This novel is a sort of loose sequel — through the character of Colonel Verney — to the Wheatley book To the Devil a Daughter, which I haven’t read, though I’ve seen the Hammer film (and thought it markedly inferior to The Devil Rides Out). In fact, this was the first Wheatley I had read. Verney is perhaps the third most focal of the protagonists: the center of action oscillates between the earnest and ambitious aspiring government agent Barney Sullivan and the vengeful and comely young widow Mary Morden.
I was somewhat surprised by the extent to which the Cold War context dominates the story. The Satanist of the title is not just a Satanist, he’s the Satanist at the pinnacle of a global cabal, and he aims to bring about the downfall of the Christian world by actualizing the mutually assured nuclear destruction of the NATO countries and the Soviet bloc.
The book is prefaced with a caution to the reader, assuring that the author only learned about the (indisputable, he assures us) facts of modern occultism through his library study, and that actually to pursue any such thing in personal experience would lead to “dangers of a very real and concrete nature.” The London Satanic sect uses a little Theosophical circle as one of its recruiting venues. In the course of the tale, his Satanists espouse the Law of Thelema; though they don’t call it that, they repeatedly recite the Summary, “Do what thou wilt shall be the Whole of the Law” (Wheatley’s capitalization). Experimental music and modern art are classed as Satanic enterprises. Native American tribal religions worship “Our Lord Satan,” according to the Indians’ own claims. Wheatley also asserts through his most knowledgable and sympathetic characters that telepathy is scientifically proven!
The characters are vividly drawn, if sometimes reliant on stereotype, and Wheatley provides us with a great deal of their interior reflections, exhibiting a bourgeois morality which was perhaps Wheatley’s own, or at least that which he expected his popular readership would find sympathetic. One of the villains is described as being of gigantic stature, and yet having served with distinction as a US Air Force pilot, which seemed a bit unlikely.
And so, unsurprisingly, the reward for me here was mostly limited to camp. There were, as I had hoped, a number of set pieces of diabolist ceremony, Mary Morden’s preliminary initiation being the best of them, and I could take a certain unironic pleasure in these. It wasn’t so unsatisfying that I wouldn’t perhaps pick up another of the author’s “occult thrillers,” but it was in fact a bit longer than I could justify based on the contents I did enjoy.