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Portrait by Allan Warren
|Born||Dennis Yates Wheatley
8 January 1897
|Died||10 November 1977(aged 80)|
|Genres||Adventure, Occult, Historical|
|Notable work(s)||The Devil Rides Out|
Dennis Yates Wheatley (8 January 1897 – 10 November 1977) was an English author whose prolific output of thrillers and occult novels made him one of the world's best-selling writers from the 1930s through the 1960s. His Gregory Sallust series was one of the main inspirations for Ian Fleming's James Bond stories.
Dennis Wheatley was born in South London to Albert David and Florence Elizabeth Harriet Wheatley (née Baker). He was the eldest of three children of an upper-middle-class family, the owners of Wheatley & Son of Mayfair, a wine business. He admitted to little aptitude for schooling, and was expelled from Dulwich College. Soon after his expulsion Wheatley became a British Merchant Navy officer cadet on the training ship HMS Worcester.
A soldier during the First World War, Wheatley was gassed in a chlorine attack at Passchendaele and invalided as a second lieutenant of the Royal Field Artillery after service in Flanders, on the Ypres Salient, and in France at Cambrai and St. Quentin. In 1919 he assumed management of the family wine merchant business but in 1931, after a decline in business due to the depression, he began writing and married his second wife.
During the Second World War, Wheatley was a member of the London Controlling Section, which secretly coordinated strategic military deception and cover plans. His literary talents gained him employment with planning staffs for the War Office. He wrote numerous papers for the War Office, including suggestions for dealing with a German invasion of Britain (recounted in his works Stranger than Fiction and The Deception Planners). The most famous of his submissions to the Joint Planning Staff of the war cabinet was on "Total War". He was given a commission directly into the JP Service as Wing Commander, RAFVR and took part in advance planning for the Normandy invasions. In 1946, Wheatley was awarded the U.S. Bronze Star for his part in the war effort.
His first novel published, The Forbidden Territory, was an immediate success when issued by Hutchinson in 1933, being reprinted seven times in seven weeks. The release the next year of his occult story, The Devil Rides Out—hailed by James Hilton as "the best thing of its kind since Dracula"—cemented his reputation as "The Prince of Thriller Writers."
Wheatley mainly wrote adventure novels, with many books in a series of linked works. Background themes included the French Revolution (the Roger Brook series), Satanism (the Duke de Richleau series), World War II (the Gregory Sallust series) and espionage (the Julian Day novels). Over time, each of his major series would include at least one book pitting the hero against some manifestation of the supernatural. He came to be considered an authority on this, satanism, the practice of exorcism, and black magic, to all of which he was hostile. During his study of the paranormal, though, he joined the Ghost Club.
His writing is very descriptive and in many works he manages to involve his characters with actual historical events while meeting real people. For example, in the Roger Brook series the main character involves himself with Napoleon and Joséphine whilst being a spy for Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Similarly, in the Gregory Sallust series, Sallust shares an evening meal with Hermann Göring.
During the 1930s, he conceived a series of mysteries, presented as case files, with testimonies, letters, pieces of evidence such as hairs or pills. The reader had to inspect this evidence to solve the mystery before unsealing the last pages of the file, which gave the answer. Four of these 'Crime Dossiers' were published: Murder Off Miami, Who Killed Robert Prentice, The Malinsay Massacre, and Herewith The Clues.
In the 1960s, Hutchinson were selling a million copies of his books per year, and most of his titles were kept available in hardcover. A few of his books were made into films by Hammer, of which the best known is The Devil Rides Out (book 1934, film 1968). Wheatley also wrote non-fiction works, including an account of the Russian Revolution, a life of King Charles II of England, and several autobiographical volumes.
He edited several collections of short stories, and from 1974 through 1977, he supervised a series of 45 paperback reprints for the British publisher Sphere with the heading "The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult", selecting the titles and writing short introductions for each book. These included both occult-themed novels by the likes of Bram Stoker and Aleister Crowley (with whom he once shared a lunch) and non-fiction works on magic, occultism, and divination by authors such as the Theosophist H. P. Blavatsky, the historian Maurice Magre, the magician Isaac Bonewits, and the palm-reader Cheiro.
Two weeks before his death in November 1977, Wheatley received conditional absolution from his old friend Cyril ‘Bobby’ Eastaugh, the Bishop of Peterborough. He was cremated at Tooting and his ashes interred at Brookwood Cemetery. He is commemorated on the Baker/Yeats family monument at West Norwood Cemetery.
His estate library was sold in a catalogue sale by Basil Blackwell's in 1979. It suggested a well-read individual with wide-ranging interests, particularly with respect to historical fiction and Europe.
His work is fairly typical of his class and era, portraying a way of life and clubland ethos that gives an insight into the values of the time. His main characters are all supporters of Royalty, Empire and the class system, and many of his villains are villainous because they attack these ideas, although in The Golden Spaniard he pits his series protagonists against each other in the setting of the Spanish Civil War. His works are enjoyable thrillers, and his "Roger Brook" series books, in particular, offer the reader "history without tears" (Wheatley, in the introduction to The Man Who Killed the King). His historical analysis is affected by his politics, but is well informed. For example, Vendetta in Spain (pre-World War I adventure in that country) contains a discussion of political anarchism which is well researched, though unsympathetic. His strong attachment to personal liberty also informs much of his work. This, as well as a sympathetic attitude toward Jews (as shown in the 'Simon Aron' character introduced in Three Inquisitive People) caused him to criticise the Nazi system mercilessly, in those 'Gregory Sallust' thrillers set during World War II.
During the winter of 1947, Wheatley penned 'A Letter to Posterity' which he buried in an urn at his country home. The letter was intended to be discovered some time in the future (it was found in 1969 when that home was demolished for redevelopment of the property). In it, he predicted that the socialist reforms introduced by the post-war government would result inevitably in an unjust state, and he advised both passive and active resistance to it.
- "Socialist ‘planning’ forbids any man to kill his own sheep or pig, cut down his own tree, put up a wooden shelf in his own house, build a shack in his garden, and either buy or sell the great majority of commodities – without a permit. In fact, it makes all individual effort an offence against the state. Therefore, this Dictatorship of the Proletariat, instead of gradually improving the conditions in which the lower classes live, as has been the aim of all past governments, must result in reducing everyone outside the party machine to the level of the lowest, idlest and most incompetent worker.
- It will be immensely difficult to break the stranglehold of the machine, but it can be done, little by little; the first step being the formation of secret groups of friends for free discussion. Then numbers of people can begin systematically to break small regulations, and so to larger ones with passive resistance by groups of people pledged to stand together – and eventually the boycotting, or ambushing and killing of unjust tyrannous officials."
- Dennis Wheatley, A Letter to Posterity
From 1972 to 1977 (the year of his death), 52 of Dennis Wheatley's novels were offered in a uniform hardcover set by Heron Books UK. (This was in addition to Hutchinson's own "Lymington" edition, published from 1961 to 1979.) Having brought each of his major fictional series to a close with the final Roger Brook novel, Wheatley then turned to his memoirs. These were announced as five volumes, but never completed, and were eventually published as three books, the volume concerning the Second World War issued as a separate title. His availability and influence declined following his death, partly owing to difficulties of reprinting his works because of copyright problems.
Wheatley's literary estate was acquired by media company Chorion in April 2008, and several titles were reissued in Wordsworth paperback editions. A new hardcover omnibus of Black Magic novels was released by Prion in 2011.
When Chorion encountered financial problems in 2012, the Rights House and PFD acquired four crime estates from them, including the Wheatley titles. PFD is hoping to broker new series for TV and radio, and a move to digital publishing.
In 2013, Bloomsbury Reader will publish 56 of his titles, starting from October, and will be available in both printed format and as ebooks.
List of works
All titles in this list up to the end of the 'Short Story Collection' section are available in the 1970's 'Heron' hardback edition, except for the titles maked with an 'X'.
- Forbidden Territory (November 1934)
- Secret of Stamboul; US title The Spy in White (adaptation of The Eunuch of Stamboul; October 1936)
- The Devil Rides Out; US title The Devil's Bride (July 1968)
- The Lost Continent (adaptation of Uncharted Seas; July 1968)
- To the Devil a Daughter (March 1976)
- The Haunted Airman (adaptation of The Haunting of Toby Jugg; October 2006)
- Baker, Phil, The Devil is a Gentleman: the Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley, Sawtry, UK: Dedalus. 2009. ISBN 978-1-903517-75-8
- Stranger than fiction | Express Yourself | Express.co.uk
- Crash Online: Issue Ten: November 1984
- Dennis Wheatley - Prince Of Thriller Writers - To Return
- Dennis Wheatley Website
- Complete list of The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult
- Article on Dennis Wheatley
- Wheatley's 1939 game 'Blockade'
- Dennis Wheatley at the Internet Movie Database
- Dennis Wheatley at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database