“The Devil Had Worshipers Long Before Lenin”: The Occult Spy Novels of E. Howard Hunt

Michael Grasso / September 11, 2018

Longtime CIA operative, Nixon White House “plumber,” and Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt penned a series of pulp spy novels in the ’60s and early ’70s under the pseudonym David St. John. Hunt had been writing crime and espionage novels since the ’40s, under his own name and various pen names. Given this authorial history, Hunt alleges in his autobiography, American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond (2007), that Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms encouraged Hunt to create “the American counterpart to… James Bond” in order to cultivate positive public opinion of the CIA. (Hunt is a bit more cagey about the fact that he drew this assignment because he was essentially persona non grata at Langley after his intimate involvement in the Bay of Pigs disaster.) Essentially exiled to the division of the CIA that focused on foreign pro-Western propaganda, Hunt found himself a series of minor contract positions at duty stations like Madrid, Spain before returning to the United States to focus on writing full-time.

In his series of “Peter Ward” novels, published by various paperback houses (Signet, Dell, and Fawcett) between 1965 and 1971, Hunt conjures an agent with a pedigree strikingly similar to his own: Ivy League-educated (at Brown), possessing both a mysterious past involving disastrous CIA ops gone wrong and a burning desire to see himself accepted by the clandestine Washington D.C. power structure. In the final two installments of the Peter Ward series, The Sorcerers (1969) and Diabolus (1971), Hunt swerves from standard pulp spy narratives into a hoary netherworld of Satanism and occultism. (A later novel, Coven, published in 1973, also features the occult and the world of Washington politics, but dispenses with espionage and Peter Ward for a return to Hunt’s 1950s hard-boiled crime output.) As the perceived Communist threat to the West came much closer to home in the wake of student unrest and leftist resistance to the Vietnam War, Hunt’s antagonists suddenly metamorphosed from standard spy villains—Communist dupes, femmes fatales, and the like—to out-and-out demonic cultists who’d infiltrated the highest levels of society and government. In these novels, Hunt manages to conflate all the forces that he viewed as arrayed against the white, patriarchal, Christian, capitalist Western world—Communist agents, student radicals, the oppressed peoples of the developing world, and, notably, practitioners of alternative religions—into a deliberate and concerted conspiracy. Peter Ward’s enemies in The Sorcerers and Diabolus are crude caricatures of the threats that Hunt and his CIA brethren perceived as closing in on American hegemony. But the way Hunt portrays his villains reveals much about his own psychology and that of the Cold War deep state intelligence apparatus.

e howard hunt watergate hearings 1973

E. Howard Hunt before the Senate Watergate Committee, September 1973

The Sorcerers spends its first half as a fairly standard, even tightly-plotted high-Cold War espionage yarn. After an opening action scene, we’re introduced to the plot hook: a feckless Canadian diplomat is suborned into betraying NATO, thanks to the disappearance of his daughter Diana, who’s at finishing school in Switzerland. Peter Ward is called in from his country estate in Virginia (directly by the “silver-haired” head of Central Intelligence, Avery Thorne, who resembles Helms just as much as Ward resembles Hunt) to locate her and find out if the “Sovs” actually have her. But at the exact halfway point of the book, things take a turn for the strange. In Paris, hot on Diana’s trail, he discovers the young woman was involved in Satan worship and the occult. Moreover, the Satanic cult that she joined was set up by the KGB as a way to weaken the West and to entice and recruit university students from the Third World who happen to be studying in Paris. These sons of the nascent developing decolonized nations would then return to their home countries, hopped up on Satanism and Communism (Hunt’s authorial voice leaves no doubt that he believes that young men from the Third World are uniquely susceptible to the seductions of both), and lead Mau Mau-inspired Communist revolutions throughout the Global South. In infiltrating both the cult’s Black Mass (in blackface) and the Communist training camp (disguised as a Cuban), Ward is the classic white pulp savior putting a stop to white slavery, devil worship, and Communist insurgency.

Unlike The Sorcerers, Diabolus cuts straight to the occult chase, as the housekeeper on Ward’s Caribbean estate is murdered by practitioners of vodou (echoing Fleming’s sophomore Bond novel Live and Let Die from 1954). Called away from this series of events by his responsibilities to the Agency, this time it’s the promiscuous wife of a French government official, not a daughter, who’s been seduced by the Satanists of Paris. This time, the pulp sexuality of the narrative is amped up with bourgeois Parisian Satanist swingers attending decadent masked orgies (featuring, of course, the desecration of the Host and another Black Mass). Ward manages to rescue Simone, the French Foreign Minister’s wife, from her sexual exploits and a likely blackmail attempt by the “ChiComs,” which would weaken the America-friendly French government. In the end, though, Cold War maneuvering takes a back seat to the vodou houngan in charge of the entire cult, whom Peter meets and defeats back in Martinique.

Hunt’s prose, while mostly undistinguished, moves along at a brisk pace and is peppered with enough authentic-sounding tradecraft terminology to make a decent pulp read. Ward’s a man of few words and bold actions. He differs a bit from Fleming’s Bond, who always seemed to have a bit more of an interior life, even if he was, in Fleming’s words, a “brute.” Hunt uses the same array of consumer status symbols—fine wines and food, country estates and Caribbean hideaways, expensive sportscars and haute fashion—that Fleming used to make Bond a man of distinction. But one area Hunt diverges from the Bond novels is the prominent place that mind-control drugs take in both The Sorcerers and Diabolus. All the factions—Communists, Satanists, and the CIA—use drugs regularly to bend people to their will. Given the verisimilitude of Hunt’s depictions of more mundane espionage, one has to wonder how privy Hunt was to the CIA’s mind control programs, such as MK-ULTRA, while he was an active agent.

time the occult revival june 1972

Time magazine, June 1972

As mentioned above, these novels are rife with the kind of postcolonial “white man’s burden” so common to pulp literature in the middle of the last century. Hunt doesn’t mince words when it comes to how his CIA-affiliated characters feel about people of color. In both novels, African and Latinx characters are routinely characterized as foolish, superstitious, lazy, and barbaric. (The one exception is Ward’s right-hand man in The Sorcerers, a black CIA undercover operative named Ray Moffit, embedded with the anti-war “Vietnik” set in post-May ’68 Paris.)  In The Sorcerers‘ final act at the Communist training camp, set on a Soviet base on an island off the coast of Africa, the Third World guerillas-in-training are menaced by literal spear-wielding tribesmen. In Diabolus, Ward sheds more tears at his Virginia property over his niece and nephew’s dead horse than he does over the death of Dominique, his maid on his rental property in Martinique. Speaking of which, Hunt’s sexual politics are no better: women are, with few exceptions, princesses to be rescued, prizes to be won. But for a pair of pulp novels rife with sexual perversion and Satanic orgies, his prose is oddly chaste. Ward’s “reward” at the end of The Sorcerers is a perfunctory ménage with the deprogrammed Diana and her French schoolmate. The curtain draws on the scene before we see anything other than the two young women somewhat robotically throwing themselves at the CIA agent.

While the novels’ racial and sexual politics are predictably awful, it’s their depiction of the occult that really intrigues. Ward quickly becomes an expert in Satanism (as the assignment in The Sorcerers demands), picking up books at a creepy Parisian occult librarie (which also appears in Diabolus), staffed both times, of course, by nymphomaniac shopgirls who throw themselves at Ward. He rather ridiculously goes to a pet shop to get a black mouse to pose as his familiar in The Sorcerers, using the same ploy again in Diabolus, this time purchasing a crow from an occultist; the crow periodically and absurdly shrieks “Je suis le Diable!” Hunt throws around an array of competing esoteric traditions—Western Satanism as personified by the Black Mass popularized in 17th century France, European witchcraft from the same period, Haitian vodou and indigenous African religion—combining them all into a vast, syncretic Communist-occult conspiracy. Hunt is able to rattle off the important books in the Western Satanic tradition, including novels like J.-K. Huysmans’s Là-Bas that helped popularize Satanism in the modern period.

However scattershot Hunt’s explorations of the esoteric, he does hit upon something interesting and pertinent in Peter Ward’s explanation of the appeal of the occult: that the cultural explosion of “Aquarian” traditions in the late ’60s was a reaction against the conformity, consumerism, and hierarchy of Western society. In Diabolus, Ward’s old Parisian flame (and sometime CIA friendly) Valérie Thiers asks him why prominent members of Paris society are flocking to Satanism.

She pressed his hand, then said, “Peter, how much of this devil-worship do you suppose is going on? And why?”

He sipped from his glass and set it down. “In the British Isles there are said to be fifty thousand devil cultists, and in America at least half a million. I think it’s probably symptomatic of revolt against science and our dehumanized urban lives; against impersonal machines like computers that plan and program our lives without recourse to personal appeal. And if witchcraft is anything at all, it’s a personal thing. So, the spread of cults and Satanist marriages. Stores can’t keep Tarot cards in stock, and astrologers are more popular than astronauts. To a lot of people, I suppose, witchcraft seems to offer one final hope of getting hold of their lives, putting it all together.”

Hunt also quite astutely notes that witchcraft and Satanism in the middle ages and early modern periods were ways to thumb one’s nose at the authority of lord and church. In the words of CIA agent Ray Moffit in The Sorcerers: “Think back—Satanism developed in Europe as a desperate alternative to the harsh repressions of the medieval Church and the grinding misery of feudalism.” No doubt Ward (and Hunt) see American hegemony, in the form of the CIA, as modern heir to the feudal lord and priest. Indeed, Ward seems to believe that devil-worship is more durable and understandable than even Communism: “The Devil had worshipers long before Lenin.” The veracity of this claim about Satanism being a salve for the suffering medieval proletariat may be in question, but certainly heresy in the Middle Ages filled much the same role as Communism in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the medieval Church certainly looked upon movements such as Catharism and Lollardy as Satanic in inspiration. But the reasoning behind the constant conflation of Communism with Satanism is plain as day in both of Hunt’s novels: both are evil rebellions against the justly and divinely ordered hierarchical status quo.

Paris 1968 France protests bruno barbey

Bruno Barbey’s photo of the street protests in Paris, May 1968

As far as Hunt’s novelistic ambitions are concerned, it’s noteworthy that so many reactionary figures in American political history (CIA asset and National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. being one of the more prominent) have these literary pretentions finding expression in the form of the spy novel. Interesting note: the Season 4 episode of The X-Files titled “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man” exposed the show’s shadowy antagonist, William B. Davis’s Cigarette-Smoking Man, as a frustrated spy novelist who, after assassinating both JFK and MLK and being involved with alien conspiracies, almost quits his job in the deep state after his pulp story about “alien assassinations” is accepted by a literary magazine (which actually turns out to be a trashy porno mag). Hunt was obviously the clear inspiration for this storyline. But Hunt’s novels are interesting for more than their existence as the sole, slightly sad and sordid creative outlet for the perpetrator of some of the worst excesses of Cold War America. They are also indicative of what the white American Establishment power structure was truly afraid of at the end of the turbulent Sixties: the possible rebellion of a vast racial, sexual, and “anti-Christian” underclass, aided by the putative international Communist conspiracy. At the time, the violence from such disparate ideological sources as the Manson Family and the Weather Underground must have seemed to those in Langley and Washington, D.C. as part of an overall upending of the fragile peace they fought and died for in World War II (and killed for during the Cold War). The relationship between intelligence work and the occult is a long and lasting one, but the very specific Communist-Satanist specters that haunt Hunt’s novels are themselves straight out of Marx.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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5 thoughts on ““The Devil Had Worshipers Long Before Lenin”: The Occult Spy Novels of E. Howard Hunt

  1. Man this is so good! I don’t know how you produce such thoughtful, dense content so consistently, but I’m grateful for it (just became a Patron to offer a little thanks).

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