Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews War in Heaven [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Charles Williams.
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)