Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977) is best remembered today for what he termed his Black Magic novels. In fact these made up only a small part of his total literary output. Most of his books are non-supernatural thrillers including quite a few historical thrillers. To describe the majority of his books as straightforward thrillers would however be misleading since there is nothing straightforward about them. Wheatley’s defining characteristic is the outrageousness of his plots.
Wheatley wrote no less than eleven thrillers featuring super-spy Gregory Sallust, a character who was to have a considerable influence on Ian Fleming when he created James Bond (Fleming and Wheatley had met during the war when both were doing intelligence work). They Used Dark Forces is one of several Gregory Sallust thrillers that are also Black Magic thrillers.
Wheatley’s Black Magic novels included some stories that can be considered to be out-and-out horror (The Haunting of Toby Jugg and The Ka of Gifford Hillary being in my view the best of these) but most of them are best described as occult thrillers - books which are structurally thrillers but include elements of the occult.
They Used Dark Forces was published in 1964 and it concludes the story of Sallust’s wartime adventures. Sallust has been sent to Germany in the guise of a German officer (he speaks fluent German) to find out exactly what the Germans are up to at their top-secret research station at Peenemünde on the Baltic. What they were up to was in fact the testing of two of the secret weapons project that Hitler hoped would turn the tide of war in his favour. The V-1 was a pilotless aircraft carrying a warhead of just under a ton of high explosive. The V-2 rocket was a more formidable weapon, carrying a slightly larger warhead but quite impossible to intercept.
Sallust is accompanied on this mission by an old friend, Kuporovitch. Kuporovitch is a former Bolshevik general who is actually a convinced anti-communist. While undertaking this mission Sallust will encounter a man who is destined to play a very large role in hi future adventures. Ibrahim Malacou claims to be Turkish but is in fact a Jew, and he is also a Satanist. At this point, if you’re unfamiliar with Wheatley’s work, you might be thinking that this is going to be an anti-semitic novel. Wheatley’s attitudes towards Jews were like his attitudes towards most things, much too complicated to be dismissed so glibly. Wheatley had no particular antipathy towards Jews. Gregory Sallust is suspicious of Malacou because he is a Satanist, not because he is a Jew. And he is prepared to overlook Malacou’s Satanism because Malacou is also fanatically anti-Nazi. Sir Winston Churchill famously remarked that, "If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons." Gregory Sallust decides to adopt a similarly Churchillian policy towards Malacou, reasoning that anyone who hated Hitler as much as Malacou did couldn’t be all bad even if he was a devil-worshipper.
The Peenemünde episode occupies the first half of the book. The second and much more interesting half sees Sallust stranded in German-occupied Poland. His attempts to escape back to Britain lead him instead to a German prison where he once again encounters Malacou, and will eventually lead him to Hitler’s bunker. A very dangerous place to be in 1945, so it’s just as well Gregory can rely on getting some help from his old buddy Hermann Goering. If you’re wondering why Goering would be helping out a British secret agent and a Jewish black magician you’ll have to read the book. Suffice to say that it’s exactly the kind of plot you expect from Wheatley, and that he makes it work much more effectively than it has any right to do.
Wheatley had a mind that was much attracted to conspiracy theories and in general his best books are the ones with the most bizarre conspiracy theory plots. Given the enthusiasm of Hitler and other senior Nationalist Socialists for the occult the plot of They Used Dark Forces is perhaps only slightly stranger than fiction.
Fans of Wheatley will not be surprised to learn that Gregory Sallust’s sex life plays an important part in the novel. The use of copious quantities of sex and violence is one of the many elements that Ian Fleming borrowed from Dennis Wheatley.
They Used Dark Forces includes most of Wheatley’s weaknesses as a writer, in particular his propensity for lengthy digressions on military history and politics and his fondness for rather clumsy info-dumps. Personally I see this as more of a feature than a bug, given that Wheatley’s views on military history and politics are so entertainingly provocative and so delightfully politically incorrect. Wheatley may have been a political reactionary but he was a complex, intelligent and often surprising political reactionary.
And the novel also features Wheatley’s strengths, most notably his ability to tell very strange stories very entertainingly.
They Used Dark Forces will delight confirmed Dennis Wheatley fans. If you haven’t yet explored the delights of Wheatley’s fictions it’s probably a reasonable enough place to start that exploration. Highly recommended.