Million, January-February 1991, pp.40-43
In which Stan Nicholls describes how he worked for the great man during his last years as one of Britain’s most popular novelists
Dennis Wheatley’s books are all out of print. This is surprising in a way, given that his career weathered fluctuations in public taste for over forty years, with worldwide sales of his novels standing at thirty million copies by the early 1970’s.
Along with Ian Fleming. Arthur Hailey. Barbara Cart-land and a handful of others, he was in the first rank of bestselling authors; his work had been translated into a number of other languages and several of his novels had been filmed. There can be few popular writers who have fallen so completely from favour in such a comparatively short time.
Wheatley was born in 1897, enjoyed the sort of private education common to the scion of an upper middle-class family, and served with the Joint Planning Staff as a Wing Commander in 1941-44. A passion for writing, and an ability to produce prolifi-cally, manifested themselves early in his life. and stayed with him until his death in 1977.
He wrote in a number of diverse genres, including historical romances, thrillers, fantasy adventures and sci-ence fiction. But he is best remembered for his occult novels, which began with the publication of The Devil Rides Out in 1935. A sequel, Strange Conflict, appeared in 1941, and was followed by The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948), To the Devil, a Daughter (1953), The Ka of Gif-ford Hillary (1956), The Satanist (1960 – his all-time best selling novel), They Used Dark Forces (1964) and The White Witch of the South Seas (1968). He also wrote a
There can be few popular writers who have fallen so completely from favour in such a comparatively short time
number of short stories dealing with black magic, many of which were collected in Gunmen, Gallants and Ghosts (1943), and reprinted in various anthologies.
His regular publisher was Hutchinson, with mass-market editions from their paperback division, Arrow. In 1973. along with a lifelong friend who was the leading book packager in British publishing at that time, Wheatley
conceived the notion of a series of volumes he proposed to edit, and which would prominently bear his name. The idea was that they go straight into paperback; but Arrow, after due consideration. decided not to take them on.
Sphere Books, then part of the Thompson group, was anxious to establish a bigger presence in the horror field, and saw the addition of Wheatley’s name to their list as a major asset. They signed him up for the series which, assuming the initial volumes were successful (and incred-ible as it now sounds), was intended to be up to four hundred titles. It was a testament to Wheatley’s popular-ity that such a long run should have been thought possi-ble.
This extremely ambitious project, entitled The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult, was to embrace both fiction and non-fiction, drawing upon Wheatley’s extensive knowledge of the fantastic and paranormal.
It was apparent he could not be expected to handle the massive workload alone, so Sphere looked for a research assistant. They approached author, anthologist, and latterly screenwriter, Michel Parry. But he had other commitments and was kind enough to recommend me for the job. A long-time interest in the genre, and my time spent in bibliographic librarianship and bookselling. was considered appropriate, and I found myself allotted the grand-sounding title of Editorial Consultant. (I didn’t know then that everybody in publishing has some kind of fancy job description.)
As research experience the task was invaluable, if demanding. I was given an enormous list of writers, along with Wheatley’s slightly eccentric versions of the titles of their books, in order to assess availability and report on whether they fitted in with the character of the series. I checked copyrights, located actual copies of the books to print, from. and compiled biographies of the authors which formed the basis of the introductions Wheatley was to write.
The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult was intended to he definitive – possibly the most comprehen-sive concentration of supernatural writings ever attemp-ted – so it was bound to include a high percentage of material in the public domain. In fact the project could be viable only if that were the case. Another factor bear-ing on this was that Wheatley’s familiarity with the field
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tended to be a bit hazy when it came to post-war titles, and he generally felt happier dealing with the books he remembered best.
The extent of the proportion of non-copyright (and thus more familiar) product to be used soon became a contentious issue. The basic dichotomy of a series like this was that, although the publishers could not cater solely for the small percentage of the mass market who might be called fans, they still needed to produce a series appealing both to general readers and the enthusiasts in order to maintain credibility. This was important because about a third of the series was supposed to consist of “authoritative” non-fiction titles.
The paradoxical thing about Wheatley was that, privately, he was a considerable expert on the occult, and supernatural fiction; whereas his novels were considered misrepresentative and cheaply sensational by many people with an interest in the subject matter. He refuted this perception slightly with the pub-lication of his non-fiction book, The Devil and All His
Works, but generally seemed content with his public per-sona.
My reading of his attitude was that he thought his general readership was more concerned with a good story than being bothered about whether the technical details were correct. He was probably right. But the selection of titles for what was to be promoted as a definitive series, particularly the non-fiction, had to be made with care to ensure integrity. For the same reason it was important not to load the line with too many oft-seen (non-copy-right) titles. Of course any such series would have to include public domain classics, like Frankenstein and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk; the trick was to make the balance acceptable, and Wheatley was aware of this. But it conflicted with Sphere’s budget, which, understand-ably, they wanted to keep under control. We were all walking a fine line.
I had to go along to see Wheatley once a week to report progress. His Chelsea flat was a kind of metaphor for the fiction he was associated with – plushly furnished, but in a style perhaps more suited to the thirties. It had elaborate wall-hangings, sound-muffling deep-pile car-pets, and weighty candelabra. It reminded me of a Ham-mer movie set.
His libraries – he separated the fiction and non-fiction – were a source of fascination for me, even if he had committed the bibliophile’s heresy of having all the vol-umes re-bound in red or blue, and customized with his own bookplate. Everything I saw was a first edition. Those with a gold star on the spine – the majority – were signed, and often contained a personal annotation. This was a superb collection of 20th-century literature, and an equally impressive hoard of occult material, but, to a collector, the fixation with making all the books con-form to a standard appearance probably diminished their individual value considerably. I have often wondered what happened to these libraries after his death.
A decanter of syrupy amontillado was produced and two large crystal goblets were filled to the brim. I was expected to down mine before we started work
In common with many professional authors, he worked to a rigid routine, and this extended to my visits, which had to take place after he had com-pleted his daily work quota (he was writing a novel centred around the battle of Trafalgar at the time). On those occasions when I did see him working I learnt that he produced the first draft of his novels by hand.
We usually began our meetings with a ritual I could frankly have done without. A decanter of syrupy amon-tillado was produced and two large crystal goblets were filled to the brim. I was expected to down mine before we started work. which was fine, except it always hit me in the back of the head like a sledgehammer. I grew to dread those occasions when our sessions went on longer than usual – say two or three glasses worth – which invar-iably left me reeling legless into the gathering twilight in search of a taxi.
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Another fascinating aspect of working with him was his fund of anecdotes. He seemed to know everybody, and his conversation was littered with references to liter-ary personalities, politicians, famous socialites and var-ious monarchs.
He claimed past acquaintance with several black magi-cians, and knew Aleister Crowley quite well between the wars. His attitude towards “The wickedest man in the world,” as the Sunday Express had dubbed Crowley, was ambivalent. It was unclear whether Wheatley regarded him as a genuine adept or a complete charlatan. But he had some choice stories to tell. It seems that if anyone was misguided enough to invite Crowley to a dinner party, for instance, he was inclined to lower his trousers and defecate over his host’s carpet. For Crowley, this was a benediction.
On one occasion we spoke about the films based on Wheatley’s books. He hated The Lost Continent (adapted in 1968 from Uncharted Seas) because it botched the story and introduced some sex scenes he didn’t like: but thought Hammer’s version of The Devil Rides Out, despite some iffy special effects, was fairly decent.
These stories, and the book collection, compensated to some extent for Wheatley’s occasionally irascible nature. He was a man of strong and entrenched opinions, and saw himself as very much a part of the Establishment. My impression was that his views had been indelibly stamped on him in his younger days, when most of the map was still coloured British red, and his response to most world problems was, “HMG should send a gun-boat.” However. while he was apt to be a little fractious when things were not going well. his dealings with me were mostly characterized by courtesy and considera-tion.
Meanwhile, on the Library of the Occult front, things were descending into fudge. Part of the problem was that, while keeping a tight rein on the purse strings, Sphere’s anxiety to get Wheatley’s name on their schedule was such that they gave him a great deal of editorial discretion. The situation was further complicated due to the fact that Wheatley was
They signed him up for the series which, assuming the initial volumes were successful (and incredible as it now sounds), was intended to be up to four hundred titles
actually putting together the series for the aforemen-tioned packager. This luminary – an extremely able and well-respected figure in the industry – acted as a conduit between Wheatley and the publisher. and his hotline to the heady corporate heights was used when lowly editors and accountants baulked at catering to less prudent suggestions (like paying £50 for a rare book because none of us had read it).
In my view mistakes were made when the series was finally launched. Over-emphasis was put on Wheatley’s name as a selling point. but largely negated when he proved choosy about the promotional chores he was expected to undertake. and the proportion of familiar titles was too high. The initial two dozen books were issued in monthly batches of six, which had the effect of splitting sales, and the very first volume was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As there were at least three other edi-tions of this on the market already, including Arrow’s own non-series version, it proved a less than auspicious start.
The supernatural horror field has changed almost beyond recognition, and it is hard to imagine the novels faring well against the sophistication of a Stephen King
Only forty-two volumes ended up being published and, while this included some excellent titles, the major-ity weren’t exactly unknown even to the most casual bookshop browser. The trade press response was luke-warm.
It would be fair to say that the series was not a resound-ing success. Indeed, before what proved to be the final volume was published, the first half dozen were already being remaindered
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Why have Wheatley’s own books now vanished from the backlists of his British and American publishers? I believe there are several reasons for this. First, most of them have dated badly, and embody a certain essential “Englishness” that looks quaint and parochial to contemporary readerships, who would probably find such factors as the rigidity of the class system depicted a little risible.
Second, and perhaps most important, the supernatural horror field has changed almost beyond recognition, and it is hard to imagine the novels faring well against the sophistication of a Stephen King, or the excesses of the Splatterpunks.
But perhaps his best books – which I would say included The Devil Rides Out, To the Devil, a Daughter and The Satanist – could still find an audience among readers whose tastes do not run to the gratuitously explicit extremes of much modern horror. And an ele-ment of nostalgia could play its part here. There are less likely candidates for a revival than Dennis Wheatley.
Note: since the above was written, we have heard that several of Dennis Wheatley’s black magic novels are indeed coming back into print – as Mandarin paperbacks, to be published in 1991.