Charles Williams, All Hallow's Eve (Eerdmans, 1991)

In every reader's life there are a handful of books that, no matter how often you return to them, seem fresh and invigorating to read. For me, the novels of Charles Williams are this way: no matter how often I've read them, it always feels like I'm reading the book for the first time. Even though I know the plot, with each page I am anxiously awaiting what will happen next, so fresh and vivid are his ideas.

Williams was one of the Oxford group known as the Inklings, which also included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Williams worked for Oxford University Press in its London offices, but during World War II, the offices were moved to Oxford and Williams was able to spend time with the Inklings during his time there.  Lewis was quite smitten with Williams and his ideas, but Tolkien never really warmed to Williams' writing. For readers who haven't read any of Williams's novels, All Hallows' Eve is as good a place to start as any.

The story begins with Lester Furnival wandering around London in a bit of a haze. Slowly she remembers that she was recently killed by a plane crashing along the Thames and that she is now a ghost wandering through an eerily vacant City.

Lester has left behind her husband, Richard, who is good friends with the painter Jonathan Drayton. Drayton has recently been commissioned by Lady Wallingford to paint the portrait of her spiritual mentor, Simon le Clerk, often known simply as Father or The Clerk. Drayton does a wonderful job of it, but captures too closely the dark nature of the Clerk. Lady Wallingford is repulsed by it and demands that it be destroyed. However, Simon finds it a true and accurate likeness and tries to pull Drayton into his twisted circle.

We learn gradually that Simon le Clerk is trying to control the world through spiritual means, and critical to this plan is the death of his daughter whom he sired via Lady Wallingford, who also happens to be engaged to Jonathan Drayton. Into this fray wanders Lester's ghost and Richard also, to reach a climactic confrontation between the forces of good (as represented by Lester, Richard, and Jonathan) and the forces of evil (Simon and Lady Wallingford).

Williams's novels are often termed supernatural thrillers, and there's really no better description for All Hallows' Eve, for its plot is that of a thriller with the spiritual being assumed as normal in the whole situation.  The plot is captivating and engaging. However, the book suffers as most all of Williams's books do: he spends an inordinate amount of time explaining the interior motivations and desires of his characters rather than letting the action of the story explain it for him. As a result, the book feels heavy and burdened with extra description. There's a strain of thought today that says authors should show, not tell. Williams would have done well to take some of this advice.

But if you can get through the incredibly thick prose, the story is a beautiful one, leading to a climax where love triumphs over hate and good over evil. Williams was not afraid to show the world as a place where absolutes exist (indeed, his The Greater Trumps is about this very idea) and his plots are very black and white in their ideas of good and evil. However, Williams also realized the extreme complexity that those ideas take on when applied to everyday life. This tension is brought forth in All Hallows' Eve, resulting in a captivating novel, even with its faults.


[Matthew Winslow]