Wednesday, November 19, 2008

All Hallow's Eve by Charles Williams

The fact that Charles Williams has not had quite the rise in stock as his Oxford associates C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien is interesting, although I do recall that when I was an undergraduate in the early 80’s, the campus Christian book shop was quite well stocked with his novels. I attribute his relative obscurity to the fact that his fiction, which is opaque to a frustrating degree, does not appeal to juveniles (there are no Hobbits). The present novel, Williams’ last, is given a kick upwards on the legitimacy scale through an introduction by that grand dame of English letters, T.S. Eliot, who was also addicted to detective novels and Marx Brothers films (Eliot carried on a brief correspondence with Groucho Marx that does no great service to either of their reputations).

Early in his life, before he found theological comfort in the bosom of the Church of England, Williams had an association with the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross which testified to his lifelong interest in things supernatural. This interest colors his major novels, including War in Heaven, The Greater Trumps (referencing the Tarot), and All Hallow’s Eve, which concerns the spirits of the dead in immediate postwar London.

Londoners Lester and Evelyn (of course one would have to be an Evelyn) had the bad luck to be occupying the space where an airplane chose to crash, and now they are disembodied spirits wandering a transdimensional London that is even gloomier than its archetype. Lester has her newlywed husband Richard on her mind, whilst Evelyn, despite her transubstantiation to the ghostly realm, still cannot keep her mouth shut. Lester is not too keen to spend the afterlife with this chatterbox, and lets Evelyn know it. Evelyn spends the rest of the novel harboring resentments against Lester, and a good/bad duality tends to color the novel through their relationship.

Now, the girls had an acquaintance in their school days who just happens to be the daughter of the Antichrist, or at least an ancient Magus a couple hundred years old who has acquired a reputation as a faith healer, and who is well versed in the magic arts, being able to conjure female homunculi with little more than spit, dust, and a weird unearthly light that he emanates when the feeling strikes him. His daughter, Betty (and who would have thought that the Antichrist would have a daughter named Betty?) was sired upon some ol’ sourpuss who goes by the name of Lady Wallingford.

Betty is important to the Magus (Simon the Clerk), because she can disembody herself and wander the streets of London, listening for whispers of the dead and intimations of future events (Simon's goal, if you haven't guessed it, is world domination). Betty is betrothed to a London artist who paints with a God-given clarity, and who has done a portrait of Simon which, like the portrait of Dorian Gray, reveals something of Simon’s true nature. The descriptions of the malevolent Simon and his nativity are some of the most rewarding (evil is always interesting) in the novel.

Charles Williams is not one to spend a lot of time on action, so be ready to read a lot of obtuse blather about the inner motivations of the characters, with generous Christian symbolism, between the surprisingly few scenes where something actually happens. In the course of the novel, Lester learns something about grace and the healing power of love, and comes compassionately to the aid of poor Betty, whose father is just about ready to make her his tool and a permanent resident of the land beyond, an idea to which her loathsome mother is fully in support. Evelyn, on the other hand, becomes even more small minded and resentful, and is clearly headed for the outer darkness.

Williams is a masterful writer, although clarity is not his strong suit. Some of the passages of All Hallow’s Eve are indeed eerie, the kind of eeriness which comes from the realization that Williams himself must have felt quite at home in that nether land between the living and the dead, and had a profound imagining of it. The complex character of Lester is particularly well described, although this makes most of the other characters seem rather one-dimensional in comparison. Despite long stretches of dense prose and thinly veiled theology, there is enough suspense to keep one interested, and by the last chapter, the author is finally willing to let the characters act and speak for themselves enough to propel the action forward. All Hallow’s Eve is a highly literary ghost story with some good points, but overall, I’m not entirely convinced that it’s worth the effort.