All Hallows’ Eve is the last of Williams’ strange, supernatural thrillers and for me it is his most successful, the one in which plot, characterization and theology combine most effectively.
The book opens vividly with a young woman, Lester Furnival, in an eerily deserted and oddly silent London. She meets her husband, Richard, who retreats from her in horror and slowly she realizes that she is dead. She meets a friend, Evelyn, who was killed with her when a plane crashed just where they had met. Although dead, Lester can communicate with some of the living, especially Richard and another girl, Betty, whom Lester and Evelyn had bullied at school and who is now engaged to Jonathan, an artist friend of Richard’s.
The plot has two intertwined strands. One is that of a thriller ( Williams also reviewed detective fiction) with his usual conflict between good and evil. Simon Leclerc is a preacher and necromancer, intent on world domination. To achieve this , he uses Betty as a means of communication between this world and the spirit world. The other strand shows Lester’s development as she seeks good, just as Evelyn seeks evil. Conscious of having treated Betty badly in the past, Lester asks her forgiveness while Evelyn wants to continue victimizing her.
The setting of the novel is mundane. The earthly location is London: there’s a flat in Chelsea, a house in Highgate, a meeting house in Holborn. The ordinary everyday life of the time forms the background but it is infused with the spiritual and the boundaries between the earthly and spirit worlds are permeable. Even Simon’s spells contain elements of the ordinary. When he sends Betty’s spirit out to gather information from the future, she finds herself at King’s Cross station with some coins in her hand. She buys the newspapers and reads them through. Later, while she is in a trance, Simon writes down what she says and is disturbed because for the first time there is no mention of him.
For much of the time the characters are in ordinary situations, into which comes a sudden supernatural interruption. For example, Richard attends one of Simon’s public meetings. Towards the end the ghost of Evelyn appears, visible only to Simon and Richard. Evelyn and Simon exchange a smile, seen by Richard,
“..there was only the smile – no pain, no outcry, no obscenity, except that something truly obscene was there. He saw, visibly before him, the breach of the spiritual law. He saw a man sitting still and a woman standing just within the wall, a slight thing, and so full of vileness that he almost fainted.
He did not know how long it lasted: for presently they were all on their feet, and he too was able to stand up and then they were all going away.”
The portrayal of good and evil is powerful. Simon is repellently evil and interested in others only in so far as he can make use of them. That he has no understanding of disinterested goodness is shown by his belief that the death of Jesus signified only that Jesus’ magic had failed. Williams makes it clear that one can choose good or evil. Lester and Evelyn are ordinary young women. Lester, aware that she has behaved cruelly, seeks to make amends. She consciously chooses good but remains an interesting character ( perhaps it is just me, but I often find good characters in fiction rather dull). In contrast, Evelyn, able to think only of herself, chooses to help Simon. He asks what she wants and she replies that she wants Betty “always”. As she says this, she sees an image, chilling to us but satisfying to her, of herself with Betty, “she talking and Betty trembling”.
An another important theme is the City which seems to be Augustine’s City of God. The good can enter into the City because they love God not self; the evil cannot because they worship self not God. Jonathan’s essential goodness is demonstrated through his painting of what may be the celestial City.
The plot moves quickly and the descriptions of the characters’ spiritual states are better integrated with the story than they are in an earlier novel, Shadows of Ecstasy, which tells a similar tale. The characters are more strongly drawn as well . There are incidental pleasures too, such as the interesting discussions about Jonathan’s two paintings, one of Simon preaching and the other a cityscape, suffused with light.
I enjoy Williams’ novels but find them hard to describe successfully. I haven’t come across quite this combination of the mundane and the numinous in any other fiction. C.S. Lewis said of his novels
“He is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying ‘Let us suppose that this everyday world were, at some one point, invaded by the marvellous. Let us, in fact, suppose a violation of frontier.’ ”
I find when reading the novels that this sense of invasion and violation diminishes to be replaced by a feeling that the relationship he portrays between the earthly and spiritual worlds is entirely natural.