The Haunting of Toby Jugg, by Dennis Wheatley

Set in 1942, Sir Albert Abel Jugg, naturally more commonly known as Toby, is a fighter pilot with a DFC who was shot down on 10 July 1941 (the first anniversary of the start of the Battle of Britain) and badly injured.  He is now confined to a wheelchair, unlikely to regain the use of his legs.

He is also the heir to a hugely profitable conglomerate of miscellaneous companies formed by his grandfather which he will take control of shortly when he reaches the age of 21, making him one of the richest men in England.  In the meantime, the Jugg interests are being looked after by a board of trustees.  Until he reaches his majority he is ensconced in a family castle at Llanferdrack in Wales, well away from danger, looked after by a team supervised by Czech Helmuth Lisický, who had taught at Toby’s school, Weylands, and is also a trustee.

But of course, as the title of Dennis Wheatley’s 1948 novel suggests, all is not well with Toby.  Told in the first person as a series of journal entries, the narrative recounts how he is having trouble sleeping.  The blackout curtain in his room is too short, throwing moonlight onto the floor, and he senses a malevolent supernatural presence in the form of a large spider outside which casts a shadow as it attempts to enter his room whenever the moon is full.

He pleads with Helmuth to move to another room, but this is deemed impractical for various reasons.  He cannot convince anyone the threat is anything other than the product of his understandable frustrations.  Yet he has to lie in dread waiting for the bright moonlit nights when he knows his torment will resume.  It looks as though the accident has affected more than his body.

Initially the reader may wonder whether Toby is a reliable narrator (though the novel’s genre suggests the threat is real).  However, it soon becomes clear that while Helmuth feigns concern for Toby’s welfare, he not have his interests at heart even while his explanations seem sincere.  Toby realises Helmuth is not his guardian but his captor, isolating him, even withholding his post, and manipulating him to gain control of his money.  Toby comes to understand the idea is to drive him mad, or at least make him look unstable, have him confined to an institution, and thus be able to utilise his enormous wealth.

Toby decides to keep a journal in order to ensure that if something were to happen to him, there would be a record of his experiences and evidence of malfeasance.  Through this account, which becomes the book we are reading, we learn the progress of his captivity and the efforts he makes to escape it.  His stamp albums must have been bulging with all the manuscript pages he was hiding between the leaves by the time he finishes it.

Eventually he discovers Helmuth and his co-conspirators are ostensibly Communists, but in actuality the scheme is a Satanic one.  Helmuth has conjured up the spider menace from another dimension by means of a dark ritual.  After an attack by the castle’s entire spider population, Helmuth informs Toby that if he does not sign his assets over to the powers Helmuth represents, he will be visited by an interdimensional super-spider guaranteed to drive him insane.

Toby’s only means of defence against the forces arrayed against him is his considerable power of hypnotising people, self-taught from J Milne Bramwell’s 1903 Hypnotism: Its History, Practice and Theory, handily available in the library.  This ability allows him to gather information about his predicament and the reason for it, though it is not powerful enough to facilitate his escape.

Fortunately, by means of a lucky accident, Toby is assigned a nurse, Sally, who is not part of the conspiracy.  Initially unwilling to listen to Toby’s claims as she is convinced of Helmuth’s probity, she comes to see that Toby’s analysis is correct, while Toby moves from considering her an ill-favoured thing to falling in love with her.  Fortunately for the purity of their future relationship she informs him she has not succumbed to Helmuth’s considerable powers of erotic persuasion and is still a virgin.  She proves her worth by assisting Toby, at great personal risk.

The novel climaxes with a gathering of Helmuth’s coven for a ritual in the ruined chapel next to the castle, Sally’s planned deflowering by Helmuth the prelude to the destruction of Toby’s mind.  Fortunately, Toby’s mad great-aunt is the inadvertent means of salvation: 40 years of tunnelling to reach her lost love reach a resolution on that very night, with divine assistance suggested as an alternative to a preposterous coincidence.  Just as everything is at its bleakest, within the space of a few pages evil is literally washed away, order is restored, Toby regains the use of his legs, finds he can father children, and is free to continue the plutocratic ways of his forebears.

Wheatley’s right-wing politics are to the fore throughout the novel.  While worship of the Dark One is at the core of the plan to seize Toby’s fortune, Wheatley characterises Communism as a tool of Satan to extend control over humanity by destroying the social order which provides the natural leadership of society, allowing the Satanists to fill the vacuum.  More prosaically, he is not keen on unions or the prospect of a Labour government, Helmuth arguing that as the Socialists plan to tax the rich to oblivion, Toby might as well sign over his wealth to the cabal as he is going to lose it eventually anyway.

The plot is more sexually explicit than might be expected for the period, lingering on memories of Toby’s laissez-faire period at Weylands school involving free love among the students that goes further even than the radical educational ideas of the 1970s (Wheatley’s biographer Phil Baker in The Devil is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley, notes Weylands was based on Dartington Hall School).  While detailing Weylands’ ultra-liberal regime for his no doubt appalled readers, Wheatley is keen to point out its use in forming character useful for the school’s ultimate purpose – providing recruits to serve Satan.  By saving her virginity, Wheatley suggests, morally pure Sally has the right idea when compared to all that character-deforming debauchery.

A note on editions.  The 2013 Bloomsbury edition, which has a generic introduction by Dominic Wheatley, Dennis’s grandson, has been edited by Miranda Vaughan Jones.  The only changes from the original I spotted were a reference to ‘the nigger in the woodpile (1969 Arrow Books edition) to ‘the fly in the ointment’; the correction of ‘tning’ to ‘thing’; and the deletion of the nonsensical ‘and while I and Deb under I laid on the operation again for 0045 hours on the 28th May, 1942.’

Changes one might have thought an editor would make, correcting errors such as infer instead of imply, misused on several occasions, and woffal rather than waffle, remain, as does the Jewish stereotyping (though Wheatley does distinguish between our ‘good’ Jews and the less trustworthy Jewish newcomers).  There may be subtler changes I have missed, so I would suggest anyone wanting to be assured they are reading pure Wheatley pick up one of the old easily-acquired Arrow paperbacks.


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