Charles Williams published his “theological thriller” War in Heaven, his first novel, in 1930, but Eerdmans mercifully reprinted it in 1991. I borrowed the term “theological thriller” from some commentator, I can’t remember who, but it sums up Williams’ novels very well (those that I’ve read, at least). The novel is shrouded in mystery from its very arresting beginning to its mesmeric ending, complicated and somewhat obscure, but it is an action/detective story and packed with adventure throughout. It begins with a murder victim and rushes into a struggle of good against evil and a race against time, but it is swathed in both the myth of the Holy Grail (“Graal” as Williams spells it) and of Prester John. Prester who? Exactly. This is part of Williams’ mythopoeic genius, in my opinion – a detective story of epic proportions.
Persimmons’ sinister cohorts, on the other hand – two mysterious figures from the East – seek nothing less than the destruction of all things, even desire and power themselves. They embody the pure essence of sin and evil, which result in a lifelessness of utter abhorrence. Surely none but the most mindless haters of God and celebrators of evil would find this limpid nihilism attractive.
Speaking of mysterious figures from the East, Prester John is really, delightfully, eerily strange. Not too dissimilar from Sunday in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.
Williams skillfully portrays the inner experiences of spiritual lives. He was an erudite literary savant who wore his romanticism and mysticism on both his sleeves. It’s no accident that the reader finds the archdeacon reading Julian of Norwich at one point. (I rode my bike to Norwich once, by the way. Great castle and cathedral.) The only other work I’ve read by Williams is Descent into Hell. In both this and in War in Heaven, Williams adeptly illustrates the reality and meaning of the interior lives of his characters. Ironically, it’s this very facet of his work that I think makes his novels prime candidates for translation to the big screen. Trust me on this one, but don’t hold your breath.