BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: The Devil Rides Out

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations. Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, we travel to England, and investigate the dark Satanic cults that reside there.

If I’ve noticed any pattern to the more effective stories I’ve read so far this year, it’s that they tend to spend a long time establishing a normal, mundane reality, before attempting to undermine or shatter it for great effect. Things can become off-kilter pretty quickly, but by and large you get a slow, atmospheric start and then a steady build to the sanity-testing revelations of the final third of any given story, and writers like James, Lovecraft and Smith all have that broad structure in common. So, when, about a fifth of the way through The Devil Rides Out we have already seen a great satanic manifestation with a Goats Head, and a dark spectral familiar, the only fear you are left with is just how over the top this will get.

Right, so Dennis Wheatley has a few problems as a writer. First of all, he’s a writer of his time so casual sexism and racism abound, an issue compounded by the extremely privileged, upper class dilettantes that make up his heroes, investigating evil with their expensive roadsters, country houses and extensive contact books. They don’t really establish a mundane reality to be subverted in the first place and from this vantage point they’re hard to engage with. Secondly he’s pretty heavy handed with his characterisation – everything is very good vs evil, and the satanic cults are pretty much what you’d expect – orgies, child sacrifice, cannibalism, and so on, although the former, particularly, is constantly promised in the text but, being published in the 1930s, of course never happens. In fact, sex is on his brain a lot, and is often alluded to or built up to, before being interrupted, both from the villains and the heroes.

The Devil Rides Out reminds me of nothing so much as the role-playing game “Call of Cthulhu”, Its characters behave like RPG Player Characters, with a typically player character combination of stupidity and competency, the villains are comic-book villians, undone by the heroes pluck and determination despite being on the face of it far more capable, and the whole thing ends in a horrible (and literal) Deus Ex Machina for a fairly flimsy justification. And, much like most roleplaying games, it’s pretty decent fun. The big saving grace is that it’s a quick, fast paced read and unintentionally funny to modern eyes, and so despite myself I did enjoy reading it – just maybe not in the way its author intended!

I do wonder how it was received at the time – the grand, overblown vision of Satanic Rites in the English Countryside may have been more shocking back in the day, and the collection of Toffs as main characters is far more common in British writing of the 30s. What may feel slightly silly now, (Ok, maybe very silly now) feels that way because its been homaged and adapted and spoofed from Doctor Who to the Hammer House of Horror, and reduces its ability to shock, therefore exposing a less crafted work in terms of structure and characterisation. So I would be hesitant to dismiss it out of hand, for all I laughed, more than I shivered.

Next time: We return to the Haunted House sub-genre with the famous and oft-adapted The Haunting of Hill House.

Any comments, feedback or opinions welcome either below or via twitter @thegrampus.

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