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Compelling occult buried deep in silliness
on September 2, 2014
Considering the tremendous praise this book and its author have received, I was surprised to find its assets so thoroughly tempered by its mediocrities and outright flaws.
First, its assets:
-- Foremost is a convincing knowledge of occult lore. I took to looking up on Wiki many of the things Wheatley writes about here,and found many intriguing reads leading one to another. That feeling of a deep, well-researched background added a great deal to the story.
-- There was also a good deal of detail in the description of psychic states, including a masterly scene in which we see a Satanic hypnotist start in on his work while his victim becomes more and more convinced that, there being no hypnosis going on, this evil fellow is really quite the pleasant and reasonable chap and one should give such a good and reasonable fellow exactly what he wants.
-- Tangible manifestations of evil creatures from the ether are so well done that they come across as though such things were as much a part of the world as anything else.
All of this stuff is first rate!
Some sample mediocrities:
-- A fair amount of the book is taken up with travel. Characters spend a lot of time in between places and events. We get to witness them getting in and out of many cars and planes.
-- Perhaps an even greater amount of time is spent on an utterly unconvincing romance between two cardboard characters who have no business being together.
-- The characters can seem quite relaxed and even jovial in times of the most dire endangerment to not just themselves but worse, to their charges and even children.
-- Characters are constantly speaking nonsense with authority and getting away with it. I'm not saying that goofy explanations for why the unreal is real can't be fun; in horror and sci-fi, it often is, and if not strictly necessary, may be the best that can be mustered and you've just got to go with it. But here it isn't slipped quickly into and out of as our introduction to a conceit necessary for a story to work at all, or as an escape hatch for a story that has painted itself into a corner, but indulged in repeatedly as part of normal dialogue. A great deal of it follows the pattern of outrageous assertion immediately followed by agreement of all and sundry, along the lines of "Of course, scientists now overwhelmingly agree upon the magical efficacy of holy water" or "Advances in mesmeric science have confirmed the indisputable truth of voodoo," followed by, "Yes, of course, my dear fellow." Sometimes it's a steadily more ridiculous lecture instead of an assertion.
-- A caricature, in virtually every respect, of an American character so ham-fisted he is almost impossible to take seriously for more than a moment. Rex says one silly thing in one or another silly way relentlessly. Ah yes,those Americans. Thank goodness for their broad shoulders and honest hearts, always ready to raise one's spirits or a helpful enormous fist, because they are not a subtle people and don't have much in the way of brains, do they? It is hard to forget this book was written by an Englishman in the 30's.
-- There isn't a well-developed character in the book. Backgrounds for a few are alluded to, but usually only for a sentence here and there that itself often refers to a past adventure that remains undiscussed. Only one is given in any detail, and it's not of a main character. This keeps the characters thin and barely more familiar to the reader at the book's end than at its beginning.
-- A singularly inappropriate and unlikely love story between Rex and a devil worshipper springs up out of nowhere and is embraced by both with such immediate conviction and over-the-top protestations of undying love that it never feels like more than a standard plot device of the most pedestrian kind. This couple has no reason to be together, much less have any confidence in each other. At more than one point this business persuades Rex, to whom a great deal of the confidence, safety, and success of the combined mission of his group of friends has been entrusted, to make inane choices virtually doomed to failure. In doing so he puts so much more than himself alone at risk that he can only come across as at best an oafish, overgrown child with no business in a man's body or in the company and esteem of adults. His romance is handled in such a way that it destroys the credibility of one of the book's main characters.
-- Women in this book spend a lot of time all aflutter with "Oh me, oh my! Surely you shall protect me, for I love you so!" kind of dialogue. Rex and his new-found dream girl are not the only gushy couple who speak to each other in purple language, but in both, the women are given the unfortunate burden of smarming out the treacly worst of it. If these are not the worst-written women characters I've ever read, they're memorably close to it.
At one point I wondered whether the author might be writing the women's dialogue and the corny and ridiculous romance so poorly as a sort of joke or quiet rebellion, like a Hitchcock movie tacking on an improbably chipper ending after its disorienting surprises and terrors, as in The Wrong Man or Shadow of a Doubt or many others. Was he writing them so poorly, giving it his very best effort to do so, in as contemptuous a nod as he could give to a publisher's toadying to market demands for romance? Satisfying it in letter but most decidedly not in spirit? If so, then the book's unintentional comedy becomes pretty funny indeed, as the romantic set-up and dialogue are so bad they could be used as how-not-to's in a textbook for fiction writers. Every time you think it has gotten too daft, Wheatley one-ups himself and takes it to the next level. Readers without a love of camp or a great deal of patience for baloney need not apply.
-- The ending takes a long time to deliver little. Nothing at all unexpected happens, to the extent that everything of any import is exactly what you would expect to happen. It is a summary wrap-up spread over a great deal of text involving a lot of travel details and travel planning. Most of the book's real tension and emotion take place far earlier.
-- The book could easily have been a hundred pages shorter and lost little or nothing for it. So much time spent on traveling and a romance both preposterous and grievously gooey means the book's momentum regularly slams back into first gear after finally starting to pick up a little speed. For a 300 page book, it felt far longer.
Would I recommend this book to others? For horror completists, yes. Much of the occult portions are outstanding, sometimes reminding me of the best of Montague Summers. Unfortunately, the book has its wonderful and scary bits buried in a sea of attenuated prose and hogwash. And its stock characters often reminded me of books I loved as a kid, in which lightly drawn, cornball characters found themselves serially embroiled in new adventures, like The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Doc Savage. But those books were more fun, had the good sense to be shorter, and weren't meant for adults. The comparison is unbecoming enough to recommend against The Devil Rides Out as a good choice for the average adult.