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).

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Connecting the (Demonic) Dots

Toyne Newton’s 1987 The Demonic Connection isn’t quite a psychic questing book along the lines of those written by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman or Andrew Collins, but it’s regularly cited in Collins’ early work and has much the same atmosphere about it, largely because both The Demonic Collection and the various questing books have similar preoccupations with occult conspiracies at work in the English countryside.

The major difference in approach is that whilst the likes of Phillips or Collins’ questing books go into detail about the little adventures the authors and their colleagues have as they go using the powers of the mind to uncover various mysteries, Newton is much less interested in reporting methodology; with some exceptions, he just dumps the results of his research on the reader, which means it’s unclear to what extent psychic or other unconventional research methods figured into his work.

However, what The Demonic Connection lacks in adventure, it more than makes up for in the sheer scope of its theories. Another commonality it has with the psychic questing books is this tendency to take some local landmark in the English countryside, investigate its alleged mysteries, and thereby spin a yarn which puts that otherwise nondescript locale at the heart of a cosmic conflict.

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Weer-ed Tales From Wolfe

Alden Dennis Weer is alone, rattling about in a house built from his memories, with nobody living in any close proximity to him, the little town of Cassionville having fallen into terminal decline over his lifetime. At first we think he’s sick – he had a stroke recently – but as the recently-deceased Gene Wolfe’s Peace unfolds, one of the more obvious secrets it gives up is that Weer is in fact dead, his house being the sort of “memory palace” built from his experiences.

But with close attention and further readings – for what Wolfe story ever gave up all its treasures on a first pass? – the situation seems even more disturbing than that. Take the matter of little Bobby Black – who falls down the stairs at Weer’s fifth birthday party, eventually dying of his injuries, prompting a certain amount of social awkwardness which nudges Weer’s parents into an extended overseas excursion, with Weer left in the care of his aunt Olivia, who we can detect in the prose a certain incestuous affection for which might have been reciprocated. (If it were not, it’d be certainly odd for Olivia to have Weer as a teenage boy attend on her whilst she’s bathing.)

It’s very easy to miss it on a first reading, but Weer mentions struggling with Bobby at the top of the stairs – and mentions doing this because he knew that if Bobby were allowed into the upstairs room he’d throw an apple and spoil an old painting and Weer would take the blame for it. This is an astonishingly specific thing for a five year old boy to anticipate – but is, perhaps, the sort of thing you might expect someone looking back over the course of their life and gifted not just with the knowledge of how it went but how it might have gone to be aware of. And since Weer shows some capacity to step into and take control of his past selves – he uses this to try and get his favourite doctor’s advice on his stroke a decade or two before he has the stroke – the mind-boggling possibility arises that, far from resting in Peace, Weer is extraordinarily active, directing the course of his own life from his private afterlife to direct it to the end he desires.

But if that were the case, what are we to make of the terrible culmination of Weer’s life – as corporate overlord of an industry which is sucking the life out of the very soil around Cassionville, and (it is implied) ultimately makes the town vulnerable to a disaster which prompts everyone to leave? What are we to make of it that Weer is so frequently around death? If this is the life that Weer has chosen over all alternatives, is he really the sweet, charming Midwestern soul he presents himself as, or is he a silver-tongued devil, the entirety of Peace a bid to persuade the reader to overlook Weer’s crimes even as it also acts as a sideways confession?

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An Alien Aesthetic

As you might have gathered from some of my past articles on the subject, I’m more interested in UFOlogy as a cultural phenomenon than as anything objectively happening in our skies, and read UFO books more for entertainment than for information. There’s a certain joy to be had in delving into this rabbit hole without being too invested in the truth of anything you encounter, and I’m gratified to know I’m not alone in this, since much the same approach seems to be taken by Jack Womack, who over the years has obtained quite the collection of UFO books.

Womack offers us a guided tour through his library in the coffee table book …Flying Saucers Are Real!, which combines some brief writings on the subject from Womack with a range of delightful front covers, photographs, illustrations and textual extracts from the books under discussion. Womack convincingly argues that the UFO flap was essentially an evolution of the Shaver Mystery of prior years – a bizarre craze in which the claims of one Richard Shaver that he’d intercepted and decoded secret messages from fallen civilisations and evil BDSM robots from the Hollow Earth became unaccountably popular on a commercial level. Pioneering science fiction editor and shamless huckster Ray Palmer not only turned the Shaver Mystery from a lone man’s delusion into a minor pop cultural phenomenon; he was also instrumental in early publicity for Kenneth Arnold’s infamous 1947 sighting which kicked off the modern UFO meme – a meme whose evolution and mutation Womack traces across the rest of the book.

The bulk of the material here hails from the 1950s and 1960s, with a few exceptions – such as the cover of the 1989 edition of Space Aliens From the Pentagon by William Lyne and other such pieces with a particularly exciting aesthetic to them. This makes the volume a charming portal into an era when book covers were garish and gaudy, UFO photos were blurry and lampshade-ish, and contactees like the Unarius Institute’s Ruth “Uriel” Norman dressed fabulously and told us that space Aryans just wanted us to love each other. Whilst the book will offer little if you want to argue for the objective reality of UFOs and alien visitors, it offers a striking visual history of the way we talk about the subject.

Valley of Destin(y/a)

Dorothea Tanning is not primarily known as a novelist; her main claim to fame is as an artist, one of the original generation of surrealists who managed to keep her work fresher, develop her ideas further, and continue working for much longer than many of her peers. After initially making a splash in the 1930s, she kept producing artwork into the 1990s; if you hurry, you can still catch the excellent exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern.

In parallel with her artistic career, she had a less widely-appreciated literary career, and once her paintings and sculptures stopped flowing she spent the last decade or two of her life concentrating on poetry and prose, with an emphasis on the former. Chasm, her sole novel, came out in 2004, but it had a long germination, being as it is an expansion and extensive revision of the earlier short story Abyss, which originally appeared in 1949 before appearing in a revised version in 1977.

The Arizona desert which had such a great aesthetic impact on Tanning herself when she and Max Ernst went to live there provides the setting of the novel. Deep in the desert lies the mansion called Windcote, a bizarre architectural excess built by Raoul Meridian, a powerful, patriarchal manipulator with a fetish for women’s hair and a “laboratory” in which he constructs his personal homegrown brand of fetish equipment. Meridian has, over his lifetime, embroiled himself in the life of multiple generations of what you could call the “Destina dynasty” – a line of women all called Destina, ever since in the 1680s a forefather declared that all daughters of the line would be called “Destina”. There are currently two Destinas at Windcote; the elderly Baroness and a small child, looked after by her governess Nelly.

The tedium of life at Windcote is about to be disrupted; over the course of a weekend Meridian expects to greet various guests, among which are Albert Exodus and his fiancée, Nadine Coussay. In a decidedly Rocky Horror Show move, Nadine is 100% fine with coming up to the lab to see what’s on the slab (implication: her, with various sex toys of Meridian’s design interfacing with various parts of her anatomy), which leaves Albert at a bit of a loose end. Rattling about the house, he has a little tea party with Destina, with whom he gains a creepy fixation even as he falls out of love with Nadine, and who shows him various gruesome trophies brought to her by a “friend” out there in the desert.

Albert becomes fixated on the idea that Destina’s friend is, in fact, a mountain lion, and persuades Nadine to give Meridian’s hand-crafted dildos a miss, just this evening, so that they can go creeping into the desert chasm where Destina meets with the lion and see the lion. The two of them should watch out – bad things happen in the desert at night, particularly to a pair of individuals who aren’t communicating well with each other. Meanwhile, back in the house, Nelly finally gets Meridian alone…

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Hatching a Murderous Plan

Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a big man in the chicken business. He and his wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida) live in a home attached to a vast chicken factory complex, its processes almost entirely automated, and the poultry grower’s association that Marco is a part of is branching out into genetic engineering. Marco is tasked by the head of the association with devising a new publicity campaign to convince the public that chicken is tasty and delicious (seems like a bit of an easy sell, but OK), and in aid of this is teamed up with PR professional Mondaini (Jean Sobieski).

Mondaini is a stranger to Marco – but already knows a secret about him. For playing at peeping tom at a hotel, Mondaini witnessed a liaison between Marco and a prostitute – specifically, Marco apparently in the middle of murdering a prostitute, which is his hobby in his spare time. Meanwhile, back at home, tensions mount between Marco, Anna, and Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin), Anna’s cousin who has come to live with them and do some light secretarial work. Both Marco and Anna have some pretty intense feelings about Gabrielle – Anna encourages her to help her learn Marco’s secrets whilst gushing to Marco about how fantastically well-engineered Gabrielle’s body is; Marco, for his part, knows this all too well, since he and Gabrielle are having an affair.

Meanwhile, Mondaini increasingly overshadows Marco and Anna’s social life with strange games at a party they throw, the factory scientist perfects boneless chickens, and Luigi (Renato Romano), a mysterious amnesiac from Marco’s past, comes wandering in and out of the situation. Surely this must all come to a head somehow – but who’s in the driving seat and who’s going to end up with egg on their face?

Death Laid an Egg opens with a bizarre look into the lives of a cross-section of guests at motel and their various dubious business before we hone in on the specific characters of interest, floats between murderous intrigue and the intricacies of the chicken business, and confronts the viewer with motifs like a strange runic scarf in which Marco seems to perceive a threatening message, visions of a terrible car accident as Gabrielle drives Marco down a motorway, shots of couples engaging in everything from eagerly consenting sex to violent rape in a room of truth Mondaini establishes at Marco and Anna’s party.

In short, it’s what happens when the giallo style as initially formulated in the early 1960s goes stumbling into the psychedelic, experimental world of the late 1960s, complete with a tense free jazz soundtrack and a willingness to experiment to an extent which incorporates a near-hallucinatory element into the subgenre. There’s still plenty of hallmarks of the genre, mind – we see a lot of Gabrielle and Anna in various lingerie getups – but the whole concoction is so deliciously odd that nobody would call it a standard giallo.

Originally released in 1968 with some significant cuts, some of the lost material was restored in a so-called “giallo cut” in the 1970s; it’s only recently, thanks to the discovery of some lost prints, that Nucleus Films have been able to piece together a 104 minute director’s cut of the movie to represent Questi’s original vision for the movie.

Most of the restoration was done from the original negatives, but about 14 minutes or so of material had to be incorporated as inserts from an Italian print of the movie, for which no English soundtrack exists, so if you watch with the English soundtrack the movie reverts into Italian at points. This is an interesting exercise, however, because it makes it evident what parts were removed from early versions of the movie.

Most of these are fairly minor cuts which nonetheless give a bit more flesh to some of the subplots and odd little occurrences during the movie when restored, but others are more significant – in particular, almost all the material involving Luigi seems to only exist in the Italian version of the movie, and to be honest this seems the right call since he’s ultimately a bit of a red herring and his plotline doesn’t come to anything.

Indeed, the various tangled strings at the end don’t quite come together into a wholly satisfying conclusion, as is often the way with giallos which get too excited about weaving a web of intrigue to remember you’ve got to actually stop weaving and wrap up at some point. Part of the reason the ending drags is that a major plot twist is telegraphed too much in advance, so that by the time it’s revealed it’s not so much a sudden swerve as it is the narrative finally catching up to the viewer. Whilst this oddity might not be a keeper, it’s certainly worth a watch at least once.

Vallée of Mystery

Of all the big names in UFOlogy in the late 20th Century, Jacques Vallée might be the most interesting. A physicist and computer scientist by training, he believed that there was some form of physical reality behind UFOs, but was reluctant to jump to the conclusion that they were necessarily nuts-and-bolts spacecraft from other worlds. In the late 1960s, his classic Passport To Magonia aired his personal theory that if there was any truth to stories of extraterrestrial visitors at all, they seemed more consistent with visits from other dimensions than from distant space – and that the phenomenon had direct parallels with folkloric encounters with angels, fairies and similar.

1979’s Messengers of Deception came about after Vallée decided to turn his attention from the witnessed aerial phenomena themselves to the people who claim to have witnessed them – and, in particular, those who insist they have met the occupants of interplanetary craft. His initial reason for doing so was a hypothesis that UFOs are a real physical phenomenon which has psychological or neurological effects on witnesses, and so by looking to said witnesses it might be possible to find evidence of this.

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