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Descent into Hell

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  1,874 ratings  ·  178 reviews
The key to Williams' mystically oriented theological thought, Descent into Hell (arguably Williams' greatest novel) is a multidimensional story about human beings who shut themselves up in their own narcissistic projections, so that they are no longer able to love, to 'co-inhere.' The result is a veritable hell.
Paperback, 222 pages
Published January 1st 1937 by Eerdmans
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Average rating 3.97  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,874 ratings  ·  178 reviews

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Nov 12, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: all believers
Wow! I am so glad I returned to this story! It took me less time to read it this second time but I got so much more out of it. Rereading Williams’s tale in relation to C. S. Lewis's book The Great Divorce made all the difference. Having read Many Dimensions, another Williams thriller, during the intervening years also helped. And Thomas Howard’s book, The Novels of Charles Williams, also made a tremendous difference in allowing me to penetrate the miasma of descriptive prose for which Williams ...more
Douglas Wilson
May 03, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
I read this book once way back in the day, in my teens or twenties sometime. It was vivid, and I remembered details of the book, and other details from Williams' other novel. That said, I thought that Williams was a gifted weirdo. I decided to read this book again, and really enjoyed it. I am reminded of Mark Twain's comment that when he was 17, his father was an idiot, and when he was 21, he was amazed to see how the old man had grown in four years.
Sep 12, 2011 rated it liked it
Here be some trippy penteChristal shite. Threnodic theatre, scaffold ghosts dazed and confused, a funhouse of sin where the mirrors reveal the distortions to body, mind and soul by a self-centeredness and worldly rapture threatening to metastasize, and the most baroque ego-suppurating beat-down since the mascaraed spiritual insolvency of the volcanic vultures from Riders in the Chariot . Williams' style squeezes the air from your lungs, making the process of penetrating the mysteries of his ...more
Nov 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is a remarkable novel. Normally, I love a book with a well-wrought plot and this story concerns nothing more than a community performing a play written by the local celebrity poet, Stanhope. But into this apparently innocuous framework Williams introduces a suicide and a doppelgänger. Further, the various characters involved in the play soon reveal various jealousies, motives and rivalries.

As usual, Williams is adroit in creating believable and sympathetic women. Margaret and Pauline
Jul 20, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Inklings/fantasy fans
Shelves: inklings
Follow my Charles Williams blog, The Oddest Inkling, for more context on this book and (later) a summary and other thoughts. William Blake once wrote: "For every thing that lives is Holy"; and yet, Christ made division between subjects of the kingdom vs. slaves to the darkness when He said: "He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left" (Matthew 25:33). In Descent into Hell, Charles Williams sees beyond that fundamental opposition, which is a byproduct of temporal reality, into ...more
Feb 03, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Wow. Every five years I stumble across a book of this caliber, and I now understand why this novel is considered to be Williams' best. From beginning to end, Williams crafts a story that reads more like a theological drama which, though obscure, is deeply personal and engaged with humanity's need for communion with God and one another. Williams believed that the source of sin and alienation from God and one another is our failure to live according to "co-inherence." There are passages in this ...more
Tim Pendry
This is not an easy book. In fact, it is a very difficult book on two grounds - the style and the content. But it is a minor masterpiece that deserves much wider readership.

The style owes something to its period. The emotionally cold world of 1930s Britain. It is cerebral. The artistry - like the play at the centre of the first half - is classical and functional. Conversations can seem rhetorical and clipped. The approach to the supernatural is 'Roman' rather than romantic.

Williams is not merely
Stuart Kenny
Aug 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Probably the greatest Christian novel ever. Williams transforms occult symbols into vehicles for Christian truth. His ability to see into spiritual reality is unparalleled. He is said to have been a man for whom the Nicene Creed was as real and operative as the law of gravity. People in this novel interact with the Triune God mostly without knowing it, deciding their eternal destiny based on their response. A welcome change from most modern novels where characters live in an empty, absurd ...more
WARNING: If you feel like retaining any sanity, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK!
Perhaps the best description of this book is that it's "terribly good." Not for the faint of heart.
David Huff
Jul 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Charles Williams was one of the Oxford "inklings", a literary group which also included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and he was far and away the most deeply mystical one of the trio. Any reader who takes the dark and often surreal journey through this novel of his, "Descent Into Hell", will understand clearly how Williams gained his reputation.

Here you will find what, on the surface, seems a simple enough plot: a group of amateur actors putting on a play in a small town. But, as Williams
Alex Stroshine
Sep 24, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
This is a brilliant and bewildering book. As is typical of Charles Williams, he has a grand, absorbing vision but he writes so obliquely it can be very difficult to understand what he's trying to say. The chapter "Dress Rehearsal" is magnificent as Williams exquisitely describes a character whose mad desire and narcissism transforms him, turning him in on himself (one detects "The Great Divorce") and enslaved to false fantasy. I love how Williams writes so imaginatively of the natural and ...more
Nov 22, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction, 2017
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Feb 27, 2016 rated it did not like it
I was fooled very, very briefly into thinking that Williams's writing was similar to Chesterton's. Outside of the occasional similarity in the style of structuring sentences, however, Williams's writing is in fact the opposite of Chesterton's- it has no joy, no life, no wit behind it, rather it oscillates between bare competence (when addressing the actions of the characters, which Williams obviously cares very little about) and barely coherent rambling (when Williams is piling on his mystical ...more
D.M. Dutcher
Apr 30, 2012 rated it it was ok
In a town preparing to put on a play by the celebrated Mr Stanhope, several people wrestle with inner and possibly outer demons. A poor loser of a man hangs himself, but his ghost still wanders the streets. A young girl fears what will happen when she meets her doppleganger, the one who comes closer and closer each time she sees her. A man jilted in love meets a succubus. And a grandmother hovers between life and death.

While this all sounds good, and it can be good while reading it, you have to
Vincent Darlage
I'm not sure how to rate this one. It deserves a five-star rating for depth and magnitude, and incredible concepts, but it deserves a one-star rating for writing style, clarity, and technique.

Charles Williams, one of the Inklings, apparently cannot write. The scenes with the succubus, and the descent of the man into Hell are chilling, and the rise of Pauline from her own hell into heaven was interesting.

However, the man can't write. He strings together too many sentences with semi-colons until
Nate Hansen
Dec 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a bizarre book but very, very good. Would definitely recommend you read it for the writing alone, if not the story, which itself is certainly worth the price of admission, though I'm still not sure exactly what happens with half the characters.
Eye of Sauron
This ranks among the top three weirdest and craziest books I've ever read (along with The Alex Crow and The Lost Time Accidents), but this one completely overwhelms the others with theological substance, brain-destroying allegorical hallucinations, and Christian mystical transcendentalism. It has the reality-warping aspects of PKD's trippiest work, but the spiritual relevance of Lewis at his subtlest. Lewis called Williams "the greatest Inkling," and that title is well-deserved, if this novel is ...more
Jana Light
Oct 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: spiritual, thinking
I picked up this book from C.S. Lewis's list of 10 books that most influenced him. As per usual, I'm glad I took Lewis's direction. I very much enjoyed working my way through this novel, and I do mean "working." This is a fairly quick, beautiful novel, but is difficult at times. As he was part of the Inklings group with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (among others!), I expected Williams' fiction to have similar theological significance and themes, and this novel didn't disappoint. Not only did it ...more
Jesse Broussard
Jan 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Upper High School and above.
Recommended to Jesse by: Rachel Barry (unwittingly)
Charles the Inkling Williams. Wow. I've been planning on reading him for some time, but had been hesitant due to mixed reviews from unnamed persons. Upon finding Frank Peretti upon their shelves, I happily heaved their advice overboard and bought the first Williams I could find, which happened to be Descent Into Hell.

Reviewing this book is hard. It's a type of Supernatural Realism with a heavy dose of Mythical Faerie, and blended with some of the most superb, even sublime prose that I've
Karen L.
Sep 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction
I LOVED this book. Charles Williams is an amazing writer. He is so brilliant. I now understand why C.S. Lewis loved his writing so much. The story is often described as a "supernatural thriller." The book opens with a group of actors planning a community play written by a poet/playwright, Peter Stanhope in their posh countryside English community of Battle Hill. The story takes some twists and turns going from the world of the dead of Battle hill to the world of the living, then dreams and ...more
Amy Edwards
Apr 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
After reading Lewis's Great Divorce, I revisited Charles Williams's Descent into Hell. I first read this book about twenty years ago for a class in college. If only I could turn back the clock and re-hear those lectures, now that I have a much better grasp of the Western canon, including Dante and Milton. Back in my college days, I was sadly ignorant of both works, which go a long way toward illuminating Great Divorce and Descent into Hell. In the same class we read That Hideous Strength, which ...more
Dammit Charles. I love you but couldn't you have been a little clearer? This was a bit of a slog.
Mar 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Charles Williams is a great genius. The Doctrine of Substituted Love, alongside his notions of co-inherence, make him, in my view, one of the greatest realistic emotional visionaries of any time.
Don Incognito
Mar 29, 2014 rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jacob Aitken
Oct 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fantasy, inklings

Williams’ prose has never struck me as direct. I’m not sure at this point whether that is good or bad. It’s always quite fascinating, but I am not always sure why. A case in point is his first chapter, “The Magus Zoroaster.” Already the title suggests to us Eastern deserts and ominous figures. That’s not what the chapter is about, though. Maybe that’s the point. The chapter is about some playwright inviting people to his estate to “screen his play.” I think there is more to it. There is
May 01, 2018 rated it liked it
So, I’ve survived my first Charles Williams novel, and even, for the most part, enjoyed it.

If this story is at all typical of his fiction – and from things I’ve read and heard about his books, it is – Williams will come across to many as surrealist and “metaphysical”. Matter-of-fact descriptions and sequences of events drift into dreamlike symbolic images and metaphors. Williams seems to be trying to help the reader see the world as God sees it, with the spiritual world active around and
Amy Katherine
Jul 14, 2008 rated it it was amazing
A scintillant and surreal narrative that can, at a moment's notice, explodes outward into metaphysical mysticism. It is not unusual for half of the characters in a Williams' novel to be ghosts, doppelgangers, and golems, despite their being set in 1940's England. Despite this book being about the gradual damnation of a human soul - who consistently chooses himself over greater reality - its cosmological vision is deeply redemptive. Williams is one of those rare authors who is able to be true to ...more
Kilian Metcalf
Nov 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of my favorite books ever. So many books I read are predigested pap to be eaten with a spoon or sipped through a straw, I find it refreshing to find a book that challenges me both with language and ideas. Another reviewer says we know what the sin of Sodom is, but what is the sin of Gomorrah? I would say that Williams demonstrates that it is the refusal to be joyful.

June 1, 2016 update

A reread confirms my original opinion. Actually, I think this is the third or fourth time reading this
Jun 01, 2009 rated it really liked it
I just finished rereading Charles Williams' *Descent Into Hell*. I enjoyed it very much, although I did notice this time, it's neither as thrilling nor as humorous as *War In Heaven* or *Many Dimensions*. It does remain a fascinating illustration of Williams' notion of "the doctrine of substituted love," and his idea of how people choose heaven or hell through seemingly insignificant everyday decisions. As my favorite Fuller professor says, Charles' Williams novels are not to everyone's ...more
Timothy Braun
Oct 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book left me with mixed feelings.
For the most part, this is due to Williams' uneven writing style. The narrative he presents is evocative and intriguing but suffers due to his frequent oscillation between genuinely profound moments and (seemingly) nonsensical drivel fueled by his penchant for the arcane.

So, upon this first reading, I think this should be more of a 3-star review. However, the fact that there are some truly moving and incredibly thought provoking passages means that, for the
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Charles Walter Stansby Williams is probably best known, to those who have heard of him, as a leading member (albeit for a short time) of the Oxford literary group, the "Inklings", whose chief figures were C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien. He was, however, a figure of enormous interest in his own right: a prolific author of plays, fantasy novels (strikingly different in kind from those of his friends), ...more
“It may be a movement towards becoming like little children to admit that we are generally nothing else.” 8 likes
“Love was even more mathematical than poetry. It was the pure mathematics of the spirit.” 8 likes
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