Descent Into Hell
Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams, 2/5
I’m not going to lie: I had absolutely no idea what the heck was going on for large portions of this novel and ran immediately to Google after finishing it to see what overarching themes I was too oblivious to comprehend. I guess it says something that the most helpful-looking analyses were hidden behind academic paywalls…
Undoubtedly, Williams had a more coherent vision than what he communicates through the overlapping stories of a saintly poet, an orphan haunted by her doppelgänger, the ghost of a past suicide, and a historian who creates a succubus from pure ego, among others. In retrospect, it is surprising that a novel with so many interesting characters could have so little plot and so many tedious passages of incomprehensible spiritual imagery. There are several places in which Williams purposefully disintegrates the English language in what I can only guess is an approximation of what having a stroke would feel like.
All in all, not my favorite reading experience, though with themes like art, sacrificial love, death, and the sin of self-absorption, I can understand how it might resonate better with other people or at another time.
Why I read it: the last of Williams’ seven “novels of the supernatural” I had left, since starting with All Hallows’ Eve.
The Greater Trumps
The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams, 3/5
This story of a young couple’s quest to unlock the power of the original tarot deck features beautifully crafted dialogue, fantastical imagery, interesting characters and, unfortunately, some Romani stereotypes that have not aged well.
Why I read it: it’s the fourth book in Charles Williams’ set of supernatural thrillers.
Many Dimensions by Charles Williams, 4/5
This spellbinding book must not be judged by this later edition’s psychedelic cover art or by a mere summary of its bizarre plot, in which an infinitely divisible holy relic empowers its keepers to travel through time and space. The story is, in fact, much more sophisticated than you might expect–peopled with interesting characters and exploring (often humorously) the political, social, and ethical ramifications of such an object’s existence. I felt the plot was a little weak towards the end, or it would have been a 5/5 for me.
Why I read it: I am working my way through Charles Williams’ seven supernatural novels.
War in Heaven
War in Heaven by Charles Williams, 3/5
I’m not going to pretend that I understood the more esoteric implications of this bizarre spiritual thriller, but I certainly did enjoy its zany plot, humor, and original take on the ever-popular search for the Holy Grail. It’s not a particularly well-crafted novel, but it’s hard to fault a story that opens thusly:
The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.
Why I read it: After my introduction to Charles Williams via All Hallows’ Eve, I wanted to read some of his other “novels of the supernatural,” of which War in Heaven is the first.
Letters from the Earth
Letters from the Earth: Uncensored Writings by Mark Twain, edited by Bernard DeVoto, 2/5
From a scholarly perspective, this collection of previously unpublished writings by Mark Twain is no doubt a valuable resource. However, from a casual reader’s perspective, it was a bit of a tedious mishmash. The main attraction, to me, was an unfinished story, dubbed by the editor “The Great Dark,” which made it onto the list of “10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.” The concept was memorable–a man and his family are trapped on a dream ship exploring a microscopic drop of water–but the tone was very uneven and the story too unpolished and indeed, unfinished, to be a satisfying read. Much of the rest of this collection consisted of snarky essays in which the author mocked Christianity in an ignorant and closed-minded way that, in my opinion, reflected more poorly on himself than on the religion.
Why I read it: this was the last book I had left to read from the list of “10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.”
All Hallows’ Eve
All Hallows’ Eve by Charles Williams, 5/5
I had very little idea what to expect from this slim book and that, perhaps, is partly why I found it to be so absolutely astonishing (though pure novelty cannot account for that fully). I don’t want to give away too much, but think Gothic thriller meets supernatural romance in the interest of exploring highly-developed and unconventional theological beliefs. I was not at all surprised to later learn that Williams was a regular member of the Inklings, enjoying the friendship and literary criticism of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
This book demands to be re-read, but I would avoid this edition (Oxford Reprints) at all costs. The binding has that ubiquitously cheap, self-published feel and the text contains a baffling number of typos. Most egregious of all is the use of hyphens in place of em dashes. I know how pedantic that complaint sounds, but Williams used em dashes often and in very long sentences. The relentless and incorrect use of hyphens disrupted visual flow in addition to hindering comprehension.
Why I read it: another entry on the list of 10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.
The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” and Other Nautical Adventures
The Boats of the “Glen Carrig and Other Nautical Adventures by William Hope Hodgson, 3/5
Taken singly, these stories are fun in a kitschy way, but overall, the effect is repetitive and hackneyed. Maybe the editor’s introduction about Hodgson’s writing career tainted my perspective, but I got the feeling throughout that the author was writing more for a financial inlet than a creative outlet. There were a few brief moments when I thought “Oh, he is capable of higher quality writing and insightful observations when he cares to be,” but they were lost in the endless “weeds” that the ships in his stories all-too-inevitably encountered.
Why I read it: one of the few remaining entries on the list of 10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately that I have left to read.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Rudolf Erich Raspe, illustrated by Gustave Dore, 3/5
The ridiculous and fantastical exploits of Baron Munchausen remind me very much of the tall tales told of American folk heroes Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan. In fact, I so firmly associate this aesthetic with 19th- and 20th-century America that I really struggled to reconcile it with 18th-century Germany. I looked in vain for an undercurrent of serious political satire, but none was to be found. Even the illustrations seemed implausible: Gustave Doré is best known for his extremely serious engravings of Biblical scenes. I had to verify that he was even capable of depictions like Baron Munchausen’s butt plugging a hole in a leaky ship, while a school of fish look on in obvious shock. This book should not exist but it’s so bonkers that I’m glad it does (even if it’s not exactly my cup of tea).
Why I read it: another one from the list of 10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.
The Time of Contempt
The Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski, translated by David French, 4/5
In this installment of the Witcher Saga, Sapkowski really dives into the politics of his fantasy world, a focus that I did not find particularly interesting though I appreciated the worldbuilding. In addition, a satisfying amount of interesting characters (some new, some old), exciting scenarios, and a somewhat elevated tone, raised this book in my opinion closer to the level of the first in the series.
Why I read it: I’m gradually working my way through the series.
Blood of Elves
Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski, translated by Danusia Stok, 3/5
There are three books preceding this one in the Witcher Saga, chronologically, but Blood of Elves really does feel like the first to make a coherent contribution to an overarching story line. I feel that its literary quality isn’t quite up to par with The Last Wish, but it is definitely an enjoyable entry in an over-saturated genre.
Why I read it: gradually working my way through the series after enjoying the first season on Netflix.