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A haunted tale in London - with the cuteness exorcised

Charles Williams' novel All Hallows' Eve (Regent College Publishing, $19.95) opens with a young woman called Lester Furnival standing on London's Westminster Bridge. She doesn't yet realize she's dead.

Charles Williams' novel

All Hallows' Eve

(Regent College Publishing, $19.95) opens with a young woman called Lester Furnival standing on London's Westminster Bridge. She doesn't yet realize she's dead.

She does remember the plane, though. "The plane, in the thickening darkness, was now but a thicker darkness, and distinguishable only because her eyes were still fixed on it. If she moved she would lose it. If she lost it, she would be left in the midst of this - this lull."

A lull that feels peculiar:

All the lulls she had ever known were not as deep as this, in which there seemed no movement at all. . . . She was alone with this night in the City . . . but all in a silence she did not know, so that if she yielded to the silence she would not know those other things, and the whole place would be different and dreadful.

Lester briefly encounters her husband, Richard, but he soon fades, "as if he were a ghost." Then she meets Evelyn Mercer, the young woman she had been with before her eyes became fixed on the plane and the lull settled. Evelyn does not fade. Together they wander the silent city, where "there was never any sun" and where the moon, "large and bright and cold . . . hung in the sky," though "there was no moonlight on the ground."

All Hallows' Eve, first published in 1945, the year of Charles Williams' death, was the last of his seven novels, which T.S. Eliot - who wrote the introduction - aptly described as "supernatural thrillers." Williams was one of the Inklings, the informal literary group whose best-known members were C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Born in 1886, Williams was older than the others, and he spent most of his adult life working for the Oxford University Press.

All Hallows' Eve, of course, is another name for Halloween - the eve of All Saints' Day. Williams' choice of title is significant. No cutesy witches, ghosts or goblins in these pages. The central character here is an evil wizard named Simon the Clerk, a direct descendant - by profession if not heredity - of Simon Magus. Simon aims to dominate the world in a most thorough-going way: by enslaving the souls of its inhabitants. (Early in life, Williams had been a member of a Rosicrucian temple that had some connection with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, whose most notorious member was Aleister Crowley. So Williams knew more than most about high magic.)

All Hallows' Eve, in other words, is about genuine evil on a cosmic scale, and Williams' skill at depicting the interpenetration of the temporal and eternal is downright uncanny. Thanks to "the first grace of a past redeemed into love," Lester's vision and perception are both cleansed and enlarged:

She saw a glowing and glimmering city, of which the life was visible as a roseal wonder within. The streets of it were first the streets of today, full of business of today . . . Then, gently opening, she saw among those streets other streets . . . into which her own London opened or with which it was intermingled. No thought of confusion crossed her mind; it was all very greatly ordered, and when down a long street she saw, beyond the affairs of today, the movement of sedan chairs and ancient dresses, and beyond them again, right in the distance and yet very close to her, the sun glittering on armor, and sometimes a high battlemented gate, it was no phantasmagoria of a dream but precise actuality. She was . . . looking along time.

The action takes place on two planes simultaneously: the here and now of London in 1945 and the twilight world that Lester and Evelyn find themselves in. The intended means of Simon's world domination is his daughter, Betty Wallingford. Betty's mother, Lady Wallingford, is Simon's principal disciple. She has told Betty - whom she hates - that she was adopted. Betty is able, through Simon's hypnotic skills, to enter the time-encompassing city where Lester and Evelyn, her onetime schoolmates, are.

The artist Jonathan Drayton has fallen in love with Betty, and to please her mother has painted a portrait of Simon. Lady Wallingford, however, finds the portrait - which seems to give the magician an abstracted, almost imbecilic look and to depict his followers as an army of beetles - revolting and offensive. The Clerk himself, however, is taken with it, telling Drayton, "That is I."

Richard, Drayton and Lester must rescue Betty from Simon and by so doing thwart his grand scheme. Compared with their self-possessed - indeed self-obsessed - antagonist, they seem quite ordinary. But that is Williams' point: Great evil happens not only when men and women commit horrendous crimes, but as often as not because they fail to perform ordinary acts of kindness and generosity, take others for granted, and are too quick to compromise on behalf of petty ambition and personal convenience and advantage. In Williams' vision of Halloween, we are our own goblins - and not at all cute.