If you’re a teacher, you never know how something you do or say is going to affect one of your students — how a phrase or an idea may embed itself in a student’s mind and blossom, sooner or later, in some deep, rich way.
More than 40 years ago at St. Louis University, I took an English literature course taught by an older Jesuit priest whose name I don’t recall. What I do remember is that he had a lot to say about the importance “point of view” in literature, except he pronounced it “poin’-a-view.”
One of the books he taught in the course was Descent into Hell, a 1937 novel by Charles Williams. My memory of the book is that it seemed to me to be a bit of religious mumbo-jumbo, not at all in sync with my own Second Vatican Council sense of faith.
Yet, I was enough struck by it that, ever since, I have kept my copy of the novel through my moves to California and back to Chicago, and through a succession of apartments and homes on the Southwest Side and in the neighborhoods of South Chicago, Lincoln Park, Lake View and Edgewater.
And enough struck that, recently, when I came across a copy of another Charles Williams novel War in Heaven, I bought it and began to read it. And to look around for information on Williams.
“Supernatural thrillers”A colleague of J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, Williams was a British poet, theologian, biographer and literary critic who was influential as the editor of the Oxford University Press. He was a devout member of the Church of England and, in 1935, published The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
What little name recognition Williams elicits today is based on a group of seven novels, usually described as “supernatural thrillers,” that started with War in Heaven, published in 1930; included Descent into Hell; and concluded with All Hallows’ Eve in 1945.
In these novels, Williams tells stories of everyday people who suddenly find their humdrum lives intersecting with the supernatural — for Williams, that means “spiritual” — side of existence.
Angels, demons, ghosts and similar fearsome or awesome figures come into play in these works, just like in modern horror novels and films. But, unlike today’s scary stories, the Williams novels always have a distinct moral element. There is right and wrong, and a battle between them.
The clash of good and evil
That’s what’s going on in War in Heaven. The forces of good and evil clash here over the possession and use of the chalice that Jesus used at the Last Supper, the Holy Grail or, as Williams spells it, the Holy Graal.
The title may seem misleading since all of the action takes place on Earth. Yet, it seems to me that, in Williams’ theology, heaven and hell exist coterminous — that is, on the same plane, in the same place — with the material world in which we live.
Williams invests his characters with the quirks and personality wrinkles that set them apart as distinct people. Yet, there’s also strong allegorical level to his storytelling.
The strengths and weaknesses of this are evident in four characters who flirt with or, in most cases, are strongly aligned with Satan. (Yes, this is a novel that takes Satan — and God, for that matter — as real presences in the world.)
For instance, Sir Giles Tumulty, a scholar brilliant and bored, is a hateful man whose brutal arrogance is simply breath-taking.
A police inspector comes to interview him in connection with a murder that takes place in a publishing house in the opening pages of the novel. The body of the unidentified man was discovered by Lionel Rackstraw on the floor of his office upon returning from a lunch with Sir Giles, one of his authors. The inspector, a decent chap, is double-checking Rackstraw’s alibi.
“I asked him to lunch because I’d rather him foul my table than my time,” Tumulty answered. “I had to waste an hour over him because he didn’t understand a few simple things about my illustrations, and I saved it by working it in with lunch. I expect he charged overtime for it, so that he’d be two shillings to the good, one saved on his food and another extra pay. I should think he could get a woman for that one night. How much do you have to pay, policeman?”
The inspector, [astonished at the bald insult to Rackstraw and himself,]…said soberly, “I’m a married man, sir.”
“You mean you get her for nothing?” Sir Giles asked….
Worse, much worse, is Gregory Persimmons, the founder of the publishing house and father of its present publisher.
“Know himself damned”
The plot of War in Heaven centers around his attempts to obtain the Holy Graal through any means whatever, including a violent robbery, and use it in various forms of black magic, not least of which is his attempt to debauch Rackstraw’s four-year-old son.
Williams gives an insight into Persimmons’s character with a description of his dealings with his aged, dying father:
He had — it had been his first real experiment — he had suggested very carefully and delicately, to that senile and uneasy mind, that there probably was a God, but a God of terrible jealousy; God had driven Judas, who betrayed Him, to hang himself; and driven the Jews who denied Him to exile in all lands. And Peter, his father had said, Peter was forgiven. He had stood thinking of that, and then had hesitated that, yes, no doubt Peter was forgiven, unless God had taken a terrible revenge and used Peter to set up all that mystery of evil which was Antichrist and Torquemada and Smithfield and the Roman See. Before the carefully sketched picture of an infinite, absorbing, and mocking vengeance, his father had shivered and grown silent. And had thereafter died, trying not to believe in God lest he should know himself damned.
Damn! Persimmons is one evil person.
An ugly misstep
In Persimmons and Sir Giles, Williams has created characters who are richly, if perversely, human.
By contrast, he stoops to the pervasive prejudice of his age and class in describing two Satanically connected allies of Persimmons as a Greek and a Jew, as if those words, and the stereotypes they represented, were description enough.
Except for that ugly misstep, War in Heaven is an exciting tale with twists and turns that are psychologically frightening and call forth sacrifice, even the ultimate sacrifice, from those opposing Persimmons.
Chief of these is Julian Davenant, the Archdeacon of the village of Fardles where the Holy Graal has rested unnoticed and unrecognized for a long, long time.
A door ajar
Over the past few years, I’ve been working my way, with great pleasure, through those six Trollope books. And, having found War in Heaven so rich and delightful, I’m going to start into his other supernatural thrillers, including a re-reading of Descent into Hell.
Just as a teacher never knows, neither can a student guess at the ripples through life that can result from a lesson in the classroom.
Thank you, long-ago Jesuit, for leaving ajar a door of literature that, decades later, I’m now entering.
Patrick T. Reardon