Authors: Charles Williams
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PRAISE FOR THE WRITING OF CHARLES WILLIAMS
“One of the most gifted and influential Christian writers England has produced this century.” â
“[Williams has a] profound insight into Good and Evil, into the heights of Heaven and the depths of Hell, which provides both the immediate thrill, and the permanent message of his novels.” âT. S. Eliot
“Reading Charles Williams is an unforgettable experience. It proves that one can write about the weird and fantastic in such a compelling manner as to appeal to any reader of modern novels.” â
The Saturday Review of Literature
“Charles Williams took the form of the thriller and used it to create an extraordinary genre that has sometimes been called âspiritual shockers.' His books are immensely worth reading, even if you consider yourself unspiritual and immune to shock.” âHumphrey Carpenter, author of
The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends
“With a powerful imagination fed by trinitarian and incarnational faith, Charles Williams used fiction to explore how people react when the supernatural enters their lives, and how then to find the path of peace. The fantasy novels that result make a riveting read.” âJ. I. Packer, theologian and author of
All Hallows' Eve
“The work of a gifted man and obviously the expression of devoutly held convictions â¦ No stranger novel has crossed my path in years.” â
The New York Times
“A story that makes a real word of supernatural â¦ A tale of horror surpassing even the works of the recognized masters.” â
Chicago Sunday Tribune
“A strange story â¦ poignant beauty such as prose fiction rarely achieves. The final impression is more as if the three books of the
had been compressed into one novel.” â
The New York Times Book Review
“A great English believer unites the seen with the unseen in a glory and a terror that are unforgettable.” â
New York Herald Tribune
“It is satire, romance, thriller, morality and glimpses of eternity all rolled into one.” â
The New York Times
War in Heaven
“Have you ever heard of Charles Williams?”
The question came up during dinner on a crisp, fall night in Columbus, Ohio. For the first part of the meal, my editor and I discussed plans for the publication of my upcoming weird fiction novel. I was feeling like a seasoned professional. But when she hit me with the question about Williams, I lost my authorial cool, became a fanboy, and blurted out, “He's one of my favorite writers. I've reread his novels every year.”
All of us have “heroes” who have influenced us and our work. We often dream about meeting these people or participating in their lives in some way. Williams is my literary master and teacher. His novels opened up my imagination in ways that I'm still discovering as my writing career grows. I never dreamed I might be introducing one of his works to a new generation.
And it is not an easy task. What can I add to T. S. Eliot calling Williams a master storyteller who could illumine the human heart and open the doors to the unseen world? What could I say about a man
magazine and the
New York Times
praised as one of the most gifted writers England produced in the twentieth century?
The answers, I realized, lay in the very question my editor posed to me: “Have you ever heard of Charles Williams”? How can the recipient of such high praise have become so obscure that it is often difficult to find his books in stores? Even more important, why should anyone read him now?
Williams's obscurity is perplexing considering he was a vital part (some people say the heart) of the legendary Inklings, a gathering of writers that included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Every week they met at an Oxford pub (usually the Eagle and Child) to discuss their literary work. The effect of this small group on generations of writers is remarkable.
It's easy to say that Williams probably got buried in the subsequent years by the exploding popularity of Lewis and Tolkien. However, this explanation gives us only a partial reason why Williams fell into popular obscurity while becoming a symbol of literary hipsterism among highly educated Christians.
The only answer I can give is to tell my own story of how I discovered Charles Williams. I was in college when I finished reading C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy, one of his most underappreciated works. The last in the series,
That Hideous Strength
, is a weird story full of scientific magicians, strange angelic beings, and even Merlin (yes, Merlin), who makes an appearance at the climax of the story.
This book grabbed me in a way I couldn't fully explain. I wanted more. As I talked to a friend one day about my search for weird fiction similar to
That Hideous Strength
, he laughed and said, “You realize that book is Lewis imitating Charles Williams, don't you?”
When I confessed my ignorance of the author, he smiled. I'm sure my friend meant to echo Eliot, who said of Williams's books, “There is nothing else that is like them or could take their place.”
My friend's recommendation drove me to our campus library, where I checked out the book you're about to read,
War in Heaven
. The opening paragraphâa perfect example of how to hook a reader in the very first sceneâgrabbed me and I read the book in two days.
War in Heaven
by telling us, “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no one in the room but the corpse.” We, the readers, think we are getting drawn into an ordinary murder mystery set in a London publishing company. Instead, Williams leads us into a story about the cosmic battle between good and evil and the struggle over the Holy Grail, the supposed cup that Christ used at the Last Supper. He uses this story to shine a light, as all great writers do, on the hidden depths and motivations of the human soul.
The evil in
War in Heaven
is not the kingdom-building Sauron of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings nor the control-obsessed Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter fame. Instead, we see an evil that wants the utter negation of all things. It wants to destroy, not to build. Williams shows us his view of evil through the characters of Gregory Persimmons, the owner of the publishing company; Sir Giles, a warped noble who writes about the location of the Holy Grail in his soon-to-be-published book; and a pair of mysterious dark magicians (referred to as the Greek and Manasseh) who seek to “negate” the Grail from the world. In doing so, they are following their Dark Master, who desires that, in the blunt words of Manasseh, “all destruction is the destroying of himself.”
In other words, evil isn't the opposite of good, as many suppose. Rather, it's a parasite that only seeks to negate the good.
According to Williams, only good and beauty can actually create. He gives us the character of the Archdeacon, who seems, at first, like an unlikely hero. When we first meet the good priest, he is rambling about a book that he wrote about the United Nations. The desire to have this book published leads him to our mysterious publishing house, and he is shown a manuscript passage about the Holy Grail.
The Archdeacon suspects that its location is in his own parish and returns home to find it in an obscure cabinet at the church. He realizes that the beauty of divine love and the deep power of the Grail come only through sacrifice. Goodness doesn't try to possess or control people. It doesn't seek to destroy all things. Real goodness, grounded in love, seeks out growth and freedom. If we want to be good, Williams believes, we must not grasp. The more we grasp, the more we try to possess. The more we possess, the more we destroy. True freedom comes when we hold all things with an open hand. In the story, the Archdeacon realizes this ideal applies to all of life, even if it means sacrificing the Grail itself to the enemy.
As the priest begins to grasp this understanding of good, a ragtag team of people join his side. He fights not to protect the Grail, but to defend the souls of the people around him. This desire brings the mysterious real protector of the Grail to him in an unforgettable climax. It is a fantastic story, with elements that would appeal to any reader of what Eliot called supernatural thrillers.
So why did Williams fade into obscurity? It's my belief that his time had not yet come. His time, the modern era, usually scoffed at explorations of the supernatural. Now, in a postmodern world, interest in the supernatural and the paranormal are at an all-time high. Pop culture can't seem to get enough of anything that hints at the unseen world around us.