Who hasn’t wanted to own their own copy of a genuine, mysterious occult tome? I’ve previously posted here and here about the mostly still unknown Voynich Manuscript housed at Yale that’s been puzzling scholars and occultists for a long time. It’s clearly a beautiful physical artifact as much as it is a source of knowledge. Ambush Printing is a publishing house that specializes in hand-made reproductions of historical documents and they have decided to produce copies of the Voynich Manuscript for purchase. They have a complete copy of the Manuscript available for $200, printed on vellum and bound in leather, just like the original, as well as an 18″ by 24″ print of one of the illustrations also on vellum that is normally $25 but appears to be on sale for $10 currently. Check them out here.
Long before William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST ushered in a new-found fascination with the Devil, Satanism, and all things occult in the 1970s, Dennis Wheatley was penning occult thrillers that attracted readers by titillating them with tales of Satanic cults committing unspeakable acts in service of the Devil. TO THE DEVIL, A DAUGHTER is one of Wheatley’s “Black Magic” novels (one of eleven out of his 60+ novels) recently reprinted by Bloomsbury. Though it doesn’t involve any of the protagonists of his earlier Black Magic novel (THE DEVIL RIDES OUT), TO THE DEVIL, A DAUGHTER is explicitly set in the same setting, with some of the events of RIDES OUT briefly alluded to in DAUGHTER.
Some minor plot spoilers follow.
The story opens simply enough with Molly Fountain, a mystery novelist who had served as a secretary in British intelligence circles during the war, wondering who her mysterious new neighbor is. Fountain is renting a house in the French Riviera while she writes her latest manuscript when a young woman moves in next door. The young woman lives alone, never receives visitors, and wanders around outside at night, which seems innocent enough, but this attracts Fountain’s interest. After introducing herself to the young woman, Fountain learns that the young woman is far more mysterious than she initially appears: she is living under an assumed name and has been sent to France by her distant father and ordered to remain in hiding there until after her upcoming birthday. Fountain is an inveterate meddler who can’t leave well enough alone, so she arranges for her university student son John and an old friend who still works for British intelligence, Colonel Verney, to come for a visit and help her get to the bottom of the mystery. As it turns out, Fountain needs all the help she can get when it becomes apparent that the young woman is being sought by a Satanic cult with whom her father had formerly been involved and is at the center of a truly disturbing plot (which I don’t want to spoil). What follows is a desperate race across France and England to protect the girl and then retrieve her once she falls into the hands of the villains before she can be sacrificed.
Wheatley was known to have done a good bit of research on the occult and magical practitioners in the course of his writing career, and it’s known that he carried on correspondence with Aleister Crowley, among others. Not to spoil anything, but Crowley and some of his past enter the story here through some lengthy expository passages. As with previous Black Magic novels, Wheatley makes no bones about it: magic and the Devil are real, and those who serve dark forces can freely call upon them for tangible aid. Wheatley has received criticism over the years for inflicting his research on his readers, but I think including these passages on magic and the workings of its practitioners only adds to the story and the sense of verisimilitude that Wheatley tries to create in what might otherwise be a run-of-the-mill pulpish thriller.
Hammer Horror adapted this novel – very loosely – for film in a 1976 version starring Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman, and Natassja Kinski. The plot of the film bears only the most superficial resemblance to the novel, and was excoriated by Wheatley, who deemed it obscene. If you’re a fan of Hammer, or Christopher Lee, it’s worth watching nevertheless, it just doesn’t have much to do with the book, outside of dealing with roughly similar themes.
Recommended as a good entry point to Wheatley’s fiction (especially his Black Magic novels) and an entertaining read in its own right. What could have been a stereotypical adventure novel from the early 1950s is, in Wheatley’s hands, a slow reveal of the plot pervaded by a genuine sense of menace. The stakes are very real, the villains truly monstrous, and the heroes unafraid to use extreme measures to put an end to the scheme.
Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers
One of Dennis Wheatley’s most famous novels, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT is a supernatural thriller originally published in 1934, and the first of Wheatley’s so-called “Black Magic” novels that explore a series of confrontations between Satanists and those seeking to stop them. It has just been republished as part of a new set of attractively bound trade paperback reprints by Bloomsbury Reader. While Wheatley wrote a large number of very popular thrillers and adventure novels, this was the first of his works to explicitly deal with the occult. It’s a doozy, full of plenty of action and occult menace, though it’s also what I would describe as a “mannerly” thriller, depicting the actions of a clique of genteel aristocrats and upper-crust Brits.
THE DEVIL RIDES OUT picks up shortly where one of Wheatley’s earlier novels, THE FORBIDDEN TERRITORY, leaves off, and the early pages of DEVIL reference the earlier events. I’d say that it isn’t necessary to have read FORBIDDEN before this one, but reading the earlier work certainly would expand the characterization of the protagonists and make them seem much more fully fleshed out. Wheatley’s recurring protagonists include: the elderly but still spry French exile, the Duc de Richleau, who knows a great deal of occult lore and leads the group in opposing the Satanic cult; the wealthy Jewish banker, Simon Aron, who is in way over his head and has inadvertently fallen under the sway of evil; the brash young American adventurer, Rex Van Ryn, who falls in love with a mysterious young woman named Tanith, a psychic of great power and a member of the Satanic cult; and well-connected, upper-crust Brit, Richard Eaton, a skeptic about the occult who has settled down to life with his new wife and infant daughter.
The novel opens simply enough: Richleau and Rex discover that their friend Simon Aron has become involved with a Satanic cult led by the charismatic sorcerer and high priest Mocata. To Simon, his involvement began as just dabbling in the occult, but it’s quickly become apparent that he features prominently in Mocata’s plans, and is destined for a bad end (and by that, I mean, drained of his wealth, mystically mind-controlled to commit unspeakable acts, and eventually sacrificed). The situation is complicated by the fact that Mocata wields true supernatural power – this isn’t just a matter of lunatics playing around with meaningless rituals, but people who are capable of working actual spells, summoning demons, and the like. Wheatley is not coy about how the supernatural – and specifically black magic – is represented here: magic is real, the Devil is real, and he is capable of actively intervening in the world when called upon to do so by his followers. Richleau is the only one of the heroes to have any knowledge of the supernatural, while the rest have to witness the power of black magic before they’re convinced that anything supernatural is going on. I don’t want to spoil the plot’s twists and turns, but I will say that it’s a mix of adventure and occult horror that’s ultimately more thriller than pure horror. There’s a genuine sense of menace throughout though, and very real stakes: innocent lives are at stake, with the penalty for failure by the protagonists being the triumph of truly depraved evil-doers and the ritual murder of a child.
Some critics have complained that Wheatley occasionally uses too much exposition (coming from the mouths of his protagonists) to convey the fruits of his research on magic, occult lore, esoteric practices, and the like. Those passages are present here, and occasionally slow down the plot a bit, but I think they only serve to enrich the story and add a touch of verisimilitude to the proceedings, even if the delivery may come off a little forced at times.
I should also note that the book was the loose inspiration for the eponymous – and notorious – Hammer Horror film from 1968 (screenplay by the late, great Richard Matheson), starring Christopher Lee in a fine performance as the Duc de Richleau. If you’re a fan of Hammer films, you probably owe it to yourself to read the original novel, even though its plot only bears a superficial resemblance to the film.
Certainly recommended, if only so you can see what all the fuss is about when it comes to the iconic Black Magic novels of Dennis Wheatley. This is a good entry point to Wheatley’s fiction. It’s fast paced, and while it’s not a gorefest, it holds up very well against other pulp adventures, especially if you’re looking for an occult thriller.
Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers
Who isn’t interested in grimoires and strange texts we can’t decipher? Two years ago, I made a brief post about two such occult tomes, the Voynich manuscript and the Copiale Cipher. In that initial post, I noted how the Copiale Cipher had been cracked (it was revealed to be composed by a German secret society interested/obsessed with human eyeballs — and no, I’m not kidding.) As I noted, the more (in)famous Voynich Manuscript continued to resist all efforts to translate it. Well, it’s still untranslated, but the first cracks have appeared — some of the hitherto unknown animal and plant species drawn in the Manuscript have now been identified by ethnobotanists.
“We note that the style of the drawings in the Voynich Ms. is similar to 16th century codices from Mexico (e.g., Codex Cruz-Badianus). With this prompt, we have identified a total of 37 of the 303 plants illustrated in the Voynich Ms. (roughly 12.5% of the total), the six principal animals, and the single illustrated mineral. The primary geographical distribution of these materials, identified so far, is from Texas, west to California, south to Nicaragua, pointing to a botanic garden in central Mexico, quite possibly Huaztepec (Morelos). A search of surviving codices and manuscripts from Nueva España in the 16th century, reveals the calligraphy of the Voynich Ms. to be similar to the Codex Osuna (1563-1566, Mexico City). Loan-words for the plant and animal names have been identified from Classical Nahuatl, Spanish, Taino, and Mixtec. The main text, however, seems to be in an extinct dialect of Nahuatl from central Mexico, possibly Morelos or Puebla.”
So there you have it. Our first real clues to identifying what the heck it says. Speakers of Nahuatl, we await further findings!
Readers of weird fiction have long been told of rare, mystic tomes and grimoires that hold untold knowledge and Secrets Man Was Not Meant To Know. Some of the most famous examples include H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, penned by that most famous of mad Arabs, Abdul Alhazred; Robert W. Chambers’ infamous play that must not be performed, The King in Yellow; and the much more recent Navidson Record, described by Mark Z. Danielewski. Literary scholars call this technique “false documents,” but doesn’t that seem to take all the fun out of it? I think it’s a lot more fun to pretend these tomes are real. In any case, there are some real-life occult tomes that have bedeviled scholars for centuries. Perhaps the most famous is the vaunted Voynich Manuscript. The Voynich Manuscript, or as Yale’s archivists unimaginatively describe it “MS 408,” is written in an unknown language and appears to contain detailed botanical and pharmacological studies of more than 100 unknown species of plants, along with some astrological diagrams and lots of other mystical gobbledygook.
The Voynich Manuscript has now been scanned in, in its entirety, and made available to the browsing public, courtesy of Yale University. They have also had a detailed chemical analysis of the manuscript performed, though to this layman, it doesn’t appear that it sheds much light on the subject. The language used in the manuscript has thus far resisted the best efforts of cryptolinguists, but we can only hope that some day we will crack the code.
The Voynich Manuscript is not alone, of course, and another grimoire that had heretofore remained impenetrable is the Copiale Cipher. This was only made known in the West after it was discovered hidden in an East Berlin archive after the end of the Cold War. The Copiale Cipher, like its better-known counterpart, was clearly some kind of occult work, but it too was written in code. And unlike the Voynich Manuscript, the Copiale Cipher has now been cracked. As it turns out, the Copiale Cipher was the work of an old German secret society that appears to have been obsessed with eyeballs! You just can’t make this stuff up. See for yourself, the entire document has been decoded and translated into English. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was far easier to create mystic tomes that were undecipherable to the uninitiated in pre-modern eras.
I have not yet had the privilege to read Ian Tregellis’ novel Bitter Seeds (which sounds like a really interesting blend of alternate history, WWII, and the occult), but I came across Tregellis’ recent blog post about the terrible time he’s had with his publisher (Tor) trying to get the second and third books of the trilogy out.
Almost every author has probably experienced similar problems with traditional publishers — I’m certain that Tregellis’ experience is not unique — but it’s pretty amazing/horrifying seeing it detailed like this. Traditional publishers, including the big names like Tor, have got to do better than this if they are to survive the coming years of transformation in the book industry.