by Philip Tatler IV
I used my participation in The Face You Slash this year as an excuse to finally delve into the work of Charles Williams. These days, Williams is best known – if he is known at all – as a contemporary of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Even the bio on the back of his book can’t get through one sentence without mentioning these two fantasists.
Williams was a member of the Inklings, an unofficial Oxford literary group where Tolkien et al. met regularly for drinks, theological debates, and discussions of their beloved fantasy and fairy tale literature. According to the Inklings legend, it’s also where Lewis and Tolkien test-marketed the Narnia and Middle Earth material that would sell millions and make them both household names. (See? I can’t even write about Williams without derailing into Tolkien/Lewis talk.)
Obviously, no one’s making big-budget Happy Meal movies out of Williams’ work. However, during his lifetime, Williams was read widely enough to attract the attention – and accolades – of literary luminaries like W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot. It was Eliot’s description of Williams’ novels as “supernatural thrillers” that made me consider Williams for this project at all. In the end, I chose to read Descent Into Hell (1937) – Williams’ sixth (and penultimate) novel – because the publisher’s blurb called it “arguably his best novel.”
Based on this book alone, Eliot’s description is technically on target but a little misleading. The supernatural is present every page and Williams’ aim is certainly to create an atmosphere of dread, which is an important ingredient for a thriller. But Williams’ sensibilities are informed very much by his theology and a more accurate genre descriptor for Descent Into Hell is “theological horror” (a phrase I’m not by any means coining; in fact, Googling it turns up several Charles Williams-related links).
I guess what I’m getting at is that – for Williams, at least – the intersection of horror and theology is not chockablock with thrills; it’s a pit of despair. In many ways – good and bad – Descent Into Hell is an oppressive, depressing read. It begins and ends with the most horrifying of all concepts (especially to someone steeped in Williams’ Christian beliefs): hell.
I’m not opposed to theology playing a role in horror. M. R. James, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood – just to name a few of my favorite horror writers – all came from extremely religious backgrounds and a lot of their works liberally incorporated their beliefs and traditions. I’m all for horror mitigating serious philosophical and theological questions. However, after wading my way through Descent Into Hell, I realize I’m not for the opposite.
Descent Into Hell takes place in a suburb of London called Battle Hill. Williams sets the action contemporaneously, but he’s quick to imply that Battle Hill doesn’t necessarily obey the laws of time as we know them. Battle Hill is posited as a sort of crux between the past, the present, and -- man’s ultimate destiny -- the grave.
A dreamer might have had nightmares of a magnetic attraction habitually there deflecting the life of man into death, Williams writes. …The amphibia of the past dwelt about, and sometime crawled out on, the slope of this world.
The plot is filament-thin: members of the town’s intelligentsia are planning on producing a play by Peter Stanhope, a world-renowned poet and playwright and scion of one of Battle Hill’s oldest families. This framing device allows Williams to focus on a few key members of the production over an indeterminate period of time as they wrestle with toxic levels of self-centeredness. Right off the bat, Williams equates the horrors of hell with a sort of terminal self-involvement. In his estimation, hell isn’t other people, it’s yourself.
The book opens as the creative community discuss their approach to the play, a conversation that quickly spins off into what feels like a deleted scene from Aldous Huxley’s Chrome Yellow. Suddenly, everyone is talking about the Bigger Questions raised by the work, an eye-rolling bit that allows Williams to trot out his theses for Descent Into Hell. “You mustn’t play down to your audience, but you mustn’t play away from them either,” says the ball-busting woman in charge of production. “…If things are terrifying, can they be good?” one of the actresses asks the playwright (who, ultimately and awkwardly, will be a kind of stand-in for Williams and his ideas).
Needless to say, Descent Into Hell isn’t exactly off to the races when in opens. But then it veers off in a fascinating direction for the next three chapters or so.
Following the meeting, the book’s POV drifts over to Pauline, an overly-empathetic shy girl a bit obsessed with the playwright. As she walks home, she’s overcome with anxiety, increasingly worried that she’ll encounter her doppelganger:
She was trying not to look ahead for fear she saw it, and also to look ahead for fear she was yielding to fear. She walked down the road quickly and firmly, remembering the many thousand times it had not come. But the visitation was increasing - growing nearer and clearer and more frequent.
Apparently, encounters with this spectral twin have been increasing since she relocated to Battle Hill to take care of her dying grandmother (who, “ignoring the possible needs of the young, went on living”).
Williams’ writes Pauline’s walk home as a nightmarish microcosm; for Pauline, walking those few blocks at dusk is a terrifying journey. Williams does a brilliant job creating Battle Hill’s twilight atmosphere and sets the stage for the next few vignettes. It’s a numinous moment and the most terrifying rendering of the idea of the doppelganger I’ve read.
Next, Williams briefly introduces us to Battle Hill’s history of death and despair and, specifically, focuses on the suicide of an unskilled worker that occurred a few decades before. It’s here that Williams delves into the aforementioned notion of “the amphibia of the past” (a phrase I love) – the ghostly interaction between the living and the dead inhabitants of Battle Hill.
The suicide sequence is perfectly rendered – the best part of the book and reason enough to seek it out. In ten searing pages, Williams is able to drag us through the annihilated soul of someone who commits suicide, without passing judgment over the proceedings. The poor worker’s motives are laid out in a devastating passage:
A certain unskilled assistant had been carelessly taken on; he was hungry, he was ill, he was clumsy and slow. His name no one troubled to know. He shambled among the rest, their humorous butt. He was used to that; all his life he had been the butt of the world, generally of an unkind world. He had been repeatedly flung into the gutter by the turn of a hand in New York or Paris, and had been always trying to scramble out of it again. He had lost his early habit of complaining, and it only added to his passive wretchedness that his wife kept hers… since she usually kept her jobs, she could reasonably enjoy her one luxury of nagging her husband because he lost his. His life seemed to him an endless gutter down which ran an endless voice. The clerk of the works and his foreman agreed that he was no good.
What follows is truly chilling. The miserable man conspires to hang himself in the skeleton of one of the houses he had been working on:
…he did not change his purpose, nor did the universe invite him to change. It accepted the choice; no more preventing him than it prevents a child playing with fire or a fool destroying his love. It has not our kindness or our decency… All he knew of the comfort of the world meant only more pain.
Here’s where that theological horror is really driven home: the cold, cruel reality of a life without (Williams would argue) God’s – or man’s – love. Williams effortlessly sustains this mood through the next few moments in the book.
We meet an arrogant history professor who’s becoming more and more aware of his mortality:
He knew time was beginning to hurry; he could at moments almost hear it scamper.
His main concern with aging is that he’s no longer desirable to Adela, one of the local young ladies he’s becoming more and more obsessed with. His lust eventually creates a chilling tulpa of her. He becomes enthralled by this shadow version of his desires (Williams describes it as the “feminine offspring of his masculinity”) until the rest of the world begins to fade away and he withdraws from life completely. It’s a sickening relationship -- a weird sort of proto-pornography addiction – and another thing that Williams does well.
After these episodes, I was fully prepared to wrap myself up, bank the fire on the hearth, and settle in for a spine-tingling time. In fact, I thought the book was essentially going to be a series of loosely tied hellish vignettes, each expounding on his thesis.
The writing takes on the flavor of passages like this:
She had had the last act in mind as she turned, the act in which physical sensation, which is the play of love, and pardon, which is the speed of love, and action, which is the fact of love, and almighty love itself, all danced together: and now a shadow lay across it, the shadow of death and cruelty, the living death. The sun was still bright, colours vivid, laughter gay, and the shadow was the centre of them all. The shadow was a hollow, filled with another, quite different, fact. She felt the pang of the last hopelessness. If the living who walked in the gutters of mind or spirit, if the present misery of the world, were healed, or could be forgotten, still there sprang out of the hollow the knowledge of the dead whose unrecompensed lives had gone before that joy.
Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz- oh! Sorry! What? All I heard in there was “shadow of death” and something about gay colors. Maybe I’m just too thick-headed but paragraphs like the above – which comprise most of DESCENT – offer diminishing returns. Williams works extremely hard to create an amazing atmosphere of dread and then talks your ear off about it so that the feeling is no longer spiritual horror so much as being cornered by a crazy lady who wants to read you her poems.
Even the great elements of the book have to be revistied and picked apart until there’s nothing left. Of the history professor’s tulpa/lover, Williams writes:
He could exercise upon it all arts but one; he could not ever discover by it or practise towards it the freedom of love. A man cannot love himself, he can only idolize it…
And then goes on and on in a similar fashion for innumerable paragraphs. These are the type of passages it would be better to trust the reader to infer. Williams has essentially written a few great short moments of horror and then spent the rest of the novel analyzing them to death. If brevity is the soul of wit, then prolixity is the over-burdened brain of the philosopher.
By the time his characters choose either hell or heaven, it’s really hard to care. Salvation is posited as a sort of transcendent unselfishness and comes from an unlikely source. So unlikely, in fact, that I found it really jarring and hard to swallow. A character previously described as fatuous is suddenly dispensing unmotivated wise words of martyrdom and salvation. It doesn’t really add up (and, frankly, it’s not interesting anyway).
Williams attempts a Christ allegory but then mixes it with a discussion of Christ himself, so that the allegory and the thing being allegorized become a useless jumble. It would be like C.S. Lewis writing the slaying of Aslan so that Jesus shows up in the middle, nods his head, and says “hey, that’s very much like what happened to me.”
For a while, I thought maybe I was too dumb to really absorb all of Charles Williams’s philosophical ramblings (that might still be the case). But near the end, I realized that I’d signed on for what the back of the cover describes as a “(novel full of) suspense, mystery, and supernatural conflict” and that this wasn’t that at all.
I feel somewhat vindicated knowing I’m not alone. Williams fans both amateur and collegial (T.S. Eliot) regard Descent Into Hell as a slog and a serious departure from Williams’ less-serious earlier “detective fiction”. Which gives me hope that I might find something to like in War in Heaven or one of his other less ponderous works.
Williams is tackling a subject that has fascinated humankind for millennia even before Dante wrote his definitive take: what happens after we die, especially the villains who seem to escape justice while on earth? Many times, the book is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s GREAT DIVORCE – but Lewis’s work is a better, tighter portrait of capital-H Hell that manages to somehow be more obviously allegorical and less didactic at the same time. There’s a fair amount of the existential horror (a term I hate) of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman or Satre’s nastier work. But Williams has more of a black-and-white sense of morality which somehow makes Descent Into Hell much bleaker.
If only Williams didn’t keep getting in his own way.
Philip Tatler IV writes occasionally for GreenCine and his blog, Diary of a Country Pickpocket. His as-yet unproduced screenplay, Eyepole, won Best Screenplay in the 2010 Knoxville Horror Film Festival and he plans on resting on this laurel for the rest of his days.