‘The Ghost Hunters’ by Peter Underwood, (Robert Hale, London, 1985), Chapter 7, pp.120-133
reproduced here by kind permission of the author
7. Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977)
Dennis Wheatley, 'the Prince of Thriller Writers', may be widely known for his many best-selling fictional stories of adventure, history and black magic but he was also very seriously interested in the possibility of ghostly appearances, stemming from an experience he had as a boy, and if he cannot be regarded as a typical ghost hunter, he quietly pursued his interest in the subject for most of his life. No book about ghost hunters would be complete without including something of his quest for knowledge in the twilight world of the unseen.
I vividly recall the first time I met Dennis Wheatley, in 1960. A delightful man with charming manners, considerable gifts as a conversationalist and enormous energy – he once produced a book of 172,000 words in seven weeks – considerable self-confidence and remarkable resourcefulness (who else would have thought of paying for his honeymoon by selling a classic of pornography to a woman friend?), he was indeed a man of many parts.
My memory of that visit, aided by my notes, is still clear. It was a wet day when I travelled through the New Forest to Grove Place, Lymington, at that time the delightful Georgian home of successful Dennis Wheatley. His butler (hired for the day) showed me into the enormous book-lined study-cum-drawing-room.
Dennis himself greeted me, a colourful figure in brilliant multi-coloured silk smoking jacket, pale blue open-necked shirt, light oatmeal trousers, coloured socks and beautiful light brown shoes. A stocky figure with greying hair parted neatly down the centre, a large nose and ruddy complexion, this worldly man of great charm introduced me to his wife Joan and made me comfortable with a wonderfully mellow sherry beside the great fireplace. Mrs Wheatley, I learned, enjoyed gardening, needlework and good thrillers – she read five or six each week at that time – and sitting quietly beside the fireplace as we chatted, she seemed the perfect wife of a perfect thriller writer.
Dennis started his literary career at an early age: while still at school he was entertaining his dormitory companions with his made-up serial stories, full, even in those days, of vivid and startling adventures. He was soon reading the current works of the masters of his future craft and not many years later he was writing literary interviews, book reviews and articles. The only son of a wine merchant, Albert David Wheatley, and Florence Elizabeth Harriet Baker he entered the family wine business at sixteen. At thirty-four he was a successful wine merchant in his own right and director of several companies. Then he turned to writing as a profession, but in 1960 he was still an experienced hand at making cherry brandy and nectarine and tangerine gin, sometimes from fruit from his orchard, the trees trained against the many walls in the two-acre garden.
Dennis's first book was written in off-duty hours while he was in the Mayfair wine business. He had been reading a thriller and said as he put it down: 'Absolute rubbish – I could write a better thriller myself.' His wife had said: 'Well, why don't you?' The Forbidden Territory (with jacket designed by Joan Wheatley) was published in 1933 and later filmed; it quickly established him in the front rank of best-seller fiction writers, and within seven weeks that first book had sold seven editions! He went on to write more than forty best-sellers, his sales averaging half a million copies a year, his total sales in the region of fifteen million, and he never knew a literary setback. Well might he have told me, with characteristic (mock) modesty and with rare understatement: 'I suppose you can call me a success.' The constant demand for his works can be judged by the fact that every one of his books is still in print.
It was the Times Literary Supplement which pinned onto Dennis the tag that stuck for the rest of his life: 'Prince of Thriller Writers', a term which he was inordinately proud of and which he justified every time he wrote a new thriller – which was something like once a year until 1976 when, having written the final novel in his Roger Brook series, he decided to write no more fiction but to endeavour to complete his memoirs, which he did, though he did not live to see publication of the final volume. I am sure he would have been delighted by the words on the tombstone of his grave in Brookwood Cemetery: 'Dennis Wheatley 8.1.97 – 10.11.77 "Prince of Thriller Writers" RIP.'
Witchcraft was one of Wheatley's favourite subjects, and his books based on that subject sold prodigiously; indeed he told me that his books brought him between £5,000 and £10,000 each. His publishing income was derived entirely from the printed word; writing for films, radio or television would only have meant his having to pay enormous sums in income tax. He treated the subject of the occult cautiously and carefully, turning out one book on the subject every four years – and not from first-hand knowledge, he was careful to add! 'I've never attended any magical ceremony in my life,' he told me. 'Although by all accounts there is plenty of black magic practised at the present time. I don't intend ever to play a personal part in the subject; I am convinced that it can be dangerous.' Perhaps this conviction is the cause of the mounting tensions and convincing air of danger that pervade his stories of Satanism and devil worship. He was an acknowledged master of stories about black magic, and John Dickson Carr chose his story The Snake for inclusion in the anthology he edited entitled Best Black Magic Stories. The authenticity of these stories is what puzzles readers who have some knowledge of the subject, but Wheatley told me, as he told everyone else: 'I've never dabbled in black magic. Whatever you want to know, someone has written about it.' And if a book was authoritative, authentic and informative on some out-of-the-way subject, I discovered, it would be found in Dennis Wheatley's library of some four thousand books at Grove Place, a library which he sold when he and Joan moved from Lymington to London.
Although Dennis always said that he had never been present at a magical or occult ceremony of any kind or even at a séance, this was not strictly true. In my autobiography, No Common Task, I recount one 'occult' ceremony that he told me about, and there was another occasion where the full story has never been told.
That first occult ceremony, as he called it, took place in Wales, at Trelyden Hall near Welshpool, the home of long-standing friends of the Wheatleys, Charles and Joan Beatty, or Joan Grant as she is better known. It was a pleasant, rambling old house where Charles Beatty practised magic rituals and strange rites which included what he called a Ceremony of the Roses, one magical ceremony that Joan and Dennis Wheatley did witness.
The rose is, of course, a very ancient magical symbol, and those curious practitioners of the occult arts known as the Brethren of the Rosy Cross, or Rosicrucians, took for their badge or chief symbol a rose – and combined it with a cross. The rose was the symbol of Venus, the goddess of erotic love, and legend has it that the origin of the rose can be found in the blood of Venus, when wounded by Cupid's dart. The rose was also the symbol of secrecy.
Dennis told me that what interested him most during the Ceremony of the Roses as practised by Joan and Charles Beatty, apart from the obviously erotic element, was the element of power that pervaded Charles during his performance of the ceremony. Dennis knew Aleister Crowley and he thought that Crowley had really succeeded on at least one occasion in raising Pan; he told me about one incident that had convinced him that Crowley possessed or could conjure up occult power.
While still an undergraduate at Cambridge, Crowley was already deeply interested in the occult sciences, and he was very keen to get the university dramatic society to put on a play by Aristophanes, during the course of which he intended to perform some authentic spells. When the Master of John's College refused to allow any such thing, Crowley was annoyed. He manufactured a wax figure of the Master and, with a coven he had formed among his friends at the university, he created the atmosphere, chanted a spell and was preparing to thrust a large needle into the image when one of his friends lost his nerve, broke the circle and grabbed Crowley's arm. The deflected needle pierced the ankle of the image, and the circle broke up in disarray. Next day the Master did not appear and he was incapacitated for weeks with a broken ankle. Whatever the explanation of that particular incident, which Dennis had heard from several different sources – and it was put about that the Master had fallen down some steps – Dennis sensed in Crowley a sensuous and hidden power that he now recognized in Charles Beatty. Whether it was because of the mumbo-jumbo associated with him or in spite of it, it made a deep impression on Dennis and he believed some people did possess a hidden power that could be used for good or for evil purposes.
That Ceremony of the Roses that he and Joan witnessed was held in a darkened room, with light concentrated on a sofa covered with black velvet and sprinkled with rose petals. Joan Beatty entered wearing a long cloak fastened at the neck with a silver clasp in the shape of a rose. Charles, also wearing a long dark cloak proceeded to address Joan and shower her with rose petals from a huge bowl on a table at the side of the sofa; after making various passes with a sword and speaking quietly to her, he seemed to put her into some kind of trance.
In the otherwise dead silence Charles continued quietly to issue commands to her and she appeared to writhe and breathe deeply as he continued his abjurations and then, after a few more passes with his sword and sprinkling with rose petals, she raised one hand as though in a dream and unclasped her cloak; when it dropped to the floor, it revealed that she was completely naked. She raised her hands above her head, looked upwards as directed by her husband and, as she stood there, like a statue, Charles flicked more rosewater and rose petals all over her body, which was denuded of all body hair. When her body was glistening and quivering in ecstasy, he led her to the sofa, where she lay in an abandoned position. He anointed her whole body with some aromatic oil until she appeared to be in an ecstatic condition, writhing and contorting her body sensually in tune with the administration of his hands. The tension mounted as she stretched and raised herself to meet his hands as they stroked and darted all over her body; soon his lips replaced his hands and eventually Joan reached and passed a fever pitch of excitement. As she became calmer and lay as though asleep but with her eyes open, Charles ceased to touch her and after making a number of passes over her inert body, in a low, monotonous voice he commanded her to speak – or could it all have been in Dennis's vivid imagination?
She talked, Dennis told me, as though she was in a previous incarnation, in ancient Egypt in fact, and the Wheatleys listened fascinated as Charles took down every word she uttered. He seemed obsessed with traditional occult symbolism and ceremonies, and it seemed to Dennis that his concentration and power influenced whatever powers were abroad that night. Joan Beatty spoke in every way as though she were living in Egypt centuries ago, and the Wheatleys never forgot that strange and striking ceremony. Dennis in particular was certain that some kind of power that was not of this world flowed between Charles and his wife that night, and he not only used some of the rituals and ideas that he witnessed that night in future books but also became very aware that reincarnation could well be a fact.
The second occult ceremony which Dennis used to say he almost witnessed took place in the 1950s on the occasion of the Wheatleys' first visit to Brazil, where Dennis obtained a great deal of background information for his last Gregory Sallust novel, The White Witch of the South Seas. On the evening of their first day in the country, a friend, Tony Wellington, arranged for them to attend a Macumba or Umbanda, a ritualistic Brazilian religion which worships West African gods, the ceremonies involving drumming, dancing and apparent possession by means of communicating with Voodoo gods.
Tony Wellington was a member of the British Embassy staff and he arranged for the Wheatleys to have a police escort in case they were discovered and set upon by the worshippers as not being members of the cult; their white skins alone would mean nothing, as thousands of rich white people in Brazil worshipped the Voodoo gods.
Tony and his wife, Joan and Dennis, two policemen and two policewomen made up the party, and they drove several miles into the country and into a dark forest. There they left the two cars they were travelling in and proceeded on foot through the trees and up a narrow stairway composed of short boards kept in place by pegs on which hung the bodies of a number of chickens, their heads missing. Eventually they arrived at a plateau with tiers of benches on two sides and at one end a Voodoo altar containing fruit, flowers and crude pictures of saints.
Here the women were separated from the men, and when the place was filled with hundreds of people, the ceremony began. An old white-haired Negro smoking marijuana led a shuffling dance followed by a string of girls who linked arms, formed a circle and swayed backwards and forwards to the rhythm of drumming. At this point Dennis usually said that a downpour of rain caused all the participants to run for cover and so they never witnessed any occult ceremony or manifestation, but he told me that in fact the ceremony was well under way before the rain began.
The drumming had increased to a tremendous pitch and when the old Negro retired to a position beside the altar, the girls' dancing became more and more abandoned. Then a sinewy young negro, tall and slim and naked, bounded into the centre of the circle and proceeded to dance and spring into the air to the obvious delight of the circle of girls, whose light frocks and skirts were soon thrown away as the heat and excitement of the ceremony affected each of them. Suddenly the male dancer stopped dead, as motionless as a statue. The drumming faded away to a dull throbbing, the dancing girls came to a standstill and they watched as he ran his hands up and down his gleaming body as he strutted round and round within the circle of girls, a rampant cock of the roost. After making the rounds of the circle several times, he became supple and alluring, then jerked his body erect, tense and thrusting as he responded to the renewed crescendo of the drums and the delighted clapping of the girls.
Soon the drumming ceased again and a young Negress, completely naked, ran into the circle and began to dance. The drums began again, this time in an unchanging monotone, and the girl danced, her eyes fixed in a sightless stare. She broke out of the circle and made her way towards the old Negro beside the altar and there danced before him, almost touching him and inhaling the smoke from his pipe; then she made her way towards the rows of chanting men – now dancing and stamping to the rhythm of the drums, now completely motionless, her arms high and legs apart, panting in the moonlight.
Back into the circle of girls a live black cock was handed to her. She raised it high above her head and then, holding the terrified bird at arm's length, she began to turn, faster and faster; she swung the cock by its legs; faster and faster she whirled in frantic ecstasy. The drums rose to a shattering finale, the girl was suddenly motionless and the dying cock twisted its neck convulsively and crowed before it died. And then the rains came and everyone ran for cover.
It was a scene which Dennis was to draw upon in the years that followed – or was it all in his imagination? Certainly it was an evening that sickened both Joan and Dennis, but the atmosphere and the tension and the excitement that were created by the drumming and the dancing always remained with them.
Fascinated yet frightened of the paranormal, the occult, the unknown – call it what you will – Dennis could never leave it alone. He met and talked with not only Aleister Crowley 'the wickedest man in the world', but also Montague Summers, Rollo Ahmed, Joan Grant (as we have seen) and Sir Paul Dukes.
Montague Summers (1880-1948) was a professed Roman Catholic priest who taught classics; he was the author of more than fifty books, lived for many years in Italy and became known as an expert on black magic, witchcraft and strange cults and beliefs. On the couple of occasions that I met him, a tall and stately man with flowing white hair, I was impressed by his kindliness and all but overwhelmed by his gullible acceptance of just about everything in the realm of what he called the 'supernatural, miracles, ghost phenomena and vampires', which he was convinced were a very real manifestation of evil. Dennis Wheatley found him 'an interesting character' and reminiscent of a Restoration bishop. He lived at that time at Alresford, and Dennis and Joan visited him there for a weekend. Dennis told me neither of them ever forgot the bedroom they occupied and the innumerable big spiders on the ceiling! Although Dennis felt it would be inhospitable to make too much of a mess of the ceiling, he had no hesitation in squashing several of them into 'bloody blotches', but many still remained and the Wheatleys spent a rather uncomfortable night with the feeling that spiders were likely to drop on them at any time! In the morning Joan came across an enormous toad in the garden which Montague Summers said was the reincarnation of a dear friend of his which he fed and looked after. When Dennis inadvertently offended him by refusing to buy a book he had never heard of for £50, the not so reverend gentleman became a different man; his normally benign face 'became positively demonic', Dennis told me, and he threw down the book and stamped out of the room. The Wheatleys sent themselves a telegram with an excuse to leave; they did so and never saw Montague Summers again.
Dennis always described Rollo Ahmed as one of the most unusual men he had ever met, a man of profound knowledge whose presence radiated power. The publication of Dennis's first book on black magic, The Devil Rides Out, aroused considerable interest and discussion, and he was asked to write a serious book on the subject of black magic but he did not feel competent to do so at that time and he suggested Rollo Ahmed, who had been born in Egypt but had spent the greater part of his life in the West Indies. There he had acquired first-hand knowledge of Voodoo and Obeah, later studying occult practices in various parts of Europe and Asia. He was a practitioner of Raja Yoga. Ahmed had in fact been the source of much of the original material in Dennis Wheatley's fictional book, and on more than one occasion he surprised Dennis with a practical demonstration of his undoubted powers. Once a member of the Society for Psychical Research, who accompanied Dennis on a visit to Rollo Ahmed, sensed or saw a dark form standing beside Rollo throughout the visit. Ahmed's book, The Black Art, with an introduction by Dennis Wheatley, has become something of a collector's item, and Dennis always referred to it as one of the best books he had ever read on the subject.
Joan Grant has always accepted the idea of reincarnation, and Dennis, having a similar conviction, enthusiastically reviewed her first book, Winged Pharaoh, in Current Literature. Furthermore he sent a copy to Howard Spring, at that time the Evening Standard book-reviewer, who also reviewed it favourably, and Joan and her second husband, Charles Beatty, became firm friends of the Wheatleys. Joan Grant has always maintained that her books have been dictated while she has been in semi-trance. Her second husband, as we have seen, was always interested in occult symbolism and ceremonies, and together they provided, in one way and another, material for several of Dennis's books. With her third husband, Dr Denys Kelsey, Joan became much involved in psychotherapy but she is best known for her books grounded in reincarnation and her entertaining autobiographies. The year 1979 saw publication of The Collected Works of Joan Grant.
Sir Paul Dukes was a member of the Ghost Club, and Dennis Wheatley always found him an interesting man, as well he might, for Sir Paul had been a top secret agent in Russia in 1918. He too was adept at Yoga, accepted the principle of reincarnation and possessed an enquiring mind. Dennis told me that in Sir Paul Dukes he saw reflected some of the qualities and achievements that he would have liked to attain.
In all the years that he was a member of the Ghost Club, Dennis would never take part in any of our investigations. He was completely convinced that paranormal activity was objective and established beyond any doubt; furthermore, he felt very strongly that it was unwise and possibly dangerous to explore the subject in any practical way. I am convinced that to a large extent this attitude and utter conviction went back to what he always described as 'the most terrifying experience' of his life.
It had happened when he was a boy at a boarding-school at Broadstairs, an establishment run by a Mr and Mrs Hester and Milly Evans, where, he told me on more than one occasion he learned little except that if one could take a ship from the end of Margate pier and follow the direction of the pier, one would not strike land until one came up against the ice of the Arctic, for Margate pier pointed due north, and in the winter, Dennis would add, one certainly knew it! The story has been told before but it made such an impression on Dennis Wheatley that it should be related in any appraisal of the man and his researches into paranormal activity (such as they were), for he relived that never-to-be-forgotten episode in his life when he made the central character experience it in his very successful novel The Haunting of Toby Jugg.
The house that he knew as a boarding-school had a front door that opened onto a narrow hall leading to a flight of stairs that led to the first and second floors where the boys' bedrooms were situated. One night, he was going up to bed much later than normal, having slipped out of the school with his friend Bernie Amendt, whose father was head of the catering department of the old Great Eastern Railway. Bernie was a little way ahead of him, and Dennis was nearer to the banisters.
Dennis told me that his own head at that time only came up to the height of the banister rail and he had the habit of walking up the stairs looking between each banister as he did so.
Suddenly, as he looked between the banister, he found himself staring straight into another face on the other side of the banister, only inches from his own – and a remarkably horrible face at that! Beyond the face he could make out the dim outline of the crouching form of a man's body, and above he saw a man's hand grasping the rail of the banister. The face (he told me that more than seventy years later he could still see it plainly) was round, almost bloated, very white and quite horrible. The youthful Dennis was petrified with fright, 'struck dumb with fear' as he used to say, and for a second or two he could not move.
Meanwhile Bernie had reached the staircase landing and was looking out of the window, whispering, 'Oh what a lovely moon.' His voice brought Dennis back to reality – he screamed, turned, plunged downstairs with just a single glance backward as he reached the bottom. The figure had moved; swiftly and noiselessly it was gliding up the stairs beyond the landing, having passed Bernie, who was in the act of turning towards his friend. At the sound of Dennis's voice, Bernie came pelting down the stairs, asking, wide-eyed, what had happened. 'A burglar,' Dennis shouted. 'Help, help, a burglar.'
Mr and Mrs Hester, Milly Evans and a man they had invited to dinner all came running out of the ground-floor sitting-room, and while the women sought to pacify Dennis and Bernie, the men seized the nearest implements they could lay their hands on and set off upstairs to tackle the intruder. There was no way out for him – no backstairs, no fire escape, no unbarred windows, and in any case it was a thirty-foot drop from the upper floor where he must have gone. Every room was searched, both floors and even the ground floor, absolutely everywhere, but of the mysterious stranger there was no sign. Nothing had been taken, nothing had been interfered with, and there was no trace of any stranger having been in the house, no marks, nothing.
They tried to tell Dennis that his imagination had played him tricks, and perhaps to take his mind off the matter he received a stern talking-to, together with Bernie, about where they had been and what they had done and why they had not been in bed at that hour – but what he had seen was vivid and clear to Dennis and so it remained for the rest of his life. Eventually he and Bernie were put to bed and read to sleep. Soon the strange experience was forgotten at the school, and life went on, but for Dennis the mystery was a very real one and was only solved, to his satisfaction, many years later.
During the First World War Dennis was in France and one day, as he was walking along a road behind the lines, an ambulance came towards him, screeched to a stop and the female driver alighted and greeted him. 'You're Dennis Wheatley, aren't you? Do you remember me? I'm Milly Evans.' Surprised but delighted to see someone from the past, Dennis and Milly chatted for a few moments, recalling past days, and then Milly said, 'Do you remember that figure you saw at the school?'
'Remember it – I should think I do,' replied Dennis. 'Don't tell me they caught that burglar?'
'You thought it was a burglar,' Milly replied. 'But it wasn't. We let you think that because we didn't want to frighten you but in fact it was some sort of supernatural manifestation that you saw and from the description you gave us, a pretty nasty one. You see the Hesters were keen on exploring spiritualism at that time, and two or three times a week we used to sit and practise table-turning and all that sort of thing. There was never any doubt in their minds, or mine either for that matter, that what had happened was that our séances had attracted some sort of elemental and that it had materialized and begun to haunt the place. The Hesters were so scared of what they had conjured up that they gave up spiritualism.'
This vivid, personal and unsought experience at a very early age convinced Dennis Wheatley beyond any shadow of a doubt that there are planes or spheres outside our physical world and that disembodied entities of low intelligence can be contacted and can materialize and manifest. Such an impression did the experience make on Dennis that for the rest of his life he would take no part in any paranormal investigation – although his interest remained avid and his curiosity unabated.
I often talked with Dennis about ghosts and supernormal happenings, and he agreed that there had been far too many well-documented and thoroughly investigated and authenticated instances of such happenings for them all to be dismissed as dreams, fantasies or hallucinations – he certainly could never dismiss his youthful experience in such terms – and he felt that perhaps there is within everyone an eternal element which would explain so much in the history of paranormal activity. What happens to this element – or spirit if you like – at the time of the death of the physical body was what interested Dennis.
I remember he remarked that Christian religion teaches us that the spirit goes to heaven and is judged on the performance in the body it has left as to whether it is elevated to eternal joy or condemned to everlasting suffering. He could not accept that a spirit's timeless future depended upon its behaviour during a single lifetime on earth. What of children who die, he would ask; what of people made bitter and resentful by disease or misfortune; what of children born to criminals who never know any other way of life but that which is evil; what of the person who lives a good and blameless life until, in one mad moment, he or she is driven in desperation to commit some unforgivable sin?
Other religions, Dennis would go on, teach us that the spirit or eternal spark within all of us has already inhabited many bodies and, since the body is only a temporary lodging place, when that lodging place no longer exists, the spirit is reincarnated in another body, a body that would provide the vehicle for the spirit to progress further towards perfection. Thus each life is a lesson, and sometimes one slips back a little, sometimes one progresses a little, but eventually sufficient progression would be achieved to cease reincarnation and exist in complete serenity and happiness, helping other spirits in other bodies to progress to a similar perfect happiness.
Dennis accepted the latter hypothesis and believed that reincarnation was the only logical and just explanation of life on earth and of life after death, and he said to me, many, many times: 'I am a convinced believer in reincarnation. Look into it. It is the only complete and satisfactory answer to everything.' The last time I spoke to Joan Wheatley was in June 1982, when her beloved Dennis had been dead for nearly five years. I told her that I had plans to write about him and his work and she replied, 'Oh how exciting. Yes, of course you can certainly count on my helping you in every way I can.' But by then she was very elderly, and when I talked with Joan's son by a previous marriage, Major-General Sir John Younger Bt CBE, he told me that his mother was so elderly and frail that she really would not be of any use to me; she could no longer concentrate for more than a few moments at a time, and soon after talking with me, she had forgotten all about me. Dennis closed his three-volume autobiography by saying that his life in private and in public had been one of extraordinary good fortune, and he felt deeply grateful to all those who had shared his joys and who had wished him well, 'but "The Party is Over Now".' It would be nice to think that his enquiring spirit continues to influence those still in the land of the living.