|Joined: 23 Jun 2005|
| Posted: Sun 22 Mar, 2009 13:54:50
(ctd) We all know that the Musketeers take it in turns to get into the poo, forcing the others to get them out. By this time, everyone (Richard, Simon, Rex) have had their turn, and we’ve come full circle. Like Forbidden Territory, Rex is again the damsel in distress, having absconded with a gigantic sum of money from his family’s bank. And off to solve the mystery go the other three – yes, three, you did read that right. Poor Marie-Lou is having a hysterectomy. The lack of the distaff side for this adventure really weakens the work, (quite apart from it being out of character for Richard to leave her at such a time), and the poor girl only appears at all as a satanically-induced vision to temp Richard out of a pentacle!
Anyway, off go Richard and Simon to sort things out (The Duke is delayed, for reasons explained in the book, but which add bugger all to the plot), whereupon they encounter the usual ex-Nazi (a gentleman called “Baron Von Thumm” – are we sure DW wasn’t sending himself and his readers up at this point?), various South American aristocrats who aren’t what they seem, and – the saving grace of this book – two of the best female characters to appear in DW’s whole oeuvre.
The first is Rex’s niece, Miranda, a near-blind girl who possesses her fair share of the Van Ryn spunk and intelligence. On first meeting she becomes Simon’s love-interest, leading to the delightful scene where he manufactures a mask, with marbles for eyes, so that she can go out in public without being embarrassed. By the end of the book, her blindness has been cured by Satanic powers, and she’s well on the way to becoming Mrs Aron. I’d love to have seen more of her in the series.
Secondly, we have Sylvia Sinegiest, a gorgeous Scandinavian ex-actress devoted to her lapdog and her garden, who tries (and almost succeeds) to vamp Richard. Despite her penchant for adultery, and her inability to keep her skirt from riding up when sitting she’s presented as a goody, until – well, I try to keep spoilers out of these reviews. Let’s just say she’s a damn sexy piece, and could give Sabine Tzulto a run for her money...
Sylvia is Rex’s love interest (whatever happened to poor Tanith?) and spins the yarn that Rex nicked the money at her request, after a quarrel when Rex was unfaithful to her with an Afro-American girl (the actual language used is less politically correct!) DW assumes his readers will take it for granted that all decent people find the union between a black girl and a white man offensive, and, frankly, to a 21st century reader this positioning doesn’t work! In any case, we learn that this is a fib, and in fact Rex and Sylvia are working for the Black Power movement – which is (surprise) a cover for another attempt by Satan to take over the world!
Anyway, up and down the continent our questers zap, joined by the Duke about halfway through, being deceived at every turn, and being surprisingly entertaining – to the extent that one starts liking the book once one gets properly into it. And then one is brought back down to earth by more lazy writing. The Duke engages in a struggle, on the astral, with the villains, and one settles down in anticipation of another scene such as the blood-chilling climax of Strange Conflict. No such luck – De Richleau simply goes into a trance, then wakes up a few hours afterwards and tells the others he’s subdued the enemy in an astral scrap. Talk about cheating!
We do encounter – hope you’re sitting down at this point – two sympathetic black men! Of course they’re both next door to idiots, having been deceived by the Black Power movement, and they talk like characters out of Uncle Remus, but it’s nice to think that by his 73rd year DW was finally shrugging off his white-supremist mindset.
The modern era is even suffered to intrude. At one point, no Chateau Yqem being handy, the Musketeers guzzle Coca-Cola. Richard takes (shock, horror) a shower instead of a bath and a threat is made to send fire to consume Rex’s testicles! (memo, DW – men have testes! Little boys have “testicles.”)
There is the usual information dump, such as the fact that one can’t be served drinks in bathing wraps in South American countries, a paean in appreciation of Eva Peron, an excellent explanation of why fairies shouldn’t be portrayed with wings - and a few out-of-character actions (just why would Simon, a Jew, have such a liking for lobster?), and of course, the obligatory pentacle scene which brings us crashing back down into mediocrity.
The pentacle scenes in Strange Conflict and The Devil Rides Out are masterpieces of horror writing, with thrills at every turn. In Gateway, we have further evidence that this work was churned out in DW’s sleep!
It takes place in the “Hall of Divination”, a sort of crypt decorated with various nasty symbols such as “the Star of David upside-down” (have a look at this symbol and you can see just how absurd this concept is), and “The Mohammedan Crescent with its horns pointing at the floor”. Unlike previous works, where our heroes have got out of trouble by their own courage and intelligence, this time the enemy has obligingly slipped up and left them in a place where a pentacle is already provided. With the help of salt-cellars pocketed at dinner and the usual complex Cabbalistic symbols, the Duke is able to prepare their astral defences.
This time the nasties include spiders dropping from the ceiling and thus eluding the pentacle’s defences, begging the question – “If it’s that easy, why didn’t the elementals etc do this in The Devil Rides Out?” Thinking about this I came to the conclusion that they weren’t astral spiders, but real ones, since, as DW told us in earlier works, Satanists have the power to control “all mean beasts” – but if so, why wasn’t this made clear? More bad continuity.
Then we have a sort of turtle with leprosy (I kid you not – read the book!) that tries to turn our heroes’ blood to water. Let’s face it, if the “sack-like thing” from Devil couldn’t do it, what hope for this rather absurd chimera?
And then the usual temptations – a nice warm fire, Vachelli from the Savoy Grill with a trolley piled high with mouth-watering food. Now these guys have been through this before, and unless they’re congenital idiots – which they aren’t – would have not had too much difficulty realising that their favourite Maitre d’ wouldn’t just turn up in a Satanic chapel on the other side of the world! Having his characters almost fall for that ruse was a disappointing piece of writing, to say the least!
Next we have a vision of Mary-Lou being chased by Lincoln B Glasshill, one of the Satanists. Of course, perfectly logical – You last saw your wife flat on her back in England, having just come though a serious surgical operation, what could be more natural than that she suddenly pops up in South America being raped in the very chamber where you have taken refuge? That fact that Richard almost falls for this one is doleful...
And finally, we have a “manifestation that isn’t” – Rex appears, steps into the pentacle, says he’s changed sides, and from then on he’s back in the team! The book finishes with as much haste and sloppiness as it began. The goodies come out on top not by a subtle and clever plan, or feats of courage and endurance, but by external events that have nothing to do with the Duke and his friends.
We learn that the baddies plan to open the pit – an actual gateway to hell (wondered why the book was called that!) that happens to lie, hitherto undiscovered, in the middle of the jungle. This hasn’t been foreshadowed at all up until this point, and has all the taint of a “deux ex machina” so DW could get his contractual obligation over and done with and get back to doing something more interesting. There is, however, a magnificent climax, when the actual gateway is opened and all sorts of fiends come out – I particularly like the elemental in the shape of the epileptic boy – but the situation isn’t as bad as all that. For we learn, out of the blue, that the opening can be closed, if only one will throw oneself into it. Well, that’s a handy thing to suddenly learn! Was there also a convenient spaceship hovering by to take them to safety, or did Richard have a nuclear warhead hidden about his person that he hadn’t mentioned up to this point?
Anyway, this knowledge does our heroes no good, since they are paralysed with fear. Even the Duke can’t summon up the courage. And then, suddenly –
Looking back over what I’ve written to this point, I’m aware I’ve roasted this novel something rotten. Actually, it isn’t all bad. I remember reading it for the first time at 15 and being utterly gripped, and even as an adult there were bits of it I found highly enjoyable. The bit where Rex is struck down like the serpent in Genesis, the perilous situations our heroes get into, the flying scenes. And having thought they’d seen the last of the Duke, DW’s fans would surely have been pleased to see this prequel.
All in all, though, it’s evident that – sorry, but I must be honest here – Mr Wheatley’s powers were on the wane at this point. He still had seven years to live, and produced at least one well-told tale – The Strange Tale of Linda Lee – subsequent to this work, as well as editing his well-known “Library of the Occult” series, so he obviously wasn’t in failing health. Anyway, don’t take my word for it, read it, and you might come to a totally opposite opinion. But if you’re new to DW’s work, have a look at “They used Dark Forces” or “To the Devil, a Daughter”, or “The Devil Rides Out” first – for I’d hate you to get the wrong idea about one of the greatest adventure writers of the 20th century!