All Hallow’s Eve by Charles Williams
If you’re anything like me as a reader, you go through phases when you’re obsessed by particular authors or genres or types of book; and for a while in the 1980s I was heavily into reading works by the Inklings – C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. I made my way through huge chunks of their works, and was most intrigued by Williams’ occulty, theological-type thrillers. I still have them all lurking on my shelves (many of them very nice old Faber books) and reading a number of reviews recently of his “All Hallows Eve”, I was drawn to take it down for a re-read. I say for a re-read, as I couldn’t tell you for sure if I *did* read it back in the day – but I think I did!
Williams and his works are difficult to classify, and this one opens unconventionally enough. The Second World War has just ended, and a young woman, Lester Furnival, is standing on Westminster Bridge, a little confused. The City of London seems unlike she remembers it; things are quiet and uncertain, and there is a crashed plane at the side of the Thames. It turns out that Lester is dead, she and her friend Evelyn having been killed by the plane landing on them; the City she is in is a dead London which seems to exist alongside the real one, and once Evelyn finds her the two women wander along amongst the ghostly City, unsure of what to do next.
Lester is not unseen, however; her husband Richard catches a glimpse of her ghostly figure on the bridge and will see her again. Richard, while trying to cope with his grief at the loss of his wife, visits his friend, the artist Jonathan Drayton, who has painted two striking figures: one of the City of London, transfigured by light into a celestial city; and one of the preacher Simon the Clerk, current trendy figure, with his followers shown as a crush of humans who are more like black beetles. Simon’s followers include the nasty Lady Wallingford and her bullied daughter Betty (with whom Jonathan is in love); and Simon’s powers extend to forcing Betty into the ghostly City against her will. The stage is set for a battle between Good and Evil, and a scary one it is too.
Another strong motif here is the use of art, and in particular Jonathan’s paintings. These seem almost independently alive, changing in front of the eyes of the viewers, and cause quite strongly different reactions from different people. As with much in the book, the paintings are symbolic and come to assume an increased importance as the story progresses.
I was surprised at how much this book drew me in and absorbed me in the story straight away. An occult or theological thriller is not the kind of thing I would necessarily automatically think of picking up, but the book was gripping and very readable. It’s a powerful tale of morality and humanity, and the characters are vivid and believable – we’ve all known an Evelyn with her meanness, Betty with her nice-but-weak character, and Lester with a good but careless disposition.
Williams is obviously drawing on centuries of occult lore and literature, some of which I have to confess is a little lost on me. However there’s no denying the power of his writing and storytelling; the opening chapter alone, with its memorable depiction of the dead’s deserted city of London, is one of the most striking and atmospheric pieces of writing I’ve ever read. The battle between Good and Evil is powerfully portrayed and the fate of some of the characters quite chilling.
“All Hallows Eve” is not a book I would have necessarily thought of returning to at this point in my reading life, but I found the experience of revisiting it stunning. I’ve seen Williams’ writing criticised but I thought his prose excellent, if perhaps a little wordy at time, and ideal for conveying the atmosphere he wanted. I’m very glad I was drawn back to this book and I shall be haunted by the vision of the ghostly City for some time…
For more thoughts on this book there is an excellent piece on Reading 1900-1950, which is what set me off thinking about Williams again.