I am going to be completely up-front with you. I went back and forth on whether to review Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell. Frankly, it’s weird. There’s no getting around it. On the genre spectrum it lands somewhere amongst magical realism, a ghost story, and a theological treatise—it has pieces of all of them, but isn’t any of them, truly.
This book is not for the faint of heart.
Williams was part of the Inklings, the Oxford writing club that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. And like these men, Williams thinks on the theological edges, at times dancing over the line into theologically flavored philosophy. His pet theory that is showcased in this novel is the doctrine of substituted love. And while it’s dubious as a theology, it sets the stage for a thrilling work of fiction that explores what it really means to love another person. So don’t turn your brain off while reading Williams, but I would encourage you not to automatically dismiss him, either.
The setting of this book is fairly ordinary: A group of educated townspeople are putting on a play written by a local playwright. But the lives and subplots woven together through this play are anything but ordinary. Pauline, the female chorus lead, lives under constant fear of meeting her doppelgänger—a mirror image of herself. Wentworth, the middle-aged costume consultant, dreams every night that he is climbing down a rope in complete darkness and slowly constructs for himself an imaginary lover. The character in the third subplot is dead.
Like I said, it’s weird.
If you do not like the fantastic, the unexplainable, or the creepy, I would not suggest this work. It can be disturbing and even disgusting at times. But if your brain, like mine, thinks in images and analogies, or you have a thing for writers like George MacDonald, Williams might be a good option. His story, while strange, provides some deeply profound insights.
Perhaps the fear of meeting oneself is not as foreign as it seems at first blush. Maybe some of us have built imaginary worlds, peopled with projections of ourselves, rather than engaging in an outside world beyond our control. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but I remember one biblical writer telling us that we too were dead once.
Everyone must eventually choose between the sleepy comfort of narcissism and the painful love of what is real. In this work, Williams paints a vibrant picture of the conflict between love of others and love of self—between communion and isolation. Love is the character Pauline’s redemption, and descent into self proves to be Wentworth’s descent into hell.