Authors: Dennis Wheatley
Edited by Miranda Vaughan Jones
To my charming and gifted stepson
W. A. YOUNGER
Christ Church, Oxford
Whose first book of poems
has just appeared. I have the honour to introduce
his work to my readers in the three poems, written
by him, which grace the pages of this book
8 Somewhere South of Southward
10 The Thing that Came in the Night
14 The Things that Tapped in the Night
Dennis Wheatley was my grandfather. He only had one child, my father Anthony, from his first marriage to Nancy Robinson. Nancy was the youngest in a large family of ten Robinson children and she had a wonderful zest for life and a gaiety about her that I much admired as a boy brought up in the dull Seventies. Thinking about it now, I suspect that I was drawn to a young Ginny Hewett, a similarly bubbly character, and now my wife of 27 years, because she resembled Nancy in many ways.
As grandparents, Dennis and Nancy were very different. Nancy’s visits would fill the house with laughter and mischievous gossip, while Dennis and his second wife Joan would descend like minor royalty, all children expected to behave. Each held court in their own way but Dennis was the famous one with the famous friends and the famous stories.
There is something of the fantasist in every storyteller, and most novelists writing thrillers see themselves in their heroes. However, only a handful can claim to have been involved in actual daring-do. Dennis saw action both at the Front, in the First World War, and behind a desk in the Second. His involvement informed his writing and his stories, even those based on historical events, held a notable veracity that only the life-experienced novelist can obtain. I think it was this element that added the important plausibility to his writing. This appealed to his legions of readers who were in that middle ground of fiction, not looking for pure fantasy nor dry fact, but something exciting, extraordinary, possible and even probable.
There were three key characters that Dennis created over the years: The Duc de Richleau, Gregory Sallust and Roger Brook. The first de Richleau stories were set in the years between the wars, when Dennis had started writing. Many of the Sallust stories were written in the early days of the Second World War, shortly before Dennis joined the Joint Planning Staff inWhitehall, and Brook was cast in the time of the French Revolution, a period that particularly fascinated him.
He is probably always going to be associated with Black Magic first and foremost, and it’s true that he plugged it hard because sales were always good for those books. However, it’s important to remember that he only wrote elevenBlack Magic novels out of more than sixty bestsellers, and readers were just as keen on his other stories. In fact, invariably when I meet people who ask if there is any connection, they tell me that they read ‘all his books’.
Dennis had a full and eventful life, even by the standards of the era he grew up in. He was expelled from Dulwich College and sent to a floating navel run school, HMS Worcester. The conditions on this extraordinary ship were Dickensian. He survived it, and briefly enjoyed London at the pinnacle of the Empire before war was declared and the fun ended. That sort of fun would never be seen again.
He went into business after the First World War, succeeded and failed, and stumbled into writing. It proved to be his calling. Immediate success opened up the opportunity to read and travel, fueling yet more stories and thrilling his growing band of followers.
He had an extraordinary World War II, being one of the first people to be recruited into the select team which dreamed up the deception plans to cover some of the major events of the war such as Operation Torch, Operation Mincemeat and the D-Day landings. Here he became familiar with not only the people at the very top of the war effort, but also a young Commander Ian Fleming, who was later to write the James Bond novels. There are indeed those who have suggested that Gregory Sallust was one of James Bond’s precursors.
The aftermath of the war saw Dennis grow in stature and fame. He settled in his beautiful Georgian house in Lymington surrounded by beautiful things. He knew how to live well, perhaps without regard for his health. He hated exercise, smoked, drank and wrote. Today he would have been bullied by wife and children and friends into giving up these habits and changing his lifestyle, but I’m not sure he would have given in. Maybe like me, he would simply find a quiet place.
Dominic Wheatley, 2013
Another great wave hit the ship a resounding thud. She gave a sickening lurch, lifted with alarming rapidity, hovered a moment, shuddering through all her length as the screws raced wildly, and plunged again—down, down, down—so that the passengers scattered about her lounge felt once more the horrible sensation of dropping in a brakeless lift.
was no luxury liner but a Swedish cargo vessel of 3,600 tons carrying twenty cabin-class passengers. She was seven days out from Cape Town, bound for Rio de Janeiro, the ports along the north-east coast of South America, and the West Indies. Twenty-four hours earlier she had hit the hurricane. Since then life had been hell for all on board.
That morning, such passengers as could still stand had staggered up the companionway to the small lounge and remained there ever since. The hatches were battened down, the decks awash and impassable, except for officers and crew who ran the risk of being swept overboard every time their duties made it necessary for them to fight their way through the foaming waters. No hot meals could be served even if the hardier travellers could have faced them and even the bravest preferred the upper-deck lounge, which seemed less of a death-trap, to the narrow dining-saloon or their cabins on the decks below. Those who felt hungry had picnicked on cold meat sandwiches.
Basil Sutherland stood up and lurched towards the bar. No one could have accused him of being drunk on account of his unsteady gait; the roll and pitch of the ship easily accounted for that, but his voice was thick as he said to the barman: ‘ ’nother whisky, Hansie—make it a double.’
The pale-faced, blue-eyed Swede steadied himself and poured the drink with his free hand.
Basil grabbed the tumbler but did not lift it. With an effort he brought his brown eyes into focus and stared at the pale golden
liquid. As the ship rolled, the whisky in the glass tilted smoothly, first to one side then to the other. ‘Twenty-five degrees roll,’ he announced; ‘at thirty we turn over and go under—don’ we?’
‘I wouldn’t reckon we’ve touched twenty-five yet, Mister Sutherland,’ the bartender smiled deprecatingly.
‘Good for you, Hansie, you ol’ liar, but what the hell! Who cares anyway? Drowning’s a pleasant death they tell me.’ The young Englishman did not really believe there was any serious risk of the ship sinking. They had weathered the storm for a night and a day so in another twelve hours they would probably run out of it. Yet a morbid streak in him, brought to the surface perhaps by heavy drinking, made him toy with the possibility that death was closing in on them and that before morning they might all be drowned.
He picked up his drink, tossed off half of it and swinging round spread his legs wide, dug his heels into the deck, propped his back against the bar, and surveyed the occupants of the saloon.
Rotten lot of blighters, was his mental comment. Not a decent feller among them, except the Frenchman. What was his name—De Brissac, that was it—Captain Jean De Brissac. But he was doing a shift on the pumps at the moment. A plate in the ship’s bows having sprung a leak owing to the heavy seas, all the male passengers had been pressed into service since midday.
The two old nuns were putting up a pretty good show, Basil ruminated. Sitting bolt upright on that hard settee, clicking over the black beads of their rosaries as though it weren’t a fifty-fifty chance that their mouths would be full of more salt water than they could swallow before morning. Wonderful thing religion. Insurance for Heaven and a certain place in the far, far better world to come—if you could believe in it.
Swissh!—thump! Basil reeled, steadied himself by grabbing at a screwed-down table and tensed his muscles; the ship was climbing again as though she never meant to stop. The groaning of the girders increased to a scream, an awful sideways wriggle ensued while the screws beat the air, then she sank like a stone for minutes on end so that it seemed utterly impossible that she was not diving straight to the bottom of the Atlantic.
‘Coffee?’ said a voice beside him.
With an effort he swung round and stared into the pale face of Unity Carden. She held a big jug in one hand and a clutch of thick cups in the other. ‘I’ve just made it in the galley—do you good,’ she added.
‘No—no thanks,’ he muttered, and, taking advantage of a momentary righting of the ship, she slid across to two bronze-faced Portuguese traders.
His eyes followed her, admiration struggling with contempt in their expression. She reminded him of a season years ago when, just down from Oxford, he had danced with dozens of her kind, whose conversation was confined, through lack of experience, to finishing abroad and hearty chatter about horses. Well, Barbara had got him out of that. She’d cost him a packet, but he didn’t grudge a penny of it. What a summer they’d had in that little place he’d taken for her down on the river. There wasn’t a millionaire, even, who could boast of having kept Barbara La Sarle for a solid twelve-month. She’d ditched him in the end as he’d always known she would, but if he were drowned tonight the memory of her radiant face and low-pitched voice in the days when she simply couldn’t keep her hands off him was something worth having lived for.
He watched Unity Carden’s erratic progress from group to group and if he’d had a Union Jack with him he would have waved it, half-derisively, half in genuine pride. Good old England! That’s the stuff to give ’em! Cold as an icicle, stupid as an oaf, loathing all these foreigners without the faintest reason, yet bringing them sustenance when every other woman in the ship, except the nuns, had gone under with sickness or given way to hysterical despair.
He saw her complete her round and reach her father. Colonel Carden, with his gammy leg stretched out in front of him, was as calm as though he was sitting in his club, An insufferable old bore, thought Basil, narrow as they make ’em, and stupid to a degree. No one but a criminal lunatic could ever have allowed him to hold the lives of a thousand men in the hollow of his hand, yet he possessed a code as straightforward as that of a boy who had been taught the rules in his first term at a public school. Basil recalled his own ideals at the age of thirteen, and grinned wryly. He slammed down his tumbler on the bar. ‘Gi-me-another, Hansie.’