Writing a mix of spy thrillers, historical adventures, and horror stories, Wheatley was one of Great Britain’s most commercially successful authors for almost forty years. Although they make up a mere fifth of his total output, only the occult novels—or “black magic” stories, as he labeled them—are of any lasting interest. Despite their prior popularity, however, interest has waned considerably.
Wheatley’s popular success was no accident. A fine storyteller, he was especially skillful at creating exciting, vivid dramatic scenes, enhanced by his eye for precise sensory detail. Wheatley’s characters, especially his villains, though generally flat and often stereotypical, could be colorful and grotesque. A scrupulous researcher, Wheatley was thorough in his investigations of supernatural phenomena. In his best horror stories, he integrated these elements into a solid, realistic milieu at those points in the action where they fit most easily into the narrative. Thus, Wheatley created worlds in which the laws of black and white magic operate believably and inevitably, the unseen becoming a palpable presence. In addition, Wheatley’s versatility enabled him to fuse several popular genres into hybrid works that used the most stimulating elements of each genre.
Sadly, defects have dated many of Wheatley’s novels. The writing itself is never more than serviceable. Plotting is uneven, sometimes clean and efficient but frequently awkward and digressive. His reliance on the climactic deus ex machina often approaches the laughable. Even more damaging is his tendency toward preaching, heavy-handed moralizing, and abstract speculations. This is especially true in his later books, in which the narrative drive is overwhelmed by his reactionary social...
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