It’s Damned Unpleasant: “Descent Into Hell” Guest Post by Doug Jackson

Descent Into Hell

Descent Into Hell

This is the third post in a series written by guests about CW’s penultimate novel, Descent Into Hell. Check out last week’s post Some of my Favorite Fiction by John Zacharias. 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 Rev. Doug Jackson.

Doug JacksonBIO: Doug Jackson was a pastor for over twenty years and now teaches spiritual formation, New Testament Greek, and pastoral ministry for Logsdon Seminary at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in English literature from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona, a Masters of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. Doug has presented papers on various aspects of the writing of C. S. Lewis and other Inklings as well as articles on G. K. Chesterton and the Harry Potter series. In addition to his teaching, Doug writes a popular lectionary devotional blog entitled “Sermoneutics,” and has appeared in local productions of various Shakespeare plays. He and his wife Becky have two grown sons, Landry and Jay Don, as well as a rescued bullmastiff named Spurgeon. His poetry chapbook, Nothing There Is Not More: Poems of Faith Through Doubt was published by Finishing Line Press in 2014.

UntitledThat Hideous Strength by CS Lewis 1970s coolIf it is true that That Hideous Strength is a Charles Williams novel written by C. S. Lewis, it is also true that Descent Into Hell is an extended exposition of the foregoing C. S. Lewis quote written by Charles Williams. The lurid title draws the reader in with promises of vivid special effects – flaming pits, toothy demons upholstered in snakeskin, and flame-eyed dogs with slavering fangs. Instead, Williams offers the reader the silken rustle of an upper-class suburb, the petty politics of an amateur drama club, and a man who dreams of a rope.

Even the dream doesn’t rise to the level of nightmare: Lawrence Wentworth, a military historian, periodically discovers his sleeping self clinging to a rope anchored somewhere at either end but swallowed in darkness. He descends – he feels unseen knots slip through his hands and knows he has moved downward but does not see them and does not feel any motion. He does not wake up screaming; he wakes up feeling “the very slightest distaste, as if for a dentist.”

And he goes to Hell.

He goes to Hell for sulking over a girl who jilts him. He goes to Hell for fudging just a little bit on an insignificant point of military history. He goes to Hell for refusing to tell a costume designer that she has gotten the shoulder-knots wrong on some uniforms. He goes to Hell for failing to congratulate a generous rival. One thinks of Lewis’ “ghosts” in The Great Divorce, who refuse Heaven in order to recall a grudge or attack an artistic rival.

DiH coverNo, he doesn’t go to Hell for any of these things, but he goes there by means of each of them. Each choice, and later, when choice recedes beyond him, each refusal to choose, forms a knotted handfast, a ganglion of clotted demands and requests and inconveniences and discourtesies that involve him without centering on him and thus present him with the chance to focus on someone, something, anything outside himself.

Even Hell, when it arrives, isn’t much fun. Wentworth does not hear the shrieks of the damned or glimpse a distant vision of Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom. Williams’ Hell is an infinite senility, a self ever disintegrating but never ceasing. Again, the reader recalls Lewis’ “grey town,” a Hell full of bad bookstores and cinemas that if swallowed whole couldn’t manage to sicken a single butterfly on the outskirts of Heaven.

Other things go on: The novel contains the requisite Williams’ types – the acolyte who grows toward the beatific vision, and the adept who guides her (two of them, in this case). We have the hyper-real totem or hallow, in this case a play written in verse. Williams even gives us a genuine ghost, the shade of a suicide who haunts the hill where he hung himself. We encounter La Belle Dame Sans Merci who seduces an unwary man. The subdivision contains a cemetery with its own sidhe who guards a portal to the Underworld. The dead stir unquietly in their graves.

Screwtape Proposes a ToastBut none of this frightens the reader – not this reader, at any rate – as much as the image of a series of hardly-conscious choices made by a soul that slides into damnation without a single jolt along the way. To invoke Lewis again – this time Screwtape’s toast at the Tempter’s College – Wentworth’s soul won’t crunch when devoured by demons. He arrives in Hell as a morsel of pure suet, all the bone and tendon and gristle dissolved in a vinegary bath of ordinary selfishness. It’s enough to make the reader look at small choices in light of the direction they imply along a rope that at the moment seems infinite, but which most definitely is not. It isn’t exactly terrifying – but it’s damned unpleasant.


About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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5 Responses to It’s Damned Unpleasant: “Descent Into Hell” Guest Post by Doug Jackson

  1. Charles Huttar says:

    Thank you for this insightful and well-written account of Mr. Wentworth’s tragic descent. As a sort of balance, I want to point out that there are two other things that the book’s title means, and seeing all three of these together gives us a sense of Williams’s mastery of the novel’s architecture, One is relatively minor. The failed Workman who has been fired from his job but has nowhere else to go (till Pauline gives him bus money) has for a long time been enduring a living hell. And the utter failure of his life (not entirely his own fault!) comes out at the end in the final irony: he can’t even succeed in attempting suicide. Or rather, at the last moment he realizes that he wants to live after all — but then, having come back from the brink in a way that proves to be salvific, he loses his balance, with the rope still around his neck, and dies an accidental death. The last we see of him, he is no longer in hell but in a sort of purgatory, and on a journey.

    More central to the novel, and to its polysemous title, is Pauline’s Descent. She too has lived in a hell — of fear — until she allows someone else to carry that for her, thus enabling her to go meet John Struther (himself with a terrible fear of the f i r e) and to take, in her turn, his fear. And when she does that, she meets her Double — no longer fearing the encounter. Who is this Double? See Galatians 2:20 (and the name Pauline may be significant).

    It is not only Wentworth but Pauline who experiences a Descent into Hell, in a Christlike reenactment of the one that is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      And thank you for adding to the thoughts it provokes!

      It had got me wondering about the possibility of a Virgilian reference: “facilis descensus Averno; / noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis; / sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras, / hoc opus, hic labor est.” [Aeneid, VI, 126-29: “easy is the descent into hell; all night and day the gate of dark Dis stands open; but to recall thy steps and issue to upper air, this is the task and burden.” in J.W. Mackail’s translation (Macmillan, 1885): both quotations c/o Project Gutenberg)]. Williams knew his Virgil – his retelling, The Story of the Aeneid, appeared the year before Descent into Hell (though Grevel’s biography has lots of valuable new information about the composition history of the novel, starting long before 1937). Something I had not thought about before searching online for the exact quotation led me to Wikipedia’s “Cumaean Sybil” article, was the possibility of comparisons between her and Margaret Anstruther, and what of Lily Sammile as a false foil?

      And, reading it, I had also wondered (but not yet tried to think) about possible reference to “the one that is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed.” (Reminding me of “He Descended Into Hell” among “Lectures and fragments: folder XI.” in Wade CW / MS-350 and CW / MS-420 – the details of which, alas, I do not remember, while I have not gone digging for my notes, either. In this context, the online catalogue entry for CW / MS-349 (“Lectures and fragments: folder X.”) also looks interesting as it “Includes items titled: […] Doctrine of Hell, [and…] The Idea of Hell in Literature”. ) “The Harrowing of Hell” turns up (with tantalizing brevity) as a topic possibly inviting attention in Williams’s Arthurian Commonplace Book. And, in his last (non-dramatic) poem published, Pope Deodatus prays, “Thou hast harried hell, O Blessed, / and carried thence the least token of thyself. / Thou hast spoken a word of power in the midst of hell” (‘The Prayers of the Pope’ (1944) – lines not in the earlier published version, ‘Divites Dimisit’ (1939). And, as Williams remarked in an unpublished lecture, “the Death of Virgil was originally a much worse poem about the death of Milton” (of uncertain date: see Arthurian Poets ed., pp. 257-58) but it was presumably being ‘reworked’ (if that is not too strong a word) into the poem in Taliessin through Logres in the same period Williams was trying once more to publish Descent into Hell.

      None of which is to take up the substance of the thoughts provoked by the Rev. Doug Jackson’s fine post and your fine comment, yet! – perhaps some savoring and brooding (and rereading Williams) will bring me to that…


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I don’t know how good Williams’s Plato was, but Eric Voegelin is very interesting about how the myth of Er (and, I think, the myth of the cave) are prepared from Socrates’s first word in The Republic, “Katèbeka”, “I went down…”.


      • Charles Huttar says:

        Aeneid, VI, 126: “easy is the descent into hell”

        Your quote from Vergil brings me back to the lines by Lewis that opened Jackson’s article: “the safest road to Hell is the gradual one, the gentle slope . . .” I hadn’t thought before about that parallel.


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    By the way, what a curious and interesting cover illustration the monchrome one is – I presume of John Struther before his Inquisitors (or whomever exactly). I cannot quickly discover from what edition it is, or whose work (or whether an original or borrowing). Do ‘we’ know?


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