Literature for Magicians: Descent into Hell

2021 saw me start to get into Charles Williams, a poet and prose writer who was friends with Yeats, worked in publishing, and was fascinated by magic and mysticism. Descent into Hell is his best-known novel, and well worth reading if you’re into magic and mysticism of any kind as well.

I briefly mentioned this book in my 2021 in Books post, but as I said there, I always intended to write more about it. It’s a really excellent book, and another great example of how fantasy can be weird as shit if it just, you know, exists before the generic markers hardened.

I hope you’ve at least heard Charles Williams’ name: he was one of the Inklings, the group made famous because Tolkien and Lewis were members. He began his career as a proofreader and worked his way up to editor. He also joined an occult group that was likely a branch of the Stella Matutina, one of the groups that took up the Golden Dawn “current” of magic after its dissolution. Williams claimed later in life to have been in the Golden Dawn itself, but the dates don’t line up: it’s more likely this group of the SM called itself, at least internally, something like the “real Golden Dawn.”

Williams’ output is pretty much all of interest to magicians: his first published novel is about Platonic forms; he wrote a novel about the first tarot deck and its magical powers, as well as its accompanying board of constant dance; one of his best-loved collections of poems is a Pythagorean Arthurian quest with Taliesin as the main character; and Descent into Hell, his best-known novel, is about – well, it’s about a lot.

Plot Summary

There are three main “moving parts” to the novel. In the first, a neighborhood theater association is producing a play. They get the local poet, Peter Stanhope, to allow them to adapt something for the stage. He gives them an “experiment” and is at pains to tell them that most of it can be rewritten. Not, however, the one section they do ask him to rewrite: the somewhat mysterious group that they decide is a chorus, even though that doesn’t apply either.

Pauline Anstruther is one of the players. She is shy and withdrawn, and that is because she has been pursued her entire life by a doppelganger. She lives in mortal fear of the apparition, and believes some calamity will come when she meets it. After trying to tell her mother about it and getting shouted at when a child, she has refused to speak of it ever again.

The players turn to the local historian, Lawrence Wentworth, for help with costumes. Lawrence is in love with one of the women who runs the theater group, Adela. However, the novel makes clear that – while a relatively polite and nice person – Wentworth is self-involved to the point of obsession. He has begun to twist the facts of history so he can always say his rival historian is wrong. He isn’t really in love with Adela, but with the image of her he’s built up.

Oh, and there’s a ghost, too. In the past, when the neighborhood was built, a poor workman, the kind of hard case a blues song should be written about, was fired yet again from his job, and depressed even further by the need to walk all the way back into London and then talk to his wife who does nothing but shout at him, he decides to die of suicide instead. The room where he does so is Wentworth’s study. The brief sections that show what the afterlife is like for such a ghost are strange and amazing, and well worth a magician’s attention even with the rest of the novel set aside.

Self and Other

The main action of the novel is in preparation for the play, a series of social visits, Wentworth’s increasingly mad, isolated evenings, and Pauline’s relationship with the poet Peter.  Peter is a thin self-insert for Williams, but at least Williams has a sense of humor about it: Peter fades into the background during rehearsals, until someone decides to ask him a question and ignore what he says. He frequently offers to rewrite things, as above, too. So it’s not obnoxious that “the great poet” is just sort of the novel’s author.

Peter realizes something is wrong in Pauline’s life and convinces her to tell him. Once she does, he says something very odd: she should let him worry about it. Really worry, that is. He offers to take on her fear and anxiety, so she does not have to experience it herself. This is the core of the novel, and probably the core of Williams’ contribution to magic and metaphysics: he posits a Christian mystical ability to trade places with someone, to bear their burdens, based obviously on Christ’s burden of humankind’s sin. Williams is arguing for a kind of “brotherly love” that’s specifically positional: I will stand in your place here, and you will stand in someone else’s place when they need it, and on down the line forever, creating a slowly advancing line of clemency forward into the future. It works, too: Pauline’s walk home is the first stress-free moment she’s had since she was young. Peter sits quietly in the back of the theater and writhes in agony, carefully imagining himself as pursued by a spectral doppelganger. It’s another singular moment worth the attention of the magician: the active imagination choosing suffering so Peter can suffer, bear Pauline’s burden, and yet leave the suffering behind when he’s done as one leaves the ritual behind afterwards. He’s clear that, since it’s not his suffering, it will be less burdensome for him than for her. That’s the second key to Williams’ idea: by “trading” burdens, we bear the weight that feels less onerous to us.

Remember Wentworth? He’s seduced by a succubus. After Pauline resists a temptation that is incredible on its own – Williams knows what he’s doing, is what I mean, because the temptation includes a reminder that suffering is pleasant, and you know it is, you’ve wallowed before – Wentworth is offered the chance to have a perfect copy of Adela who will do whatever he wishes. Brief creepy flashes of the succubus’s true form, which is just kind of a weird, horrid clay figure with no face, make us shiver while Wentworth grimaces, turns his face away, and buries his head on the spirit’s bosom again.

And, reader, they 100% fuck, if you were curious. It is very clear from the elliptical passages that what genuinely does just start as kisses and conversation turns to fugue-state sex and silence.

I won’t spoil the various climaxes of the novel, even though they’re not so much “plot surprises” as in most other books. But they’re really excellent and seeing how they play out is a great experience on its own.

Purpose

How can a magician use this novel? This isn’t an instance where I’m suggesting you quote it in ritual or learn god forms from it. This book is essentially about mystical experiences from the point of view of a magical practitioner. It offers incredible imagery you can borrow, though, if you want. It also offers a web of human love, specifically Christian of course, but it’s a very good collection of images explaining what Christianity really has to offer: a lesson on how to be holy not by ignoring the world in favor of the next, but by improving one by imagining it as somewhat like the other.

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