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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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.

Communion or Concoction?

It has become an iconic alien abduction story. Horror author Whitley Strieber (whose early hits included Wolfen and The Hunger) and his family split their time between their apartment in New York City and their out-of-town holiday home… which in true horror style is an honest to goodness cabin in the woods. Surprise guests arrive in the form of little grey UFOnauts who take away Strieber in the middle of the night, mess with his head, and stimulate his prostate a bit with a fancy vibrator. Under hypnotic regression, Strieber remembers all this and comes to the conclusion that this has been happening all his life – that he, his father before him, and his son after him are a line of abductees, destined to be taught important spiritual information and lovingly pegged by a big-eyed ancient space goddess. At the end of the book, he sits down and thinks about triangles for a while.

Communion was, for a time, the book on alien abduction. During that brief cultural space when alien abductions were a red-hot subject, Communion ended up becoming such a widely-cited text on the subject – the book people waved around to try and persuade sceptical audiences of the reality of the phenomenon, and the book which many abductees claimed resonated so closely with them.

It’s rather odd that it has that status, considering how absolutely bizarre the book gets in some of its aspects, particularly towards the end. I can only assume that most readers got through the early descriptions of abduction experiences – undeniably creepy and haunting that they are – and perhaps a few of the hypnosis sections in the middle of the book before their attention wavered and they sort of gave up. Or possibly it’s the case that, as is very frequent in this field, people cherry-picked: they took the bits which supported their personal visions and theories about the abduction experience onboard as fact, whilst writing off bits which didn’t fit as Strieber filtering the information through his own worldview.

Strieber’s worldview is certainly eccentric; contrary to many of the claims people make about Communion, and the narrative he tries to frame, he is far from a rationalist, materialist sceptic at the start of the story. He claims to not have much interest in UFOlogy, but as we shall see, he has a deep interest in a number of esoteric subjects and philosophies – more than you’d really expect from a James Randi-style atheist materialist – and it is not only possible but likely that his whole abduction schtick is an exercise in working with these ideas.

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The Second Coming of a Lo-Fi Masterpiece

The story is told to us from, apparently, a mental institution, where our narrator Arletty (Marianna Hill) alludes to a terrible experience she’s undergone in the beachside holiday town of Pointe Dune (formerly known as New Bethlehem) – and suggests that whatever horror overtook the town is spreading outwards, and perhaps soon nowhere will be safe. Arletty’s father Joseph Long (played by Royal Dano, largely in voiceovers narrating Long’s letters and diaries), an artist, maintained a studio in Pointe Dune where he could work in solitude; Arletty received a strange letter from him, at once suggesting he was in terrible danger but urging her to stay away and not get involved, or seek help.

As she pulls into a gas station just outside town, she looks over to see the twitchy attendant (Charles Dierkop) shooting his pistol out into the darkness; when she comes over, they both hear a terrible yelp in the darkness, and his claim that it’s just stray dogs fails to convince her. We see certain other terrible things suggesting that the attendant is keeping a whole swathe of secrets, for fear of what the Pointe Dune residents will do to him, with the result that we see pretty unambiguous indications that everything is fucked long before Arletty does. It’s too late though – he’s been seen talking to her, and as she makes her initial investigations into Pointe Dune, the attendant is… dealt with.

That’s just the start of the nightmare, as Arletty learns of the past of the town – a town which used to be called New Bethlehem, before the Moon turned red one night and a mysterious stranger came from the sea to change everything, with a promise of returning some day. Just what has happened to our narrator’s missing father – and what horrors are heralded by the second coming of this Messiah of Evil?

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The Name of the Rose, With More Dakka

Despite being released shortly after the introduction of the new Warhammer Horror line, Requiem Infernal by Peter Fehervari – a Warhammer 40,000 novel of death, terror, corruption, and the disintegration of objective reality set in a storm-lashed citadel run by the Adepta Sororitas – isn’t billed as a Warhammer Horror release. This, given the general tone of things, seems to be a mistake – I mean, look at that cover art for one thing, that rendition of the protagonist glancing over her shoulder against a dark background hardly suggests the sort of battle-happy guns-blazing military SF which Warhammer 40,000 novels tend to go for.

The protagonist in question is Sister Asenath Hyades; the former name a nod to Lovecraft’s The Thing On the Doorstep, the latter a nod to Chambers’ King In Yellow. Asenath has lived many lives and filled many roles in the Adepta Sororitas – taken in and raised as a hospitaller medic, before winning her spurs as a Battle Sister and being chosen to accompany the mysterious Father Deliverance on a missionary expedition to an unreclaimed area of space, followed by various other roles in the wake of that before returning to the role of a hospitaller… and perhaps something more.

See, initially Asenath was a member of the Order of the Last Candle, a splinter group of the wider Order of the Eternal Candle. The Last Candle are an insular lot, having sought a remote artificial archipelago – the Ring – on a remote world to establish their convent, and spend much time meditating on the mysterious teachings of their founder. When Asenath joined Father Deliverance, she left the Last Candle, and is now a member of the parent organisation – and the Eternal Candle wants someone to check that the Last Candle hasn’t drifted into heresy in its deep isolation.

Asenath is that someone, but she’s not travelling alone. Following a nightmare encounter with an unknown foe, a mangled-up unit of the Exordio Void Breachers are coming with her, the wounded and ailing men’s only hope for recovery being the medical care offered at the Ring of the Last Candle. There’s a man called Jonas Tythe who dresses like a preacher, but in fact is an unwilling heresiarch, his faith in the God-Emperor shattered by the eldritch fate of his world and by his mysterious link to a book which fills itself with his own pessimistic philosophy. And there’s the otherworldly presence which has latched itself onto Asenath, which you could regard as her guilty conscience were it not for its very particular capabilities and interests…

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