Charles Beck, Dennis Wheatley expert, shares four of his favourite rare artifacts from his museum:
1 The dust jacket of the first edition of The Devil Rides Out (1934). Designed by Dennis Wheatley’s step-daughter Diana Younger. Jacketed copies of the first edition sell for as much as £5,000!
2 The ultra-rare poster for the serialisation of The Devil Rides Out; it was serialised by The Daily Mail in October 1934
3 An original, and never used, cover illustration for The Devil Rides Out, that was found in Dennis Wheatley’s papers.
4 The cover of the first edition of The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948). Dennis Wheatley wrote of it ‘Many people say that although there is little action in this tale it has more suspense than any other occult story I have ever written’.
The common myth says that Dennis Wheatley was close friends with Aleister Crowley, the infamous Satanist, and that he was possibly even a member of one of the secret societies to which Crowley belonged. The character of Mocata, the villain of The Devil Rides Out, Wheatley’s most famous work, is without doubt modelled on Crowley. Wheatley’s private library included a copy of Crowley’s book ‘Magick in Theory and Practice’ with a personal dedication of photo of the self-styled ‘Beast 666’. Surely there must have been a connection?
…. Unfortunately, the truth is less impressive than all the fiction about the alleged connection between the two men. After trying out thriller writing, in 1934 Wheatley decided to reinvigorate the Victorian genre of occult stories. Ever meticulous, he started from thoroughly researching the topic. Through his friend from the Labour MP, socialite and MI5 agent, Tom Driberg, Wheatley gained an introduction to the notorious and feared Alistair Crowley. He invited him to dinner to the exclusive Hungaria restaurant in Lower Regent Street. Noone knows what happened during the dinner – we might assume that Crowley enjoyed the food, as he inscribed the book he gave to Wheatley ‘In memory of our sublime Hungarian banquet’. We might also assume that Wheatley’s curiosity about the occult was satisfied, as he finished ‘The Devil Rides Out’ a few months afterwards. Wheatley and Crowley were never in contact again.
In words of Dominic Wheatley, Dennis’ grandson: “I think Dennis was fascinated to meet Aleister Crowley. He had a terrible reputation. But he was not in any way a fan and they never struck up any kind of relationship.”
Neil Gaiman has been a big fan of Wheatley’s since the tender age of 10. He still remembers the tattered copies he borrowed from the school library – especially the most coveted title, The Devil Rides Out, that “was handed around from boy to boy and we read it incredibly nervously and with deep trepidation and terror”. Apparently even the teachers were eager reader of Wheatley due to his skilful, page-turning story-telling. The students were equally engrossed in the books’ content, if attracted to them for a more prosaic reason – the risqué covers with bare-breasted women and Satanist symbolism.
All these years later, Gaiman still considers the ending of The Ka of Gifford Hillary to be one of the best story twists he has ever read. The dense description of demonic possession and madness from The Haunting of Toby Jugg continue to haunt him to this day. It would be fascinating for someone to trace where in Neil Gaiman’s own work these inspirations could be seen!
In the picture Neil is holding the Bloomsbury Reader editions of The Devil Rides Out, To The Devil a Daughter and The Forbidden Territory. These books will soon be reissued with new covers – stay tuned!