Monday, May 25, 2009

"Perfectly hellish weather!" Ralph said.

So anyway, I finished off that Charles Williams book I was reading today (The Greater Trumps). It did flag a bit at the end, but that is typical of the Williams' style - the real pay off in his books doesn't come in the resolution of a plot, but in the utterly insane chaos that precedes it.

Charles Williams, as you may or may not know, was a member of the Inklings, the C S Lewis literary circle that included, well, Lewis, Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers. Williams shared plenty of Lewis and Tolkien's ideas, and added some of his own bizarre enthusiasms. He was also a member of the Golden Dawn, with the result that a lot of his writing, even at its most Christian, had more than a little of the influence of the occult.

Williams wrote with vigour and imagination in popular literary styles about spiritual and mystical ideas. Many of the ideas he was articulating probably hadn't been attempted in a popular fictional style before; some probably hadn't even been thought of before Williams. Others he may have picked up from the obscure, even obscurantist, theology of his colleagues in the Golden Dawn. The result is that Williams usually goes a little crazy, throwing several different styles into each of his books, and usually based the plot around a kind of supernatural occurence, or, even more typically, an object with mystical powers. In War in Heaven, we get a lot of stuff about the Holy Grail; in Many Dimensions, a sort of magical dice that was owned by King Solomon. Pastiche, followed by mysticism. At his most distinctive, Williams managed somehow to sound like the more lurid horror thrillers or dark fantasies of the 1970s - in the 1940s. This is not an insult; I think there is something quite special and riveting about his style, and his ideas - Williams attempted to popularise difficult ideas.

The Greater Trumps has Williams writing at his best. It's part English country comedy, part ghost story, about a family who take a holiday in the English countryside during Christmas. They have with them some old tarot cards who one of their number - Henry, the fiancee of Nancy, whose house they are going to - has expressed interest in seeing. Henry subsequently uses the cards to call up a storm in an attempt to murder one of the others, Mr Coningsby, and loses the tarots - with the results that the storm never stops. And then - things get more and more insane.

Like every good English ghost story, it is absolutely and utterly essential that there be an old chap who bursts in on strange scenes and exclaims, 'Just what the devil is this?' That function is fulfilled in this book by Mr Coningsby, :

he tried to defy the human race with a plaintive antagonism - even the elder sons of the younger sons of peers might (he seemed to suggest) outrage his decencies by treading too closely on his heels.

There are a pair of young lovers - Nancy and Henry; there is an older maid, Sibyl, who is given over to odd notions about spirits and the like; and there are wicked older characters who plan to thwart the younger ones and steal their cards off them (Henry's relatives Aaron and Joanna).

The idea of a whole family at the centre of a vast, supernatural storm which has got out of control really appeals as the central metaphor of this sort of novel. It allows all the action to become wonderfully focused, and Williams' typically melodramatic style takes on a new kind of vivid intensity in this context. Besides which, the book can be ridiculously funny; the dialogue is full of corny sentences like:

Names had for him a horrid attraction, largely owing to his own, which was Lothair.

Is she still as mad as ever? Is she still crying out on the names of the old dead gods?

"Perfectly hellish weather!" Ralph said.

There's a lot more that's worth saying about this book, including the way it neatly subverts the pop-fiction stereotype about the man of action (actions by characters in this book may have consequences for other people, and frequently have consequences for themselves, but they have absolutely no control over the unfolding of the plot - the novel falls on the side of fate, and not free will); the interesting way Williams uses his characters stream of consciousness, and so on. But that's enough for now. If you can find this book (and I only did by accident, on the second top shelf of an obscure poetry bookshop hidden away on the second floor in a building off Swanston Street) then it's well worth reading.


Steve said...

Gosh, Tim, there's someone else in Australia who has read "War in Heaven." In fact, it did not leave a lasting impression on me, (I vaguely recall it as being adequate) and as I figured I would never read it again, I was about to donate it to Lifeline. Do you have your own copy, 'cos you can have mine if you want.

TimT said...

No, I've already got a copy, thanks. I'd keep it. Charles Williams books are a bit difficult to find, and interesting for the esoteric value of the texts. Also it's interesting to guess at how much Williams influenced C S Lewis, and vice versa.

forlorn said...

I don't know about Charles Williams, but it sounds like you could well have rediscovered for me the gem of a bookshop I found in Melbourne several years ago and have never been able to locate again.

TimT said...

There's a few bookshops like that in Melbourne, partly due to a) the propensity of small bookshops to appear and disappear and reappear again, according to the whims of the owners b) Our tunnel-like laneways. This one's in a kind of arcade that turns off Swanston Street, near Flinders Street Station, if that makes sense. It's right next to a poetry centre.

forlorn said...

Hmmm, it might have been the poetry centre. It was the range of poetry that made it a gem.

TimT said...

It's right next to the poetry centre, which also has a library. First time I've been there myself.

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