Thanet Writers Spotlight Dennis Wheatley

Luke Edley highlights the life, works and legacy of thriller writer Dennis Wheatley, and spotlights his connection to Thanet.

Dennis Wheatley was born in the South of London to a family of upper-class wine merchants on 8th January 1897. Enjoying a very privileged upbringing, Wheatley was packed off at the age of 8 to a boarding school called Skelsmergh House School in Dalby Square, situated in Margate. It was here in Thanet that the young boy’s interest in storytelling began in earnest, and it was the school headmaster who encouraged him with his reading habits by introducing him to the likes of Alexandre Dumas and Thanet regular Wilkie Collins.

As a pupil Dennis Wheatley even remembered regaling his fellow classmates at Skelsmergh House School with his own stories after the lights had gone out, mostly fantastical ones as he later recalled in his memoirs.

A strange hotch-potch of dragons, robbers, witches, Indians and buried treasure; and, no doubt, most of the episodes were lifted from books that had been read to me in the holidays.

The Young Man Said, 1897-1914 by Dennis Wheatley

Despite his time in Thanet turning him into a voracious reader, Wheatley never particularly enjoyed school and he soon moved away from Margate. After getting himself expelled from his next school, Dulwich College, Wheatley was sent to slog out the rest his education on board a Royal Navy training ship, the HMS Worcester. Seemingly offered a way out by his father in 1913, Wheatley took up an offer to undertake a wine apprenticeship in Germany. This didn’t last for longer than nine months, however, as eventually, fate intervened when the Great War broke out in 1914.

Like many of his generation, Dennis Wheatley, now 17, was keen to enlist and fight in the Great War and managed to join what was called the Royal Artillery Company. By matter of coincidence, during training, he caught bronchitis which meant he was unable to see action on the battlefield until August 1917. Nothing prepared him for what he did see when he got to the Western Front, however, as he described witnessing hundreds of horses being massacred by artillery fire:

“There were dead ones lying all over the place and scores of others were floundering about screaming with broken legs, terrible neck wounds or their entrails hanging out.”

Dennis Wheatley

The visceral impact of seeing this atrocity would doubtless influence Wheatley’s horror fiction writing later in life, infused as it would be with grim and macabre detail. Towards the end of the war, Wheatley got sent home from France after being gassed in a chlorine attack in Passchendaele, and he was later told by doctors that he was lucky to survive. He recovered in hospital, was declared fit and ready for duty before Armistice was declared and the war came to an end.

After joining the family wine business, Dennis Wheatley spent most of the 1920s working in partnership with his father. However, when his father died in 1927, Wheatley took over the firm and attempted to expand it, but again, history had other plans. In 1930, with the UK feeling the effects of the global economic downturn caused by the Wall Street Crash, Wheatley was forced to sell his wine business and was even advised to declare bankruptcy.

With financial desperation setting in, Dennis Wheatley turned his hand to fiction writing and saw success when publishing his second novel, The Forbidden Territory, in 1933. An adventure story about a treasure hunt in Soviet Russia, it was a massive bestseller, but it wasn’t until the following year that The Devil Rides Out—his first occult story featuring a satanic cult and devil worship—saw his popularity explode. Later made into a Hammer Horror film starring Christopher Lee in 1968, this was the first in Wheatley’s unique brand of occultist fiction which earned him the title of ‘The Prince of Thriller Writers.’

Of course, there is still much more to Dennis Wheatley’s life following his initial successes as an author in the 1930s. He still had a significant role to play in World War II, for example, but what is most fascinating about him as a writer is quite how successful he was. Dennis Wheatley went on to become one of Britain’s bestselling authors of his day and sold 50 million copies within his lifetime (a feat unmatched by many of his peers) and his output was remarkably prodigious, producing over 70 books before his death on 10th November 1977 at age 80.

Some particular highlights of Wheatley’s oeuvre include The Haunting of Toby Jugg in 1948 (which is about a World War II pilot who suspects he is in the grip of satanic possession and has visions of giant spiders) and To the Devil—a Daughter (which is about a businessman who has his daughter baptised into Satan’s church). Much of Wheatley’s themes explored his deep fascination with the paranormal, the unknown, superstitions and black magic, each planting a seed of suspicion in the reader’s mind that there is a darker conspiracy afoot in the heart of British life.

Whether he was writing about spies (Gregory Sullust) or about Satanists (Duke de Richleau), Wheatley had his finger on the pulse of what his readers truly wanted, and yet today his impact on the zeitgeist is largely overlooked. His fellow Thanet-linked writer Ian Fleming admitted James Bond would never have existed without Wheatley’s influence—in fact, Bond is essentially a facsimile of Gregory Sullust. It beggars belief that a writer such as Wheatley can be so successful in his time and yet be so forgotten today. What makes it even more remarkable, of course, is that a writer of Wheatley’s renown began his young talents in Thanet, to the point where he even set his 1936 novel Contraband here, and yet there are many who don’t even know his name.

I suppose what’s much less admirable about Dennis Wheatley is how his attitudes embody the imperialist, jingoistic, xenophobic and racist mindset of the early 20th century British upper echelons. A proud right-winger and conservative—albeit a fervent anti-Nazi and an anti-Communist—Wheatley’s stories do tend to have whiffs of racist stereotypes and misogynistic depictions of women, which may inhibit a modern reader’s enjoyment of his work. Perhaps this is why he is disregarded by readers today.

Having said all that, if you are able to separate the man from his fiction, his influence on modern British horror is palpable. There is no doubt the tenor of most Hammer Horror films owe much to the influence of Wheatley’s dark world of satanic witchcraft and pagan rituals, luring readers into a tangled web of black magic, pentagrams and dark arts. If you love British folk horror tales, then Wheatley’s novels are still well worth a read. They remain quite unlike anything else on the market.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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