|Étrange Conflit (Strange Conflict);
Nouvelles éditions Oswald, "NéO Plus fantastique" series № 15, Feb 1988
|A (very) loose translation|
|Did you say Zombie?|
|Goodness is like a black narcissus
at the mercy of evil winds.
"The Way of Shadows is exemplified by the horrible cult of voodoo which appeared for the first time in Madagascar and has kept Africa in its grip for centuries, even spreading, with the slave trade, across the West Indies and contaminating our own country...". So it says in The Devil Rides Out, in a passage which is a premonition of the present work, although written seven years before.
For the reader who has not read Forbidden Territory or The Devil Rides Out, and has therefore [i.e. with this book] discovered Wheatley by chance — although chance is never innocent in the way it arranges things — I can reassure them at once, because our author, with a very British phlegm, puts his cards on the table and explains his business from the first pages, freely repeating himself in order to be better understood. Thus the preamble of Strange Conflict, with its deliberate didacticism and its overtly professorial tone, is exactly based on, or copied from, that of The Devil Rides Out, and we are treated again to a solemn warning, because for Wheatley "to meddle with the occult can lead to madness".
Once again, it is a question of the soul, of the health of the soul or of its eternal damnation, and of the struggle which opposes Good to Evil, the Forces of Light against the Powers of Darkness and Shadow. And the Shadowy can clothe itself in numerous ways: the satanic cult of The Devil Rides Out gives way to the voodoo cult of Strange Conflict, and Mocata, the demonic high priest (Aleister Crowley himself, have no doubt, "The Beast"!) is replaced by... but that's for the reader to discover in following these pages! It is why all history, fantastic or not, is, for Wheatley, the story of a spiritual and esoteric itinerary, the seeking for the Light.
In the course of this preamble, intended to "put the reader in the bath" ["mettre la lecteur dans le bain"; must be a French colloquialism, presumably 'in the picture' or 'story so far'], allusion is made to the preceding adventures of the "Four Musketeers" who are Richleau-Athos, Richard Eaton-d'Artagnan, Simon Aron-Aramis, and Rex Van Ryn-Porthos, recounted in Forbidden Territory and The Devil Rides Out, but also in The Golden Spaniard (unpublished in France). An amusing anecdote: De Richleau mentions that he has been in Poland, where he has had a brush with the Germans, a little while before the real entry into the War. After having read Strange Conflict, English readers sent perplexed letters to Wheatley, asking what he was talking about. They wanted to know what had happened! Thus Wheatley wrote Codeword–Golden Fleece which is set before Strange Conflict, but was written afterwards, in order to satisfy the demand of his avid readers to know the whole saga of the "Modern musketeers". It is a beautiful example of the autonomous life of novelistic characters putting their Creator en demeure to tell their adventures! [behindhand? In a fix? On the spot?]
Strange Conflict appeared in 1941 and was therefore written fully in wartime, which gives it a curious aspect of reality or current events, and in fact it is a tale from day to day, with an "open" ending: who would win the Battle of Britain? Even if the end of the conflict was not in any doubt for Wheatley, since the Duc de Richleau and his friends had vanquished the forces of Darkness. Once again, Wheatley "puts the packet" ("met la paquet") in the novel, and the reader will find there amply his account (compte) [i.e. he really puts the lot in?], as in The Devil Rides Out or Forbidden Territory (a real Tintin in the Land of the Soviets that Hergé would not have been ashamed of!). In place of a Satanic sect, the Duc de Richleau confronts the Nazis who are allied to a sorcerer in Haiti! Everything we want of adventures which are soon delirious — and superb — with incantations, curses cast, pentacles, rituals, zombies and living-dead, certainly, without forgetting some confrontations on the astral plane where Wheatley can unleash his unbridled imagination. This book hits again the vein, the rhythm and the suspense of the best pages of The Devil Rides Out, and the fantastic tale, naturally, is an esoteric itinerary made concrete by the trajectory of our heroes, their voyage and their combat, which they conduct in England and in Haiti. We can see that our author knew when he had hit a good idea when, nearly twenty eight years later, he published They Used Dark Forces, a great fantastic "doorstopper" of five hundred pages, where, this time, it is Hitler who makes appeal to black magic... the last scenes take place in the Fuhrer's bunker just as the Russians are marching into a burning Berlin!
The great originality of the present work resides in its second part, which takes place in Haiti. Did you say zombie? Wheatley puts his heart into it, and the reader has no end of surprises. Houngans, mambos, voodoo sacrifices and ceremonies, it's all there, and more! And a constatation (a sense of verified fact) imposes itself: Wheatley knew of what he spoke, or rather of that which was carefully documented. Having begun to write The Devil Rides Out, he sought to meet some celebrated occultists (Crowley, Summers, Ahmed). This time, he had in his hands the precious book of William Seabrook, The Magic Isle, an irreplaceable testimony about the island of Haiti and the rites of voodoo. It is clear that Wheatley knew this work by heart [he did own it: Blackwells #1906] and that it was abundantly useful, taking whole passages and transposing them onto the novelistic and fantastical plane, in the frame of this Strange Conflict. The procedure is not new, and art "nourishes itself" on reality. Zombies and voodoo rites have always inspired fantastic literature and cinema: we simply cite August Derleth's novel, The House in the Magnolias, the two superb collections of Henry S. Whithead, Jumbee and West India Lights, and the work of Hugh B.Cave, and those among his fantastic novels (you can read The Marble Woman¹ this month!) which cover the voodoo rituals: Haiti : Highroad to Adventure, The Cross on the Drum, The Evil, Shades of Evil, etc. As for the cinema, we must salute Jacques Tourneur's film of genius, I Walked With a Zombie (1943) which really says it all!
And now install yourself in a comfortable armchair, light a cigar, preferably a Hoyo de Monterrey, – perhaps a glass of sherry? – and plunge yourself into this novel of occult espionage which will not loosen its grip on you, because here come the zombies!
23 January 1988.
|1. NéO, coll. « Fantastique/SF/Aventure », n° 205.|