strive to brush under the carpet....

Times have changed. The ideological [depistage – diagnosis / test?] that for so long took the place of a critical approach for fans of fantasy literatures, has long gone up in smoke. The ridiculousness and sterility of this approach ended by getting the better of it and now we can take part in a lucid revaluation of the story. Thus the moment has perhaps come for us to rediscover Wheatley.

Dead in 1977, he was hardly to know a French readership except through his fictional "Judicial Dossiers", published by Ramsay (the Prentice Affair or Murder off Miami). Who, among the readers and critics excited by these dossiers, would know that they have in their author – and inventor – one of the greatest popular novelists of our time, a worthy successor of Conan Doyle or Rider Haggard? And who, among these enthusiasts, has heard of characters such as the Duke de Richeleau, Roger Brook, Julian Day or Gregory Sallust, heroes whose notoriety approaches, for the British, that of a Sherlock Holmes or an Allan Quatermain. Come on, there's an whole oeuvre waiting for us, dense, immense, teeming and disconcerting. It is time that Francophone aficionados of adventure novels and fantastic stories took heed of his existence. If only so as not to die stupid.

Daniel Riche.