Top critical review
5 people found this helpful
Food for Thought
on 14 November 2011
There is a famous drinking game amongst British students based around the film `Withnail and I'. The rule of the game is simple. Whatever the two main characters drink in the film. You drink. I can't imagine too many have made it to the credits. I may make a suggestion that `Gateway to Hell' would make an excellent vehicle for a foodies version of this game, as throughout the novel the main characters never stop eating. Every other page has the characters indulging in some gastronomic frenzy, and not just any old food either, even in times of imprisonment there always seems to be the opportunity for a little fois grais, French toast and a decent bottle of champagne. Wheatly was clearly a man of a voracious appetite.
`Gateway to Hell' features old friends, the Duc de Richelieu, Simon Aaron, Richard Eaton and Rex van Ryn. Van Ryn has gone missing in South America, stealing $1 million in the process. With dark forces suspected our heroes go in search of van Ryn, picking up the beautiful, but blind, Miranda van Ryn along the way as they fight the Black Power movement, a group hell-bent on bring temporary chaos to the world, in order to bring about a supposed new era of peace and equality. The set up of the story is actually rather good. Without giving too much away, the idea of an equal rights movement being a front for black magicians is a nice touch, but Wheatly's treatment of it is rather ham-fisted, using the plot to unashamedly promote his own opinions on race and class. The problem with Wheatly's writing here is that it is so dated. As a comparison, in `The Devil Rides Out' he largely gets away with his anachronistic language and attitudes as there is actually little in the story to tie those opinions to the era politically. Here, however, relating a supernatural story to a political one, very much of its time, really grates to modern eyes.
I'm not the sort to get riled by outmoded attitudes in old artworks. There is little point in getting indignant about the racism, sexism etc, in old books, but here I would make an exception. There is a lot of old fashioned British `fair-play' here, `...equal rights are all well and good but...' `I think all men are created equal but...' and so on and so forth. Whilst it is by no means the focus of the book, the modern reader cannot help but feel that this is the ranting of an old man, railing against a changing world.
Another area of useful comparison with `The Devil Rides Out' is the detailed references to occult practises. Inexpertly handled, these descriptions of ritual and magic can be wince-inducingly awful, and here I'm afraid they are. Constant references to being `up on the astral' become irritating, as it is used as a lazy device to either get around a problem or move the story on rapidly. In `The Devil Rides Out' it is most definitely not the case, there the occult is delicately explained and thus the novel remains convincing.
It is a shame that this book seems so rushed, Wheatly is just going through the motions here. It's a pity because de Richelieu, Simon Aaron, Richard Eaton and Rex van Ryn are such strong characters, and the reader can't help but feel that they are wasted here. As an aside, I'm surprised these four haven't featured in a film series of their own.
In summary, 'Gateway to Hell' has some good elements to it, but they are the broader elements of character and plot. Where the novel really fails is in the detail. The poorly handled story, the political posturing and the unconvincing descriptions of the occult, make this a disappointing read. It's not a particularly substantial book and one gets the impression that Wheatly knock it out without a great deal of care or attention. Not the best supernatural novel ever, but probably its most gluttonous.