The first nickname I ever acquired outside my family was "Bookworm." This was a nickname I loved and embraced; in middle and late elementary school, I don't think anything was as important to me as reading. I was a voracious reader, devouring all sorts of books, fiction and nonfiction; often I would find an author I liked, then plow through as many of his or her books as I could stand before moving on to the next one.
Apparently, I moved on to the young adult genre more quickly than my parents would have preferred. I loved being read to when I was little, but was still pretty young when I saw a production of "The Hobbit" at the Children's Theater and asked my mom to read that to me. I loved it so much that I would read ahead after she was finished. Once I'd tasted fantasy, I didn't really look back, and focused almost exclusively on more "grown-up" books.
My trips to the library were like my mom's trips to the grocery store. I would emerge with two armfuls of books, carefully balanced. Something old and something new; I enjoyed revisiting past successes, but was always on the lookout for the next great book on the horizon.
I didn't buy many books; I did buy Lone Wolf books, which the library didn't carry, and received others as gifts. Sometimes I would buy some paperbacks from Scholastic, the book catalog offered by my school. I did have the fortune, though, to have two strong readers as parents. Everything was just out in the open, on bookshelves located throughout the house. I found plenty of books that I enjoyed and read on my own, like Danny Mole and others; I treated my home as a big browsing library, making my first judgment based on the look of the book itself, secondly by the dust jacket description and the first few pages of the story. I didn't necessarily prefer the books at home to ones I got from the library, but I read through a good portion of them over the years.
There was one particular set of books that I was fascinated by. They were in a white box, with "Charles Williams" written on the side. Each book had an interesting title, like "All Hallow's Eve", and a weird cover, featuring disembodied faces or other oddities. I remember pulling them out and looking at them, but for whatever reason I never started to read them. Maybe they felt too "grown-up" for me, or maybe I was afraid they would give me nightmares. Still, the names stuck with me, along with this vague impression of something sinister or foreboding.
Later on, I learned much more about Charles Williams. Most exciting for me, he was a member of The Inklings, an informal circle of Oxford writers including J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. What I read about his novels matched my impressions based on the book covers: they were supernatural, unsettling books that generally dealt with intrusions of the spiritual realm into the everyday world. Lewis was a great admirer of his work, and "That Hideous Strength" was strongly influenced by Williams. Tolkien was much less enthused, and felt some jealousy at Williams' presence during their meetings. Williams died in 1945, and afterwards Tolkien (and the others) greatly mourned his passing.
In recent years, I've also learned that I was not alone in thinking that the books were creepy. My mom and dad were both reading them around the time I was born, and both would get incredibly strange or frightening dreams about the books. My mom eventually requested that they stop reading them, and so they did.
Well, after hearing a story like that, how could I resist? The name has been kicking around the back of my mind for a while, and especially after reading The Third Policemen and H. P. Lovecraft, I felt the time was ripe to plunge into some supernatural thrillers. Lacking any better plan, I resolved to read through the books in the order in which they were published, starting with War in Heaven and Many Dimensions.
Super-condensed summary: they are amazing. I'm not sure what genre to put them in; it's sort of a blend of thriller, fantasy, science-fiction, and social comedy. They're not genre works, though, but literature. I'm pretty surprised that they aren't better-known, since it seems like they have so much to offer: exciting stories, vivid imaginings, and top-notch writing. It seems like one of the few authors that could be embraced by both the public and the critics has instead been largely ignored.
Delving into the plot of the books, let's consider these MINOR SPOILERS.
War in Heaven was a good, though shocking, read. Shocking because I had this sort of vague idea that Williams was a Christian, and yet I was reading page after page on demonology, the occult, human sacrifice, possession, and other topics I associate more with Crowly than with Anglicanism. The plot of the book deals with the Holy Graal (Williams is a genius at selecting and using nontraditional spellings), which is discovered in a rural English church and pursued by a number of figures, some of whom have extremely dark ambitions for the cup.
The characters are incredibly well-drawn and realized. The books are short, but you get to know everyone rather quickly and fully, and so are invested in the trials they undertake. Probably the central heroic figure of this book is the vicar of the Graal's church, though when we first meet him he seems destined to be a fully minor character: he doesn't possess great faith, he's a bit of a dissembler, and while quite decent does not seem virtuous. Other protagonists included a wealthy aristocrat and an employee at a publishing firm.
It's the villains, though, who really make an impression. A reclusive retired gentleman gets the most pages; he has built a publishing company on a legacy of occult books, and is incredibly driven to commune with evil and gain satanic powers. He's far from the most powerful, though. A Greek owner of a curiosity shop, seemingly without any affect, despises the world and seeks to annihilate it... and may be close to the means to do so. Perhaps the most interesting figure, though one only peripherally involved with the story, is Sir Giles Tumulty, who aids and abets the others in their pursuits, but shows no interest in benefiting from anything they do.
The plot starts out with a bang, when a murdered body is discovered on the very first page. The reaction to this body initiates the unsettling tone that will persist throughout the book: people are not horrified, or angry, but instead peeved. One person after another remarks at the inconvenience of this corpse and complains about the complications it creates. While funny, it's not precisely comedy; it points towards a disconnect in thoughts and feelings that afflicts most characters in the book.
This sort of sinister light-heartedness permeates the rest of the book as well. It's kind of built-in comic relief, except the fact that people are laughing makes it seem worse. Everyone is wrapped up in their own narrow concerns and are only interested in the benefit or harm to themselves.
In a way, that's what makes the book really work. I mean, it's the Holy Graal: one would think that it would inspire speeches on its legacy and virtuous quests to claim it for the glory of the world. But, no. People want it to perform dark rituals; or to make some money by selling it to wealthy Americans; or to help Catholics score points off Anglicans. You just feel sort of stunned at how narrowly people view and treat this powerful artifact, and that's exactly what Williams intends. The object is greater and larger than the people; it has a purity of purpose that none of them begin to approach.
It's impossible for me to avoid comparing this with Lovecraft, but I'll try to be brief. Right off the bat, I think that Williams is a far superior writer. His language is controlled (and varied!), he shows a mastery over the working of the plot and the revelations to come. Lovecraft's characters feel like mouthpieces or caricatures, while Williams' are fully realized. Lovecraft's work is very self-contained, referencing its own mythos but little without; Williams' work feels more open, fully a part of this world. All that said, there is one important similarity between the two authors: both of them (at least in the few works I've read so far) are extremely interested in secretive, forbidden knowledge and power. Both of them show ordinary humans stumbling on or tapping such power, and not being prepared to handle the consequences. The difference seems to be that, for Lovecraft, such power is entirely negative; there is never any possibility that, if someone knew what would happen, they would have begun their investigations. With Williams, though, such power is primarily dangerous, not necessarily wrong. Evil things can come from it, but so can good. I guess you can think about it like this: In Lovecraft, people seek after hidden powers and then regret it; in Williams, people have hidden powers thrust upon them, and while they're not too happy about it they deal with it.
I'm tempted to describe these books as champions of English virtue, in that the most heroic characters are those who do what is required of them, while wryly commenting on the situation but without making a big production out of it. Dryness and subtlety are far more important here than bravery or compassion.
The second book I read, "Many Dimensions," has many similarities to the first. Both revolve around an artifact (here, the Stone of Suleiman), both feature Sir Giles Tumulty as the instigator of evil actions, both feature largely agnostic protagonists that must deal with forces they do not entirely believe in. That said, my emotional reaction to the second book was very different. Its content felt less offensive: there are no satanists, but instead a loose alliance of unethical scientists and corrupt bureaucrats who stand opposed to the heroes. I also found the protagonists more likeable. Chief among them are the Chief Justice, a high figure in the British legal system, and his secretary, who is the only character in the two books who professes a belief in and sincere love for God.
The trappings of this book were occasionally reminiscent of an Indiana Jones story: you had an ancient Biblical artifact, the secret society of Muslims tasked with guarding it, corrupt adventurers, and midnight assassination attempts. Still, the majority of the action takes place in private offices and embassies. It feels like an odd inversion to have the most curious and explorative character, Sir Giles, be so wicked, and the most boring and home-bound characters be so virtuous. Inversions are good, though... they're what make books interesting.
The Stone is the kind of item that most authors would dismiss out of hand, because it's just too powerful. How do you write about an item that can do anything, include go anywhere, alter the flow of time, stop death and even replicate itself? Such power threatens to make a story unworkable. But Williams makes it work perfectly here by balancing several forces against one another. You have the tension between the reckless users (Sir Giles) and the cautious users (everyone else, including the embassies and the American magnate). You have a tension between those who respect its religious significance (the secretary and the Persians) and those who do not (everyone else). There's a tension between those who want to use it for the good of all, and those who want to minimize its disruption upon the world. All of these conflicts feel like squabbling over nuclear weapons, and it's a bit of a relief that as a result they don't actually use it that often.
I was interested by the portrayal of Muslims in this book, which was generally quite positive; there's one character who does something bad, but for the most part they come off better than their English counterparts. That made me curious whether Williams was progressive for his time in respecting that culture, or if that was the norm half a century ago and our culture has slipped backwards.
There were parts of these books where I thought they would make perfect subjects for a movie adaptation. The stories are so tight, the dialog so great, and the visual spectacle so unique that they seem to beg for treatment on the big screen. At the same time, they're the sort of things that would inevitably feel inferior to the book. Many of the most intense parts of the book are purely internal struggles, as characters wrestle with deciding what to do, and that would be quite difficult to pull off without resorting to a cheesy monologue. I think what remains would still be solid, something Williams neophytes would enjoy while the elect would smugly say, "If you think that's great you should read the book."
I also was reminded of a comment my dad made over a decade ago when I was reading Frank Peretti's Christian thrillers - "Everything Peretti does, Williams did over fifty years ago, and did much better." It's true that both deal with the intrusion of a spiritual aspect onto the everyday world, and that people's faith is tested and probed as they grapple with that incursion. It's odd, though. If I didn't already know that Williams was a Christian (and he was - specifically, an Anglican like Lewis), these books wouldn't have made me think that he was one. These books were written by a Christian, but aren't "Christian novels" by any contemporary definition. At the same time, though, God feels a lot more potent in Williams' novels than in Peretti's. In order to create tension, Peretti must match his angels and demons, and there must be some doubt as to how effective the forces of good can be against powerful evil - they'll win the Last Battle, but how well will they do in this one? Williams gives his evil much freer reign, but the resolution of his books tends to leave no doubt as to who is ultimately in charge. You don't exactly get the idea of a Christian God from the books, but there is a sort of final comfort in a grand universal actor who has overseen and controlled all these events. I dunno, it's hard to describe, but I feel like Williams treats God much more vaguely but also gives him more respect and authority.
Where do I go from here? I'm taking a break now, because I seriously need to buckle down if I'm ever going to get close to finishing Gravity's Rainbow, but I've loved what I've read so far and will be back for more. Williams wrote quite a few more novels before his death and I look forward to reading them. It may also be interesting to try some of his other writings; he was quite prolific, producing criticism, poetry and plays, and hopefully his genius shows in those other works as well.
UPDATE 7/31/06: This is sort of random, but Andrew picked up on my throwaway reference to Lone Wolf, and actually found a great site online that has archived, HTML versions of all the books. It's all 100% legal, and you can check it out at Project Aon, starting with Book 1. For those of you who read/played these before, you might enjoy a walk down memory lane. I only read up through book 12 or so, and would like to see what I missed out on. For those of you who haven't, they're worth checking out as a curious artifact of publishing history; they're about halfway between the Choose Your Own Adventure series (and if you don't know what THOSE are, you probably shouldn't be reading this blog) and pencil-and-paper roleplaying games. You play through a fantasy world by following a CYOA-style decision tree, but you also have health points and skills, need to manage an inventory, and fight through an innovative combat system which doesn't require the use of dice. Basically, it was a way for me to play decent solo RPGs. I get the feeling I've been spoiled over the past 15 years by high-quality computer RPGs, but it'll probably still be a nostalgic trip.