|To The Devil–A Daughter;
Century Hutchinson, London, August 1988
The remarkable pace of the late Dennis Wheatley’s To the Devil–A Daughter is made apparent in its deceptively simple opening sentence. In only twenty-five words it is conveyed that, firstly, Molly Fountain is a writer of mystery stories and, secondly, that a real mystery ‘surrounded the solitary occupant of the house next door’. This pace is not only sustained throughout the novel, but it is also steadily accelerated. With seeming effortlessness, but in reality with deft contrivance, readers of To the Devil–A Daughter are almost compelled to make that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ which the ghost story writer M.R. James thought of as characterising the effective story of the supernatural. The readers then find themselves accepting the reality of what Dennis Wheatley himself referred to as ‘that hideous thing concealed by Canon Copely-Syle in the crypt of Bentford Priory’.
It would spoil the readers’ pleasure to say more about the nature of ‘that hideous thing’, why the Canon had concealed it, and to what sinister occult purpose he proposed to employ it. It is worth pointing out, however, that Canon Copely-Syle was not entirely a fictional character – he was, as it were, an amalgam of two of the most curious personalities who have written upon matters occult in the twentieth century.
The first of these was Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), poet, mountaineer and magician, the self-styled ‘Beast 666’. The second was the Rev. Montague Summers (1880-1948), once an Anglican curate in deacon’s orders; subsequently an editor of Restoration texts, an historian of witchcraft, and a man who had been in places he would have done better to avoid, notably unlicensed chapels where he had witnessed, and perhaps participated in, celebrations of the Black Mass.
The physical appearance and dress of Canon Copely-Syle were described by Dennis Wheatley in words which would have served equally well to describe Montague Summers during the last twenty years or so of his life:
‘. . . shortish and plump . . . His cheeks . . . tended to sag a little . . . his skin had such a childlike pinkness that it was difficult to visualise him ever having the need to shave. His forehead was broad and smooth; his long silver hair swept back from it . . . suggesting . . . the elegance of a Georgian parson . . . . He was dressed in . . . ribbed satin vest, clerical collar, breeches, gaiters and black shoes with silver buckles. . . .’
The occult preoccupations of Canon Copely-Syle, however, were derived not from those of Montague Summers but from those of Aleister Crowley – or, rather, of those attributed to him in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Magician (1908), of which Crowley, presented under the name ‘Oliver Haddo’, was the villain.
A great deal of the occult history and theory contained in To the Devil–A Daughter – the ‘magical ideology’ which underlies its complex plot – was derived from Maugham, who was himself indebted for it to Crowley, whom he had known quite well in 1906. One example of this will suffice. In Chapter Seven of The Magician Oliver Haddo speaks of ‘a little book in German’ which:
‘. . . contained the most extraordinary account . . . of certain spirits generated by Johann-Ferdinand, Count von Küffstein, in the Tyrol . . . a diary kept by a certain James Kammerer, who acted in the capacity of butler . . . to the Count. . . There were ten homunculi – James Kammerer called them prophesying spirits – kept in strong bottles . . . and these were filled with water. They were made . . . by the Count von Küffstein and an Italian . . . the Abbé Geloni. . . Once a week the bottles were emptied and filled again with pure rain-water . . . at certain intervals blood was poured into the water. . . These homunculi were seen by historical persons, by Count Max Lemberg, by Count Franz-Josef von Thun, and by many others.’
A very similar passage is found in Chapter Fourteen of To the Devil–A Daughter.
‘Amongst those who had trafficked in these forbidden mysteries was a Count von Küffstein, and C.B. remembered reading in an old book of the experiments he had carried out in the year 1775 at his castle in the Tyrol. With the aid of an Italian Abbé named Geloni, the Count had succeeded in producing ten living creatures . . . kept in large strong glass jars. . . Once a week the jars were emptied and filled with pure rain water, to which certain chemicals were added, and human blood on which the homunculi fed. . . The evidence for these extraordinary happenings . . . had not been recorded by the Count himself, but in a secret diary kept by his butler . . . among others, such reputable noblemen as Count Max Lemberg and Count Franz-Josef von Thun had visited the castle and vouched for having examined the homunculi themselves.’
Interestingly enough a lengthy anecdote concerning Crowley is told to Canon Copely-Syle by one of the characters in Dennis Wheatley’s novel. The story, which concerns an evocation of the god Pan that went disastrously wrong, resulting in Crowley spending ‘six months in a private asylum outside Paris’ is an exciting one, and Mr Wheatley clearly believed it to be true, for he repeated it as fact in his non-fiction book The Devil And All His Works. Mr Wheatley appears to have repeated the story in good faith, having heard it from the late Tom Driberg, a left wing Labour MP who was one of Crowley’s more unlikely friends – a man who combined fervent Anglo-Catholicism with an utter dedication to the political interests of the rulers of the Soviet Union.
In spite of its source the story is quite untrue. Or, at any rate, untrue in relation to Crowley, who never spent six hours, let alone six months, in a mental hospital. Driberg seems to have been recycling a very old story of Black Magic, predating Crowley by many centuries—in the earliest version which I have traced, it concerned a fifteenth-century Satanist who was in the employ of the mass murderer Gilles de Rais.
Recycling of old tales has been a feature of the literature of the supernatural, both fictional and non-fictional, since classical times. To The Devil–A Daughter falls well within this tradition; the book is also a well-crafted and exciting occult thriller in which the late Mr Wheatley achieved exactly what he had set out to achieve.
FRANCIS KING 1988