Pauline cried out; and as she heard her own vain emphasis, added with a little despairing laugh: “How can I tell you? I only want everything to be as it is—for myself, I mean.” “Change,” said the shape. “I don’t change.” Pauline cried out: “And if it changes, it shall change as it must, and I shall want it as it is then.” She laughed again at the useless attempt to explain.
All Hallow’s Eve was the last of Charles Williams’ completed novels, first published in the year of his death, 1945. It begins just after the deaths of two young women, and follows their persisting consciousnesses through “the City” (which is London only as a phantom skin of a mystical heavenly Jerusalem) throughout the book. At the same time as the novel elaborates this perspective of the deceased, it supplies a parallel narrative among their survivors: one’s husband who is a diplomatic functionary, his friend an art painter, and the painter’s fiancee–a former schoolmate of the two dead characters.
The central plot tension of the book is constructed around Simon the Clerk, an aspiring antichrist of impressive talents and no sympathy whatsoever. The villain’s “Jewishness” is emphasized in ways that gave me a wince or two, but were doubtless theologically important to Williams. Like the other “Aspects of Power” novels, this one is an urban fantasy that predates the genre, and it features the kind of fell sorcery that crops up in the earlier books. It clothes supernatural events in the sort of finely-crafted impressionistic prose the author had deployed in Descent Into Hell.
The Eerdmans edition I read had a testimonial introduction by T.S. Eliot, in which he extolled Williams’ personal virtues, and briefly discussed the mystical doctrine and psychological insight in Williams’ works. There is enough reference to the contents of the novel as if the reader were familiar with it that the Eliot intro might be better enjoyed after reading the book–not for any worry of spoilers, but just for its own appreciation.
By curious chance (?) I read All Hallow’s Eve just a few weeks after The Third Policeman. Now I may need to go re-read UBIK. It seems like somebody is trying to tell me something. Did I actually not survive my recent bicycle crash? Maybe it’s just that time of year. After all, everybody’s going to die, and we’re all of us just stories anyway.
rules were against rights and rights against rules, and a ghost in the fire was a ghost in the street, and the thing that had been was the thing that was to be and it was coming, was coming; what was coming; what but herself?
Like Williams’ first novel War in Heaven, the main business of Many Dimensions is an extended scrimmage over a holy relic: in this case, the Stone of the Wise that was set in the crown of King Solomon. Continuity with the earlier book is provided in the person of a single character, the sadistically inquisitive Sir Giles Tumulty. Other key characters include English Chief Justice Lord Christopher Arglay, who seems to be a sort of secular adeptus major undergoing an initiation to adeptus exemptus in the course of the novel, and his personal secretary Chloe Burnett who meanwhile climbs the entire mystical ladder from neophyte to magister templi.
Many of the chapter titles have a clever ambivalence. “The Refusal of Lord Arglay” could mean that Arglay is refused or refusing. Similarly, “The Discovery of Giles Tumulty” could mean that Tumulty is discovered or discovering.
Many Dimensions functions with some effectiveness as a parable regarding the magical will. The overt reflection on this topic is quasi-incidentally remarked in a quotation from 13th-century English jurist Henry of Bracton: Attribuat igitur rex legi, quod lex attribuit ei, videlicet dominationem et potestatem. Non est enim rex ubi dominatur voluntas et non lex. (214) Williams doubtless contemplated this maxim in a theological, rather than a magical sense, but the action of his novel is open to both.
There is a surprisingly sympathetic treatment of Islam in this book, creating a contrast with the sort of moronic Islamophobia in which Williams’ friend C.S. Lewis trafficked in the form of his villainous Calormenes. Although Williams was the author of works of Christian theology, his fiction shows him to have a generous religious imagination, including a warmth toward conscientious skepticism. This latter is on full display in the character of Lord Arglay, who at one point describes the Christian Passion as “one of the myths of our race.”
Her beatitude leant forward to her, as if to embrace. The rich presence enveloped her; out of a broken and contrite heart she sighed with joy. On the inhaled breath her splendour glowed again; on the exhaled it passed. She stood alone, at peace. Dawn was in the air; ecce omnia nova facio.
I lucked into a cache of Charles Williams volumes at a public library book sale recently: in addition to War in Heaven, I picked up The Greater Trumps, Descent into Hell, and All Hallows’ Eve, each for fifty cents. I’d been meaning to read Williams for quite a while–besides knowing of his Inklings fame and esoteric affiliations, he came recommended by a professor I’d studied with, whose taste in literature I had reason to approve. Aside from the discovery of a murder on page one, War in Heaven starts out rather slow and very English, reminding me almost of the class-conscious domesticity of Ada Leverson. But once the story finds its legs, it is a very lively read.
The general premise of the novel is that the holy grail has passed into long anonymity in a small village church in England, but that a ruthless Satanist has identified it and seeks to appropriate it to his own ends. A series of “coincidences” (obviously not) rally a set of defenders to the grail, even as the antagonist’s plans become more elaborate and extensive. Williams’ participation in A.E. Waite’s schismatic Golden Dawn group seems to have provided him with sufficient education to write with sound verisimilitude regarding both malign sorcery and beneficent magick. The only technical clinker occurs when he once writes “pentagon” for “pentagram.” (73)
I’m especially impressed by the depth which Williams gives to his villains–quite unusual in explicitly Christian fiction in my experience. He’s managed to identify quite a variety of ways to be evil, and to set these types into fascinating interaction with one another. And I’m somewhat charmed by his beatific archdeacon. When writing dialogue, Williams has an ear for etiquette (kept and violated), as well as a talent for the ominous and the numinous. That talent is shown to great effect at the end of Chapter 5 “The Chemist’s Shop” and in the various encounters with the Young Man in Grey.
First published at least a couple of years before the earliest of Dennis Wheatley’s “occult thrillers,” this book was doubtless an influence on the latter. The similarities between War in Heaven and The Devil Rides Out are quite extensive. A later line of books that also seems to have drawn inspiration from War In Heaven is Susan Cooper’s terrific juvenile fantasy series “The Dark Is Rising.” I don’t know if Williams was a great reader of the fantasies of fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis’ “master” George MacDonald, but I think War in Heaven deserves comparison with MacDonald’s work better than any of Lewis’ novels do. There is also certainly a whiff of Arthur Machen here, unsurprising in light of their common occult interests.
To be sure, some will find the plot of this novel somewhat unsatisfying. The ending provides a considerable dose of deus ex machina, and it also involves a liturgical rapture which will not resonate with all readers. As Williams has one of his own characters say of churchgoing, “It is a means…. If you do not use it, it is a pity to bother about it; if you do, it is a pity not to use it.” (249)