This is the second post in a series written by guests about CW’s penultimate novel, Descent Into Hell. Check out last week’s post It Still Scares Me by Suzannah Rowntree. 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 Inklings enthusiast John Zacharias.
BIO: John Zacharias resides in beautiful Vancouver, B.C. with his family. Prior to entering the world of business and finance some 10 years ago, John was studying to become an English Lit. major when he stumbled upon the works of the Inklings. He has since then been trying to haphazardly read through everything Lewis, Williams and Tolkien wrote. Music and literature are both passions of his, so it’s a wonder that he spends most of his time studying business and finance. When not working or studying, he can usually be found wrestling with his children.
Follow John on Twitter: @jmzstanhope (and yes that is THE Stanhope).
The world of Charles Williams was first introduced to me when I was a young college student some 13 years ago, I read about Williams being a contemporary of C.S. Lewis. I didn’t know much about him other than that the two were friends and Lewis seemed to have enjoyed Williams’s works. Well…anything Lewis thought was good was worth a read, went my thinking! Given that I spent most of my days in the library working on assignments, waiting between classes, I looked up Williams in the college library and found, to my delight, that his name was in the catalogue! Descent into Hell was my first foray into Williams.
Not knowing what to expect, I cracked the book open (probably the only student to ever pull it from the shelves), and by the end of the first chapter, I knew I had found something special and unique. I remember quite clearly how benignly the book begins with a simple set of actors discussing a play with the writer, and how as the end of the chapter came you’re suddenly wondering what world you stepped into as Pauline runs from some ghostlike apparition! How exciting indeed!
While I first read this book some 13 years ago, I recently took the time to re-read it and to my delight, discovered that it had actually matured like a fine wine with age. Themes came alive for me as the words almost jumped off the page describing the loneliness, isolation and despair that is visited upon the character of Wentworth as he retreats into himself. Like many of us, he has some issues: he is lonely, he pines for Adela (a woman he can’t have), doesn’t have the courage to express his feelings, and is caught up in a bitter (albeit somewhat enjoyable) feud with Aston Moffat over professional differences. As the tale progresses, he is slighted and in this slight, his anger grows and rather than step back and see it for the ridiculousness that it is, he allows it to fester and grow. In one particularly poignant passage it reads:
With a perfectly clear, if instantaneous knowledge of what he did, he rejected joy instead. He instantaneously preferred anger, and at once it came; he invoked envy, and it obliged him.
I couldn’t help but feel as if the book was describing my own personal challenges in my own relationship!
And so Wentworth begins to descend. He, at first, is wary of the phantom of Adela (a succubus), but ultimately he comes to prefer “it.” The thing that is like her, but not her. It is subservient, it does not talk back, and it does not have a mind of its own. All it wants is to satisfy and please him. And suddenly, I saw a parallel with our sex-crazed world: We trade the real for what is fake and not true, we prefer the comfort of a screen, and our self-enforced isolation to seek our own pleasure, where there is no will different then our own, rather than face the potential of life in community, and the diversity it can bring. Of course, there is pain, there are challenges in our lives, but we can overcome these difficulties through community, as he demonstrates with Pauline and Stanhope that we are built for community.
This theme of community is illustrated in stark contrast to Wentworth’s descent into isolation. While he retreats into and removes himself from everyone in his life, Pauline seeks deeper communion with those around her and sees the joy in it, to the point of Stanhope bearing her burden of fear so that she can finally face what has been doggedly chasing her for so many years. To this day, the interpretation of that verse, “Bear ye one another’s burdens,” has affected what I thought of the verse and dare I say has changed my thoughts in terms of its theology. While I haven’t had such an experience myself, I can’t help but hope that this interpretation could in some way be true. Perhaps it does not work in quite the same mystical sense as it does in the book, but even the conversation between Stanhope and Pauline is typical of a conversation between two friends, one with a terrible secret, afraid to speak or disclose for fear of what the other will think, and finally when they do share, they are not met with pious laughter or mockery, but acceptance and grace and love.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Williams’s fiction is the way that he is able to infuse the supernatural into what are seemingly normal events: a woman walks home only to see a ghostly apparition in a perfectly clear day? A friend who offers to carry your spirit’s burden? A walk with an individual transcends time so that you can reach back and take the burden of a man to be burned on a cross? A man so angry that a succubus is created or summoned from his intense anger, envy, and bitterness? These are all events that begin with ordinary and are infused with the supernatural, and in a way that is not trite or contrived like much of our Christian media today.
Overall, this book began a lifelong love of Williams’s work for me. While between the three children and a busy work life, I don’t have quite the same amount of time to read anymore, his works still rank as some of my favorite fiction when I do. Perhaps one day, I will even grasp his poetry!