Year of first publication: 1930
Year of publication for this edition: 2004
Number of pages: 256
Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Sub-genres: Fantasy, Supernatural thriller
Subjects: Christianity, black magic, the Holy Grail
Almost two weeks ago, I introduced you to Charles Williams, a poet, editor, novelist, and one of the foundational members of the Oxford Inklings. Like his compatriots C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, Williams’s reputation rests on his fantasy novels. Unlike Lewis and Tolkien, however, Williams is not your typical fantasy author. He doesn’t concern himself with other worlds, but rather, with this world and those beyond it. In Williams’s fiction, everything and everyone is an actor on a spiritual stage and nothing (mark: nothing) is too bizarre to happen. I found this out quickly when I embarked on his first published novel, War in Heaven. Set alternately in London and the fictional English village of Fardles, this book follows the exploits of an Anglican priest, a publisher’s secretary, and a Catholic nobleman who together must keep the Holy Grail from falling into the hands of a mad sorcerer.
I will admit upfront that this book is not my usual fare. Nevertheless, I had high hopes when I first began to read it, stemming from 1) my admiration for The Inklings, 2) my admiration for C. S. Lewis, who praised Williams highly, and 3) the recommendations of many other book bloggers and fans of classic literature. I was intrigued both by Williams’s highly original writing style and his keen insight, but in the end, the “oddness” for which this author is famous (or infamous) all but killed my enthusiasm.
The novel begins with what may possibly be the greatest opening line in the history of literature:
The telephone was ringing wildly but without result, as there was no-one in the room except the corpse. (p. 7)
This is just one of many examples of Williams’s quirky style of writing. Elsewhere, we see him discuss “the abysmal darkness of divinity” (p. 141) and whether there is “in the nature of things some venom which nourished while it tormented, so that the very air he breathed did but enable him to endure for a longer time the spiritual malevolence of the world” (p. 18). While Williams’s wordy, over-the-top style might not be to the liking of all, I greatly enjoyed reading an author who isn’t afraid to present his (very) unique vision of the world in a unique way.
And Williams does have a unique way of seeing the world. For instance, one point that comes across strongly in this book is that man does not exist only in the physical universe but also on a spiritual plane, a world wherein he chooses either to be an instrument for good or to be complicit in his own destruction and that of others. The interaction between the temporal and the spiritual fascinated Williams and makes up one of the major themes of War in Heaven, as well as driving its central conflicts. Here, the main actors are not a scrappy group of do-gooders: instead, Williams makes it clear that God Himself is driving all events to their rightful end. He brings the Providence of God and the pointlessness of evil to the forefront of his readers’ minds by artfully weaving these two threads throughout his story. In reading this novel, I fully understand why Tolkien and Lewis, two of the greatest literary minds of the twentieth century, would take Williams into their fold.
However, as impressed as I am with Williams’s writing and with the breadth and depth of his thought, I won’t be rereading this novel any time soon for the simple reason that it is stranger and more disturbing than I am willing to bear. As I mentioned earlier, War in Heaven‘s main antagonist, Gregory Persimmons, is a sorcerer, but not of the variety found in most Inklings novels. While Lewis and Tolkien’s characters practice a sort of make-believe magic that has little-to-no basis in reality, the magic Williams’s villains perform seems eerily similar to the real thing, in that it is just as depraved. That, coupled with the sadomasochistic nature of Mr. Persimmons, was enough to put me off of Williams for a long time. Even so, both elements contribute to the excellence of this novel by giving the reader profound insight into the true nature of evil.
In the end, I was glad I read this book, even though the reading itself was not always pleasant. I may have had my fill of warlocks, kidnappings, and supernatural murders for now, but I look forward to reading more from Williams’s brilliant, twisted brain in the future.