Wheatley’s Catalogue of Ceremonies, Curses, and Cultural Myopia

Think of Dennis Wheatley, and you think of the Devil. That may not be wholly fair; of the dozens of trashy adventure and thriller novels Wheatley churned out over the course of his career, only a minority actually deal with the occult. In fact, that’s true even of his series about the Duke de Richleau, despite that series including the most famous of his Satanically-themed novels, The Devil Rides Out.

Nonetheless, whilst most of Wheatley’s output has largely been forgotten, his occult-themed stories are what his name is largely associated with. It probably helps that the Hammer adaptation of The Devil Rides Out is, for all its faults (most of which arise from it being too true to the original book), one of the more enduringly-fun Hammer releases. Another factor might be that Wheatley’s views on the occult were absolutely bizarre, tied in as they were with his hyper-conservative views, with the result that they stand out all the more.

Whilst often you can glean aspects of an author’s worldview from their fiction – sure, people say you should separate the writer from the material, but if someone consistently, over the course of their entire career, writes women like trash and shows no sign that they are using techniques like unreliable narrators or whatever which means we shouldn’t take the narration at face value, you can draw a few conclusions from that. In the case of Wheatley, however, we don’t need to speculate about his actual beliefs on the occult: late in his career he write The Devil and All His Works, a coffee-table book combining his views on the subject and on spirituality in general with a fantastic collection of photographs (including the standard mildly titillating nudity expected of books on witchcraft from the 1970s).

 

Wheatley spends most of the book skirting the subject, his actual views on Satanism, whilst quite developed, not actually involving sufficient knowledge by itself to fill the page count. He starts off with a discussion of psychic powers to try and argue that there are invisible forces which influence humans; he then gives an overview of various forms of divination and fortune-telling as a means of arguing that some people can psychically receive messages whose sources cannot be other human minds but must instead be the powers of Light or Darkness which underpin reality. He then spends a lot of pages on a brief overview of religious beliefs from prehistoric times to the present day, before finally returning to occultism, witchcraft, and Satanism to round things off, after spinning his wheels for a couple hundred pages before getting there.

What, then, do we learn from all this? Well, to give Wheatley some credit, he does seem to have actually been reasonably versed in a range of religious traditions. Not to any great depth, mind, we’re talking a beginner’s level overview of each of the traditions in question here, but his view of religious history isn’t entirely Eurocentric – Asian religions also get wide coverage, but you do have the problematic take here that you have “Western religions” (European) and “Eastern religions” (Asian) and those are the only ones with any particular depth that you get with overviews of this sort of vintage.

However, across all these topics – psychic powers, divinatory practices, religious traditions, occult mysteries and so on – Wheatley exercises a bizarre favouritism. He’ll bounce around between what practices are totally fine and which are dodgy and which are fake and which are real on a bizarre basis – palmistry is apparently fine, as is astronomy, but other forms of divination can be dubious – and it’s pretty clear that, whilst he’s quite well-read on these subjects, most of the reading matter he’s used is some 50 years out of date. He endorses Margaret Murray’s Witch-Cult In Western Europe theory about the Little People, despite it having been comprehensively debunked by that point and never wholly accepted in academic circles even in its prime. He repeats absurd anecdotes about Aleister Crowley even as he tries to hype up his connection to the man in order to underscore his credentials as an occult expert (they had dinner once and Crowley gave him a copy of Magick In Theory and Practice as a present).

And most of all, he really goes off on one about Satanism and witchcraft, seeing it as a grand plot to overthrow civilisation – as a result of the persecution of witches turning the Old Religion from a balanced nature-based faith into something more dark and vengeful. He goes so far as to argue that, whilst innocents did get swept up in the witch trials, a good proportion of the accused witches were in fact actual witches and were in fact doing great harm and deserved what they got.

This is broadly in keeping with his generally hyper-conservative worldview. By modern standards, Wheatley is extremely right-wing. It would be wrong to accuse him of being a fascist; it’s pretty clear, in fact, that he considers fascism to be an aggravatingly modern philosophy, an uncouth johnny-come-lately upstart like Communism. No, Wheatley is an honest-to-goodness, dyed-in-the-wool Imperialist; he openly states in his conclusions that the “more progressive nations” have a responsibility to rule the “backward countries” for their own good, and the racial views expressed across the course of the book are most remarkable for the fact that they’re expressed by a man writing in 1971 instead of 1871.

Wheatley’s politics remained consistently archaic over the course of his life; in 1947 he buried a message to future generations on the grounds of his house, convinced that the Labour government would result in Soviet-style despotism. Between Wheatley’s editorialising, the sub-Wikipedia level of depth on the subjects discussed, and his bizarre departures from fact, on an objective level the text of The Devil and All His Works is trash; as a mixture of absurd urban legend, weird rambling from Wheatley, and cool photos, it’s an interesting little artifact.

7 thoughts on “Wheatley’s Catalogue of Ceremonies, Curses, and Cultural Myopia

  1. William Burns

    I’m enjoying your blog, but the content is really starting to get buried under the ads. Have you considered a Patreon or something similar as an alternative? Or is this just a wordpress thing you can’t change?

    Like

  2. William Burns

    Apparently my computer skills are not such as to allow me to paste a screenshot into a comment box. Do you have an alternative method?

    Like

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