They Used Dark Forces

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Posts: 155
Joined: Thu 23 Jun, 2005 07:50:18
Location: Australia

They Used Dark Forces

Post by Alan »

Warning - My usual verbose review, full of misspellings, boring autobiographical details and spoilers.

He used dark language
My take on “They Used Dark Forcesâ€￾

Like many of those who post here, I came to DW’s writings by way of his occult stuff. It was not until some years after, having exhausted his horror works, that I picked up on the adventure novels. Leading me into a wider DW field was always going to take a special person. In fact the mission was accomplished by no less a man that Agent #1 himself – Mr Gregory Sallust!

It’s ideal to read a series in chronological order, and I think I’d have enjoyed Gregory’s story even more if I’d started with “Contrabandâ€￾ and gone on to finish up with “White Witch of the South Seasâ€￾. Instead, I started with the best. It came about when a school friend, to whom I had been frantically preaching the DW gospel said “Hey, I read one of Dennis Wheatley’s books, and you were right. He’s a fantastic writer.â€￾ He went on to detail the plot of “Forcesâ€￾, lingering particularly over the scene where Gregory becomes stranded in Germany after Malacou’s interference – which he found especially suspenseful.

“You’ll like his black magic stuff even more then,â€￾ I replied, knowing my friend to be an avid reader of Lovecraft, Poe, Clarke Ashton Smith and the other luminaries of our mutual pantheon.
“It is a black magic book, you twit.â€￾
“Isn’t it a Gregory Sallust story?â€￾
“Yes, but it’s full of Satanism, too!â€￾

After a recommendation like that, how could I not have investigated the work? A quick trip to W H Smiths revealed that, yes, it was a black-cover (The publishing code in the old Arrow edition was for Wheatley’s adventure tales to be issued in red covers and the horror works in black). Thus it was that I spent the lead-up to Christmas 1972 in Germany with Gregory Sallust, and a thoroughly enjoyable experience it was. For a time, Sallust even eclipsed my previous favourites, the Duke and his team. (To this day I wish Wheatley had written a book combining both sets of characters. After all, they had a mutual friend in Sir Pellinore). I even fell in love with a girl at school, simply because she was blonde and called “Erikaâ€￾!

Revisiting a classic of one’s youth is always a risky business. The work of which you have fond memories more often than not turns out to be a disappointment. My memories of “Forcesâ€￾ had been of a magnificent sweeping epoch, played out against the final days of Hitler’s regime, with twists and turns on every page. The final chapters, with the Russian hordes closing in on Berlin from the East, and the Allies pressing from the West gave me a fascination with doomed causes that has lasted to this day. Would it, I wondered, still give me the same frisson if I re-read it, after a gap of 36 years?

Lying on my bed at my mother’s place at Kooralbyn (where I spend my yearly lay-off from my temp work), with the beautiful sights and sounds of the Australian bush outside my window, the birds twittering, and Alexandre Desplat’s score to “The Golden Compassâ€￾ playing on my computer speakers in the background, I opened the book. It was an old friend I’d met in the slums of West Croydon, and had stayed with me ever since, though now the cover and frontspiece had become detached and the pages were more yellow than white. It struck me with a jolt of excitement that on first reading I’d mused “I wish I was a writer, and could sit all day making up stories like thisâ€￾ – and now, the bookmark I was using was a promotional giveaway for one of my own novels!

Right, let’s just see how much effect three and a half decades had. To begin with, the story itself was a lot less compressed than I recalled. I’d remembered the whole lot as taking place over a few months, whereas in fact it starts before D-Day!

It was also – sorry, Prince of Thrillers – a lot more long-winded than I remembered. Chapter one is nothing but a long “story so farâ€￾ preamble, which on first reading I’d appreciated, but on the reread seemed a waste of paper, since Erika, Sabine, Gregory and the rest were all familiar to me. The action really starts with the second chapter, when Stefan and Gregory land.

In fact, the first half of the book is basically there to set up the magnificent climax. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, of course, particularly if what is happening is absorbing enough to keep reading. I can’t help feeling, though, that it would have been better to have been written as two short novellas, the first dealing with Gregory’s activities at Peenemunde, the second with his return to Germany. The sojourn in England between the missions seems to make a natural interval, and if it had been a TV show I would have gone out to make coffee and feed the cat at that point.

However, what we do get in “part oneâ€￾ isn’t to be despised. There’s lots of fascinating stuff about the shortcomings of the British tactics, “Operation Torchâ€￾, and Churchill’s alternate plan to liberate Europe, some exciting espionage stuff, and one of the most fascinating villains in the whole DW canyon – or in literature anywhere.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say Malacou is one of DW’s best characters. Unlike the usual Wheatley baddie – Mocata, say, or Dr Saturday or Grauber – we don’t have a one-dimensional mustache-twirler here. Malacou is a humanitarian who gives medical treatment to the local yokels free of charge, overcomes his self-confessed cowardice to take over Gregory’s pain by hypnosis, and not only keeps our hero alive but also saves him from becoming a shambling cripple into the bargain.

But bad lot he most definitely is. He swindles Willi von Altern out of the family farm, performs black masses (though blaspheming the Kabala rather than the crucifix), arranges to have his daughter’s suitor killed by magic and is extremely rude to Stefan and Erika. The man’s even f_____g his own daughter, for heaven’s sake! It comes as no surprise, given DW’s racial proclivities, to find out that he’s a Jew.

That Gregory has to work with him – rather than another sympathetic character like Stefan – in part two, gives a whole new twist to the suspense. This really is one of DW’s “darkestâ€￾ works, with the incest, Khurrem’s suicide, and Gregory lying helpless and near-paralysed at the mercy of this villain. And there’s the near-certainty that even if he lives, our noble hero will wind up a “human crabâ€￾ as a result of his injuries.

Anyway, to the reader’s relief, Gregory manages to turn the tables on this unsavoury anti-hero and get back to England, home, and beauty. Once he hits his home shore, (after the usual gorge on foie-gras sarnies and Louis Roederer 1928 with Sir Pellinore) he orders himself a new uniform – enabling DW to close the chapter with the spine-tingling tag

To order it proved a waste of money, for he never went on leave again.

You can guess what impression the reader gets at that point! During this time, too, Gregory lunches with a gentleman with whom he was a cadet on HMS Worcester, and who now holds a high place in the War Ministry – I wonder who that could possibly be?! As far as I know, this is one of only two occasions when DW actually “does a Hitchcockâ€￾ and appears in one of his own books, “Curtain of Fearâ€￾ being the other.

Anyway, from this point the story gathers pace with a vengeance. Gregory hobnobs with the D-Day invasion force, and Wheatley (a former member of the joint planning staff) gives the preparations in intricate detail. Especially amusing is General Gale being given a tin of golden syrup to take to France with him!

Naturally, Gregory being Gregory, he then nips over to Germany to observe the effects of the allied bombing raids, gets stranded, and fetches up in the arms of his old flame Baroness Sabine Tuzolto (James Bond, eat your heart out!) – unlike Bond, however, Gregory refuses to take advantage of the situation, to the extent of pretending his dick has been shot off to avoid having to keep her warm at night! Look, Mr Sallust, aren’t you somewhat letting the side down here. As Erika herself later observes, what happens on tour stays on tour, all right? There’s such a thing as being too gentlemanly – cf Stefan, who keeps in trim for Madeleine by playing “hide the sausageâ€￾ with a comely German wench in the opening chapter.

Anyway, safe in the “armpit of the tortoiseâ€￾ (surely one of the most intriguing chapter titles in the history of literature) Gregory plots escape, only to suffer a road accident and, in the guise of an insane minor princeling, is interned in a civil jail where he again bumps into Malacou. Soon, the pair are using parlour occultism to get themselves better accommodation and rations, meet Sabine’s friend Paula, of the “letterbox mouth,â€￾ who gives Gregory a “ravishing smileâ€￾, and by a series of coincidences which only DW could make plausible, end up as the Fuhrer’s personal occultists!

From then on, it’s like a snowball down a steep hill. Grauber turns up, forcing Gregory to bluff his way out of a session of torture with the Gestapo. The various satraps (a word DW seems to like, he uses it over and over) of Hitler’s court bicker and plot and scheme against each other, Hitler raves and fumes, continually shuffling his chain of command, The Russkies loom on the outskirts of Berlin while the Allies close in from the West. And all this time Gregory works away at the Fuhrer’s vanity, persuading him to stay in Berlin rather than escape to Bavaria and drag on the war for months – by convincing him that he will be reincarnated on Mars, where he will lead an invasion force to take over the whole earth.

But Grauber still has a kick left in him – and thus we’re set up for hell of a climax!

Well, the verdict.

Yes, the book has its faults. It’s slower than I remembered, and the dated language and outdated morality (not to mention the xenophobia and homophobia) intrude more than on my first reading. Wheatley also seems confused about what is regarded as normal sexual morality for the time. On the one hand, Gregory regularly “storms the gates of paradiseâ€￾ with Erika despite her being married to someone else, on the other he has to lie his way out of a quick shag with Sabine, who, coincidentally enough is, in turn, knocking off Erika’s husband! When Gregory is helpless in Malacou’s ruined castle, Erika’s conjugal visits have to be made clandestinely – exactly why their host would care is never explained!

In addition, the somewhat stilted language tends to make one burst out laughing at what should be moments of high drama. For example, when Malacou suggests hypnotising Gregory:

“I won’t let you!â€￾ Gregory burst out. “I did before, but now I’ll resist you with all the force of my will. And you’ll find it stronger than yours.â€￾

One almost expects him to add “you unutterable cadâ€￾ for good measure! In fact, such language – which as far as I’m aware was outdated even at the time of the story, never mind 1963 when the book was published – is one of the weakest points of the book. Clichés also abound – such as Gregory vowing to avoid Malacou “like the plagueâ€￾. People one dislikes are inevitably “swineâ€￾, ones loved one is always “darlingâ€￾, and Sir Pellinore actually says “By Joveâ€￾ without a hint of self-mockery. It is small consolation that at one point Gregory gives vent to a “particularly blasphemous Italian oathâ€￾ – and it’s a measure of my advancing years that on my second reading I know what that oath is!

But in spite of these shortcomings, I was drawn in, like a lovesick moth to a particularly sexy flame! Even though I knew how it ended, I was unable to resist turning the page, and even when I finished I still saw the ruins of Berlin before my eyes for several hours after. Yes, this Wheatley chap certainly knew how to write – And “They Used Dark Forcesâ€￾ can unhesitatingly be regarded as a modern classic!

Stevie P
Posts: 194
Joined: Wed 14 Sep, 2005 08:31:56
Location: Rugby

Post by Stevie P »


An excellent review . Its good to read the words of a proper writer rather than the amateurish ramblings of some of us lesser mortals.

You've highligted things that didn't even occur to me, i.e. the cadet on HMS Worcester. I just thought it was a plug for the ship he was on - rather than " doing a Hitchcock" and I'm sure you're right. I haven't read 'Curtain of Fear' so can't comment on that one.

Also the "series of coincidences which only DW could make plausible" struck a chord with me. You refer to Sabine and Paula who end up as the Fuhrer's occultists.
I also remember that Erika miraculously became the girlfriend and confidante of King Leopold of Belgium during his exile in 'The Black Baroness' .

In The Sword of Fate there was Daphnis, the love of Julian Day, who managed to get herself the post of secretary to the Baron von Hentzen, the most senior German officer in Greece.

Then there was 'Faked Passports' and the Colonel Baron von Lutz who found Gregory and his pilot Freddie Charlton snooping around his house and grounds in the open countryside. It just so happened that he had been present at the putsch at the Hotel Adlon where there was the famous bloodbath at the end of 'The Scarlet Imposter'. As the Baron was one of the anti-Hitler brigade Gregory and Freddie had free board and lodgings.

Being curious I looked up the word - satrap. It is often used in modern literature to refer to world leaders or governors who are heavily influenced by larger world superpowers or hegemonies and act as their surrogates. You live and learn!!!

I hope you manage to get more time to relax in the Australian bush so that you can produce more quality reviews.
You must give us details of your books. Seriously.
Posts: 155
Joined: Thu 23 Jun, 2005 07:50:18
Location: Australia

Post by Alan »

Stevie - thanks for the kind words. I have to admit, though, I'm not a "real" writer in the sense DW was. My novels were produced as a kind of "edutainment" to be used in the Queensland school system. hence I was commissioned to set stories in the Roman Empire, medieval England, ancient Sparta, etc... as far as I know they are not on general sale. However, much to my surprise the occasional royalty cheque dribbles in now and again, which is very welcome.
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