W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot were both great fans of Williams, so he’s been on my list for years. Luckily enough, I came across this novel, his last, at Half Price Books the other day and picked it up. I’m not sure what I expected, it wasn’t this – a kind of literary precursor to the supernatureal fiction of Dean Koontz. Instead of “literary” I might just mean better written or thought through more thoroughly (no offense to Koontz, whom I would guess has read Williams).
From the novel it’s evident that Williams was much concerned with the connection between history and spirituality, and it comes as no surprise to learn that he wrote a history about the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church called The Descent of the Dove. The novel is much more speculative. All Hallow’s Eve features a false messiah of sorts named Simon the Clerk, and descriptions such as the following were probably much more easier to read before the advent of PC:
His mind was very earnestly set on himself. As he went the Jewish quality in his face seemed to deepen; the occasional policemen whom he passed thought they saw a Jew walking by night. Indeed that august race had reached in this being its second climax. Two thousand years of its history were drawing to a close; until this thing had happened it could not be free. its priesthood-the priesthood of a nation-had been since Abraham determined to one End. But when, after other terrible wars had shaken the Roman peace, and armies- had moved over Europe, and Caesar (being all that Caesar could be) had been stabbed in his own central place, when then that End had.been born,’they were not aware of that End. It had been proposed that their lofty tradition should be made almost unbearably august; that they should be made the blood companions of their Maker, the own peculiar house and family of its Incarnacy-no more than the Gentiles in the free equality of souls, but much more in the single hierarchy of kindred flesh. But deception had taken them; they had, bidding a scaffold for the blasphemer, destroyed their predestined conclusion, and the race which had been set for the salvation of the world became a judgment and even a curse to the world and to themselves. Yet the oaths sworn in heaven remained. It had been a Jewish girl who, at the command of the Voice which sounded in her ears, in her heart, along her blood, and through the central cells of her body, had uttered everywhere in herself the perfect Tetragrammaton. What the high priest vicariously spoke among the secluded mysteries of the Temple, she substantially pronounced to God. Redeemed from all division in herself, whole and identical in body and soul and spirit, she uttered the Word and the Word became flesh in her. Could It have been received by her own people, the grand Judean gate would have been opened for all peoples. It could not. They remained alien-to It and to all, and all to them and- too much!-to It. The Gentiles, summoned by that other Jew of Tarsus, could not bear their vicarious office. Bragging themselves to be the new Israel, they slandered and slew the old, and the old despised and hated the bragging new. Till at last there rose in Europe something which was neither, and set itself to destroy both.
This business with the Tetragrammaton is extremely important to the story; not necessarily in terms of plot, but in terms of what may well be the longest backstory in the history of the novel:
But there were sounds that had a much greater spell, sounds that could control not only the living but the dead-say, those other living who in another world still retained a kinship and in some sense an identity with this. Great pronouncements had established creation in its order; the reversal of those pronouncements could reverse the order. The Jew sat in his chair and spoke. Through the lesser spells, those that held the spirits of those that already carried his pronunciation in their bodies, that held them fascinated and adoring, he was drawing to the greater. He would come presently to the greatest-to the reversal of the final Jewish word of power, to the reversed Tetragrammaton itself. The energy of that most secret house of God, according to the degree in which it was spoken, meant an all but absolute control; he thought, an absolute. He did not mean it for the creatures before him. To loose it on them would be to destroy them at once; he must precipitate it beyond. The time was very near, if his studies were true, at which a certain great exchange should be achieved. He would draw one from that world, but there must be no impropriety of numbers, either there or here; he would send one to that world. He would have thus a double magical link with infinity. He would begin to be worshipped there.
Creepy. However farfetched passages like this may read, it strikes me as an attachment to orthodoxy that gives the novel its eerie quality. Scripture tells us that the dead still live (some of them, anyway), and Williams has found a way within his fiction to make it plausible, if not so readily believable.
Within the novel, the false messiah is chiefly concerned with the accumulation of power. Towards this end he practices the art of magical healing on those would follow him. When pressed, he is even able to transform dust into living matter:
He knew what had to be done and set himself to do it-to erect the material trap and magical link between himself and one dead girl that she might drag the other in. Let both be caught! The destroying anti-Tetragrammaton was not to be used for that, but there were lesser spells which deflected primeval currents. He stood upright; he set his deep fierce eyes on Evelyn; he began almost inaudibly to hum. The unseen motes in the air- and lesser points of matter than they -responded. After he had hummed awhile, he ceased and spat. The spittle lay on the floor at Evelyn’s apparent feet, and was immediately covered by a film of almost invisible dust. The motes were drawn to it. Faint but real, a small cloud gathered against the floor.
It’s a good novel, remarkable in the way Williams arranges for the occult and the natural world to exist side by side. And that’s only a first impression; a second look reveals that where one first saw two worlds, there is in truth only one. Simon and his tricks certainly are creepy – but as extensions of his power to creep (pace Auden) they are as good a way as any to describe the rift in the world we all feel, but struggle to name.