War in Heaven by Charles Williams
The discovery of an ancient holy relic in an English country church ignites the ultimate battle of good and evil in this deeply thoughtful metaphysical thriller
An unidentified body lies lifeless in the offices of a British publishing house. Soon after it is discovered, an urgent request from an author arrives by post, pleading for the deletion of an important paragraph from an upcoming publication. These unlikely incidents mark the beginning of a secret war waged in the English countryside but threatening to engulf all of humankind. On the side of the godly, an archdeacon, an eccentric duke, a book editor, and a young boy must confront the dark magic of relentless satanic forces—for behind the facade of a common pharmacy, sinister plans are being laid for the negation of everything. The most horrible of conspiracies, its success hangs on the acquisition of an object of enormous supernatural power recently discovered in a small parish church: the Holy Grail.
For the last several years, a good portion of the books I’ve read have been directing me toward Charles Williams. There was a point last year at which I realized I was reading four or five books with a direct tie to someone I hadn’t heard much, if anything, about. So I went looking. Trouble was none of the local libraries had his work. Availability on Kindle wasn’t great. There were multiple versions a multiple price points and no indication of which were of decent quality or indeed if they were different at all.
At any rate, there was plenty read and plenty of time to decide. Then I was given the opportunity to review Open Road Media’s new edition of War In Heaven, one of eight Williams novels released digitally last month. That was the final, resounding bell.
Charles Williams is widely regarded as the third pillar of the informal literary society known as The Inklings. The other two pillars are household names at this point: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. When you you read the three of them within a reasonably short time period, you can see how they influenced one another and worked through some similar themes in their own individual ways.
War in Heaven was Williams’s first novel and I think that shows. The story is dense, the characters are round, and the stakes are high. But the structure appears to be somewhat loose. The story rambles from London across the English countryside collecting its cast in a strangely hypnotic manner, so that the shock of a blatantly paranormal addition is as likely as a valet.
This is a novel of big ideas set against a mundane backdrop and the two reverberate with one another. It’s a story of the grail, of good and evil. But unlike a lot of modern fantasy, metaphysical thrillers, or wherever we might try to shelve it, the two terms are immediately recognizable in and of themselves. T.S. Eliot, writing the introduction for another Williams book, said:
He is concerned, not with the Evil of conventional morality and the ordinary manifestations by which we recognize it, but with the essence of Evil; it is therefore Evil which has no power to attract us, for we see it as the repulsive thing it is, and as the despair of the damned from which we recoil…
Human actors play out a drama that attracts supernatural forces and acts as a microcosm for an eternal struggle. These people don’t know what to do. They do their best, or worst, and make it up as they go along.
In the end, I enjoyed the book and I’m interested in reading more. I can handle plenty of the fantastic, the medieval, and even the intrusion of specific theologies. And Williams can deliver.
Recommended for fans of That Hideous Strength, Tim Powers, and magical realism.