“On the vigil of the hallows, it was gloomily and steadily raining.”
And so it is. I am quoting from a story set in 1945 London, but here we are on another eve of All Hallows and Hurricane Sandy is gloomily raining seemingly on us all.
“The vigil of the hallows” refers to the prayer service the evening before the celebration of All Hallows or Saints Day. Or “Halloween” for short—a fixture on the liturgical calendar of the Christian West since the seventh century. The quotation comes from the opening sentence of the final chapter of the greatest Halloween novel ever written, Charles Williams’ “All Hallows’ Eve.”
Just how many Halloween novels are there, you may ask. That’s not really the point. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula?” Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein?” Neither has to do with Halloween. But it still is a multiple choice question—trust me—so if you are going to read a good Halloween story, read this one by Williams.
“All Hallows’ Eve” has it all: a necromancer, young lovers sundered by death, charms and spells, a Gothic yet modern urban setting, various species of un-dead. What more could one want from a piece of genre fiction written for a popular audience? But Williams does give us more. T.S. Eliot, one of Williams’ most famous friends and fans, called his novels “supernatural thrillers.” Here, in what proved to be his final novel, Williams develops most fully a consistent theme of his—the reality of communion with the dead. Every culture and every religion acknowledges in some way or another this reality. The brightest contrast between Williams and other practitioners of this sort of Gothic fiction is his spiritual imagination that enables him and compels his readers to explore the supernatural as natural. For many authors, their use of the fantastic and grotesque is ultimately only a means to tell a good yarn.
Williams, on the other hand, explores the profound mystery of the afterlife in the mode of psychological and literary realism. As Eliot notes, in Williams we see neither the “morbid psychology” of Poe nor “the exploitation of the supernatural for the sake of the immediate shudder.” For Williams there is no separation between the material and the spiritual world. Accordingly, if death is the sundering of body and soul, it is not as simple a process as most of us think. Any death, and especially a sudden one, leaves much unfinished business in the hearts and minds of both the departed and those left behind.
The plot of “All Hallows’ Eve” is largely a matter of finishing this business in all its complexity for the living and the dead. It starts as a twin ghost story—two young women (a young wife and her friend) wandering through London gradually come to understand (as do we) that they are dead from a plane crash into a London bridge. London is the real London, as well as a kind of purgatory, inferno, and paradise. Eventually one will head on into the light and one will not. Salvation and damnation. Heaven and Hell. Good and evil. How they get to that crossroads engages the living characters: the one’s loving and grief-stricken husband, his friend the inspired painter, his fiancé; the other’s mother, a devotee to an anti-Christ type black magician bent on taking over the war-torn world. His attempt to dominate personally and politically is ultimately foiled by love. Love in all its forms—spousal, maternal, and divine—proves stronger than death.
The dramatization of these forms of love is powerful, persuasive, and not a little surprising. The triumph of romantic love is what we expect and want to see throughout the story, of course, but how the young widower and his deceased wife come to reconcile beyond the grave is a tribute to Williams’ inventiveness. The reality of divine love should not surprise us if we remember that Williams was a fellow Inkling along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. But in a story without any Aslan figures or a Gandalf-like wizard, set in contemporary London, and without any ostensibly religious characters, there is no discussion about God or religion. So the context of the story makes the appearance of divine love surprising; in fact, it occurs because it is natural. It is in the water. The river Thames, the water of baptism, and finally that gloomy steady rain: all combine to reveal that through love there is life in death as sure as there is death in life. Water, in all of its range as symbol and sign, is enough to reconcile the living with the dead and to foil the necromantic arts of the antagonist.
Williams was no dogmatist and no simple moralist. This novel is not about a philosophy, a theology, or a mysticism. And though there are horrifying moments, this is no work of horror fiction. It attains to a level of adventure and entertainment while conveying a real sense of deeper things. What if on a certain day of the year we the living came face-to-face with our recent dead loved ones? What if we could communicate with them? And how would we move on after such an encounter? Deep questions; and Williams explores the possible answers with unparalleled insight and with, astoundingly, joy.