The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult
Elliott O'Donnell
Sphere, 1974

This book by Elliott O’Donnell (1872-1966) was first published in 1912. I met the author only once, and that was at a small dinner party in, of all places, the Admiralty. Many years were to pass before those splendid apartments of the First Sea Lord were to be occupied by Earl Mountbatten, but, by a curious coincidence, his mother-in-law, Lady Mount Temple, was our hostess that evening.

I did not particularly take to O’Donnell, so did not pursue the acquaintance, but there can be no doubt about it that he had a very wide knowledge of the occult. He wrote many books, both fiction and non-fiction, on the subject and it is our intention to include the best of them in this series.

Unlike the majority of novels about the supernatural, to begin with the three principal characters not only know nothing about the occult, they regard everything to do with it as utter nonsense.

It starts in San Francisco during the great slump of the early 1930s. Three clerks have been turned off and out of work for weeks. One of them, Leon Hamar, accidentally damages a book and is forced into buying it. To his disgust he finds it is on Atlantean magic. He reads passages of it with the utmost scepticism, but the three friends are literally starving, so it’s a case of ‘let’s try anything once’.

After a week or so performing preparatory acts laid down in the book and passing various tests, they go out from San Francisco by night to Muir Woods, a national reserve. I visited it some years ago and found it of surpassing grandeur. In its 400-odd acres many of the giant redwood trees are over 200 feet high and 2,000 years old.

There the three perform an Atlantean magical operation. To their amazement and terror it calls up a demon, with whom they enter into a pact. During each three-month period for the following twenty-one months they will be given, for three months only, certain supernatural powers. If during the whole period they live together in harmony and none of them marry, at the end of the twenty-one months all the powers granted to them during the seven three-month periods will be theirs for the rest of their lives. The powers given them during these periods include divination, thought reading, leaving one’s body, making oneself invisible, being able to breathe underwater, taming wild beasts and understanding their language, inflicting diseases, creating plagues of insects, curing any ailment, transforming humans into vampires or werewolves, complete domination over women’s affections and numerous other manifestations achievable only by invisible influences.

The major interest of the story therefore lies in the use that can be made of these magical powers bestowed by Satan, and the difference of the natures of the three men who form the Sorcery Club.

Naturally, they soon grow rich. Then, finding San Francisco too small for their operations, they move to London. There, among other activities, they give performances as conjurors and are able to perform such fantastic tricks that they nearly bankrupt Maskylen and Devant. But they can make use of each occult power – such as becoming invisible – only for three months, and for infringing the law they are still liable to arrest by the police. But by far the worst danger they are up against is failure to fulfil the condition of maintaining harmony between them. And here their leader, Leon Hamer, is faced with a terrible task, for one of his companions is a confirmed drunkard and the other ungovernably attracted to women.

It is this struggle between mental weakness due to physical desires and the wiles of Satan that is the high spot of this intriguing story.