Charles Williams: All Hallows' Eve, The Place of the Lion, Shadows of Ecstasy, and more


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
Ever hear of this British author of 1930s-1940s novels that sometimes combine P. G. Wodehouse, John Buchan, Neoplatonism, etc.? He seems to me to have anticipated Tim Powers.

He takes people off-balance:

I'd say: start with The Place of the Lion, a thriller that rattles along at a fine old pace, with Platonic archetypes manifesting in gigantic animal forms and the world in danger of disintegrating. There's also a wry love story and a truly bizarre "haunted house."
I've read All Hallows' Eve, Descent into Hell, and his non-fiction, Witchcraft. I'd say he writes about magic as convincingly as anyone (more so than Dennis Wheatley, for example), but my recollection is that his characters aren't particularly engaging.
I've read several of his books. All Hallow's Eve was my least favorite. I didn't find the characters appealing, there was too much less-than-gripping dialogue, and to me it seemed like one of those books where the author is much more interested in making a point than in telling a story. I thought The Place of the Lion started slow, too, but it picked up, the characters were much more appealing, and there was so much terror and beauty, the plot was rather thrilling.

War in Heaven is spooky and wonderful. I do love the way Williams can blend the mystical and the mundane, the infernal and the ordinary.

But my favorite is The Greater Trumps. Perhaps the most magical of all his books, with the most human interactions between the characters (I thought). Having made some study of the Tarot myself, I found his use of the symbols unusual and yet it resonated for me. Like The Place of the Lion it's filled with vivid images.
....but my recollection is that his characters aren't particularly engaging.

I could see that, although I'd say try The Place of the Lion and see what you think of the portrait of a young scholar. The character happens to be a woman and the love interest of a male character, but it would be a mistake to think Williams is criticizing women scholars when he exposes Damaris Tighe to our scrutiny.
The group of "dancing images" in Trumps is, for me, one of the great imaginative inventions, Teresa.

By the way, in introducing CW I should have said G. K. Chesterton rather than P. G. Wodehouse. I do know the difference. : )
I wondered about that. But I thought: well, there might be something in one of the book I haven't read.

I love the dancing figures, and his imaginative reinvention of some of the trumps. Even the snowstorm remains remarkably vivid in my mind—although I haven't read the book in years, and many of the things I read these days tend to disappear very quickly from my memory.
This is one author of whose ouevre I am aware of but have been unable to obtain any works by conventional (non-Internet) methods.

I had the impression somehow that Descent into Hell was supposed to be one of his better works? I'll keep an eye on this thread and make a decision what to add to my next Internet order. I am only after one fictional (representative) work at this stage.
Some of his books are available through Project Gutenberg, Gollum. I know you like to collect books, but if you want to try out his work ahead of time, several are available for free online.
I had the impression somehow that Descent into Hell was supposed to be one of his better works?

That's right. If several of the others are kind of bizarre variations on pulp entertainment, this one is worthy of a place on the shelf next to The Turn of the Screw. Get it by all means if you are interested. I've sometimes thought All Hallows' Eve is the one that best combines an accessible, exciting plot with the maturity of his last two or three novels.

The one to save for reading only if you become a CW fan is Shadows of Ecstasy, which was the first he wrote, I think, and which struck me as not very good when I last reread it.

And Teresa's right -- all or nearly all of the novels are available on Project Gutenberg of Australia and/or PG.
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@Teresa and Extollager: Thanks very much for your advice. I might try project Gutenberg first but if I like what I read then I will still get the physical item....:)
I read Grevel Lindop's excellent biography of Williams, just published by Oxford, this month. I would urge people to stay away from it and reviews of it till they have read several of Williams's books. Williams the man turns out to be such a remarkable person that the sense of his personality that comes across in the biography could unduly affect one's reading of the works, some of which are outstanding in their own right and deserve to be read thus, without (much) knowledge of the man. I wouldn't want you to read, say, The Place of the Lion, All Hallows' Eve, and The Descent of the Dove will constantly thinking back to Williams himself. But after one has read widely in Williams, Lindop's book may hold your interest to a degree unusual for a biography.
I'm working on an article about "Williamsy" fiction.

Guidelines: To qualify, the story must

--be set in a time more or less contemporary with the author’s own time

--have been published in the 1930s or later

--feature the manifestation of the “supernatural” or “preternatural”

--possess some degree of literary decorum; i.e. it can’t be obvious pulp

--exhibit attention to the conflict of good and evil; it can’t be simply a “strange story”

Ideally, a "Williamsy" story will be Christian and will deal with exchange, substitution, coinherence. At the least the story must not suggest that existence is chaotic, amoral, etc. If evil appears to triumph, this is not presented in such a way as to suggest the ultimate triumph of evil.

Some degree, at least, of interest in characterization is to be expected. If there is a well-written romantic love element, so much the better.

There might be an element of irony and even humor. The story must not come across as mere shudder-mongering.

Several of Williams’s novels dealt with objects associated with the “supernatural,” but not all of them do. His single short story doesn’t, except for the building.

Here are some candidates for discussion:

Heard's "The Chapel of Ease" (novella)

√Bryan's Night of the Wolf

Adams's The Girl in a Swing

√Hayes's The Year of the Dragon

√Ackroyd's Hawksmoor -- disqualified: evil triumphs.

√Valentine and Howard's Powers and Presences

Powers's Declare

√Bellairs’s The Dark Secret of Weatherend

√Phyllis Paul’s Twice Lost, Lion of Cooling Bay, Rox Hall Illuminated

√Russell Kirk stories – mention “Sorworth Place” & “There’s a Long, Long Trail a-Winding”

√Laubenthal’s Excalibur

L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time?

Downing’s Looking for the King?

The check marks are ones about which I have already drafted something.

If anyone knows of fiction that fits the criteria indicated and would like to point it out, I'd appreciate that, although it's possible that I will have thought of it & decided it doesn't qualify for the article I'm working on (for the New York C. S. Lewis Society).
I'm going to need to read Connie Willis's Lincoln's Dreams again (and I don't own a copy), but it seemed to me, I now remember, that there was a Williamsy scenario of transtemporal exchange of consciousness going on whereby Lee's mental suffering was eased by a 20th-century woman -- cf. Williams on substitution.
I haven't read any of those except for the Laubenthal, which I would certainly agree is "Williamsy."

Not on your list, but a story I think would fit there is To the World's End, by Roger Lancelyn Green.
This is interesting -- Connie Willis says something about her novel in the works (21 Nov. 2020, at her blog):

"I’m busy now working on my new novel, which is tentatively called THE SPANNER IN THE WORKS and is an Oxford historians time-travel novel. It’s about Oxford and Tintern Abbey and the Inklings and OUR HEARTS WERE YOUNG AND GAY and World War II and eccentric dons and Lewis Carroll and that dreadful drowned statue of Shelley at University College."


Earlier this evening I saw that she is a great admirer of Charles Williams:

"Charles Williams, the third of the Inkling triumvirate, is the least known of them. I once got into a fight with a clerk at Blackwell’s because they didn’t have a single one of his books. 'How can you not have Charles Williams?' I said. 'He was an Inkling. He lived here. And he worked for the Oxford University Press!'

"He may be the least known, but to my mind he’s the best of them. Tolkien’s the best storyteller, C.S. Lewis has the clearest prose style, but Williams has the most imagination. I know that sounds like an unlikely claim when you’re talking about the authors who invented Perelandra and Middle Earth, but it’s true. Williams’s books are so strange and visionary that there’s simply no way to describe them."

BOOKS I LOVE, PART 2: OXFORD BRANCH | The Connie Willis . Net Blog (

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