|Les Vierges de Satan (The Devil Rides Out);
Nouvelles éditions Oswald, "NéO Plus fantastique" series
№'s 120 & 121, Oct 1984
|A (very) loose translation|
On the threshold of the abyss
When someone asked Dennis Wheatley where he drew his knowledge of Black Magic from – since he had never assisted at any occult ceremony – the author of The Haunting of Toby Jugg replied (on BBC 2):
"My material comes largely from deep reading, over many years, but before beginning to write The Devil Rides Out (Les Vierges de Satan) I asked to be introduced to several very celebrated occultists, notably Aleister Crowley, the Reverend Montague Summers, and Rollo Ahmed. Long conversations with them provided me with very valuable material. They also convinced me that to get mixed up with the occult can lead to madness."
There we have our author's singularly clear statement... and these words strongly resemble a warning. For the reader who is in doubt, the following, extracted from the present work, should convince him:
"Then the Duke used his ultimate weapon and did something which must never be done except in the most desperately horrible situations, where the soul itself is in great danger of being lost. With a clear and assured voice, he pronounced the two last lines of the terrifying Sussamma ritual."
Therefore it is a question of the soul... of the health of the soul or of its eternal damnation... and, inevitably, of the struggle which pits Good against Bad, the Forces of Light against the Powers of Darkness. A spiritual and esoteric itinerary which at the same time constitutes the plot and ultimate goal of fantastic fiction.
There is a deliberate didacticism in the first few pages of the book, where Wheatley addresses himself directly to the reader – in the form of Rex – in order to warn him against the dangers of Black Magic and show him the Way to be followed. From there on, equally, the supernatural and esoteric themes that one finds plentifully in the book continue, so it comes to resemble an encyclopaedia of the Occult. Consider this to be getting on with:
Satanic sect, demonic initiation, Sabbat with orgy, apparition of Goat of Mendes, conjurations, incantations of all kinds, the throwing of curses, demons, rituals of protection, the pentacle, hypnotism, invisible influences, a night spent at Stonehenge, the Angel of Death on horseback, the living dead, necromancy, the Black Mass, human sacrifices, Lords of Light, reincarnation, the fourth Dimension and distortion of time, the Talisman of Set with the History of Osiris, esoteric, religious and philosophical doctrine (with some astonishing announcements)... and this list is far from being complete!
As one might put it vulgarly, Wheatley "a mis le paquet" – gives us the works, everything but the kitchen sink – and the reader and enthusiast of supernatural fiction will get plenty out of The Devil Rides Out, without doubt Wheatley's masterpiece. For other readers, already well-versed in the arcane and esoteric, this book will also be fruitful and thrilling – even if certain theories of Wheatley are not to be taken as orthodox!
Wheatley took it all very seriously, but this did not prevent him having a sense of humour – fortunately! – as one can see on certain pages. The Fantastic [i.e. supernatural fiction] is only a sprinkling of his whole work: ten or so books among the eighty that he wrote. Eighty books selling more than five million copies around the world, remember!
Wheatley tried numerous genres: the supernatural of course, and espionage, mysteries, historical fictions, as well as non-fiction on Satanism (The Devil and all his Works), short stories, autobiography and memoirs. He has four main characters, whose story he tells in numerous volumes: Gregory Sallust (eleven spy stories, of which above all They Used Dark Forces is crazily occult... Hitler and Black Magic!) Julian Day (three books, notably The Sword of Fate), Roger Brook (twelve historical novels, notably the occult novel The Irish Witch) and the Duc de Richleau (a dozen works of which only three are occult: The Devil Rides Out, Strange Conflict and Gateway to Hell, all of a set!). And he wrote a novel which is entitled The Satanist – that's occult fiction, and no mistake!
The series dedicated to the Duke de Richleau particularly interests us, since Wheatley returned to it all through his career: the first volume of the saga, Forbidden Territory (forthcoming from NeO!) appeared in 1933, and the last, Gateway to Hell, in 1970. In between, nine other works appeared, dedicated to the adventures of the 'Modern Musketeers'. In effect, Wheatley deliberately took the characters of Alexandre Dumas as inspiration for his series of spy/adventure/occult books, who are: Richleau – Athos, Richard Eaton – d'Artagnan, Simon Aron – Aramis, and Rex Van Ryn – Porthos. Oddly enough, these four characters meet each other for the first time in the novel Three Inquisitive People, which appeared in ... 1940, seven years after The Forbidden Territory, the first volume of the series! This is explained by the fact that this book, written in 1930, waited ten years before being published (by the wish of Wheatley or his editors?) The other episodes of the saga were published between 1938 (The Golden Spaniard) and 1965 (Dangerous Inheritance). All these mention some details of other action-packed adventures, which are given – diabolically! – in order to get the reader salivating, keen to plunge himself further into the work of Wheatley...
Strange Conflict – which appeared in 1941, and was therefore written in full war – recounts the story of the Duc de Richleau and his friends against the Nazis who are in league with... a voodoo sorcerer in Haiti! It gives us all the delirious adventures that we like – with incantations, the throwing of curses, zombies of course!, and confrontations on the astral plane – for more than 300 pages! This book hits once more the same vein, the rhythm and the suspense of the best pages of The Devil Rides Out; moreover, by way of a preamble, Wheatley again puts in the Duc de Richleau's didactic explanation about the Esoteric Doctrine which figured at the start of Vierges... word for word! He is, as always, concerned to warn the reader, above all when Satan wears the character ... of Hitler! We can bet that the reader will very soon be savouring again the new adventures of these 'Modern Musketeers', the Duke de Richleau at their head, lover of Hoyo de Monterrey cigars, good living and luxury hotels (the Ritz in the present volume, when he is staying with some relish in Paris). Wheatley certainly seems to have identified himself – at least in part – with this distinguished aristocrat, the English ideal of "old-fashioned", who uses, when faced with the Powers of Darkness, equally supernatural weapons. Saiiitii, the Sussamma Ritual, the pentacle and the rituals of protection... all that recalls Carnacki, the "supernatural detective" of William Hope Hodgson! I am not labouring the point... in adding that Wheatley set himself to tell – almost – the entire life of the Duke... from the age of 18 years (in 1894) in his first adventure, right up to his death (novelistic) in 1960, at the age of 85! A longevity which strongly resembles that of Wheatley himself! So, quite naturally, life imitates art, it's well known!
For once, for a change, the Terence Fisher Film superbly recaptures the ambience of the Wheatley novel, excellently adapted by Richard Matheson, with – as its main actors – Christopher Lee (de Richleau) and Charles Gray (Mocata). "One of the finest modern treatments of the irrational and the casting of spells", write Raymond Lefevre and Roland Lacourbe, in Thirty Years of British Cinema (Editions Cinema 76). Of the end of the film, Roland Lacourbe wrote (in Cinema 69, no.140, November 1969): "We are not going to forget that astonishing night of terror in the library cleared of furniture, where the five friends, protected by the traditional Magic circle traced in chalk on the floor, uphold an arduous siege against the powers of Hell...we are led flat-footed into a parallel universe where what is Unknown to the mass of mortals becomes here the logical manifestation of certain practices with strictly established rules." A magnificent definition which applies – even more strongly – to the marvels in the Wheatley novel. We may equally recall the work of Stephane Bourgoin devoted to Terence Fisher, from Edilig [a French publisher] in the Filmo series no.7, in 1984, and cite, to end this long (but necessary) cinematographic digression, two other films (English) adapted from Wheatley novels: Le peuple des abimes directed by Michael Carreras (The Lost Continent, 1968, after Uncharted Seas, which has a very Hodgsonian atmosphere in its best moments) and To The Devil... A Daughter directed by Peter Sykes (1975, undistributed in France, after the novel of the same name, with... Christopher Lee!)
One final warning: when Jean-Claude Laties published this book for the first time in France, in 1973, it was a complete failure. So, this time, don't let it happen again! That would deprive you for ever of discovering the rest of Wheatley's output, which is enormous! But I am sure that, from the first pages, you will be spellbound – like the victims of Mocata – and you will submit to the magic of the words, the delirious logic and the consummate art of Wheatley. You are on the threshold of the abyss... so now, watch out, and jump!
19th September 1984.