Horror at Midcentury
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
With the demise of such titans as Machen, Dunsany, and Blackwood, and with such of their successors as Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, and Fritz Leiber producing only the occasional novel of note, the supernatural novel fell upon hard times at midcentury, just as the supernatural short story did with the demise of the pulp magazines. But one figure who dominated the period—in terms of sales, at any rate, and in the general absence of much competition—must now be addressed: the prolific British writer Dennis Wheatley (1897—1977).
From as early as 1933 up to a few years before his death, Wheatley produced an array of sizeable novels that had the minimal virtue of keeping the supernatural in the purview of the reading public. With the bestseller The Devil Rides Out (1934), Wheatley appeared to find a successful formula in a mix of Satanism, black magic, and derring-do adventure. In the end he published more than fifty novels.
But Wheatley is an unspeakably bad writer in every possible understanding of the term. His writing is verbose and slipshod, he succumbs to nearly every sin of popular fiction (stereotyped characters, naive good-vs.-evil moral dichotomy, contrived cliffhanger endings of chapters, an “easy-reading” prose style entirely lacking in distinction or novelty), and he resurrected the stalest of supernatural scenarios—specifically, the incursion of the Devil and his minions into modern life—in a manner that makes clear his personal belief in this baleful Christian hallucination.
All Wheatley’s deficiencies as a writer are on embarrassing display in the novel The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948). Here a young crippled airman seems to be beset in his house by “some form of devil,” which he assumes is “one of those forces of evil that are said to have been let loose in the world after Satan and his host were defeated by the Archangel Michael and cast down out of Heaven” (4). Jugg—who tells the story in long, tedious diary entries—manifestly speaks for Wheatley himself in his regret at the increasing scepticism of the age (“Satan has become rather a figure of fun these days” ), but he himself has a very different idea: “it seems impossible to doubt the existence of demons” (5). Thereafter, Jugg elaborates a painfully inept sociology of belief that reads like a tract written by a notably dense fundamentalist Christian. He himself, he makes clear, was once an atheist, but he has changed his mind—and now the octopus-shaped creature he sees occasionally outside his window is undoubtedly a demon summoned to plague him … for what exact purpose is not entirely clear.
Wheatley evidently realises that this supernatural manifestation is not of any particular interest in its own right, so he lards his tale with all manner of inessential data to pad his work out to suitable novel length. This includes the revelation that Jugg saw a ghost as a child and also had an odd experience as a teenager in school—which would lead most people to wonder whether Jugg is not merely hallucinating his present supernatural siege. And there is the question of why he is being so beset. Jugg himself comes to believe that the villain is his former tutor, one Helmuth Lisický, who Jugg is at pains to note is himself a dogmatic atheist, but who is apparently using the supernatural to gain power over Jugg—or, more precisely, the large amount of money that will come to him on his twenty-first birthday.
So the majority of The Haunting of Toby Jugg is spent in Jugg’s repeated attempts to escape from the house—attempts that are continually foiled by Helmuth’s superior ingenuity. It does not help that Jugg, as is frequent in Wheatley’s novels, engages in a jingoistic nationalism—for it turns out that Helmuth the atheist is (naturally) a communist working to undermine the valiant British nation; worse, Helmuth also proves to be a Satanist, and the head of a band of like-minded villains called the Brotherhood that seeks nothing less than to take over the entire British government and other institutions, in part by securing the wealth of people like Toby Jugg. At this point the novel has collapsed of its own absurdity, but Jugg relentlessly pursues his escape from the evil Helmuth, which he finally manages to accomplish by the partial assistance of a nurse, Sally, with whom he has fallen in love.
But mere human contrivance isn’t sufficient for the task: God has to be brought in. In a predictable deus ex machina, Jugg finds that at a critical moment his power of locomotion is miraculously restored to him: “God had heard my prayer. I found that I was standing up” (303). More remarkable still, the convenient flooding of an underground chapel from the nearby lake manages to drown the entire Brotherhood, gathered there in a nefarious Black Mass.
It is remarkable that Wheatley can believe that such hackneyed mumbo-jumbo can pass muster in an age of widening scepticism; but his audience was plainly the great unwashed who either lapped up his feeble defence of Christian orthodoxy or those equally brainless readers who wanted the vicarious titillation of witnessing the nefarious doings of Satanists and their ilk. The mechanical repetition of these trite motifs in novel after novel—Strange Conflict (1941), To the Devil—a Daughter (1953), The Satanist (1960), and on and on and on—provides conclusive evidence that bestselling writers are almost uniformly beneath critical notice. The only mercy is that Wheatley’s unending succession of windy blockbusters have now found the oblivion they eminently deserve.
Another bestseller—Uneasy Freehold (1941) by the Irish writer Dorothy Macardle (1889—1958), published in the United States as The Uninvited (1942) and the basis of a stylish 1944 film—is a somewhat different proposition. While a bit long-winded, this novel is at least a literate and moderately compelling read, with lovingly drawn characters and crisp prose. The supernatural phenomenon here—evidently the ghost of a woman who died in a house, Cliff End, on the Devon coast—is also rather venerable, but the overall handling is able. In the end, the novel proves to be a kind of supernatural detective story, in that the new owners of the house, a brother and sister named Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald, must ascertain the exact causes of the death of two women who both seem to haunt the house. Macardle wrote a few other novels involving the supernatural—Fantastic Summer (1946), Dark Enchantment (1953)—but they are less notable than The Uninvited.
The first original novel that August Derleth published with Arkham House was Witch House (1945) by American writer Evangeline Walton (1907—1996). It is creditable, though far from remarkable. Drawing upon the New England witchcraft panic of the late seventeenth century, the novel focuses on Betty-Ann Stone, an eight-year-old girl who appears to be the victim of a succession of supernatural phenomena, including the appearances of a black hare and a white kitten. In the end, this novel, like The Uninvited, is a tangled tale of love and betrayal spanning the generations, with the supernatural elements finally dispelled by a physician, Gaylord Carew. Walton achieved greater celebrity by a series of fantasy novels in the 1970s based on the Welsh Mabinogion.