Review: Shadows of Ecstasy

Shadows of Ecstasy
Shadows of Ecstasy by Charles Walter Stansby Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let me start this review with the punch-line: this by far the weakest of Williams’ novels. The set-up for what could have been a promising theological thriller in his usual mode is squandered and energy and interest dissipate until the novel doesn’t so much end as simply drift off into the bathos of a gun-battle followed by a slow fade-out. So I don’t think I’ll be reading it again.

Thus the message, now for the commentary. Basically, Williams sets up a situation where a lunatic has decided to destroy Western civilisation because, well, because it’s civilised and it goes in for order and science instead of the ecstasy of being and feeling. Only it turns out that in fact he doesn’t really experience much in the way of ecstasy because all pleasure must be avoided in the interests of the greatest goal of all: to be with the utmost depth of being, and to stand strong alone and conquer death. Basically, he’s an almost exact personification of the Nietzschian Superman. Anyway, there’s a rather dim young man who fancies himself a poet. You know, the sort who doesn’t actually write poetry, but thinks that if you spend enough time quoting others then people will think you’re one too. And the Superman somehow convinces him that you can only be a real poet if you discard reason and order and plunge into the depths of passion and being. You can tell he’s not a real poet, can’t you?

And so there’s a lot of silliness about an African invasion of London (!) and about the Superman’s plan to conquer death by persuading his followers to commit suicide in the hope they might come back after a bit. Naturally he gets a bit riled when someone points out that actually Christ did that 2000 years ago. And there’s an utterly bizarre subplot involving a bunch of super-mega-ultra-orthodox Jews and a whole passel of jewels. And we get loads and loads of tedious drivel about passion and art and poetry which makes me wonder if Williams somehow ghosted this one out to someone who had never actually created anything themselves and who actually believed all that stuff about inspiration. And it all ends with a gun battle. And leaves one wondering: did Williams really believe all that? I sincerely hope not.

The thing is, in the middle of all this there is one sequence which is vintage Williams, in which a man is rescued from a mysterious imprisonment and is brought back to himself in a midnight communion service led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Here we really feel the sense of awe that is one of Williams’ hallmarks, but which is lacking from all the rest of this rather unfortunate book.

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