Friday, October 18, 2013

FFB: To the Devil -- a Daughter - Dennis Wheatley

Christina Mordant cannot enter a church without getting ill. The very smell of a chapel is enough to make her nauseated. Animals shy away from her and growl for apparently no reason when she walks by. When night falls her usual polite and timid demeanor gives way to an indulgent and hedonistic personality that is more cruel than kind. What is going on with this young woman who has been abandoned by her father and left to fend for herself in a small house in the south of France?

Long before The Exorcist almost single handedly was responsible for an explosion of suspense novels and thrillers about demonic possession there was To the Devil--a Daughter (1953) Dennis Wheatley's first book to deal with the supernatural phenomenon. He handles the subject matter less luridly than those more familiar books of the 1970s displaying his usual staunch occult beliefs and a detailed look at Black Magic rituals. It's all wrapped up in a fast moving adventure novel that outdoes much of what is found in the pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s.

To the Devil -- a Daughter is one of Wheatley's later novels incorporating his fascination with all things occult. Because it was written in the 1950s the Satanists turn out to be a bunch of dirty Commies not Nazis, his usual target for villainous evil.

Wheatley has a kind of Ann Coulter rant he lets loose early in the book outlining his ideas about all things evil:

Now that more than half the people in the world have become godless, they have also become rudderless. Once they have put away from themselves the idea of the hereafter they think only of their own selfish ends of the moment. That leaves them easy prey to unscrupulous politicians.  Before they know where they are, they find themselves robbed of all personal freedom; their family life, which is their last tie with their better instincts, is broken up, and their children are taken from them, to be educated into robots lacking all individuality. That is what nearly happened in Nazi Germany and what has happened in Russia; and if that is not the state of things that Satan would like to see everywhere, tell me what is?
The story is pretty much a by-the-numbers pursuit adventure story with a smattering of witchcraft and black magic to spice up the usual fist fights, kidnappings and other derring do. Wheatley has a real gift for making the most cliche adventure set piece come alive with genuine excitement and suspense. The scene where Molly Fountain's son John, the over confident hero, manages to get aboard the villain's yacht, subdue a bad guy and make his way to rescue Christina, the imperiled heroine, is a great example of taking the standard potboiler action sequence and enlivening it with character traits that humanize both the good guys and bad guys. John is flawed, not a superman and acts with a trace of guilt always thinking of the consequences of committing murder. (At the time the guillotine was still the death sentence for capital crimes in France.) The bad guys are devilishly smart not stupid. And Canon Copely-Syle, a corrupt clerical figure intent on attaining "Oneness with God," outshines any of the wicked sorcerers and occultists created by Sax Rohmer. Wheatley was probably one of the first writers to take the conventions of pulp thrillers with their over-the-top action and superhuman heroes and make them more believable and realistic.

From the very first sentence ("Molly Fountain was now convinced that a more intriguing mystery than the one she was writing surrounded the solitary occupant of the house next door") the reader knows this is a book that will tell a gripping story. The manner in which Wheatley unveils the secret life of Christina, how thriller writer Molly Fountain slowly puts together the pieces, and the discovery of the mysterious plot behind Christina's strange exile in the French Riviera and her instructions to talk to no one of her past are all masterfully executed. The story is everything here and it is easy to forgive the frequent lapses into ultra-conservative political tirades like the one previously quoted.

Bloomsbury has purchased the reprint rights for all of Dennis Wheatley's novels. All of them will be available in eBook format with a select few also released in paperback.  The first few have already been released and To the Devil--a Daughter is one of three titles that will be released in both formats. The other paperback editions released this month are The Forbidden Territory (Wheatley's first novel) and the classic black magic thriller and one of Wheatley's truly excellent books The Devil Rides Out. Click here to read more about Bloomsbury's Dennis Wheatley reprints in both paperback and digital editions.

A movie version (very loosely adapted) of To the Devil--a Daughter was done in 1976. It was the last of Hammer Horror movies and starred veteran Hammer actor Christopher Lee as an excommunicated priest bent on world domination. It's nothing at all like the book and Wheatley hated it. He even called it obscene! Now that's strong criticism coming from a secret sadist.

15 comments:

  1. LOVE that cover, John. How are you feeling? Draggy and droopy and hurting? Are you back posting regularly? Needless to say, I've never read this book. Don't know if I would, being that it's a subject matter which doesn't interest me in the slightest. It would have to be the writing that lures me in. Well, that's no big revelation. :)

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    1. I just feel ridiculously old today, Yvette. I usually heal very fast, but this injury happened on Sunday Oct 13 and it still hurts. I just hope I don't have permanent nerve damage. I'm not in excruciating pain, but it's very difficult to move from a lying down position to a standing up position. And bending over to pick up anything hurts, too. A doctor appointment tomorrow morning (the earliest I could get!) will hopefully reveal the actual problem. Can't tell if it's ribs or my back. Blah.

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  2. There was a time, back in the late 60s that I read quite a lot of Dennis Wheatley, especially he Duc de Richleau and the occult stuff like THE KA OF GIFFORD HILLARY. For some reason though I never could seem to get interested in Roger Brook. Thanks for reminding me of an old favourite.

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  3. John, thanks for reviewing this book by Dennis Wheatley. He is a new author for me. I don't mind reading occult fiction occasionally as I have through some of the books of Poe and Blatty. Re. Yvette's comment and your reply, I hope you have a speedy recovery.

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    1. I didnt' go into great detail about the occult element, but it gets pretty heavy. There is a character who is practically a clone of the kind of esoteric occultists and sorcerers that were Sax Rohmer's forte. I was especially impressed by a sequence in which the villain shows off his bizarre experiments with creating human life forms. Both chilling and revolting.

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  4. I feel like I've read something by him --short stories, maybe? It's killing me trying to think what it might have been.

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    1. There are two collections of his short stories: Gunmen and Gallants and Ghosts which include tales about his occult detective, Neils Orsen. The other is Mediterranean Nights -- adventure, spy and crime stories set in the French Riviera. Either of those ring a bell?

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  5. Sorry to hear about your injury, John - hope you get good news from the doctor and get well soon! I've only read Wheatley's THE DEVIL RIDES OUT and it is a cracking good yarn and a whole lot of fun if one is willing and able to look past his occasional political and racist digressions. Thanks for reminding me about these Wheatley reprints, will be tracking the other 2 novels down soon.

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  6. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT is the best but I really enjoyed the WWII "STRANGE CONFLICT" - what's better than a crackling yarn about De Richelieu and company versus the Satanists? Add Nazis and voodoo!

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  7. Great review John - this is one of the cases where I've seen the movie but not read the book but it sounds like they don't have too much in common anyway! And hope you start feeling better soon chum - all the best.

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  8. The movie is not bad, some weak special effects aside - Christopher Lee is a GREAT Richelieu - but the book is better. The excellent Charles Gray is a pretty good Mocata, although he does not look anything like the character in the book.

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    1. Manfred - You are talking about the movie version of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT which I wasn't too fond of overall. I agree Lee was fabulous, though. Sergio is talking about the movie version of To the Devil -- a Daughter. In it Christopher Lee plays a defrocked priest who is a sort of stand-in for the thoroughly evil Canon Copely-Syle of the novel. I found a copy of the movie of TTDAD a few days ago and will be a watching it later this week. Hope to post a compare/contrast review because it is markedly different from the book.

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  9. You are right, of course. TTDAD is the one with a distinctly uncomfortable Richard Widmark. I saw it at the drive-in (!) when it came out and haven't seen it since. Wheatley has not been well served by the movies, although THE DEVIl RIDES OUT is the best of the three that Hammer produced.

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  10. Hi John. I've just found your blog and have really enjoyed exploring your posts - and the comments from your readers. An excellent review of TTDAD. I would recommend anyone with an interest in Dennis Wheatley to check out the Dennis Wheatley website - http://www.denniswheatley.info/ - there's a vibrant and growing DW community and there is so much fun to have studying DW. Check out his WW2 activities as a deception planner in Churchill's bunker. I'll be recommending your blog on the website forum, it will appeal to many of it's followers.

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    1. Thanks, Darren! I never turn down free publicity. Last year I discovered the truly awesome Dennis Wheatley tribute site when I was doing research for my review of The Man Who Missed the War. I linked to the site on the post and warned people that it can become a highly addictive place to visit. It's one of the finest author tribute websites I've ever come across. Highly recommended for Wheatley fans and anyone curious to learn more about this talented writer and fascinating man.

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