The Novels of Charles Williams

by Glen Cavaliero

Even devotees of weird fiction have paid insufficient attention to the works of Charles Williams – there is no entry on him in the Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986), for example; perhaps because his ‘spiritual shockers’ had a loftier aim than making the flesh creep. He used his books as vehicles for his brand of religious mysticism. ‘There are no novels anywhere quite like them,’ wrote T. S. Eliot. ‘. . . He really believes in what he is talking about.’ It does not help his reputation that his novels are out of print in Britain. In the US they are published by Eerdman’s. Charles Walter Stansby Williams, the son of a city clerk, grew up in Holloway, North London. In 1894 the family moved to St Albans, where they ran an art-materials shop. Williams studied for two years at University College, London, before financial constraints led to him withdrawing before taking a degree. In 1908 he started work as a proof-reader with the Oxford University Press in London, and rose to become a valued editor. In 1917 he was initiated into A. E. Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. He joined the Inklings circle in 1939 when the OUP staff moved to Oxford after the outbreak of the war. Although finding him ‘ugly as a chimpanzee’, C. S. Lewis hero worshipped Williams, calling him angelic and godlike. J. R. R. Tolkien, however, lacked enthusiasm for Williams’ work, finding much of it ‘wholly alien, and sometimes very distasteful, occasionally ridiculous’. The lord of the hobbits was apparently repelled by Williams’ fascination with black magic and diabolism. All of which brings us to his remarkable novels. Here Glen Cavaliero, a member of the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge and the author of Charles Williams: Poet of Theology (1983) and The Supernatural and English Fiction (1995), looks at Williams’ ghostly fiction.

The many people who have bought The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories since its publication in 1986 may well have been perplexed on reading ‘Et in Sempiternum Pereant’ by Charles Williams (1886-1945), so greatly does it differ in style and content from most of its companions in the anthology. For here is a story in which virtually nothing appears to happen. A retired Lord Chief Justice, out walking in the country, enters a burning empty house and encounters a troubled spirit on its way to Hell. The setting is vague and the material details scanty. Not until it is over does the story have the power to frighten: it gains its effects through implication. The only tale of its kind its author wrote, in its substitution of spiritual for material terror it epitomizes his approach to the writing of supernaturalist fiction.

Today Charles Williams is probably best known for his connection with C. S. Lewis and the Inklings, and in Christian circles as a highly original and perceptive lay theologian. But he was also an accomplished poet, a highly individual literary critic, and the author of seven novels frequently described as ‘supernatural thrillers’. The latter have been reprinted more than once, and are the kind of books which divide their readers sharply. Williams is a writer to whom people either respond wholeheartedly or not at all.

Although recognizably by the same hand, the novels differ a good deal in content and methodology. The most conventional of them, War in Heaven (1930), is a relatively straightforward account of the discovery of the Holy Grail in a country church and of the struggle between good and evil forces to possess it, the latter being embodied in a group of occultists, the former guided by the devout yet intelligently sceptical parish priest. Although the book is exciting, frequently humorous and rich in theological insights, it repels some readers by its detailed accounts of black magic – understandably, for these carry real conviction: Williams was for many years a member of A. E. Waite’s Christian Rosicrucian order, The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, and thus had a professional knowledge of esoteric rites.

The three novels that followed War in Heaven are more openly metaphysical in content: their exploration of the nature of power and of supernatural experience draws on Neo-Platonic doctrine, on gnosticism and the Cabballa. In each book the world of perceived reality is invaded and welnigh overthrown by a supernatural force, evoked by magical incantation (as in The Place of the Lion [1931]) or embodied in objects charged with power (in Many Dimensions [1931] the stone in the crown of Solomon, in The Greater Trumps [1932] the Tarot pack). As a result of these invasions the material order is only restored to stability through the selfless devotion of men and women who refuse to harness these energies for self-gratifying ends, choosing to worship the power that maintains them in being. Despite their eloquent, highly coloured prose, these books are not so much concerned to provide easy thrills for lazy readers as to uphold their author’s Christian belief in the supreme importance to the universe of the virtues of intelligence and love. Although in no way a polemicist (he distrusted all such) Williams can be a highly persuasive preacher. But his novels do not beg any questions they are not prepared to answer.

The early ones are not ghost stories: for an account of the relations between dead and living we must turn to Williams’s final novels, Descent into Hell (1937) and All Hallows’ Eve (1945), which some claim to be the most sustained and exhaustive ghost stories that English literature has to offer. In them the ghosts – or, rather, the dead – are among the protagonists, active within their own world, which is co-existent with that of the living. Williams’s ghosts are nothing like the malign creatures who pounce upon their victims in the tales of M. R. James; they bear more resemblance to those portrayed by Margaret Olliphant or R. H. Benson, beings who exist in the world of the dead, who find themselves drawn back to expiate a sin or who make contact, extra-temporally, with those among the living who can help them. But where Williams differs from writers such as these is in his portrayal of a world of supernatural moral law governing the interaction between two levels of states of being. For him the living and the dead exist within a single spiritual realm.

The basic premise is made clear in the second chapter of Descent into Hell. Here a London suburban estate is presented as multi-dimensional, time being contained within space, time occupying space, so that within this particular spot the present, the past, and the future are seen to be co-terminous. Whereas a similar concept can be presented materialistically (as in Alan Garner’s novel Red Shift [1973]) Charles Williams uses this concept of relativity in a theological context: the living and the dead influence each other in an eternal dimension to which both belong and of which the physical world is the sacrament. Accordingly in this particular book the moral suicide of a distinguished military historian chimes, as it were, with the physical suicide of one of the workmen who built the house in which he lives. So too the fear endured by a young woman who is subject to the visitations of a Doppelgänger is both shared with, and supportive of, the fear suffered by a sixteenth century ancestor, a victim of religious persecution. In each case the fate of an individual is related to a timeless spiritual process. Williams’s vision is essentially theological.

He describes his supernatural world with extraordinary particularity. Instead of obtruding the ghostly element upon the life of everyday, he assumes that life into the supernatural dimension: it is thus impossible to banish his phantoms from our own world, because we find ourselves inhabiting theirs, and subject to its laws. This is made very clear in All Hallows’ Eve, completed shortly before the author’s death. In this strangest of all his novels he returns to his earlier concern with the validity and true nature of spiritual power. In Shadows of Ecstasy (1933) he had portrayed the attempted conquest of the Western world by a spiritual superman who exploits the energies of the imagination for political and military ends; now we are presented with a re-incarnation of Simon Magus, a modern magician who seeks to control the world by preaching a facile and empty gospel of love. His defeat is brought about both by his own spiritual stupidity and by a retrogressive resort to materialist magic; but the agent of his overthrow is a dead girl who is working her passage to Paradise both through fidelity to such goodness as she has known in life and through a willingness to subdue her own selfhood to the laws of what Williams calls ‘The City’ – the community of human souls which is subject to the Divine laws of the creation. Much of the action of the novel takes place in the twilight life after death, but a life that remains a dimension of earthly existence and contemporaneous with it. Williams uses the bombed empty streets of wartime London as an image of his ghostly town. In this instance he also owed a good deal to the now forgotten novels of the mystical theologian Evelyn Underhill, The Grey World (1904) especially; but while his account of the shadowy life of the dead resembles hers, he is less concerned with its phenomenal aspect than with its moral relationship with the world of the living. Events on earth are determinative of events out of time, a reversal of the usual order in the majority of supernaturalist fictions. However dark and death-filled All Hallows’ Eve may be, underlying the action is an insistently upheld belief in the value and beauty of everyday human behaviour and experience. Williams is by nature a humanistic visionary.

The term ‘visionary’ can be allocated sentimentally and slackly, but not in his case. In the early novels many of the characters undergo visions of heavenly reality – they perceive under and through the appearances of material things their true supernatural being – in Shadows of Ecstasy a young man beholds his lover’s arm in this way, in The Greater Trumps a policeman directing traffic becomes the embodiment of eternal order. However outlandish and strange many of the happenings in these novels may be, they are there to demonstrate the goodness of the ordinary – in this respect Williams has much in common with G. K. Chesterton. For him all human life is laden with significance; and in All Hallows’ Eve the condition of being dead makes this clear to those who undergo it. Williams differs markedly from most writers on the supernatural in portraying it not so much as something hostile or invasive (though it can seem so, even become so, to those of his characters who deny its reality) as being the true reality to which everything belongs. To be a visionary is to perceive what is truly there; and the dynamic in Williams’s novels is between those who accept and love the supernatural nature of the material world and those who refuse it or, while accepting it, exploit it for their own ends. The novels are among other things tales about Divine judgement.

Williams also differs from the majority of supernaturalist writers in his point of departure. Most of them describe the experiences of people who are confronted in their daily lives by real or apparent presences deriving from some unknown source. But Williams assumes a prior knowledge of that source, affirming its existence almost as something to be taken for granted: indeed, his tone can at times sound almost too confident, oracular even – he can write as one who knows, rather than as one who supposes. This is particularly the case with the two final novels, with their interleaving of the worlds of the living and the dead; but it is scarcely less evident in the three ‘apocalyptic’ novels in which the powers of the Angelicals, of Solomon’s Stone and of the Tarot cards are described with such conviction precisely because they are evidently understood for what they are, and are presented as truly supernatural, and not as unnatural or preternatural merely. They govern events and when they are withdrawn and order is restored, it is on their own terms, a question of victory, not of defeat.

In calling Williams a visionary writer one in part accounts for his preference of the novel over the short story as his chosen fictional medium. ‘Et in Sempiternum Pereant’ reads more like a discarded chapter from one of his late novels than it does as a creepy tale designed to entertain. Although a visionary experience may be described in a telling manner briefly (as, for instance, in Arthur Machen’s Ornaments in Jade [written in 1897]) to be fully conveyed it needs to be explored at length; and such an undertaking is difficult to combine with a narrative dramatic enough to sustain a reader’s interest – witness the essentially static nature of such a novel as Algernon Blackwood’s The Centaur (1911). Williams is unusual in his ability to effect this combination of visionary awe with dynamic drama. He does so through his gift for suggesting sensory ambiguity, his work being comparable with that of Oliver Onions or a more recent writer, Phyllis Paul; and also through his insistence on the interplay between physical ambience and psychological response. This kind of uncertainty as to appearance, so cunningly suggested by Henry James in ‘The Turn of the Screw’, is the point from which Williams starts. For him the precision of a supernatural dimension is the basis for any understanding of the material order and what he perceives as the laws of the universe in which we live.

To stress the seriousness of Williams’s concerns is not to underrate his narrative skills, descriptive gifts and mischievous dry humour. Less mordant than M. R. James or H. Russell Wakefield, he delights in the absurdity of human efforts to manipulate the supernatural for self-interested ends or to appropriate it as support for ideologies, whether for good or ill. As the Archdeacon observes in War in Heaven, you can no more insult God than you can pull his nose. It is this impish intellectual humour which preserves Williams’s novels from becoming bombastic or portentous – this, and his ability to portray such elusive spiritual states as beatitude and sanctity. If in his accounts of black magic he reveals a disturbing familiarity with the practicalities of occult procedures, his persuasive portraits of such morally enlightened individuals as the Archdeacon, or Sybil in The Greater Trumps, reveal his sympathetic understanding of mystical theology and the psychology of prayer. He also exhibits a shrewd knowledge of the ways of the world; there is no shortage of rogues and fools and sceptics in his pages. His work is never pietistic, and steers clear of outworn conventional vocabularies and religious terms.

That it is caviar to the general, however, is at least partly true: it has to be read with close attention if it is to be read at all. But that attention will be abundantly rewarded. Williams’s novels can be as eerie, alarming and as full of suspense as any other writings in this field; but accompanying their chilling portrayal of evil, and far more pervasive, is their insistence on the potential splendour of human existence, so consummately evident in his accounts of the angelic powers of the lion, the serpent, the butterfly, the eagle and the unicorn in The Place of the Lion, and of the archetypal figures of the greater trumps of the Tarot pack which permeate the novel of that name in clouds of whirling golden mist. As a writer of supernaturalist tales Williams is in a class by himself, using the genre with a confidence and sense of purpose that can affect his readers at the profoundest levels. If to read him can be intoxicating, it can be a nourishing experience as well.