by Dennis Wheatley
For me, The Satanist is by a margin Wheatley’s best black magic story. As well as being an edge-of-the-seat adventure, it utilises a theme that has always had a fascination for me – the sometimes uncanny relationship between identical twins.
The chief characters are Barney Sullivan, a minor Irish peer and Mary (Margot) Morden, who each in their own way are working for the British Secret Service. Barney is fighting soviet communism while Mary is seeking revenge for the death of her husband, murdered in a ritual satanic killing. Their objectives bring them together at a seance that is cover for something much more sinister – a coven of black magicians headed by the handsome but ruthless ipsissimus, the satanist Lothar Khune.
Lothar’s twin brother Otto is a nuclear scientist with the British government and Lothar “overlooks” him to steal rocket technology. The implied equating of the Soviet Union (whatever one might think of communism as a political philosophy) with satanic powers is one of the more ridiculous subplots in the book, the hot and cold love affair between Barney and Mary a more predictable one. Nevertheless, there is no denying the energy with which Wheatley develops the ideas and uses them to drive his plot forward to its climax.
While Barney tries to safeguard Otto’s knowledge, and protect the man himself from the enemy, Mary, careless of her own safety, joins the black magic circle and becomes the satanist’s mistress. The forces of good and evil finally confront one another on a mountain in Switzerland, where it seems the epic battle can play out in only one way – a victory for the man who can control the elements.
I didn’t enjoy The Satanist on second reading (or was it my third?) as much as I remember doing a few decades ago. I already knew how it would end. Moreover, I think I have become less tolerant of racial, religious, sexist and political prejudices as the years have gone by.
Dennis Wheatley’s novels are littered with such prejudices, presented as “normal” and “acceptable” to the mid twentieth century reader but abhorrent to most of us today (I hope!) in the twenty-first. Sometimes too, he is guilty of political overload as he seeks to develop background for his plots. The fantastic element in his black magic stories often stretches credibility, though it is is nothing when compared to the more extreme fantasies of modern times.
The modern reader should try to see past these negatives. Do that with The Satanist and you’ll find an excellent nail-biting thriller.