"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, December 31, 2021

"Machenean perichoresis" in War In Heaven by Charles Williams (1930)

....When Gregory had been shown in, Sir Giles got up quickly from his table.

     "Well?" he said.

     Gregory came across to him, saying: "Oh, I've got it—a little more trouble than I thought, but I've got it. But I don't quite like doing anything with it.… In fact, I'm not quite sure what it's best to do."

     Sir Giles pushed a chair towards him. "You don't think," he said. "What do you want to do?" He sat down again as he spoke, his little eager eyes fixed on the other, with a controlled but excited interest. Persimmons met them with a sly anxiety in his own.

     "I want something else first," he said. "I want that address."

     "Pooh," Sir Giles said, "that won't help you. Tell me more about this other thing first. Do you notice anything about it? How does it affect you?"

     Gregory considered. "Not at all, I think," he said. "It's just an ordinary piece of work—with a curious smell about it sometimes."

     "Smell?" Sir Giles said. "Smell? What sort of smell?"

     "Well," Persimmons answered, "it's more like ammonia than anything else; a sort of pungency. But I only notice it sometimes."

     "I knew a cannibal chief in Nigeria who said the same thing," Sir Giles said musingly. "Not about that, of course, and not ammonia. It was a traditional taboo of the tribe—the dried head of a witch-doctor that was supposed to be a good omen to his people. He said it smelt like the fire that burned the uneaten offal of their enemies. Curious—the same notion of cleansing."

     Gregory sniggered. "It'll take Him a good deal of ammonia to clean things out," he said. "But it'd be like Him to use ammonia and the Bible and that kind of thing."

     Sir Giles switched back to the subject. "And what are you going to do with it?" he asked alertly.

     Gregory eyed him. "Never mind," he said. "Or, rather, why do you want to know?"

     "Because I like knowing these things," Sir Giles answered. "After all, I saved it for you when you asked me, on condition that you told me about your adventures, or let me see them for myself. You're going mad, you know, Persimmons, and I like watching you."

     "Mad?" Gregory said, with another snigger. "You don't go mad this way. People like my wife go mad, and Stephen. But I've got something that doesn't go mad. I'm getting everything so." He stretched out both arms and pressed them downwards with an immense gesture of weight, as if pushing the universe before and below him. "But I want the ointment."

     "Better leave it alone," Sir Giles said tantalizingly. "It's tricky stuff, Persimmons. A Jew in Beyrout tried it and didn't get back. Filthy beast he looked, all naked and screaming that he couldn't find his way. That was four years ago, and he's screaming the same thing still, unless he's dead. And there was another fellow in Valparaiso who got too far to be heard screaming; he died pretty soon, because he'd forgotten even how to eat and drink. They tried forcible feeding, I fancy, but it wasn't a success: he was just continually sick. Better leave it alone, Persimmons."

     "I tell you I'm perfectly safe," Gregory said. "You promised, Tumulty, you promised."

     "My lord God," Sir Giles said, "what does that matter? I don't care whether I promised or not; I don't care whether you want it or not; I only wonder whether I shall get more satisfaction from——" He broke off. "All right," he said, "I'll give you the address—94, Lord Mayor Street, Finchley Road. Somewhere near Tally Ho Corner, I think. Quite respectable and all that. The man in Valparaiso was a solicitor. It's in the middle classes one finds these things easiest. The lower classes haven't got the money or the time or the intelligence, and the upper classes haven't got the power or intelligence."

     Gregory was writing the address down, nodding to himself as he did so; then he looked at a clock, which stood on the writing-table, pleasantly clutched in a dried black hand set in gold. "I shall have time to-day," he said. "I'll go at once. I suppose he'll sell it me? Yes, of course he will, I can see to that."

     "It'll save you some time and energy," Sir Giles said, "if you mention me. He's a Greek of sorts—I've forgotten his name. But he doesn't keep tons of it, you know. Now, look here, Persimmons. This is two things you have got out of me, and I've had nothing in return. You'd better ask me down to wherever you hatch gargoyles. I can't come till after Monday because I'm speaking at University College then. I'll come next Wednesday. What's the station? Fardles? Send me a card to tell me the best afternoon train and have it met."

War In Heaven by Charles Williams 

(1930, Faber and Faber)

I'm not qualified to discuss the religious or archaeological aspects of War In Heaven. Suffice to say, author Charles Williams employs them convincingly. 

Something I do know a little about are representative works of the UK thriller and horror genres. Readers of War In Heaven will appreciate the novel's many reverberations:

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers. An intermixing of company politics, an on-premises killing, and off-premises skulduggery. War In Heaven has no narcotics syndicate, but it does have a Duke and a meticulous police detective: Inspector Colquhoun.

❖The equanimity and patience of Julian Davenant, Archdeacon of Castra Parvulorum (Fardles), "a round, dapper little cleric in gaiters," strikes the Father Brown note. He navigates through eighteen chapters of revelations, chases, thefts, reverses of fortune, and a knock on the head. His apotheosis is richly satisfying.

❖When the villain Gregory Persimmons sends Barbara Rackstraw into a hellish out-of-body limbo as part of his plan to kidnap and seduce her son Adrian, her husband's colleague Kenneth Mornington, joined by the Archdeacon and the Duke of the North Ridings, form a sodality reminiscent of the band dedicated to defense of Mina Harker in Stoker's Dracula. Kenneth Mornington, alas, draws the Quincey Morris card.

As a dedicated reader of Arthur Machen, the chapter dealing with the villains' lair in Lord Mayor's Street is deeply resonant. This den of foul sorcery is a hole-in-the-wall shop selling occult potions, but it is also a non-terrestrial headquarters.

     Lord Mayor's Street in the evening seemed always, if by any chance it could, to attract and contain such mist as might be about. A faint vapour made the air dim, especially round the three shops, and caused passers-by to remark regularly either that the evening was a bit misty or that the evenings were drawing in or that there might be something of a fog by the morning....

[....]"I have hidden this house in a cloud and drawn it in to our hearts so that it shall not be entered from without till the work is done."

     Gregory involuntarily looked towards the window, and saw a thick darkness rising above it, a darkness not merely foglike, as it seemed to those without, but shot with all kinds of colour and movement as if some living nature were throbbing about them....

In the penultimate chapter, Williams initially defers and lets the climax occur off-stage. He focuses instead on a Scotland Yard deputy commissioner and his men as they search frantically for the shop's physical address:

     [The Assistant Commissioner] sat back, lit a cigarette, and turned to other work, till, somewhere about half-past eight, Pewitt also rang up. Pewitt was a young fellow who was being tried on the mere mechanics of this kind of work, and he had been sent up to the Finchley Road not more than two hours earlier, having been engaged on another job for most of the day. His voice now sounded depressed and worried.

     "Pewitt speaking," he said, when the Commissioner had announced himself. "I'm—I'm in rather a hole, sir. I—we—can't find the house."

     "Can't what?" his chief asked.

     "Can't find the house, sir," Pewitt repeated. "I know it sounds silly, but it's the simple truth. It doesn't seem to be there."

     The Assistant Commissioner blinked at the telephone. "Are you mad or merely idiotic, Pewitt?" he asked. "I did think you'd got the brains of a peewit, anyhow, if not much more. Have you lost the address I gave you or what?"

     "No, sir," Pewitt said, "I've got the address all right—Lord Mayor's Street. It was a chemist's, you said. But there doesn't seem to be a chemist's there. Of course, the fog makes it difficult, but still, I don't think it is there."

     "The fog?" the Commissioner said.

     "It's very thick up here in North London," Pewitt answered, "very thick indeed."

     "Are you sure you're in the right street?" his chief asked.

     "Certain, sir. The constable on duty is here too. He seems to remember the shop, sir, but he can't find it, either. All we can find, sir, is——"

     "Stop a minute," the Commissioner interrupted. He rang his bell and sent for a Directory; then, having found it, he went on. "Now go ahead. Where do you begin?"

     "George Giddings, grocer."


     "Samuel Murchison, confectioner."


     "Mrs. Thorogood, apartments."

     "Damn it, man," the Commissioner exploded, "you've just gone straight over it. Dmitri Lavrodopoulos, chemist."

     "But it isn't, sir," Pewitt said unhappily. "The fog's very thick, but we couldn't have missed a whole shop."

     "But Colonel Conyers has been there," the Commissioner shouted, "been there and talked with this infernal fellow. Good God above, it must be there! You're drunk, Pewitt."

     "I feel as if I was, sir," the mournful voice said, "groping about in this, but I'm not. I've looked at the Directory myself, sir, and it's all right there. But it's not all right here. The house has simply disappeared."

     "That must have been what just flew past the window," the other said bitterly. "Look here, Pewitt, I'm coming up myself. And God help you and your friend the constable if I find that house, for I'll tear you limb from limb and roast you and eat you. And God help me if I don't," he said, putting back the receiver, "for if houses disappear as well as Dukes, this'll be no world for me."

     It took him much longer than he expected to reach Lord Mayor's Street. As his taxi climbed north, he found himself entering into what was at first a faint mist, and later, before he reached Tally Ho Corner, an increasing fog. Indeed, after a while the taxi-driver refused to go any farther, and the Assistant Commissioner proceeded slowly on foot. He knew the Finchley Road generally and vaguely, and after a long time and many risks at last drew near his aim. At what he hoped was the corner of Lord Mayor's Street he ran directly into a stationary figure.

     "What the hell——" he began. "Sorry, sir. Oh, it's you, Pewitt. Damnation, man, why don't you shout instead of knocking me down? All right, all right. But standing at the corner of the street won't find the house, you know. Where's the constable? Why don't you keep together? Oh, he's here, is he! Couldn't even one of you look for the house instead of holding a revival meeting at the street corner? Now for God's sake don't apologize or I shall have to begin too, and we shall look like a ring of chimpanzees at the Zoo. I know as well as you do that I'm in a vile temper. Come along and let's have a look. Where's the grocer's?"

     He was shown it. Then, he first, Pewitt second, and the constable last, they edged along the houses, their torches turned on the windows. "That's the grocer's," the Commissioner went on. "And here—this blasted fog's thicker than ever—is the end of the grocer's, I suppose; at least it's the end of a window. Then this must be the confectioner's. I believe I saw a cake; the blind's only half down. And here's a door, the confectioner's door. Didn't you think of doing it this way, Pewitt?"

     "Yes, sir," Pewitt said, "the constable and I have done it about seventeen times."

     The Assistant Commissioner, neglecting this answer, pushed ahead. "And this is the end of the confectioner's second window," he said triumphantly. "And here's a bit of wall … more wall … and here—here's a gate." He stopped uncertainly.

     "Yes, sir," Pewitt said; "that's Mrs. Thorogood's gate. We called there, sir, but she's an old lady and rather deaf, and some of her lodgers are on their holiday and some haven't got home from work yet. And we couldn't quite get her to understand what we were talking about. We tried again a little while ago, but she wouldn't even come to the door."

     The Assistant Commissioner looked at the gate, or rather, at the fog, for the gate was invisible. So was the constable; he could just discern a thicker blot that was Pewitt. He felt the gate—undoubtedly it was just that. He stood still and recalled to his mind the page he had studied in the Directory. Yes, between Murchison the confectioner and Mrs. Thorogood, apartments, it leapt to his eye, Dmitri Lavrodopoulos, chemist.

     "Have you tried the confectioner?" he asked.

     "Well, sir, he wouldn't do more than talk out of the first-floor window," Pewitt said, "but we did try him. He said he knew what kind of people went round knocking at doors in the fog. He swore he'd got two windows, and he said the chemist was next door. But somehow we couldn't just find next door."

     "It must be round some corner," the Assistant Commissioner said; and "Yes, sir, no doubt it must be round some corner," Pewitt answered.

     The other felt as if something was beginning to crack. Everything seemed disappearing. The Duke had not come home, nor Mornington, whoever he might be; the Archdeacon and Gregory Persimmons had left home. And now a whole house seemed to have been swallowed up. He went slowly back to the corner, followed by his subordinates, then he tried again—very slowly and crouched right against the windows. On either side of the confectioner's door was a strip of glass without blinds, and he dimly discerned in each window, within an inch and a half of his nose, scones and buns and jam-tarts. Certainly the farther one no more than the first belonged to a chemist. And yet for the second time, as he pushed beyond it, he felt the rough wall under his fingers and then the iron gate.

     The Directory and Colonel Conyers must both be wrong, he thought; there could be no other explanation. Lavrodopoulos must have left, and the shop been taken over by the confectioner. But it was on Monday Colonel Conyers had called, and this was only Thursday. Besides, the confectioner had said that the chemist's was next door. He felt the wall again; it ought to be there.

     "What do you make of it, Pewitt?" he asked.

     Out of the fog Pewitt answered: "I don't like it, sir," he said. "I dare say it's a mistake, but I don't like that. It isn't natural."

     "I suppose you think the devil has carried it off," the Assistant Commissioner said, and thought automatically of the Bible he had studied that morning. He struck impatiently at the wall. "Damn it, the shop must be there," he said. But the shop was not there.

     Suddenly, as they stood there in a close group, the grounds beneath them seemed to shift and quiver. Pewitt and the constable cried out; the Assistant Commissioner jumped aside. It shook again. "Good God," he cried, "what in the name of the seven devils is happening to the world? Are you there, Pewitt?" for his movement had separated them. He heard some sort of reply, but knew himself alone and felt suddenly afraid. Again the earth throbbed below him; then from nowhere a great blast of cool wind struck his face. So violent was it that he reeled and almost fell; then, as he regained his poise, he saw that the fog was dissolving around him. A strange man was standing in front of him; behind him the windows of a chemist's shop came abruptly into being. The stranger came up to him. "I am Gregory Persimmons," he said, "and I wish to give myself up to the police for murder."

I think this section of the novel conveys a real flavor of the "perichoresis" Thomas Kent Miller discusses in relation to Machen's sublime short story "N." 

My indifference to organized and unorganized religion cannot be overstated. Fictional depictions of religious questions and crises are a different matter, however. I find them compelling when treated seriously by authors, whether Machen, Charles Williams, Dennis Wheatley, or William Peter Blatty. War In Heaven is certainly a book worthy of sharing a shelf with The Great Return, The Devil Rides Out, and The Exorcist.


31 December 2021

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