|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Winter 2003|
Binker Hughes is one of my most steadfast friends in Southern fandom. The subject of this article is not, we emphasize, the artist oft-featured in our pages.
From the early 1930s through his death in May 1945, Charles [W.] Williams wrote seven unusual novels that are mostly out of print. I chanced upon copies when they were briefly reprinted (pb) around 1970, but have only lately gotten to read them. Since then, I've been looking for copies for some friends and find that three are on Barnes & Noble's list. I've marked them BN below, in case any of you are interested. It's some indication of the difficulty of categorizing these books that two are called "Literature"; one, found in their out of print list, is called 'Science Fiction'; and another is just listed "'Not Classified."'
Williams worked at Oxford University Press [though I'm not sure any of his stuff was published there] and was an 'Inkling' -- friend of such better known writers as Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and J.R.R. Tolkien. He wrote a vast variety of stuff -- for example, his play "Cranmer" was the main play at the Canterbury Festival the year after Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral" was featured. These seven novels deal with the impinging of the supernatural -- sometimes embodied in objects of power -- on the lives of perfectly ordinary people; and they are impressively convincing. C.S. Lewis, they say, remarked that if ever he were to meet a ghost, he'd want Williams with him, since he'd know what to say to it. T.S. Eliot says something analogous in his introduction to my edition of All Hallows Eve. All those who associated with him report him as a gentle, intelligent, engaging conversationalist who Evidently was so used to the overlap of the natural and supernatural worlds that there was no sort of discontinuity between them --they believed he had personal acquaintance with the powers and influences he so successfully involves in his books. Certainly the books reflect extensive knowledge and clearheaded insight that would seem to justify this assessment. Never sensational for the sake of sensationalism, they are more convincing -- hence more horrific -- than the manufactured tales that are so common in books drawing on the supernatural. So, for what they're worth, here are sketches of the seven, in as close to the order in which they were written as I've so far managed.
WAR IN HEAVEN -- Probably his least descriptive title, but a terrifically effective -- and unusual -- book, pitting a Satanist millionaire and an unscrupulous archaeologist against an odd assortment of ordinary and extraordinary people when the Graal [Holy Grail] has been identified as residing, unrecognized, in a small English parish church. Among other delights, this is the only book of my acquaintance where the 'body on page 1' is mistaken for a workman under a character's desk and treated with more annoyance than shock.
THE PLACE OF THE LION -- Williams' second novel is one of his best. What if the purest form of characteristics -- Platonic archetypes, if you will -- were given a portal for entering human experience and drawing into themselves all that shared them? This book follows the consequences and impact on individuals of this possibility -- and is one of several that I'd love a chance to adapt for the screen.
MANY DIMENSIONS -- The unscrupulous archaeologist of the first book has gotten his hands on the stone of Solomon, which makes occur whatever a holder of it desires [travel through place and time, healing, ability to see through another's vision, and much else] and which, if split, produces an identical replica of itself with no diminution in size or power; so the cast includes its keepers [one of whom, now dead, betrayed it], an assortment of government and industry personnel who hope to benefit from controlling it, and the bystanders Williams draws so well. This is one of his best, both conceptually and in actualization. [BN]
SHADOWS OF ECSTASY -- Here, it is not an object but an idea that motivates the action -- and it is the ever-present idea, sold in a million forms by cultic leaders, of being able to feed on emotional experience [passion, beauty, love, pain, all of it] to the attainment of everlasting life and health. Again, a diverse cast enlivens the book, and Williams doesn't force a 'neat' or reassuring ending -- it ends, but leaves possible that the leader of this cult, slain by one of his inner circle, Might be able to overcome death as he has claimed was possible. The main achievement here is Williams' exploration of the minds and personalities of those touched by the idea -- and with it, an exploration of the phenomenon of cults -- although this has more 'action' than most of the other books.
THE GREATER TRUMPS -- Anyone who has messed around with the Tarot would find this one interesting, since it concerns the rejoining of the original cards with the constantly self-moving images, made of precious metals, which are the originals of the cards' designs. Again, there are some difficulties in clearly resolving the situation and Williams refuses to force a 'neat' conclusion or water-down the challenges that result from abuse of the powers inherent in the originals. Indeed, in my copy, the typography shifts from right-side-up to upside-down at a key point, and remains so to the end of the book -- which looks intentional, since it's not just a signature put in wrong-way up: the pages continue in order.
DESCENT INTO HELL -- One of his best, this one deals with ghosts and both forms of doppelgangers in a small town built on an oft-embattled hill. True to its title, it concludes with a character who has chosen the hell of complete self-absorption rather than ending on the more positive note of the sequence, with other characters, that immediately precedes this ending -- but an enthralling book nonetheless. By this point in his writing, Williams has refined his sense of timing even more fully, so I found this one impossible to read at the one-chapter-as-possible rate at which I'd read the others. [BN]
ALL HALLOWS EVE -- This is essentially the story of two ghosts -- young women killed in an accident in London shortly after WW II -- and those closest to them in life; and the ways they, both accidentally and intentionally, interfere with the plans of a sorcerer [Simon the Clerk, in the tradition of Simon Magus] regarding his illegitimate [by adultery] daughter with whom they were once at school. The ease with which Williams interleaves the worlds of the dead and the living explains many of the comments on his evident comfort with ghosts and makes this a fascinating book.[BN]
For all their apparent simplicity, these books couple great literacy with a rare balance between what we take to be 'normal' and the traditions of the supernatural Williams has so obviously grasped. Unlike a lot of books that incorporate such elements, these aren't sales-pitches -- he does justice to the traditions he represents. Consequently, I'd think they'd do well in both 'New Age' and 'Christian' bookstores in the perennial waves of interest in humanity's spiritual potential, as well as among general readers intrigued by supernatural subjects. So if you've an interest in exploring some of the odder aspects of inner [as opposed to outer] space, give these books a try. He's an unusual writer exploring unusual subjects with so deft a hand that one rarely notices the complexity of the subjects of the naturalness of its handling.