It was a circlet of old, tarnished and twisted gold, in the centre of which was set a cubical stone measuring about half an inch every way, and having apparently engraved on it certain Hebrew letters.
The letters are the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter Hebrew name of God יהוה, commonly transliterated into Latin letters as YHWH.
The stone is supposed to have astonishing powers. Hold it and wish to be somewhere else, and you are immediately transported there. It transpires that, since Time is just another dimension, the stone can move you around into the future or past as well – though this can provoke paradoxes, and is dangerous.
What is more, the stone has the amazing property that if you divide it in half, it becomes two identical full-size stones, and each of these has the power of the original.
The first people to have hold of this are a pair of suspect characters who realise its immense value. One of them is Sir Giles a dabbler in the occult; his nephew, Reginald is a not-very-honest businessman. They are consulting a Persian prince who recognises the artefact as the crown of Suleiman (and therefore a sacred relic in the Muslim religion as well as the Christian).
Sir Giles wants a respectable member for his consortium, so tries to enlist Lord Arglay, the Chief Justice. Arglay does not want to be part of the scheme, but recognises the stone’s power, so works to try to save it from falling into the wrong hands, aided by his pretty young secretary, Chloe Burnett.
So the book is set up as a sort of supernatural thriller, about plots, coincidences, horrors and daring attempts to capture the stone, but it is more than that.
Williams has designs on his readers, and is presenting them with a religious allegory. And his religion is not the simple comfortable Thought for the Day ‘Let’s all be nice to one another’ kind. Williams’s message comes from the darker and more abstruse regions of Theology, from the Augustinian sense of a terrible and all-powerful God, in the face of whom mere mortal men and their efforts are insignificant.
The stone, we gradually realise, is, in some mystical way, God – or at least it has the properties of God. The first clue to this comes on the first page, when the Persian explains:
The letters of the Tetragrammaton are not engraved on the stone; they are in the centre – they are, in fact, the stone.
In a discussion of time travel we are told ‘The stone is not within time. Time is within the stone.’ – a rephrasing of what Saint Augustine said about Time and God.
The stone has a way of revealing the characters of those seeking to own it. There are capitalists who want to use it for their own ends, and others who want to get it so that it can be suppressed – like the aviation millionaire who realises that instant travel would ruin his industry. There is a wicked scheming Trades unionist too, who sees that the stone might endanger his members’ jobs. The weak and the wicked are tempted by the power of the stone to do things that bring about their own destruction. And you get the idea that Williams is really relishing the nasty ends that they come to.when the main villain gets his come-uppance from the awesome power of the stone, for example, this is how it is described:
For at once the light and with it the pain passed through him, dividing nerve from nerve, sinew from sinew, bone from bone. Everywhere the sharp torment caught him….
and so on for a page or so, until he finds himself in an eternity of punishment:
From the spirals of time and place he felt himself falling, and still he fell and fell.
I couldn’t help the feeling that Williams was enjoying this just a little too blatantly.
As well as the obvious villains, there is another character whose relation to the stone is presented as somehow wrong. When the stone goes missing at one point it lands in the bed of a woman who has been paralysed for years. She gets up and walks. It causes more miraculous cures, and the Mayor of the town where this happens, wants the stone to be dedicated to medical work, and to doing good. Williams presents this though as just another (though slightly better form of selfishness); he still wants to use the stone – whereas the one character of whom the novel truly approves, Chloe Burnett, seeks only to submit to t he stone, and to offer herself to its inscrutable purposes.
Williams’s theology is of salvation by faith, not by works. The public-spirited and active mayor is spiritually inferior to Lord Arglay’s virginal and utterly submissive young secretary. When the stone is divided into many parts, and being made use of by the wicked for their own purposes, she is the only one worthy of bringing it together into its proper unity. The effort kills her, but we are, I assume supposed to see her as a martyr to divine power, and as having achieved a sort of wonderful transcendence.
The book is very readable. The characters are types (the tycoon, the crook, the responsible lawyer, the ambitious young man, etc.) who never surprise us by doing anything unexpected. The fast pace of the story kept me turning the pages eagerly, though.
This novel is maybe interesting as a book written by a highbrow, using the lowbrow techniques of the ‘shocker’ to convey relatively abstruse theological ideas to a middlebrow audience. There is a parallel with the left wingers of the period (Greene, Ambler) who used the thriller form to convey political ideas.
I am not very fond of Williams’s style of religion, and some parts of the book inspired a certain distaste, but I may well look at some more of his books sometime. They are definitely different!