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The best horror novel since ‘Dracula’ and other scary reads for Halloween

“The best thing of its kind since ‘Dracula’ ” declared James Hilton, author of “Lost Horizon,” after finishing Dennis Wheatley’s “The Devil Rides Out.” Even now this 1934 thriller — about a black-magic cult in Britain and the small band of friends that seeks to thwart its evil designs — remains wonderfully kitschy fun, as well as a perfect book for Halloween.

In its glorious excess, Wheatley’s novel recalls the weird-menace adventures that flourished in 1930s pulp magazines. Related in breathless prose, these shuddery tales often featured mad scientists, Fu Manchu-like supervillains or nefarious diabolists. Beautiful young blondes were invariably needed for grotesque experiments or Satanic rites, while square-jawed heroes would rescue these lightly clad damsels at the very last moment. Wheatley develops all these tropes to melodramatic, sensationalist perfection. Little wonder that “The Devil Rides Out” became one of the best of the Hammer horror films. Its star, Christopher Lee, maintained that it was the favorite of all his movies.

The novel opens when the burly young American Rex Van Ryn visits his rich, aristocratic friend the Duke de Richleau. On the first page we learn that some years earlier Rex had landed in a Soviet prison and “the elderly French exile had put aside his peaceful existence as art connoisseur and dilettante to search for him in Russia.” Together, the pair learned the dangerous secret of “The Forbidden Territory” but finally escaped alive with the help of Richard Eaton; his future bride, the Princess Marie Lou; and a third companion, one with a “subtle brain and shy, nervous courage,” Simon Aron. The life-and-death perils faced by these five created a bond of friendship that nothing could ever break.

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Or could it? Simon has recently been spending all his time with a mysterious Mr. Mocata. Even though Rex has only just arrived in London, the American instantly insists on driving to Simon’s new and strangely secluded house to find out what’s going on. When he and the duke arrive, they discover some kind of party or celebration in progress. There are 13 guests, of differing nationalities, many of them slightly grotesque or misshapen, though that’s hardly true of the lovely Tanith, to whom Rex is quickly attracted. However, when the duke notices a “five-pointed star enclosed within two circles between which numerous mystic characters in Greek and Hebrew had been drawn,” he realizes that Simon is in grave and immediate danger.

As is usual with aristocratic dilettantes, De Richleau once studied “esoteric doctrines” during a sojourn in the East, so he is able to recognize the dread symbols of the Left-Hand Path: “Despite our electricity, our aeroplanes, our modern skepticism, the power of Darkness is still a living force, worshipped by depraved human beings for their unholy ends in the great cities of Europe and America to this very day.”

Mocata’s ends are unholy indeed. He needs Simon to locate the Talisman of Set, with which he can then release the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, War, Plague, Famine and Death. As the novel proceeds, the Indiana Jones-like action never slows, except when our heroes take a short break to sip a glass of Imperial Tokay or enjoy an expensive cigar, usually while discussing occult practices. As it is, Wheatley doesn’t miss a trick from the Penny Dreadful playbook: hypnotism, crystal-gazing, an entity from another dimension, the Tarot, a cackling Gypsy, palm-reading, the Philosophers’ Stone, an orgiastic sabbat on May Day’s Eve, the Kaballah, Stonehenge, the Undead and, not least, a threat to the very soul of our bedeviled heroine, the lovely Tanith. Can she be rescued from a fate worse than death?

I’ll stop there except to add that the tireless Wheatley went on to produce many other Grand Guignol thrillers, including the shivery and lubriciously suggestive “To the Devil a Daughter”!

Still, enough diabolism. Halloween is also a time for ghost stories, and this fall brings several wonderful collections, starting with the British Library’s magnificent paperback series “Tales of the Weird.” Recent volumes include: “Mortal Echoes: Encounters With the End,” edited by Greg Buzwell; “Haunted Houses: Two Novels by Charlotte Riddell,” edited by Andrew Smith (the novels are the hard-to-find “Fairy Water” and “The Uninhabited House”), “From the Depths and Other Strange Tales of the Sea,” edited by Mike Ashley and “Glimpses of the Unknown: Lost Ghost Stories,” also edited by Ashley, perhaps our most redoubtable scholar of early genre literature.

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In fact, Ashley’s “lost ghost stories” are true rediscoveries, as are those in the equally welcome “A Suggestion of Ghosts: Supernatural Fiction by Women 1854-1900,” gleaned from contemporary periodicals by J.A. Mains (Black Shuck Books). Similarly, “The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, Volume 3,” compiled by James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle, reprints uncanny tales that are still too little appreciated. For “The Folio Book of Horror Stories” (Folio Society), British horrormeister Ramsey Campbell surveys the genre beginning with Poe and advancing to Shirley Jackson (“The Bus”) and Reggie Oliver (“Flowers of the Sea”). To sample the very latest in weird storytelling, seek out “Uncertainties: Volume 3,” edited by Lynda E. Rucker (Swan River Press).

If you prefer spending dark evenings with a single author, consider three recent collections: Rosalie Parker’s “Sparks From the Fire” (Swan River Press), which collects 19 stories, some set against the brooding Yorkshire landscape; “Figures Unseen: Selected Stories” by the prolific World Fantasy Award winner Steve Rasnic Tem (Valancourt); and “Nothing Is Everything” (Undertow) by Canada’s master of Northern chills, Simon Strantzas.

Last, if you haven’t been too frightened by “The Devil Rides Out,” you will be by Scott G. Bruce’s “The Penguin Book of Hell,” in which writers from antiquity to the 20th century describe the eternal, infernal hereafter. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, but in the meantime, Happy Halloween!

Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.

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