|The Devil Rides Out;
Century Hutchinson, London, June 1988
I first met Dennis Wheatley approximately twenty-five years ago in the book department at Harrods. He was giving a lecture, which was extremely well-attended, on the subject of ‘Magic and the Supernatural’–on which of course he was an expert. He made it eminently clear during this lecture, as indeed he has in all his books, either as a preface or in the course of the book itself, that when White Magic becomes Black Magic and the occult and supernatural are used as a means of serving Satanic forces, they are immensely dangerous to the mind and soul. As he said many times to me in conversation, Dennis had never participated in any ceremony of any kind, being only too well aware of the great dangers involved. His knowledge was therefore based on a great deal of reading over the years and on many conversations with people who were scholars or writers like himself. Through their knowledge of the ‘left-hand path’, as it is so often called, they were able to affirm how desperately perilous is any study or practice of this Art.
I introduced myself to him after he had given the lecture as someone who had read all his books many, many times and as someone who was absolutely fascinated both by what he had to say and by the manner in which he presented his stories. He was graciousness itself to me and we had a conversation which lasted for about fifteen minutes. At that time I could only speak to him as someone who was a great admirer of his work, and as an actor who had appeared in a fair number of films. To the best of my knowledge, Dennis’ books on the occult and on Satanism had not been transferred to the screen to any great extent, so I remember asking him if I had his permission to approach a film company with regard to the production of one of his books for the screen. He very kindly said that I had carte blanche so to do.
Some years later–I think I’m right in saying it was about 1967–I finally convinced Hammer Films, with whom I had already a close association, to make The Devil Rides Out–probably his most famous book of its kind. For many years it had been extremely difficult for any film company to take the risk of presenting this particular subject on the screen. I think probably this was because of the religious involvement concerned. As it happened, the established Church, indeed the various religions, were only too pleased to have this kind of material filmed, because it clearly demonstrated what an appallingly dangerous thing the practice of Black Magic and Satanism is to the very existence of the soul.
The film was made and was a great success. I am informed that it was presented in the USA under the title of The Devil’s Bride because some executive genius in the distribution company concerned had said that if it were to come out under the title of The Devil Rides Out, the American public could conceivably think it was a Western. No comment necessary. It appeared in this country and in many others under its original title, and in America and possibly in other countries with the alternative version. I am happy to say that Dennis was extremely pleased with the result, and I am fortunate enough to possess a first edition of The Devil Rides Out signed by him with a very kind comment in terms of the film and, indeed, my performance as the Duke de Richleau.
Of course, Dennis Wheatley was considerably more than an immensely popular and widely known story-teller. It is common knowledge that he was involved in many different jobs in his life-time before he became a writer–amongst them that of wine merchant. I know from personal experience, having been to his house many times, that his knowledge of wine was encyclopaedic and his generosity to his guests was unlimited. Furthermore, during the Second World War Dennis worked in Top Secret Intelligence deep in the bowels of Whitehall, and his contributions to the Disinformation Campaign–of such vital importance to the invasion of Europe by the Allied forces–was of great significance. I believe he was involved in the extraordinary story of The Man Who Never Was, which of course is now well known to hundreds of thousands of people, and also in the equally important invasion of Western Europe under the heading of Operation Fortitude. It was he and many like him who, as a very closely knit group, were able to spread false invasion rumours which penetrated the very highest levels of the German command, and led to the saving of literally thousands of lives.
Dennis was a very dear friend of mine and my family’s. Always generous, always kind. I remember once when he invited me to lunch at the St James’s Club, as it was then called, in Piccadilly, that he turned up wearing a teddy-bear coat and a white Homburg which at the time I said made him look exactly like Al Capone. He roared with laughter. He loved the absurd and was a man with enormous humour and great warmth, as all his friends will agree. He was also a man who really loved life. An inveterate traveller. Whenever I met him he’d always been to the ends of the earth for some reason or another and he and his wife, Joan, were global travellers in every sense. I don’t think there was anywhere in the world that Dennis hadn’t visited at one time or another and of course what he saw, what he heard and what he learned became of enormous importance in terms of the books that he wrote.
He is, I suppose, best known for his books on Black Magic, and rightly so, because nobody has written on that subject with such a universal, popular appeal. At one time he was good enough to say to me that I could have the rights to any of his Black Magic novels for nothing. What generosity! Unfortunately, for one reason or another, I was never able to mount a production which would do justice to the other books in this particular genre. Some, of course, would be prohibitively expensive even to this day. Others would require very complicated special effects and, indeed, rather complicated scripts. But I’ve always regretted that, of all the marvellous books that he wrote on this subject, we were only able to present two. (I know of course that many of Wheatley’s books were turned into films before 1967.) The second of Dennis’ films which was made by Hammer was To the Devil a Daughter. I was very disappointed in the result. So was he. I remember saying at the time that there were certain things in this film–particularly during the last five minutes or so–which did not represent the intentions of the author or, indeed, make any kind of sense in terms of a story. I didn’t think that the appearance of a somewhat obscene rubber doll was appropriate and I certainly didn’t think that my own particular death–or ‘disappearance’–was very successful in view of the fact that, as one critic mentioned, it would be straining the bounds of belief to suggest that the Devil could be dismissed by being clunked on the head by a rock. Or in this case a piece of flint. There was another ending shot in which I, as the renegade Satanist, attempting to follow Richard Widmark and Nastassja Kinski through an astral gale, was halted by divine intervention and destroyed when further attempting to cross the circle of blood. I thought this was rather good–and appropriate as the priest concerned fell over backwards in a position of crucifixion, which was an obvious allegory. For reasons of their own, with which I never agreed at the time and still don’t agree, the producers decided otherwise. Consequently, after being struck on the head, I literally vanished from the scene. I think it was this, plus one or two other points in the finished film, that Dennis found inappropriate. I can only say that I entirely agreed with him.
However, I do know, because he told me himself, that The Devil Rides Out was his own special favourite. Watching it the other evening on television I found myself thinking that, good as it was, if we were able to do it with the special effects available today, it would be quite stunning and would have an even greater impact. After all, we’re talking about a difference of twenty-one years and the enormous advances made in the cinema technically and photographically would, I think, justify another production of the same story.
Above all, I am very grateful to have known and to have called Dennis Wheatley a friend. When I read his books I am always amazed at the depth of the background information contained therein. It is customary of course for an author to do his homework and to fine-tune his research, but Dennis–not only in his books about Black Magic, but also in his books about the Second World War with his character Gregory Sallust–somehow makes you feel when you are reading that you are actually in the room, privy to everything that is going on and living the story literally as he describes it. I personally would very much like to make many more of his books into films and so many would warrant this.
It’s many years now since he left us, but I never look across from my own home towards the house he lived in without thinking of him–and that’s nearly every day. I shall always remember the meetings we had, the meals, the bottles of wine–superb of course–that we shared together. To me he is in the line of the great romancers like Arthur Conan Doyle, like Rider Haggard and many, many more. But whereas they perhaps invented a great deal of their subject, Dennis did not. He was very well aware of what he was writing about and, in the case of his books about the supernatural, equally well aware of the dangers involved. I think that all those people who might for one reason or another be inclined to participate in any kind of ceremony belonging to the Other Side, have probably been saved from committing the ultimate folly by reading his books. For my part, I as an actor always tried to present the concepts of Black Magic and Satanism for the true horrors they are. I remember once being approached by an Irish bishop in the steeet near where I lived–which was only a hundred yards from Dennis own home. He said that he and his ‘flock’, as he put it, were enormously impressed by the films because of course in the end, quite rightly, Evil is vanquished and Good triumphs. This, I am convinced, is what Dennis Wheatley was trying to show.
CHRISTOPHER LEE 1988