The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Descent into Hell concerns five central characters and a village production of a play by Peter Stanhope. During the weeks of rehearsal, Stanhope demonstrates to Pauline Anstruther the “doctrine of substituted love” (a central idea held by the novel’s author, Charles Williams) and helps her overcome the terror she has felt at meeting her double. At the same time, her grandmother, Margaret Anstruther, whom she has been serving as companion, is able in her final hours to aid in the spiritual crisis of an unnamed workman who had committed suicide decades earlier. Another member of the community, military historian Lawrence Wentworth, chooses his own damnation by rejecting truth in favor of illusion and self-indulgence.

Production begins of the play, which is a verse drama. The local organizers rejoice at producing the work of such a noted poet as Stanhope, but his unwillingness to give them much guidance in the speaking of his poetry confuses them. Williams implies satirically that few of these amateurs understand the play and that even fewer truly like poetry. Stanhope sees one exception—the young woman who leads the chorus, Pauline Anstruther. Stanhope’s sympathy leads Pauline to confess to him her terror of meeting her “double” in the street, an experience she has undergone several times, each time with greater fright. To her surprise, Stanhope offers to carry her fear for her as if it were a package. This is the real meaning, he...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Battle Hill

*Battle Hill. This setting is an actual hill with a long and bloody history, from legends of human sacrifice among the Britons and Saxons to that of a dejected construction worker who hanged himself while working on the suburban estate that now covers most of the hill. The hill also includes a manor house, currently owned by the poet and playwright Peter Stanhope. This manor house is the site on which a martyr was burned to death. Thus, Charles Williams writes, life and death are closer in Battle Hill than elsewhere, the membranes between the worlds thinner. Williams also refers to Battle Hill as a place of skulls, recalling Golgotha, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Much of the action occurs in the houses and yards of Battle Hill residents. Not far from the manor house lives Lawrence Wentworth, whose home (unknown to him) holds the ghost of the construction worker. Elsewhere in town, Pauline Anstruther lives with her dying grandmother. Near them lives Myrtle Fox, another young woman in the play.

Although Lily Sammile seems to visit everyone, no one knows where she lives. The reader is shown the woman’s supernatural nature and learns that she lives in a shed by the town cemetery. In the apocalyptic moments after the climax of the play, some graves literally open, their tattered inhabitants gravitating toward Lily Sammile. She attempts to lure various living residents of Battle Hill, and when she fails, her shed, which is also referred to as a cave, collapses around her.

Williams makes much of gates, doorways, and other entrances. Wentworth encounters a female demon (a succubus), but...

(The entire section is 675 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bleiler, Everett F. The Guide to Supernatural Fiction. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1983. The treatment of Williams’ novels is brief (pages 532 to 534) but places them in context of the fantasy genre.

Cavaliero, Glen. Charles Williams: Poet of Theology. New York: Macmillan, 1983. Explains influences on Williams and contains excellent descriptions of Williams’ originality. Pages 78 to 90 give interpretative commentary on Descent into Hell.

Glenn, Lois. Charles W. S. Williams: A Checklist. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1975. A comprehensive listing of writings about Williams up to 1975.

Hadfield, Alice Mary. Charles Williams: An Exploration of His Life and Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. A critical biography by Williams’ colleague at Oxford University Press. Hadfield understood Williams’ creative intentions and was a trusted confidant in Williams’ circle of family and friends.

Shideler, Mary McDermott. The Theology of Romantic Love: A Study in the Writings of Charles Williams. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1966. An indispensable study of Williams’ central theological ideas and recurring symbolism.