CriminOlly thinks: Entertaining blend of cheesy, sleazy horror and historical adventure. 3/5
Title: The Irish Witch | Author: Dennis Wheatley | Series: Roger Brook #11 | Publisher: Arrow | Pages: 446 | Publication date: 1973 | Source: Self-purchased
You might think, reading the synopsis above and looking at the cover pic, that ‘The Irish Witch’ is a full-blooded horror novel packed to the gunnels with debauchery and satanic horror. In fact it’s a 50 page full-blooded horror novella packed to the gunnels with debauchery and satanic horror, surrounded by a 400 page historical adventure novel. It definitely wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but the good news is both books were fun to read.
Being the 11th book that Wheatley wrote about hero Roger Brook, there’s a lot of back story, but essentially he’s an English adventurer in the early 19th century who fights for King and country against the French (this being the Napoleonic period) and anyone else who looks at him funny. His daughter, Susan is smitten with a roguish young man called Charles who is trying to join the New Hell Fire club, an exclusive establishment where men and women of a certain social class can satisfy their baser instincts. These were a real thing in 18th and 19th century England and Ireland (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hellfire_Club), although whether they had the same satanic wrappings as Wheatley’s representation I’m not sure.
The one Charles wants to join is run by an Irish witch, aided by a hideous (but apparently very well endowed) priest who lusts after Susan. Everything is set up then, as per the book jacket blurb, and then the story takes a massive detour as Brook goes adventuring around warring Europe and America on various missions. A lot of the adventure stuff was actually kind of fun, although Wheatley has a nasty habit of writing pages and pages of exposition that read like they came from a history book. We get lengthy explanations of Napoleon’s strategies and the backgrounds to various battles which were quite painful to read through and add little to the story. Some of the action is entertaining though, including a particularly brutal fight scene in rural Germany. There’s also a supernatural element throughout, with one of Brook’s old flames using a crystal ball to forewarn him of impending events.
Right at the end the books turns into a horror novel again and the ending is enjoyably horrific, if a bit ludicrous and undoubtedly dated.
Wheatley wrote dozens of these potboilers over the years and this was one of his last. I read a couple of the others years ago, but my memory of them is sketchy so I have no idea how representative it was of his work. His prose is pretty unspectacular, but he keeps the plot moving (even if it wasn’t the plot the cover promised) and I found myself whizzing through the second half. As noted above though, there is a lot that dates this book horribly. It’s frequently racist (the one black character is there purely as exotic muscle for the witch), and whilst Susan is quite plucky, the salacious depiction of sexual violence in the book is pretty abhorrent.
In the 60s and early 70s there seems to have been little else of note going on in the British horror fiction scene (certainly there no-one else as prolific as Wheatley was) and so this seems a fair benchmark for the state of the genre ahead of the publication of James Herbert’s ‘The Rats’ in 1974. That book will be the subject of next month’s instalment of Carry on Screaming, which I promise will contain MUCH MORE HORROR.
The Hell Fire Club is being revived – by a sensuous wanton who calls herself the Irish Witch. Once more the titled of the land are being sucked into its vortex of vice and degradation. And among them is Susan, Roger Brook’s young and lovely daughter.
Soon it will be Walpurgis Night. Soon a ruined castle will echo to the baying of initiates as Susan is led towards an altar – there to be ritually violated by the Priest of Satan.
Content warning: Rape, sexual abuse, satanism
What else happened in 1973?
(Note that this article was originally published in 2018)
1973 was, ironically given the current dominance of Brexit in the British news, the year that the UK joined the European Economic Community, which later became the EU. IRA bombings continued to be a regular occurence in mainland Britain and the inquest opened into the Bloody Sunday massacre of unarmed protestors by British troops in Northern Ireland the previous year. One of the things that I found interesting about ‘The Irish Witch’ was the fact that the villainous witch is an Irish Republican and the Irish problem ends up being central to the plot. That a book set in 1812 and written in the 1970s touches on an issue which has ended up being the fundamental stick point of the Brexit debate shows how important UK-Ireland relations are. (For anyone outside the UK, the main point of contention around Brexit at the moment is how the relationship between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK will be handled).
1973 was a great year for British horror cinema, with classics ‘The Wicker Man’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’ both released (in fact the two films often played as a double bill).
The horror-ish Bond film ‘Live and Let Die’ was also released, with the suave Roger Moore playing 007 for the first time. Of course, it was also the year ‘The Exorcist’ came out. Whilst not a British film, it is worth mentioning here because its chequered history in the U.K. is quite typical of how horror was treated here during the 70s and 80s. There were multiple calls for the film to be banned on its first release and it was illegal to own a copy on video for 11 years between 1988 and 1999. If you’re interested you can read more about it here: https://www.bbfc.co.uk/case-studies/exorcist. ‘The Exorcist’ never made it onto the infamous ‘Video Nasty’ list, but I’ll definitely be reflecting on some of the films that did in the coming months.
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