Book Review: The Black Magic Series Starter by Dennis Wheatley

Posted June 3, 2016 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews / 2 Comments

Book Review: The Black Magic Series Starter by Dennis Wheatley

I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The Black Magic Series Starter by Dennis Wheatley
Series: , , , ,
Genres: Horror, Paranormal, Thriller
Published by Bloomsbury Reader on April 28, 2016
Pages: 918
Format: eARC
Source: Netgalley

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An eARC omnibus that encompasses the first, second, and third of the Black Magic paranormally horrifying series (the first two are a spin-off from Wheatley’s Duke de Richleau series (numbers 6 and 9, respectively)) was provided by NetGalley for an honest review.

Individually, I rated the stories at a “4”, “3”, and “2”, which averages out to a “3”.

The Devil Rides Out takes place around the end of April and the start of May in 1935 while Strange Conflict begins after the Germans began bombing England at the start of World War II and after the French government collapsed. Both stories revolve around best friends: the Duke de Richleau, Simon Aron, the Princess Marie Lou and Richard Eaton, and Rex Van Wyn.

The Haunting of Toby Jugg does not include de Richleau and friends and takes place during April, May, and June of 1945.

My Take

The men — the Duke de Richleau, Simon Aron, Richard Eaton, and Rex Van Wyn — first met up in Three Inquisitive People, 4; the princess joined the team in The Forbidden Territory, 5.

The first two stories are blatantly religious, borrowing from several world religions with an emphasis along the lines of Light versus Dark, Good versus Evil, and the Powers of Good with even more of an emphasis on magic, reincarnation, and dreams while the third explores whether one needs religion in one’s life. They’re also quite action-oriented with chase scenes, drama, and plenty of tension what with the evil magician magicking his victim back, the rioting townsfolk, arson, sharks, battling off the vulnerability of sleep, and zombification…eek!…

The analogies the duke uses to explain magic are thought-provoking, and his explanation of reincarnation does make a lot of sense as does his explanation for why our dreams are so odd. He uses Jesus Christ as an example of choosing how one will live and/or die in one’s last incarnations. And the Admiral’s civilian dreaming is quite explicit, oh là là! The captain’s dreams are, ahem, also quite interesting. It seems he prefers the feminine form.

The slang of the 1930s was interesting to read, and Wheatley has a very noir atmosphere with all the drama of the times in referring to “magic”. Also typical of the times is the condescending attitude towards people of other races. It’s embarrassing to think people could actually believe such drivel, and a relief that we’ve come as far as we have. We do still have a ways to go, but at least we are making progress. Wheatley certainly has some “interesting” beliefs in why the white man has done as well as he has.

I knew the swastika was an ancient symbol adopted by the Nazis, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard this explanation for it. De Richleau’s explanation of baptism is encompassing, on both sides. Even more interesting is Wheatley’s take on the Albigensians, the Templars, and the Rosicrucians. More history involves La Voisin, Prince Borghese’s taking back his palazzo, the magic of Nicolas Flamel, Rasputin’s real identity, the real reason why World War I broke out, Tanith’s use of numerology, and the tale of Osiris’ murder of Set (very clever if totally wicked).

People of my generation and older were taught to be polite to everyone. It’s a definite handicap when encountering the bad guys, and examples of when being rude is the better choice should be taught. That’s not to say that being rude is the best choice, but that there are times when it is merited…phone solicitors, for example.

One of the pluses of reading an author writing contemporaneously in the 1930s means we have a primary source for the time’s culture, manners, and modes of communication and travel for that time. It does make me appreciate cellphones all the more, and our current ease of air travel, despite all the security problems we have. Although it still doesn’t explain why they couldn’t simply fly to Haiti from Bermuda. Why did they have to go up to New York City??

In The Devil Rides Out, the conflict revolves around Simon’s poor choices, and I should think Simon has an “inkling” that he’s dabbling in evil when he tries so hard to keep de Richleau out of it all. I also suspect that de Richleau would do better to ensure Max was better informed about black magic.

Tanith was a pain. She comes across as an intelligent woman, but her reasoning for following the Left Hand Path is so immature. I don’t get the impression that she’s a wicked woman, but she is a nasty-minded person with her desire to have power over people. Doesn’t she realize that this is an evil desire? What’s wrong with helping people? As for the Malagasy and the Goat, I do wish Wheatley hadn’t been so cryptic. Did the Malagasy give himself over to the demon, was he the demon, or what?

The good guys did make some stupid moves: Rex drove me mad with his stupid decisions about Tanith at the inn. Duh. At the very least consult with the duke instead of falling asleep in the woods! Leaving Fleur unprotected makes me question their intelligence as well. Simon choosing to go against his friends despite the logic of their decision. And poor Richard, having to go a whole day without his drinks and meat…*eye roll*…

In Strange Conflict, the accepting nonchalance of the duke and Sir Pellinore interrupting their dinner to deal with the incendiary bombs cracked me up. Then there’s the duke’s spying. I wonder if the CIA knows how much easier it is if one can travel in the astral?

It does make sense, even if it does make me laugh, that the Haitians should appropriate the images of Catholic saints to represent their Voodoo gods. Saturday provides a synopsis of the slave rebellions on Haiti as well as why Haiti has not been able to prosper since she achieved independence.

After all the excitement in The Devil Rides Out about Rex being in love with Tanith, where is she? Rex is on his own in Strange Conflict, and there is absolutely no mention of her.

Hmm, it appears that de Richleau, Rex, Richard, and Simon have been up to all sorts of mischief (through the Duke de Richleau series) since The Devil Rides Out, 1 (6). Events in this first story do make it easier for the rest of Team de Richleau to buy in and help out in the second story.

Strange Conflict is an “adventure” that forces de Richleau to consider his life, his dabbling with Magic and that he is not quite White. I haven’t been that impressed with de Richleau’s thinking in this story. He doesn’t know about Voodoo? He doesn’t consider sealing all of his friends’ nine orifices as well as his own? The bargain de Richleau made with Pan was terrifying. Which way to go?? Then there’s the reveal from the Witch Doctor…and it made such sense…!

As for The Haunting of Toby Jugg, it was so annoying. “I” keeps going on and on about how crazy he thinks he might be, and I know that I’m going crazy reading as he drones on and on. Eventually, we’re led to believe that Toby is intelligent, and he does take some practical measures via his journal to keep track of what’s going on, but he falls down when he’s planning his many escapes. He doesn’t think past getting out of his room. Sure, he’s paying lip service to the idea (and I can’t blame him for feeling desperate), but in truth he’s self-sabotaging like mad!

Wheatley does do a good job of ratcheting up the tension. But once Toby figures out the basics of what’s going on, why does he still allow it to bother him so much? He speculates about who gains and how, what happens if he dies or is certified as insane, and as he speculates, he provides us with his background and how he got to where he is today.

It is quite the nefarious plot, and Toby’s reasoning makes perfect sense, but I don’t feel that Wheatley made this realistic, especially when Toby knows he only has to last until he reaches his majority on the 20th of June. That the fright only shows up around the time of the full moon. And then when he has the opportunity to get help, he backs down. WTF? Which AGAIN makes me question why Toby keeps terrifying himself!? He also does a really good job of helping prove Helmuth’s point, the idiot. It’s hard to feel any sympathy towards Toby with how stupid he’s being.

I did enjoy Toby’s comments about how different the mentality of modern man is from that of a man 100 years or more previously. Toby reckons it’s the changes in what we value. Of being looked up to for money than for a person’s real worth, and how the pursuit of money causes so much stress, the time-occupying distractions our grandfathers never knew, the games, cheap travel, the masses of radio programmes, crossword puzzles, books, magazines, [politics], and war.

I’m not sure how much I agree with Toby about the average person, these days, being more involved in war, as opposed to armies of the Napoleonic era (for instance) when it was more common to utilize professional armies and navies. I seem to recall those armies and navies conscripting anyone they could get their hands on. And I can’t imagine the villages and towns through which war waged were all that uninvolved.

Anyway, the point Toby is making is that previously, people had more “time for ample reflection … and thought more about the mystery of creation”. Toby makes another point about perspective when he explores the different takes on a man of 45 making love to a woman of 22. I had to laugh as it was so true.

Until we learn more, I wasn’t liking Helmuth at all. He’s so judgmental and unfeeling. Once I get to know him better, I hated him and wanted to wring his neck. Slowly. Nor was I impressed with Helmuth’s reasoning about what the government would do to Toby’s millions. Why is it that those millions would still be around if Toby hands ’em all over to the Brotherhood, but they would be lost if Toby doesn’t hand ’em over?

I like the concept of Weylands as a school, in allowing the students to pursue the topics in which they’re interested while also requiring the basics. And as Toby (and the story) goes on, I began to see how awful it really was. Toby running away from school really was the best thing for him.

Wheatley is definitely NOT a socialist or communist, lol. And regrettably, his world of the 1940s sounds a lot like our world (and economy) of 2016. The government then was just as bad as our government today, taxing people up the yin-yang and gypping servicemen who are injured during war. Albert Jugg was a farsighted businessman who was lucky enough to be born before there was so much government interference. I’m not impressed with his idea of a library, though.

I suspect that Wheatley’s Black Magic series is mostly a propaganda piece against Hitler and the Nazis — they do lend themselves to a believable portrait as the bad guys. Rex’s dad does his own bit of propagandizing to “shame” America into entering the war when he notes the value of Rex’s war injury. And Simon pulls Phillipa in to do her part.

The Stories

The Devil Rides Out

It must be truly important for Simon to miss the reunion dinner with the Duke and Rex. And the duke is even more worried as Rex discovers. Since the friends are too important, both men repair to Simon’s new house where they discover the depths to which he has sunk.

For Simon is the key to an evil ritual, and Mocata will never let him go while the duke must convince his friends that magic is real.

It’ll be crazy chase scenes, mad escapes, kidnappings, stopping a Black Mass, and traveling through the fourth dimension.

Strange Conflict

Sir Pellinore is shocked at the duke’s statement as to how the Nazis are likely to be discovering the route that ship convoys are taking. But the loss of supplies is wreaking havoc in vital commodities, and Pellinore is desperate enough to try anything.

Anything will include a hurried flight to Haiti in pursuit of the Thing. Luckily, Team de Richleau is rescued by Dr. Saturday and given aid for their injuries and respite for their bodies.

The Haunting of Toby Jugg

It was the 10th of July 1941 when Toby crashed, and it is now April with Toby at Llanferdrack in Wales to wait out the war, to recover, to hope he can walk again. Before he goes mad.

The Core Characters in The Devil Rides Out and Strange Conflict include…

The Monseigneur le Duke de Richleau, Knight of the Most Exalted Order of the Golden Fleece, a.k.a., Greyeyes, is an elderly French exile (due to his involvement in the 1890s Royalist rising), art connoisseur, and dilettante one can count on in all things. He has studied the Right Hand Path, White Magic, but realizes he has some doubts. Max is the duke’s man.

Team de Richleau includes…
Simon Aron, a stoop-shouldered Jewish man who starts with a sudden interest in astronomy and gardening and veers to a position as director of a financial house in London. Rex Van Wyn is a wealthy young man who enjoys sports of all kinds and enlisted in the Royal Air Force in Strange Conflict. He is an ace airman who was shot down six months ago, winning the D.F.C. for gallantry. His father, Channock Van Ryn, is a banker and runs The Chesapeake Banking and Trust Corporation. Richard Eaton has married the Princess Marie Louise Aphrodite Blankfort De Cantezane de Schulemoff (Marie Lou has had previous experience with the supernatural and magic), and they have a daughter, Fleur. In Strange Conflict, Richard was rejected as a fighter pilot, so he’s gone in for intensive farming at Cardinals Folly, their place in Worcestershire. Jim is a gardener while MacPherson is the head gardener; Malin is their butler who serves as Richard’s valet; and, they have a nurse for Fleur.

Characters Particular to The Devil Rides Out include…

The Assistant Commissioner at the Metropolitan Police is a personal friend of the duke’s. Mister Clutterbuck is ex-Scotland Yard who now works as a private investigator. Mr. Jeremiah Wilkes is a retired gentleman’s gentleman who runs The Pride of the Peacocks, an inn near Cardinals Folly. Mizka is an old gypsy woman of Tanith’s childhood. Nebiros is Mizka’s black cat. Retired Detective Verrier identifies the duke. Le Chef de la Sûreté Daudet arrests the duke.

The hypnotist, Canon Damien Mocata, is a French-Irishman and a defrocked Catholic priest as well as a follower of the Left Hand Path, black magic. Madame D’Urfé (a nom-du-Diable of a notorious witch during the time of Louis XV) is a cigar-smoking, overly jeweled, old Frenchwoman. The psychic Miss Tanith (a name taken from the Moon Goddess of the Carthaginians) is an orphan with a death sentence. The Chinaman; the Albino; and, Laurent Castelnau, a French banker, are involved.

The Red Book of Appin. The Talisman of Set is the 14th part that Isis never found and is the goal for Mocata. A Sabbat is a gathering of those who practice witchcraft and other rites. The Malagasy is the Goat of Mendes, the black magic equivalent of the lamb of God.

Characters Particular to Strange Conflict include…

Sir Pellinore Gwaine-Cust, a baronet, is close to the War Cabinet; he certainly made a nice recovery from his early mistakes in the 1890s. Admiral and Captain Fennimere are the only ones who know the route the ships will take. Captain Carruthers is in charge of the convoy.

Phillipa Ricardi had been a nurse, but a bomb attack has left her mute. Her father is sending her to an uncle in Jamaica.


Doctor Saturday comes to their rescue. Marie Martineau is a local girl from Port-au-Prince who has been missing for some time. Her parents are quite definite that they had sent her to the good Sisters of Marseilles. Celestina, a.k.a., Our Black Joan of Arc, is a Mambo who married her goat familiar, Simalo. She was also the daughter of a crude peasant who became president, General François Antoine Simon.

Cochon Gris, a.k.a., the Secte Rouge, is a secret society that practices cannibalism. The Bourresouse are hunters sent out to find victims on the road.

Voodoo is…
…a religion brought over from Africa almost 400 years ago and has two pantheons of Loa, gods. The evil Rada are from the Congo; the principal gods are Papa Legba, God of the Gate; Papa Loco, the God of Wisdom and Medicine; and, Baron Cimeterre, the head god, the Lord of the Cemetery, the Lord Saturday is another of his aliases. Mah-Lah-Sah is the Guardian of the Door Sill. Baron Samedi. A Ba Moun (“Give man”) ceremony is a Voodoo practice similar to selling oneself to the devil, but one becomes a Zombie instead. Its a nasty, nasty bargain. A Houngan is its priest who lives in a Hounfort, a Voodoo temple, with his family. Hounci are Voodoo adepts who passed the first degree of initiation; Canzos have passed the second degree. The Sabreur is the sword-bearer; the Drapeaux hold the flags. A Bocor is a priest who specializes in devil-worship.

The good goods are the Petro from Dahomey with deities of Health, Fertility, and Sexual Virility with Dambala as its God of Gods. Baron Carrefour is the Lord of the Roads and Travel. A Mambo is a priestess. De Richleau makes a good point about the sexual aspect of Voodoo in that it is an “object for worship [and the] one pleasure which is within the reach of them all”. Erzulie Frieda is a goddess in her own right, a Venus of a Mulatto who insists on an unending string of lovers.

Pan is a Greek god of laughter, dancing, and lovemaking.

The Thing is the astral enemy. The Jap is a judo expert. Alfonse Rodin, a member of the Free French Forces, is his confederate.

Characters Particular to The Haunting of Toby Jugg include…

Flight-Lieutenant Sir Albert Abel “Toby” Jugg, Bart., D.F.C., R.A.F.V.R. (Ret.), a.k.a., “the Viking”, is the heir to his grandfather’s millions, but is still under a Guardianship with a board of trustees. His grandfather, Albert Jugg, and father were killed in an accident in October 1929; his mother died when he was born. Julia is married to Toby’s Uncle Paul (the black sheep of the family and weak in character), and they live at Queensclere in Kent.

Llanferdrack Castle is…
…the estate Grandfather bought for his sister, Toby’s Great-aunt Sarah, when her fiancé, Lord “Lancelot” Llanferdrack, drowned the day before the wedding. Miss Nettlefold is her companion who does the housekeeping. Its estate manager, Dr. Helmuth Lisický, a Czech, worked at Weylands, a progressive school, as the German master. He later became Toby’s private tutor when Toby was 13. Konrad is Helmuth’s cruel Ruthenian manservant. The Great Spider is Helmuth’s totem.

Sister Deborah Kain, a Russian Jewess born in Germany who fled to England in 1933, is the private nurse and skilled masseuse engaged to care for Toby. Taffy Morgan is the head gardener’s son and engaged to serve as body-servant to Toby, helping to bathe and dress him. David is Taffy’s brother. Sally Cardew is the new nurse. Johnny is her brother; he was shot down a year ago.

The trustees include…
Harry Iswick had been Grandfather’s confidential secretary; Lord Embledon; Sir Stanley Wellard (died in 1939, and Helmuth was elected to replace him); Brigadier Guy Rootham (he succeeded his father, C.J.); Claud Bartorship (replaced his uncle Alec) and Charles Roberts, two partners from Bartorship, Brown, and Roberts (accountants); Angus Smith, a partner from Smith & Co. (solicitors); and later, Uncle Paul.

Nanny Trotter was Toby’s nurse; Miss Stiggins is a spinster who gave Toby lessons until he went away to school. The Willows was Uncle Paul and Aunt Julia’s house in Kew. Florrie Meddows was the housemaid. Juggernauts is Jugg’s biggest aircraft plant where Flight-Lieutenant Roper had worked as a test pilot.

Squadron Leader Cooper was the RAF doctor at Nether Wallop. Dr. Bramwell wrote a book on hypnotism. Owen Gruffydd is the village schoolmaster on whom Deb has her eye. Owen is Labour and wants to stand for Parliament. Miss Smith runs the nursing agency in London. Dr. Arling is the medical man Uncle Paul and Julia bring with them. On the grounds of Weylands Abbey was a Lodge of the Grand Orient, a Continental Masonry group.

There are seven planes or levels of consciousness: Earth is the lowest, then the normal sleep plane on up. The Left Hand Path is another phrase for black magic. Different levels of magic mastery include Ipsissimus, Magus, and Magister Templi. A poltergeist is an elemental, which is why they can perform physical acts as opposed to those doing astral travel.

The Cover and Title

The cover is four bands of color: black and three shades of red. The top band showcases the author’s name in white with the title of each of the three stories in each of the other bands in shades of beige. The graphics are scary with a silhouetted representation of the evil in each story: the demon, the snake, and the spider.

The title is an uninspired informational, The Black Magic Series Starter.

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2 responses to “Book Review: The Black Magic Series Starter by Dennis Wheatley

  1. I can’t blame ya one bit, Laura. It was an intriguing look at how [some] people thought in that time period. And how “magic” was viewed, lol.

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