A Clash of Wills: Stephen Volk’s NETHERWOOD

The Dark Masters Trilogy-cover

Stephen Volk brings THE DARK MASTERS TRILOGY to a close with NETHERWOOD, a short novel that brings popular occult novelist Dennis Wheatley together with infamous occultist Aleister Crowley. The two men are not friends, per se, but they are known to each other. This stems from a time while the novelist was researching black magic, they shared an illuminating lunch.

The narrative kicks off with Wheatley receiving a coded letter signed by “Oliver Haddo”. Crowley is prone to signing his letters and messages through a variety of pseudonyms. This time, he uses a literary reference to a famous author of the day who made use of Crowley in one of his own works through a rather unflattering fashion:

‘Oliver Haddo’ . . . the odious scoundrel in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Magician, described as having a head like a pea balanced on an egg, who inflicted his awful poetry on unsuspecting guests. Quite obviously an extremely thinly-veiled portrait of Aleister Crowley. In fact, when the subsequent film was released, Dennis seemed to recall, Crowley tried to sue for compensation, but here was, of course, no hope of damages. His reputation was deemed so black by then it essentially couldn’t be made blacker. (Volk, 279)

The above passage offers  a hint of Volk’s wit and humor. In fact, he infuses the opening sections with quite a few moments of lightness. It’s deftly done, convincing me to read passages aloud so my wife could enjoy the turns of phrase that had me chuckling. As the narrative runs its course, these moments appear less often. It’s a classic suspense/horror trick: Start in a bright room and dim the lights over time until the reader is caught up in pitch darkness. It works well here.

His letter is otherwise a stark plea for Wheatley’s help, providing sinister hints but no specifics:

I beg of you, come immediately. I need a good man, with a strong heart.

A life is at stake—and not my own. (Volk, 271)

While Aleister Crowley may still be regarded as “The Great Beast 666” or “The wickedest man in the world” in the novel’s time of 1947, the narrative finds him far removed from his youthful vigor. Now an old man, suffering bronchitis and treating it with doses of hard drugs, he finds himself facing as terrible a solution to his situation as the situation itself, and it is one that a younger fellow might have pursued alone. Now, he must swallow his pride (no small feat) and ask for help.

Whose life is in danger? Why does Crowley need anyone? Why should Wheatley drop everything to answer the summons? The letter like the novel it begins enjoys its mysteries. NETHERWOOD is a piece that plays with the idea of Mystery itself, not the genre but the wheels that turn and shape our world, those unseen and often unfathomable influences. Thus, while Crowley plays the role of instigator, he is not the novel’s protagonist.

Enter Dennis Wheatley, a former soldier, unique adviser to the Allies during WWII, general man of action, and a popular writer of pulpy adventure fiction (including espionage tales that would influence Ian Fleming to pen the adventures of one James Bond) and occult tales pitting righteous men against the lapdogs of Satan. Wheatley seems an unlikely ally for Crowley, since he is a devout Christian and traditional husband whereas Crowley is a philosophical and theological dissident, either a charlatan who takes every opportunity to jab traditional values in the eye from behind the mask of transgressive philosophy or a man truly obsessed with true magick and who has no use for any kind of repressive dogma and its tyrannical morality lessons. Sometimes unusual circumstances bring the unlikeliest couples together, and the situation at the core of NETHERWOOD is unusual to say the least.

Volk presents Wheatley as an inquisitive fellow, perhaps a model of sorts for his famous investigator character the Duke Du Richleau (star of eleven mundane and satanic mysteries). NETHERWOOD’s narrative allows him to play a bit of the detective role right off the bat as he picks apart the code in the letter and then makes his way into a realm of often mundane and increasingly surreal nightmare. Later he gets to perform a little feat of character study and exploration in the weird little community that has welcomed Crowley into its fold within Netherwood, a Victorian manor outside Hastings. Most of the narrative information comes from Crowley himself, but the dissections, the ramifications, and the ultimate weighty decisions to be made rest upon Dennis Wheatley’s capable shoulders.

The novel’s crisis centers on something any author has faced, the challenges of interpretation by devoted fans. In this case, an individual who has read Crowley’s works and has interpreted them far more literally than the author intended. Wheatley can sympathize, of course, since he has made a living both selling fictions that might cast the wrong idea on his character (occult-themed adventures) as well as doing his best for the war department composing creative non-fiction in an attempt to interpret how the enemy thinks and what he will do next. However, Wheatley has never encountered a fellow quite as vile as Crowley makes his enemy out to be.

As with the previous volumes in THE DARK MASTERS TRILOGY, a child’s life is in jeopardy from an abusive patriarch, and our protagonists must act in order to prevent a terrible tragedy. However, the solution Crowley poses is a wild one. He claims to need Wheatley to help him perform a questionable magickal ritual, and that acts in direct opposition to Wheatley’s beliefs. Of course, the stakes are not lessened by Wheatley’s questions as to whether or not Crowley can be trusted or whether he is telling the whole truth or interleaving deception with fact to fulfill his own desires. After all, Crowley has a history of debasing faulty attempts at “goodness” when he finds it.

The build up to the plot’s climax and the subsequent consequences of Wheatley’s decision are written in the slow burn mode. NETHERWOOD offers a luxurious journey into the world of magick, truth, and deception, thrusting a man who believes himself to be moral into an amoral situation.

Volk takes his time to assemble his pieces, giving readers a view of Crowley’s many facets through the lens of Wheatley’s biased view. Several scenes show us the ugly little man Aleister Crowley often played in the public circle, which earned him plenty of bad press and quite a bit of sensationalist journalism column inches:

True to form, the gutter press churned out the usual drivel, letting rip with regurgitated yarns of intercourse and abandon, heresy, cannibalism, tales that he ahad killed a cat when he was a child to test whether it had nine lives, murdered one of his cove, sacrificed babies, voted Liberal—whatever nonsense and truth they chose to print. (Volk, 455)

Of course, some of this stems from that old chestnut: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” (or its abbreviated version of “Do what you will”). It is one of Crowley’s regular aphorisms, perhaps the line most likely known to readers who are not familiar with the man’s practices, theories, or philosophy. It is at once a statement of utter selfishness, a declaration of personal freedom, and a satiric jab at stuffy-minded traditionalists (of which Wheatley is arguably one). It gets plenty of play here both from Crowley as well as his admirers, serving as a form of grace before meals, a formal greeting, or a ritualistic farewell.

In less skilled hands, this sort of a personality could quickly become ridiculous. However, Volk’s narrative takes pains to present Crowley as not merely a caricature but a fully developed human being, a man who carries hurt and heartbreak despite his libertine philosophy and outraged/outrageous persona. He is a fascinating character, one who clearly benefits from that bit of Walt Whitman’s LEAVES OF GRASS, which notes how people are internally inconsistent, contradictory because they contain multitudes. Crowley certainly contains many facets. Come to think of it, perhaps the better reference for the narrative’s approach to Crowley is found in Gerald Kersh (who gets a name check in the narrative, since Wheatley is reading a book of his stories), particularly in his short story “‘Busto Is A Ghost, Too Mean to Give Us A Fright!'”, which observes:

. . . there are men one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armor, the writhing of something nailed down and in torment. (Kersh, 53)

So it is with Crowley, who is presented in the opening sections as an unlikeable salesman of some potent snake oil. As unlikeable as he is initially, his later presentation show a man who is writhing in the very torment Kersh talks about. Oh, Crowley is not a good guy by any stretch of the imagination. New revelations of his awful behavior arise throughout the work, but he is an interesting individual equally capable of depravity and nobility. He’s the sort of guy I might not have enjoyed being in actual proximity to for more than twenty minutes, but I could read another few books with him as a character . . .

Dennis Wheatley has an interesting journey as well. He’s a righteous man who finds himself surprised several times by how loose his moral high ground really is. It is fun for me to see these sorts of characters get the rug pulled out from under them. Wheatley knows how to recover, if not gracefully than at least he regains his footing. His journey is not an easy one, and it leaves him a different man at the conclusion than the one we meet in the beginning.

Amidst the plot’s turns and twists, including a couple of rather surreal sequences that are arguable as to whether they are drug induced, simple dreams, or something far more supernatural and sinister in origin, there are plenty of opportunities to get to know these two men. In fact, NETHERWOOD offers the sharpest detailed portraits of its characters of the entire DARK MASTERS TRILOGY, through quite a few back-and-forth scenes. This is a good thing, so far as I am concerned.

At best, I am passingly familiar with the real life versions of these characters. Crowley I know of through one or two of his works (mostly, MAGICK IN THEORY AND PRACTICE, which I explored decades ago when I was in college) and more by his appearances/invocations in various media as a larger-than-life or force-of-nature presence. Wheatley is sadly a man I know next to nothing about other than film adaptations of a few of his works—England’s Hammer studios put out a wonderful adaptation of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT in 1968 as well as a . . . let us say “compromised” adaptation of TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER in 1976, both starring the wonderful Christopher Lee (who also gets name checked in NETHERWOOD’s narrative as a perhaps troubling Wheatley fan). NETHERWOOD convinced me to make some time to explore both Crowley and Wheatley through their biographies and works. What better audience reaction might author Volk have aspired to?

After reading the three volumes composing THE DARK MASTERS TRILOGY, I am convinced that one of Volk’s strengths is writing lyrical conclusions. His endings are top notch. WHITSTABLE brought tears to my eyes, LEYTONSTONE aroused giddy admiration, and NETHERWOOD’s conclusion stirred conflicting feelings of heartache, a sickness of the spirit, and a fresh appreciation for the transcendent quality of artistic expression. It is a fitting capstone not only to this particular tale but to the trilogy as a whole.

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NETHERWOOD is only available in PS Publishing’s hardcover edition of THE DARK MASTERS TRILOGY. I encourage readers looking for some quality tales evoking suspense, pathos, and nightmarish glee to get a copy.

Next week, I will venture on to something completely different from this little series of works, returning to the Considering Westlake series exploring the works of the late Donald E. Westlake. Next up there, we will check out the Dickensian (well, Dickensian by way of Westlake, anyway) comic novel DANCING AZTECS. An eBook edition is available, but folks looking for artifact editions will need to hound used books stores, eBay, or other used and rare venues.

WORKS CITED

Kersh, Gerald. NIGHTSHADE AND DAMNATIONS. Fawcett Books. 1968.

Volk, Stephen. THE DARK MASTERS TRILOGY. PS Publishing. 2018

“A Clash of Wills: Stephen Volk’s Netherwood” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Quotes from NETHERWOOD and cover image taken from the PS Publishing edition of THE DARK MASTERS TRILOGY. Quote from “‘Busto Is A Ghost, Too Mean To Give Us A Fright!'” taken from the 2013 Valancourt Books edition of Kersh’s NIGHTSHADES AND DAMNATIONS.

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