Only fools and children believe in ghosts, we are told. And yet who hasn’t wondered, sometimes in the night, if there might possibly be another world beyond this realm, and that the unquiet dead sometimes have matters to settle with the living?
Further, what if ghosts exist to do more than frighten mortals — what if they can also deal out retribution, or nudge people heavenward whose lives have otherwise been failures? And of what value are stories of the supernatural?
As a literary form, writes Russell Kirk (1918-1994), the uncanny tale can be a means for expressing truths enchantingly, through parable and fable. Raw, tell-it-like-it-is realism and naturalism are not the only paths to apprehending reality. “All important literature has some ethical end,” Kirk claims, “and the tale of the preternatural — as written by George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and other masters — can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order.”
Kirk is one of the “other masters.” One of the founding fathers of post-World War II conservatism, he is remembered as a distinguished lecturer on political, aesthetic and economic matters, a syndicated columnist, a cultural historian, author of the groundbreaking history of ideas titled “The Conservative Mind” (1953), a longtime contributor to William F. Buckley Jr.’s magazine National Review — and as a writer of ghostly tales.
The recovery and defense of order in a world increasingly given to disorder in the soul and disorder in the commonwealth — in the form of brokenness, noise, confusion, despair, dishonesty and violence — was Kirk’s lifelong work. One way he married this deep concern with his passion for telling and listening to well-crafted tales was through the writing of ghost stories.
Nineteen of Kirk’s very best stories, all of them out of print until now, have been collected in “Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales.” Vigen Guroian, professor of theology and ethics at Loyola College in Baltimore, is to be commended for bringing together these stories, which form nearly the complete contents of three story collections: “The Surly Sullen Bell” (1962), “The Princess of All Lands” (1979) and “Watchers at the Strait Gate” (1984).
Mr. Guroian has contributed an insightful introduction to this new collection. In it he carefully notes and illustrates Kirk’s skill as a storyteller, as well as how the writer’s philosophical stance — traditionalist, favoring old ways, old houses, and established communities, Christian in general and Roman Catholic in particular — figures in the stories.
Life begins and ends in mystery, Kirk believed, and this is reflected throughout his written work in all fields, but with special effectiveness in his ghostly fiction. In an autobiographical essay he once wrote, “Mine was not an Enlightened mind … it was a Gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure. I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful.
“I despised sophisters and calculators; I was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. I would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle.” There are gargoyles aplenty in “Ancestral Shadows.”
As Mr. Guroian notes, Kirk’s early stories tend to exhibit his revulsion at the work of central planners and officious bureaucrats, who value efficiency far above “variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful.”
In the story “Behind the Stumps,” set in the rural “stump-country” of upper Michigan where Kirk lived most of his life, a cold-blooded census-taker sets out single-mindedly to confront a reclusive old woman who is reputed to be a witch and possibly dead. Warned by the locals to stay away from the old woman’s property, the census-taker nevertheless treks through fields and woods until he eventually finds her seemingly abandoned farmhouse — and comes to a frightening end.
In another story in this vein, “Ex Tenebris,” Kirk transfers his setting to rural England. Here, an officious planning officer visits a crumbling village and attempts to force a harmless old woman to move out of her comfortable cottage and into the boring but efficient tract housing the government has graciously built for the displaced elderly.
His bullying of the woman comes to an abrupt end during a violent encounter with her vicar, a tormented man who (until recently) was dead and buried in the local churchyard, among murderers, liars and other sinners who — in his words — “burn forever.”
In these and certain other stories (such as the creepy “Balgrummo’s Hell”), Kirk tells a rattling good tale while tapping into the traditional ghost-story theme of showing what happens when foolish people “take to meddlin’” when they should have left well enough alone.
Other pieces maintain the prerequisite of any good ghost story — to be a well-turned tale — while integrating themes that more closely reflect Kirk’s Christian beliefs: the sacramental aspect of giving up one’s life for one’s neighbor, the horror of willful self-damnation, the mysterious relationship between time and timelessness, the never-to-be-fully-fathomed aspects of divine grace.
The story “The Princess of All Lands,” for example, is based upon an actual event: the kidnapping of Kirk’s wife, Annette, one autumn afternoon by a drug-addled hitchhiker.
While driving near Lansing, Mich., Annette picked up the hitchhiker, a sullen teenage girl who pulled a handgun out of her clothes, brandished it, and gloated to her captive that they were now going on a little trip together along back roads and into the backwoods. There, the girl claimed, she was going to “give” Annette to her drunken, cabin-bound “daddy” as a birthday present.
By using her wits and calling upon some amateur acting skills, Annette escaped from the hitchhiker unharmed. This true-life incident was retold in full by Russell Kirk, who added a supernatural element to transform it into a tale of how the perverse and the violent choose their own damnation, and are then bound to the place of their death.
“The Princess of All Lands” is one of the prize stories in this collection, among those tales that especially concern what Kirk’s friend T.S. Eliot called “the timeless moment.” Other such stories include the award-winning “There’s a Long, Long Trail a-Winding” and its sequel, “Watchers at the Strait Gate.” Both examine the fate of a wandering hobo named Frank Sarsfield, who gives new meaning to the biblical saying that the violent take heaven by storm. The character of Sarsfield was based upon a real-life hobo who lived with the Kirk family at their home in Mecosta, Mich., for several years.
Two stories, “The Last God’s Dream” and “The Peculiar Demesne of Archvicar Gerontion,” are told largely in the first person by the mysterious, courtly aristocrat Manfred Arcane, who is also featured in two of Kirk’s novels. Yet more tales include the complex and eerily memorable “The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost,” probably Kirk’s most imaginative and accomplished story, and “An Encounter by Mortstone Pond.”
Inspired by Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Touch of Petulance,” this gentle tale of hope concerns a forlorn young boy who encounters his older self during a walk, and is comforted by his handclasp of age and love. Much later, in his old age, the same character goes for a solitary walk and is comforted by the unseen presence and handclasp of his younger self.
Set in a small railroad town modeled upon Kirk’s birthplace of Plymouth, Mich., “An Encounter by Mortstone Pond” is placed like a benediction as the final story in the collection.
Kirk has long been perceived as a historian and political thinker, at the expense of his accomplishment as a spinner of ghostly tales. “How amazingly versatile and prolific you are,” wrote Eliot to Kirk in 1958. “Now you have been writing what I should have least suspected of you — ghost stories!”
“For too many years,” adds Mr. Bradbury, in praise of “Ancestral Shadows,” “Russell Kirk, almost like the title of this book remained half seen in the American literary scene. He deserves to be considered a fine writer and an amazing thinker in literature and politics.” As the stories in this anthology demonstrate, the great Mr. Bradbury is entirely right.
James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind.” He is currently writing a full-length study of the life and work of Virginia novelist and screenwriter Earl Hamner.