'Really?" asked a friend, "Wheatley, out of print now? Are you sure?" And indeed, a little checking proves the case. One of the world's best-selling authors (he shifted more than 50 million copies from the 1930s to the 1960s) is fading away. It's not hard to see why; in our dark modern world, Satanists seem rather quaint, and certainly not worthy of the hilarious warning Wheatley placed at the front of his supernatural novels about the "very real dangers" of witchcraft.
Dennis Yates Wheatley (1897-1977) was an inventive, prolific author who conjured forbidden thrills by selling the virtually non-existent "reality" of black magic to aghast British readers. In The Haunting of Toby Jugg, a monstrous malevolent spider-thing taps at Toby's bedroom window, night after night, trying to get in. Toby is a wounded Battle of Britain pilot and thinks he's hallucinating, but there are Satanic forces at work that he's powerless to stop. It's a book that gave generations of teenage boys nightmares, written three years after the Second World War and filled with the dread of Nazi invasion.
Gregarious and clubbable, Wheatley hailed from an upper middle-class family in the wine business. His adventure stories were packed with sex, Satanism and snobbery, linked with shared-world characters and teeming with ludicrous incident, giving him the kind of popular appeal Ian Fleming enjoyed. He liked to create titled heroes in the grand traditional vein, such as Gregory Sallust, "The man the Nazis couldn't kill!" But his fantastical novels were less stiff-necked and offered more disreputable high jinks. The author of They Found Atlantis also invented board games and created several interactive murder dossiers containing physical pieces of evidence, with a sealed last page revealing the killer.
Wheatley's wife found him a job co-ordinating secret military deceptions for Winston Churchill, who asked him to suggest what the Germans were up to. Surprisingly, he was often near the mark, although his fears that they would invent a death ray proved unfounded.
The "Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult" that featured in mass market paperbacks brought new audiences, and Hammer adapted his work for the screen, their best effort being The Devil Rides Out, in which the Duc de Richleau defeats the forces of evil. (Hammer's budget did not stretch to a chase across Europe, however, and culminated in Buckinghamshire). Phil Baker's superb biography, The Devil is a Gentleman, fills in the details and catches Wheatley's breathless appeal.