This is the first post in a series written by guests about CW’s penultimate novel, Descent Into Hell.This series serves a double purpose: (1) We have reached 1937 in the chronological blog-through of CW’s books [although I’m missing a few] and (2) I am taking November off from social media and blogging into order to focus on NaNoWriMo and other endeavors. If YOU would like to write a guest post about DiH, do let me know.
Today’s post is by novelist Suzannah Rowntree.
Bio: When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at www.vintagenovels.com and is the author of fiction and non-fiction, including Pendragon’s Heir, a fantasy novel for young people based on Arthurian legend and imbued with her love of all things Inkling.
It’s been a few years since I first read Descent into Hell, Charles Williams’s next-to-last and perhaps most challenging and subtle novel. His peculiar fantasies have been described as “supernatural thrillers”, but that gives the wrong impression altogether. Williams’s novels are more meditative than thrilling, and while the plot usually involves a desperate struggle with unspeakable evil, the stakes are more often souls and symbols than they are earthly lives or kingdoms.
So, for example, Descent into Hell follows the parallel experiences of three people in a quiet suburb, Battle Hill. There is an unnamed suicide, trapped in the pocket of time when he killed himself, awaiting grace or judgement. Intellectual Lawrence Wentworth, watching the girl he desires being wooed away from him, marinates in self-pity until his frustrated lust takes physical form as a succubus. Young Pauline Anstruther, who has been haunted her whole life by a doppelganger which comes a little closer each time it appears, lives in blind terror of the day she will actually meet it.
Like most people, I first heard of Charles Williams as a friend of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, who have numbered among my favourite authors since before I could even read. After I read Humphrey Carpenter’s wonderful book on The Inklings, Williams’s “supernatural thrillers” sounded so interesting that I looked him up on Project Gutenberg Australia and read through The Place of the Lion, merely on the strength of its title. I imagine it must be one of his more accessible titles. Even as a teen, I enjoyed it thoroughly, and at intervals over the next ten years have gone on to read Many Dimensions, War in Heaven, Descent into Hell, and All Hallows’ Eve, as well as Williams’s non-fiction work Witchcraft.
So it’s been a while since I read Descent into Hell, and I’m not sure that at this distance I could tell you anything very profound about it. But I can tell you what it was about the book that sticks with me, even after so many years.
The thing I’ve always appreciated about Charles Williams is the way in which he takes very ordinary people in very ordinary situations, and by the application of a few carefully-chosen fantasy elements, depicts the deep evil or blinding goodness underlying their simplest everyday actions. Lawrence Wentworth, for instance, is struggling to cope with something we don’t usually see as the nadir of villainy: his disappointment that the young woman he has a crush on doesn’t return his affections. Yet his refusal to regulate his very natural grief and jealousy leads him step by little step into Hell itself. The deciding factor? Williams shows us very plainly that Wentworth’s feelings for the girl Adela are simply a complex form of self-love: what he feels for her, he feels for his own sake and not for hers. The succubus—a manifestation of his own desires—may wear her form, but it is more truly himself than it is Adela.
Simultaneously with this chilling portrait of sick love, we are given a picture of the real thing. Unlike Wentworth, whose insistence on having his own way first warps reality and then ultimately lands him in Hell, Pauline Anstruther learns to bear others’ burdens; to receive everything as a gift, so that in her final temptation, Lilith’s offer falls on deaf ears.
There is much that could be debated in this book. Charles Williams himself seems to have taken the “bearing of one another’s burdens” idea to extremes, and twisted his own doctrines of love to his own selfish ends—much like Lawrence Wentworth himself. In a recent review of Grevel Lindop’s biography Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, Professor Bruce Charlton explained the dark side of Williams’s genius: he apparently formed and then exploited perverse relationships with young women, channelling the resulting energy into literary creativity.
I knew nothing of that when I read Descent into Hell, although on thinking it over in the last few days I began to suspect that Wentworth was perhaps a self-portrait—a suspicion confirmed within hours when Lindop himself commented on Twitter that “Charles Williams told Anne Ridler that the monstrous Wentworth in his novel Descent into Hell was based on himself”. That fits in with something else I have always suspected concerning the curiously vivid and realistic portrayals of magical ceremonies in all of Williams’s novels—that when it came to the villains in his books, he seemed far more familiar with evil than he really should have been.
I don’t know how, in Wentworth, Williams managed to paint such a faithful portrait of his own sins and selfishnesses without being led by it to repentance. But I can tell you that to this day, Lawrence Wentworth sticks in my mind as a terrifying example. I saw myself in him. The same self-love. The same desperate grip on my own hopes, my own desires, and my own will.
The same downward descent.
It scared me. It still scares me. And I’m always going to be grateful for that.