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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Hammer Rides Out

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

One of the best value DVD boxed sets I’ve ever obtained was The Ultimate Hammer Collection, which features 21 selected horror, thriller, and fantasy movies from the archives of Hammer Studios. Focusing on their heyday from the 1960s and 1970s, the set includes a strange combination of undeniable classics, interesting obscurities, and utter turkeys; I suspect rights issues might have prevented the inclusion of some of Hammer’s earlier works. (For instance, their original takes on Dracula and Frankenstein are entirely absent, both those series represented only by a random selection of sequels.)

The set originally retailed for over £100, but for a while now it’s been obtainable at substantially lower prices, thanks in part to the waning of the DVD format in the face of the inexorable march of Blu-Ray and streaming services; when I bought it the price averaged to about £1.50 per movie, which was too tempting to ignore. Despite the lack of some important early works, it’s got a bunch of high-quality movies which showcase the Hammer house style (which was so distinctive that “Hammer horror” practically became its own subgenre) – as well as a clutch of films which either demonstrate the weakness of the formula or expose what can go horribly wrong (or terribly right) when the formula is deviated from. That makes it the perfect fodder for when I challenge myself to post something horror-related to Ferretbrain daily for the entire month of October (what the fuck am I thinking?).

Two films that really highlight the extremes of the set are the Dennis Wheatley adaptations included – The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter, both starring Christopher Lee. Wheatley’s garish horror novels could almost have been custom-written to be adapted by Hammer, since they shared with Hammer’s house style a weird combination of a very colourful and often lurid imagination and values which wouldn’t offend the British middle classes. As it stands, one of these films is a loyal adaptation of the source material that is an excellent example of the house style, whilst the other deviates wildly from its source novel, the Hammer ethos, and all standards of quality and good taste

Lee’s association with these films is no coincidence – as well as being the Hammer regular he was, he was actually the one who convinced Wheatley to let Hammer option three of Wheatley’s works – The Devil Rides Out, To the Devil a Daughter, and The Satanist – in 1963. It wasn’t until 1968 that the first one could be adapted – Hammer didn’t expect that they would be able to get the content past the censors beforehand – but it was such a runaway success that Hammer immediately… sat around for 8 years before putting out another adaptation of Wheatley’s populist demons-and-black-magic novels. Let it never be said that Hammer are highly regarded for their business decisions…

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