‘My spelling’s quite appalling … and my grammar, if anything, is even worse. I couldn’t tell you the difference between an adjective and an adverb if you paid me, but I can tell a story; yes, I can tell a story’. This admission came from Dennis Wheatley during a BBC television interview during the 1970s. Though not the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from a writer, by the time he made his brazen confession, Wheatley was second only to Agatha Christie as the nation’s bestselling novelist.
Today best remembered for his occult novels, such as The Devil Rides Out and They Use Dark Forces, he was a prolific writer, producing over a 40 year period 100 novels, three short story collections, nine anthologies and 10 works of non-fiction. He was King George VI’s favourite author and his books would go on to inspire Ian Fleming’s development of the Bond novels.
Wheatley’s 1936 spy thriller Contraband is largely set along the Thanet coast, and a scene in his 1948 occult novel, The Haunting of Toby Jugg, features a supernatural encounter that he, himself, experienced.
Today most of his work is out of print. His tales of square-jawed heroes and spirited heroines saving the British Empire from the dark evil forces of Jonny foreigner are no longer palatable to modern readers.
The only son of Streatham grocers, Wheatley’s gift for storytelling first emerged at Skelsmergh Prep School on Dalby Square, Clifftonville, which he began attending shortly after his 8th birthday in January 1905.
The headmaster at the time was a G.N. Hester, whom Dennis came to admire greatly. In the first volume of his memoir The Time Has Come, Wheatley recalls: ‘Headmasters were, in those days, almost always feared; but G.N. was an exception.’ Though no tyrant, Hester was still give boy who seriously misbehaved a ‘good leathering’, as Dennis discovered when caught stealing chocolate from a shop on Northdown Road .
The headmaster taught the boys geography, during which he would recount his global travels as a young man. ‘His lessons contained no dreary population figures,’ Dennis recalled fondly, ‘heights of mountains, lengths of rivers, which had to be learnt by heart, only to be forgotten within a year or so. He simply talked to us for an hour about foreign lands: their climates, scenery, people, customs and animals.’
Hester would also read to the whole school on Sunday evenings, during which he thrilled the boys with tales by authors such as Wilkie Collins. ‘How impatiently we waited to hear the next instalment of The Moonstone, or The Woman in White,’ Dennis later wrote.
Wheatley soon began regaling his schoolmates with his own fantastical tales: ‘a strange hotch-potch of dragons, robbers, witches, Indians and buried treasure’. Often lifted directly from books he had read, these stories began shortly after Dennis experienced terrifying brush with the supernatural.
The incident occurred at Hester’s private residence, where Dennis and another young boy called Bernie Amendt were staying.
One night the two boys were climbing the stairs for bed. The hall and staircase were dimly lit by moonlight filtering through the windows. As they reached the first landing, Dennis looked up and saw the face of a dark figure lurking in the shadows just above.
‘He was crouching low on the first few steps of the upper flight of stairs, and above his face one of his hands gripped the rail of the banisters. The face was round, white and horrible. I was petrified, struck dumb with fear, and remained rooted to the spot.’
Amendt, who had seen nothing, opened the door to their room. Looking out of the window, he said: ‘Oh, what a lovely moon.’ The sound of his roommate’s voice broke the spell of terror that gripped young Wheatley and he screamed. The figure instantly bounded up the stairs.
A search of the house revealed nothing and Dennis was told that he had seen a burglar, though nothing had been taken.
Years later, while serving as an officer during the First World War, Dennis met Milly Evans, who knew the truth of that night.
A friend of Hester’s wife, she recalled how she, the Hesters and an unnamed dinner guest were holding a séances at the time. With no evidence of an intruder found, it was concluded that they had brought an entity into the house. The incident unsettled Milly and the Hesters so much that they never again dabbled with spiritualism.
The haunting of Dennis Wheatley would later become a scene in The Haunting of Toby Jugg, a story about a crippled WW2 fighter pilot who becomes increasingly disturbed by a mysterious shadowy figure spied through a gap in the blackout curtains. Dennis would later recall his terrifying encounter on numerous occasions until his death in 1977.
Retitled The Haunted Airman, the book was later adapted for the BBC and starred Twilight’s Robert Patterson in the title role.