Phil Baker
The Devil is a Gentleman:
The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley

(Dedalus hardback, 699pp, £25.00, ISBN 978-1-903517-75-8)

A seven-hundred-page literary biography may look all too daunting, but appearances are deceptive. Lazy readers will be glad to know that the text ends much earlier, with the last 90pp devoted to references, bibliographies (remember the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult?) and a detailed index. Still better news is that it's lively, racy reading throughout, often echoing Wheatley's own technique of a slightly contrived cliffhanger at each chapter's end. Phil Baker admires his subject, that "notoriously bad prose stylist", not for the pellucid quality of his writing but as a charmer and something of a rogue, a wide boy with dodgy associates who made good – or at least, made the bestseller lists.

Wheatley's bookplate

The Wheatley books I lapped up as a teenager were of course the celebrated Black Magic potboilers that began with The Devil Rides Out (1934). That one has the famous set-piece scene of our heroes in a defensive pentacle besieged by assorted emissaries of Hell, which played well in the 1968 Hammer film and which (as Baker carefully points out) owes a lot to William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, inventor of the Electric Pentacle.

Close your eyes, if you too were exposed at the right age, and the whole Wheatley Black Arts thing comes flooding back from deep memory. The desperate use of technology against insidious evil, like the blazing car headlights that disrupt an open-air Sabbat, or the Mills bomb with which one of Wheatley's more robust heroines despatches a congregation of hapless Satanists. The grisly props like the all-potent Talisman of Set, the god's mummified penis, an occult doomsday weapon that somehow didn't make it into the movie.

Above all, Wheatley loved to pull a deus ex machina from his luxuriously padded smoking-jacket sleeve. I fondly remember one lot of good guys having a rough time in a Satanic chapel with malignity and ectoplasm oozing everywhere, and a sticky end seeming inevitable until zapppp! this lightning bolt streaks through the roof and sunders the evil altar, purging all nastiness with the relentless efficiency of Dyno-Rod clearing a blockage. Our author then explains with fetching simplicity: "God had intervened."

Until Baker reminded me, I had managed to lose the climax of The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948) in merciful amnesia. This one has genuinely creepy passages featuring a shadowy spider-demon, and you could always skip the political lectures about how Satanism and Communism are essentially the same thing, i.e. bad. (Wheatley was later to make the same discovery about Satanism and trade unions; Satanism and Black Power ...) At the finale, with all hope gone and the nice girl about to be ritually violated on a bed of stinging-nettles, the mad great-aunt who for many years has been madly digging tunnels suddenly breaks through into an underground lake to release a flood that drowns all the Satanists in their sunken chapel. Even this is outdone by The Irish Witch (1973), a late historical Black Magic novel whose hero, as his daughter faces the usual fate worse than death, "can do nothing except watch, when fortunately a gigantic frog suddenly appears and gobbles all the Satanists up."

As indicated by that quote, Phil Baker's book synopses are not suffocatingly reverent. Rather more impressive is the background tapestry of Wheatley's life, researched with great thoroughness. One dubious mentor comes close to stealing the show in the early 1920s: Gordon Tombe, who indoctrinated Wheatley with the aesthetic/decadent world-view of the Naughty Nineties (Wilde and Pater in particular) to such effect that Wheatley's bookplate shows Tombe as a satyr encouraging Wheatley to make free with not one but all the trees of the Garden of Eden. This scene was drawn by Frank C. Papé, best remembered for lavishly illustrated editions of James Branch Cabell. Papé's good taste may have rebelled at Wheatley's initial bookplate sketch – also reproduced – depicting Tombe as the devil deftly holding and pouring a bottle of champagne with his barbed and sinuous tail. Blimey.

This mentor is definitely trouble. Wheatley has to provide an alibi when, wearing exquisite evening dress to give a look of innocence, Tombe burns down a large house called The Welcomes for the sake of the insurance. Later Tombe disappears, leading to a comedy of embarrassment as Wheatley hires a private detective to trace him but doesn't dare give the sleuth any useful information for fear of incriminating himself. Eventually Tombe's murdered body turns up in a cesspit at The Welcomes....

The cast is crowded with famous and infamous names. Tasty anecdotes abound. Wheatley plans to bootleg the wares of his family wine trade to Prohibition America, only for all the samples to get nicked in Bermuda; is blackmailed for misuse of ration coupons in World War II but manages to turn the tables; bashes out a pro-Islam, anti-Commie propaganda thriller for the Persian market and contrives to get paid from UK Secret Funds, tax-free in cash; is embarrassed when an MP demands actual evidence for the Satanic naughtiness our author keeps claiming is rife in England; reproduces the diabolism-loving cleric and horror anthologist Montague Summers as the evil Canon Copely-Syle in To The Devil – a Daughter (1953); gives plot advice to Anthony Powell; cannot resist chocolate, champagne or sweet liqueurs even when diabetes and cirrhosis have set in.

No fact or allusion is too obscure for Baker to track down. Even my own brief Wheatley entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) is meticulously quoted, referenced and indexed. But Baker never bores and Wheatley, for all his faults, is sufficiently engaging that you can't help liking the old devil who was "arguably the twentieth century's greatest non-literary writer" – rivalled for this dubious honour only by Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace.

An enjoyable read, especially for those of us who remember all those occult novels as a guilty adolescent pleasure. As David Blundy of the Observer once wrote: "Wheatley has been grappling with the Devil for over thirty years now, and frankly, the Devil's been pretty decent about it."