Review: Descent into Hell

Descent into HellDescent into Hell by Charles Walter Stansby Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is very much a curate’s egg of a book. It contains some very deep and powerful writing, as for example in the description of the gradual spiritual degradation and then destruction of the historian Mr Wentworth, or the vision of eternity of a dying woman, but the problem is that these stand apart in a morass of ideas and events that never seem to cohere.

The thing is that in Williams’ better novels (e.g. ‘The Greater Trumps’, ‘The Place of the Lion’) there is a clear theme that emerges from the action and which serves as motivation for all else that follows, so the entire novel is tied up neatly and then supernatural events hang together as the reaction to one specific eruption of the divine into the world. But here there is no such theme; or if there is a theme it becomes clear only in the closing pages. Moreover, some of the supernatural events (e.g. the raising of the dead) simply happen, for no apparent reason, and go largely unremarked on. Finally it is somewhat disquieting to find a character who appeared in two short scenes as a comic foil to other characters (she thinks everything should be nice) suddenly catapulted to being one of the major players in the spiritual degeneration.

So, this is a book that I would recommend to Williams fans, because if you know his work you may find this disappointing, but there are still segments that are excellent. In particular, the extremely bleak ending is masterly. However, this is not a book I would recommend to a neophyte as their first or even second experience of Williams. Instead I would recommend starting with ‘War In Heaven’ and then moving on to one of the two books mentioned above.

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