Magazine article The Spectator

Cheering Satanism

Magazine article The Spectator

Cheering Satanism

Article excerpt

THE DEVIL IS A GENTLEMAN

by Phil Baker

Dedalus,

£25, pp. 699,

ISBN 9781903517758 . £20 (plus £2.45 p&p)

0870 429 6655

'For my generation of Essex teenagers, Dennis Wheatley's novels represented the essential primer in diabolism, ' Ronald Hutton, the historian and expert on paganism, recalls. It wasn't peculiar to Essex. In the Sixties, reading Dennis Wheatley was something one did to prove one's daring - and to get the atmosphere right for spooky parties.

We may not have realised that they were seriously dated; that they represented a British tradition of gentlemanly adventure (which Colin Watson neatly dubbed 'snobbery with violence') ; or that we were engaged in having our cake and eating it too - for the books contained enough suggested sex and actual violence to satisfy the depraved attitude of 16, while ensuring that right triumphed in the end.

Wheatley was born in the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (somehow even that seems appropriate) and apparently under a lucky star. Coming of a family of high-class grocers, he volunteered at the outbreak of war and was commissioned, but despite being determined to see action he never seems to have been in serious danger. After the war he took over the wine-merchant side of the business and set about converting himself from a temporary to a permanent gentleman, aided by two remarkable gifts - for promotion, and for making (and keeping) useful friends. Unfortunately (as it seemed then) the early Thirties was not a suitable time for lavishly presented catalogues of rare wines; Wheatley's firm was taken over, leaving him with plenty of time for writing.

This may not have seemed an obvious choice. Wheatley had managed to avoid most forms of education, and his favourite reading was Dumas, Orczy and Anthony Hope. But during the war he had met a charming devil called Eric Tombe, who set him on a very different course of reading - 'aestheticism, decadence and esoterica'. …

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