All Hallows’ Eve, by Charles Williams

The book so much revolves around two paintings one is ready to believe the paintings came first. That Williams could have imagined one single painting which undergoes so many changes in the mind of the beholder gradually perceiving it—and as the meaning gradually emerges in the consciousness of the reader—is almost too much to believe, but his fertility of imagination was great. He has imagined things that cannot have had an original pattern in this world, and imagined with detail and explored implications.

Charles Williams had a fertility imagination, but he also had a great ability: how he can operate on his readers, how he can unfold gradually something of great complexity in the mind of his reader is no mean skill. And he is capable of repeating the process chapter after chapter, showing his reader something unusual in each. His weakness is perhaps in describing action, but his strength in describing psychological states, crafting elaborate atmospheres, making dawn on the reader the implications of a situation as if they were eye witnesses is truly great.

Charles Williams had fertility of imagination, great literary abitily, and besides that the experience and observation of a great many objects and situations in this world. He had looked on the world with care and attention, and had considered its meanings, and besides that, for his special task, brought a remarkable knowledge of occult practices, magical procedures and the mentality behind these things. (So much of English letters has been enriched by this category that one almost thinks it ought to be obligatory for writers to join a hermetic order of one kind or another.)

But besides imagination, skill and observation, Charles Williams had a good purpose, and his gift is all the greater because he puts it to use well: in service of the moral imagination. And it is exactly for this reason that the strangeness of his spiritual thrillers is so effective a context for his aims.

“Charles Williams’s firm conviction that the spiritual world is not simply a reality parallel with that of the material one, but is rather its source and its abiding infrastructure, is explicit in both the manner and matter of all he wrote.” —Owen Barfield

Charles Williams’s firm conviction that the spiritual world is not simply a reality parallel with that of our material one is a conviction that might disturb or unsettle even people who claim to be supernaturalists. And it would be disingenuous to say that Williams did not intend in some way to disturb or unsettle. When he describes the process by which Clerk Simon clones himself, it would be a very insensitive reader that would not be unsettled by the sinister atmosphere: the description is calculated to disturb. Williams wants to do more than tell us it is happening, he wants to affect us with the meaning of what is transpiring. He is very good at this.

Williams sweeps our domesticated rudiments of supernaturalism away with his robust depictions, and for that reason alone his work is valuable, but there is more. When everything has become strange and uncertain, when the impossible has suddenly made your skin crawl and his characters are themselves faced with the implications of their situation, then it is Williams is most reassuring because it is then that he shows us what is immutable and certain even in the face of the most bizarre: the moral order.

The moral order is what structures and orders the otherwise baffling spiritual world, and it is the genius of Charles Williams to have shown it with a certain plausibly, exploring the implications in a satisfactory way. His device in All Hallows’ Eve is a very simple one: take a magician with no concern for morality and who acknowledges nothing so much as the reality of Power, and show how his assumptions depend on a moral order, how it defeats them.

To do this, Williams unambiguously wrests the meanings of the magical rituals and laws away from the obsessed magician and shows they belong to that brooding benevolence which hovers over the face of the deep of his novels. A magician operates on the basis of laws: the laws of his craft, and if they are true laws, he gets real results. A law of magic, for a magician, is a way to achieve a consequence from an action.

A law of magic is a way to achieve a consequence from an action, and so is a law of morality. If there are to be consequences for deeds at a merely mechanical level, if there are to be consequences for incantations at a hidden level, then it is only a fool who would think there are not consequences for deeds at the level of right and wrong. The magician forgets or ignores the level of morality, but the level of morality does not forget him: it is a part of Law, the part we most associate with Law, the part known as justice.

Justice is the vindication of virtue, and that is exactly what Williams brings about in his supernatural thrillers. And he gives in his novels, as Barfield pointed out, a vision, and a compelling vision, of supernaturalism in an age of technology. He shows the material world must be a consequence of the spiritual world with great justice.

“Hence the unique contribution offered by his novels to the materialistic age in which these characters live and behave and their plots unfold.” —Owen Barfield

All Hallows’ Eve is probably one of the best of all the novels Charles Williams wrote.

5 thoughts on “All Hallows’ Eve, by Charles Williams

  1. Thanks.

    Yes, I’m planing to reread all seven of them. I tried to some years ago but it was too soon. This time around it is right. I think Descent into Hell is one of the best.

  2. I enjoyed all of them. Shadows of Ecstasy was among the top three and The Greater Trumps among the bottom four, but the difference in ranking is so subtle I am not sure I myself can always detect it.

    This guy looks like he’s writing some interesting stuff about Williams on his interesting blog, but you have commented there so you must know about it already.

  3. “All Hallows’ Eve” is by far my favorite Williams novel, followed rather distantly by “Descent Into Hell”. Then “Shadow Of The Lion”, then “Many Dimensions” and “The Greater Trumps”. “War In Heaven follows these two. The absolute abyss is “Shadows Of Ecstasy”, which I didn’t care for at all.

    Lester Furnival is Williams’ most realized character. Funny, I don’t consider Williams a great writer of prose, although he may be a better poet. I don’t own any of his poetry. He certainly has no clue how to do American characters.

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