He is best known for his poetry and his contemporary religious novels which were filled with mystery and supernatural conflict. Descent into Hell is thought to be Williams greatest novel and is a story about human beings who steadily shut themselves up in the idolatries of selfishness so that they are no longer able to love and the result is hell. It is clear that Charles Williams was an intense and imaginative person. His books are far from easy to read. They require thoughtful pondering and rereading to begin to perceive the spiritual lessons with which they are filled. In this particular novel the heroine is named Pauline Anstruther who has ‘a certain terror in her own secret life’ and she had never considered that this could be ‘ a terrible good’.
In a chapter entitled ‘The Doctrine of Substituted Love’ the hero of the book Stanhope carries the fear she experiences concerning this ‘terrible good’ and she is released steadily into a life of service to others. Meanwhile other characters in the novel are moving in the other direction, away from light, into the deepening darkness of their own narcissistic tendencies, especially a man named Wentworth who chooses to enter into self adoration in a developing relationship with a woman of his imagination. The faculty of love in his life is sterilized and he is forced further and further back into himself and is isolated into a hellish madness of an accompanying fantasy life. He deteriorates as his grasp on the real woman he has loved loosens and the illusory world he step by step chooses becomes compulsive, all becomes horrifyingly bleak and his descent into hell continues. One line sums up the whole book, Stanhope says to Pauline the heroine of the tale, ‘when all’s said and done there’s only Zion or Gomorrah’. They themselves were experiencing the life of Zion whilst Wentworth and others like him were bearing the marks of Gomorrah. This is not the kind of book that all can read with profit but for some it may be used to show with great power the path to life and that path which is the descent in to hell.