This is the fourth post in a series written by guests about CW’s penultimate novel, Descent Into Hell. Check out last week’s post, It’s Damned Unpleasant by Doug Jackson. 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 Prof. Philip Christman.
Descent into Hell is one of the scariest novels I’ve ever read.
Understand, I say this as someone who likes to be scared. I read my share of Stephen King as a youngster, I enjoy Brian K. Evenson and H.P. Lovecraft. I’ve seen the original Dawn of the Dead at least ten times. But when I first tried to read Descent into Hell, in my troubled early twenties, I had to put it back on the shelf for nearly fifteen years. It was too real.
I don’t mean that phrase in the sense that it often takes in discussions of horror literature and film these days. By my count, there are at least four ways that a horror story can be “too real,” can cease to feel like a safely contained genre exercise with one or two well-placed shocks. It can do so by being, in the strictest sense of the word, obscene (off-stage): by not turning away when the unspeakable, the unwatchable is happening, by making us witness as Medea kills each of her children in turn. The problem is that this quickly becomes a game of I-can-top-that. Last House on the Left yields to Eli Roth, and horror and pity become leering sadism. Or a story can be “too real” because it acts as a moral contagion, indicting the audience for our enjoyment of what the writer or filmmaker also all too obviously enjoys shoving in our faces. European film directors love this game, for some reason, but you can always choose not to play. Generally, you’re better off if you don’t.
More fruitfully, a horror story can link its supernatural terrors to the far less enjoyable, because uncontrolled, horrors of the newspaper, of daily life. Descent does this rather artfully in its first two chapters. The novel’s plot has four strands; first, and most important, there is the story of Peter Stanhope, a poet-playwright, and Pauline Anstruther, who plays a sort of nature-spirit in what sounds like an excruciating local-theatre adaptation of Stanhope’s newest play. The opening chapter introduces us to the cozily affluent local-theatre scene of Battle Hill, where “politics, religion, art, science, grouped themselves, and courteously competed for numbers and reputation.” (Has Williams been to Ann Arbor?) Battle Hill’s community theatre group is arguing about how to present Stanhope’s new play, which both factions have more or less disastrously misinterpreted. One group has reduced it to early-Romantic banalities about the goodness of nature (“I don’t see how goodness could be dreadful”), while the other group thinks it’s a D.H. Lawrentian, late-romantic story about “undifferentiated sex forces.” (That is also, coincidentally, the name of my new death-metal band.) Pauline is somewhat aloof from this conversation, both because it’s a stupid conversation and because she is now plagued, as she has been from childhood, by fear of her own doppelganger, whom she tends to espy far off when walking alone. (As one does.) Still, her thrown-off comments show that she’s the only person who understands what Stanhope’s play is about. This sympathy between Peter and Pauline only deepens as the novel continues, and it’s through their relationship that Williams propounds his well-known thesis that one person can psychically assume the burdens of another.
But the first chapter gives only intimations that any of this will happen or, indeed, that we’re reading a horror novel at all. It reads more like Cold Comfort Farm meets Waiting for Guffman. Then, in Chapter Two, Williams offers a potted history of Battle Hill—just touching on Plot Strand Two, a local Protestant ancestor of Pauline’s who was martyred under Queen Mary (his fate intersects with Pauline in an elegantly surprising way)—and then he presents us with Strand Three: a suicide. The man, a “certain unskilled assistant” whose name “no one troubled to know,” is one of life’s eternal victims, “the butt of the world,” a person for whom “all the nourishment that comes from friendship and common pain was as much forbidden … as the poor nourishment of his body.” His plight drives this generally apolitical novelist to heights of rhetoric not unworthy of Marx and Engels: “The Republic had decided that it was better one man, or many men, should perish, than the people in the dangerous chance of helping those many.” Nor does Williams hesitate to link the coziness of Battle Hill in general, which we’ve already enjoyed in Chapter One, to its callous exploitation of this man, and many like him. Even Stanhope, the novel’s hero, isn’t safe: “the house of his poetry remained faintly touched by the dreadful ease that was given to it by the labor and starvation of the poor.”
And then, having placed political and economic horror up against the Trollopian comedy of Battle Hill, Williams gets “too real” again, in the fourth and scariest and most fruitful sense: he makes us look at ourselves. Specifically, he makes us wonder what might happen if we had to live with ourselves forever. The suicide is a success—“the world allowed him to be capable and efficient at last”—but the patient lives. The hanged man, conscious after death, is trapped in a sort of time-loop with his own bitterness and self-hatred. Even death can’t save him from his own heart.
Williams then introduces the final strand of his plot, Lawrence Wentworth, a successful scholar who now lives in the house where that suicide once lived (Williams is not the kind of writer who respects linear time). Wentworth is no obvious villain. He can’t really do much to harm the other characters, beyond screwing up the period costumes for the play. His most obvious fault, so far as the world is concerned, is that he has started to falsify his historical evidence—or perhaps just his interpretations of it:
He was beginning to twist the intention of the sentences in his authorities, preferring strange meanings and awkward constructions, adjusting evidence, manipulating words. In defence of his conclusion he was willing to cheat in the evidence—a habit more usual to religious writers than to historical.
“Preferring strange meanings and awkward constructions”: that describes a lot of respectable careers. But Williams brings forth the egoism at the heart of Wentworth’s cheating, and the horror at the heart of that egoism. Wentworth doesn’t falsify because, like a modern Assistant Professor wrestling her way out of the precariat, he’s terrified of losing his job. He does it because he loves being the king of his private universe more than he loves any actual thing in the universe. Williams contrasts him with his great rival Aston Moffatt, a scrupulous and grinding pedant, who would no more falsify evidence than strangle a puppy. Moffatt lives in what G.K. Chesterton once called “the starry enthusiasm and the heavenly happiness of the bore.” Like all true bores—the train-obsessives and stamp-collectors, the Trekkies who go hungry and lose sleep till they get that scale model of the Enterprise just right—Moffatt is not, considered in the light of eternity, boring at all. He passionately loves something outside himself. In Williams’s moral universe, as in Lewis’s and Chesterton’s, this love can be the hook that jerks us all the way to heaven.
Wentworth, banal as he is, is a true horror, a nightmare-inducing villain to compare with Pennywise the Clown or Cthulhu, because he has chosen—and, as the novel goes on, continues to choose—his own ego-flattering fantasies over any actually existing thing. Later in the novel, as is proper for a character in a thriller, he learns a bit of witchcraft. When Adela, the woman he intends to marry—not from love but because it’s flattering to have a cute little thing like her pay court to an unappealing middle-aged man—chooses someone else, he makes an Adela-doppelganger (though one very different from Pauline’s), a kind of astral-bodied blow-up doll who does his every bidding. He becomes like those sad souls one reads about in newspaper lifestyle sections: the young men who prefer porn, not to aloneness (for that, however wrong, is merely human), but to actual, willing women, frequently the same woman who now salves her hurts by writing the essay. God help them. By the end of the novel, Wentworth loves his self-serving little cosmos so much that he seems to have placed himself beyond even God’s ability to help. (The ancient question for Christianity: is “beyond God’s help” even a thing? George MacDonald, a writer without whom both Lewis and Williams are unimaginable, said no. But the terror of his works comes from the thought of the aeons of sanctification in store for everybody.)
I think it was Wentworth’s subplot that frightened me so much I couldn’t finish Descent the first time. I had, of course, looked at the end first, as I often do—only a bad book can’t survive spoilers. I won’t quote the novel’s last sentence, with its thudding, final rhythms. Suffice it to say that in Wentworth, Williams presents a portrait of damnation far more convincing, because more psychologically detailed, than anything I ever heard in fundamentalist Sunday school. For Williams, as again for his great disciple Lewis, damnation is not to endure horrors, but to be a horror, forever. Death is exactly what isn’t scary in these books: it’s being evil, but unable to escape one’s own evil through death. Since all of us are evil in some way, eternity presents only a nightmare.
It is, of course, precisely Christianity that is supposed to save us from this nightmare. I couldn’t see that in my first attempt at reading the book, trapped as I was in a hellish (not to mention clinical) anxiety-spiral of my own. And one critique to be made of Williams’s novel, or of his “theological thrillers” as a group, is that he’s a little too luridly fascinated by damnation. The books are also, as every Williams fan and scholar has already noted, hastily written and sometimes obscure as a result. The guy had to eat. But, having finally finished the book, I am moved and impressed by its piercing vision of the human heart. It is not “too real”: like all worthwhile art, it counterpoints our self-serving fantasies with a severe but lovely vision, a vision, however fantastic, of what is.