Reviewed by DAVID L. VINEYARD:         

DENNIS WHEATLEY – The Devil Rides Out. Hutchinson, UK, hardcover, 1935. Bantam, US, pb, 1967. Many other reprint editions.


Filmed as The Devil’s Bride. Hammer Films, 1968. Released as The Devil Rides Out in the UK. Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Nike Arrighi, Leon Greene, Patrick Mower, Richard Eddington. Screenplay: Richard Matheson. Directed by Terence Fisher.

   With sales topping sixty million copies (that’s sales, not in print) Dennis Wheatley was one of the best selling writers of the 20th Century. His long list of books vary from mystery, to thriller, to spy novels, to historical adventure, to the occult, to lost worlds, and science fiction.

   His long running series include tales of secret agent Gregory Sallust; Napoleonic era secret agent Roger Brook; Monte Cristo-like Julian Day; and the tales of Duc de Richleau and his team of modern musketeers: American Rex Van Ryn, Englishman Richard Easton and his wife Mary, and Simon Aron, a young wealthy Jewish adventurer.


   The Devil Rides Out is a tale of de Richleau and his friends, and the first of Wheatley’s occult thrillers. It may also be his finest achievement in that genre. Simon Aron has fallen in with the mysterious cult leader known as Mocata, and de Richleau suspects something is wrong. When he confronts Simon, he discovers Mocata has the youth under his hypnotic spell and has drawn the young man into a demonic cult.

   De Richleau recognizes a dangerous enemy in Mocata and summons his friends Rex Van Ryn and Richard Easton to aide in rescuing Simon. Not surprisingly Rex also finds a young woman under Mocata’s rule and sets out to save her after he and de Richleau crash a Black Mass to perform a daring rescue of their friend.

   Now hiding Simon and the unwilling girl at Easton’s country home, they find themselves under siege by Mocata’s occult powers, climaxing in a night long battle of wills between de Richleau and Mocata, with our heroes within a protective pentagram and under attack by Death himself, mounted on a monstrous black stallion, who once summoned never leaves without a victim.

   When Richard and Mary’s daughter is kidnapped by Mocata as a sacrifice to open the very gateway to Hell it is time for a final battle between good and evil.


   I know a good many readers of this blog have little patience with the occult and the supernatural, but despite Wheatley’s sometimes awkward prose and mannerisms he had a real gift for both. (He himself didn’t believe in the supernatural but often wrote about its psychological dangers.)

   Several of his books in the field were classics, among them The Haunting of Toby Jugg, The Ka of Gifford Hillary (something of a tour de force since it is narrated by the hero from a state of suspended animation in his tomb), To the Devil a Daughter, and They Used Dark Forces, a Gregory Sallust WW II spy novel about Nazi attempts to use the occult as a weapon in WW II. Despite these books, he only wrote ten occult thrillers, a small portion of his output.

   Wheatley based Mocata on Alister Crowley, the self styled Satanic mage and Anti-Christ, who was also the basis for Somerset Maugham’s Oliver Haddo in The Magician, and James Bond’s arch enemy Ernst Stavro Blofield. Only a few years later during WW II Wheatley and Fleming would attempt to use Crowley’s occult contacts among the Nazi’s to infiltrate the party hierarchy while they both served in British intelligence.


   Crowley’s real life, mostly spent dodging the law and creditors, was a good deal less dramatic than that of his fictional counterparts. Still, he had a fairly good run as one of the great con men and frauds of the 20th Century, rubbing shoulders with the great and near great from poets like William Butler Yeats and fellow members of the prestigious Golden Dawn, to one of men who built the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos.

   The Devil Rides Out came to the big screen as Hammer Studios The Devil’s Bride with Christopher Lee ideally cast as de Richilieu and Charles Gray as Mocata. (Ironically Gray also played Blofield in the Bond film Diamonds Are Forever.)

   The Richard Matheson screenplay is faithful to the novel and the night long battle with Death mounted on a great black horse a memorable bit of cinematic horror. It’s a first class film, handsome to look at, and played to full effect by a fine cast.

   Despite his best selling status, Wheatley was likely best known in this country for the series of books he did in the 1930’s in the File series (File on Robert Prentice, File on Bolitho Blane), in which he provided the characters and crime and a complete set of clues, from lipstick-stained cigarettes to diagrams of the murder scene for the reader to solve.


   The books had a brief vogue, but ultimately it proved more fun to read about detectives than try to play one — not to mention the tendency to lose the enclosed clues.

   Despite his many flaws as a writer (he once said he never knew a best selling writer who knew the meaning of the word syntax) Wheatley knew how to spin a tale, and like his great literary hero Alexandre Dumas, his books are often highly readable and entertaining once you get into them. A number of his books were filmed, including Forbidden Territory, The Eunuch of Stamboul (as The Spy in White), To the Devil a Daughter, and Uncharted Seas (as The Lost Continent).

   Even absolute howlers like the stand alone Star of Ill Omen, where a British secret agent is kidnapped by Martians in a UFO and foils a Martian/Commie plot to destroy London (and believe me I’m making it sound saner than it reads), have a sort of goofy charm.

   His historical novels about Roger Brook, secret agent to William Pitt, probably received the most critical acclaim. Dark Secret of Josephine, in which Napoleon’s first wife reveals her ties to voodoo in her Hatian homeland, is likely the most successful blend of his chief interests; history, espionage, and the occult.

   But The Devil Rides Out is a first class thriller in the classic form. If you only read one Wheatley novel, this should be the one. The shootout at a Black Mass is worth the price of admission alone, and the siege within the pentagram guaranteed to raise the hackles of the most jaded horror fan. It’s a grand example of the occult thriller at its best.