This Overview covers only the novels of Charles Williams, though it must be noted that he wrote much else besides. This (for the most part) autodidact wrote poetry, lit crit, theology, and stageplays, besides these seven quite unique novels. His tendency towards magical practice spooks Christians; his tendency towards Christianity spooks secular readers. Can’t win, this guy. But too bad for both groups, because his novels are an experience that leaves a mark. C.S. Lewis was a little more accepting of his eccentricities than J.R.R. Tolkien, but an Inkling he was, and might possibly be more well-known had he not died at the young age of 58.
Long-time Williams acolyte Jason Harris (yes, from The Show Ponies) provides our introduction.
Magic realism sells. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s multi-generational epic, One Hundred Years of Solitude, has sold over 30 million copies since its initial publication in 1967. Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 shattered sales records by selling 350,000 copies in its first three days of publication.
It’s these types of gargantuan numbers that could make one wonder how Charles Williams, a precursor to the vastly popular magic realism genre, and an endorsee of C.S. Lewis and T.S. Elliot, has descended into such obscurity. Williams books are fighting a losing battle with the test of time. Why? To be sure, the writing is of another time. And it’s all very… um… English. But those two things are also true of his fellow Inklings, who still sell books by the millions.
The conclusion I’ve landed on is this: Where Marquez beckons the reader to live in the world he’s created, Williams asks the reader to see their own world in the right light, and to reconsider their notions of what constitutes reality. We mostly think of angels, demons and other spiritual beings as living outside of the physical world, but maybe we’re wrong. Maybe they live amongst us.
Williams was entirely at ease with this. TS Elliot once commented on Williams’ comfort amongst paranormal (Williams would object to this term) species in a forward to Williams multi-dimensional, real life phantasmagoria, All Hallows Eve,
“I have said that Williams seemed equally at ease among every sort and condition of men… I have always believed that he would have been equally at ease in every kind of supernatural company; that he would never have been surprised or disconcerted by the intrusion of any visitor from another world, whether kindly or malevolent; and that he would have shown exactly the same natural ease and courtesy, with an exact awareness of how one should behave, to an angel, a demon, a human ghost, or an elemental. For him there was no frontier between the material and the spiritual world.”
The term was not in circulation when Williams was living, but I think were he around today he would object to ‘magic realism’. I think he may have deemed the term redundant. What else would you expect from a man who believes that the spiritual and physical worlds occupy the same plane of existence?
The War in Heaven
Cleric -vs- Sorcerer in a fight over the Holy Grail in 30s England, with an interesting cast of diverse characters: a publisher, a small town archdeacon, an upper class twit, a kid, a police inspector, etc.. This novel has a genuine subtlety and mystery you might not expect if your idea of a spiritual warfare story comes from more recent Christian(ish) examples like This Present Darkness. There is a real sense of the spiritual being manifested through how humans treat each other. I’m no expert, but that sounds like good theology, on top of a tense story.
When an ancient stone with amazing properties surfaces in London, several parties compete for its possession. The fantastical elements are more than cute party tricks, as you’d expect with Charles Williams, including an interesting take on time travel I don’t recall seeing anywhere else (and I’ve read the superlative Time Traveler’s Almanac). The direction that that part of the story goes is pretty unexpected; it really feels like the stone itself is a character (and maybe it is) and the others slowly get to know it – as opposed to it just being a prop – which strikes me as pretty unique. Again, Williams finds interesting nuances in his people. It’s as if his fantasy is too real to be “pop”, but too fantastical to be accepted as “literature”. Was he ahead of his time? Or just… from another dimension?
Shadows of Ecstasy
This one is at once weird and epic. If you can imagine those Order of the Golden Dawn “magick” practitioners as being somehow viable and not Crowley-type shysters, then you’ve got a story of one of those guys enthralling (literally) Africa into attacking Europe in order to create a new type of civilization – or at least conquering death (whichever). With London in a panic, a handful of friends in varying states of belief try to rescue a Zulu king and a poetically inclined friend who are caught up in this quasi-anti-christ’s master plan. There are his familiar themes of love and power, an unfortunate touch of exotification of Africa, and the odd way Williams doesn’t quite let his villain be a Villain.
(This was actually the first novel he wrote, but wasn’t published until after two others.)
The Place of the Lion
Read this one carefully; it’s a bit hard to follow, concept-wise. This story takes place somewhere in the space between magick thought-forms, Platonic ideals and angelic entities. I think. That stuff is fun and weird, but the best parts of the book are in watching the characters discover and wrestle with their true natures. Under the surface weirdness, there’s lots of everyday wisdom and depth. You might even find some applicability in this book where one person kinda sorta turns into a snake and another is content to wrap up their life upon seeing a giant butterfly. References to classical and medieval philosophy abound, if that’s your thing.
* It was after reading this novel that CS Lewis sent a note of admiration to Williams, thus beginning their friendship. Williams’ note to Lewis, in admiration of his Allegory of Love, crossed Lewis’ note in the mail.
The Greater Trumps
How many Christian authors write about Tarot cards in a non-dismissive manner? One. A collector of rare decks of cards happens to have in his possession a special set of Tarot cards that correspond to… gawd, I just hate giving things away. Imagine you could watch the movements of the various archetypes physically, in real time. Imagine you could see the real world correspondents of the cards – or maybe it’s the real world that is the cards – and even which of them you yourself were in a given situation. In this story, one party wants to bring all of the elements together, to harness their magic and power, and – it’s always the same, isn’t it? – is willing to pay a villainous price to do it. Williams goes a level deeper, of course, infusing what could simply be a good-vs-evil, fantasy/action yarn with themes of humility, forgiveness and love.
Descent into Hell
Dark. In a town roughly centered on a place called Battle Hill, a group of amateur literary/theatre enthusiasts mount a production of a local celebrity author’s Tempest-like play. What they don’t realize is that Battle Hill has a long history of conflict and death that makes it rather ripe for supernatural activity. It’s almost as if it’s at the intersection of ley lines, and it’s a very diverse neighborhood: ghosts, demons, doppelgangers, the freshly undead, and a kind of tulpa/succubus/whatever-the-hell-just-keep-it-away-from-me thing – you will encounter all of these in this lovely town. The characters seemingly select their destinies, basically heaven or hell – though not in a conventional “Pearly Gates -vs- Lake of Fire” sense – by the choices they make in their difficulties: jilted love, jealousy, crippling fear, etc.. Sometimes the imagery escaped me a bit, as it is difficult to read Williams quickly (at least for me it is), but I still liked this one a lot. It’s quite dark in places, but there are also hope-filled moments that actually feel applicable to real life.
All Hallows’ Eve
This might be Charles Williams’ best novel. It even has a forward by T.S. Eliot. You have your usual power-hungry villain, a kind of svengali sorcerer literally trying to conquer the world, plus two young, dead women trying to work out exactly what it is to be dead, and a couple of intrepid British chaps trying to make things right. Well, the intrepid British chaps are in over their heads, racing around London, not really knowing what’s going on. The real action – just like in real life – takes place in the relationships between the young women and their friend who is under the sorcerer’s dominating thumb. Maybe that’s what makes Williams so great: even with all the bells and whistles of magic and time travel and whatever other weirdness he puts in his stories, the real traction is in every day challenges like forgiveness, loving difficult people, and deep honesty. And this from a guy who undoubtedly believed matter-of-factly in all manner of the supernatural.
O Captain, My Captain. Chuck Williams is the shit.
Do yourself a favor.