California Literary Review

The Works of Russel Kirk

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April 24th, 2007 at 7:11 am

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What Shadows We Pursue: Ghost Stories Volume Two
Russel Kirk
Ash-Tree Press, 206pp
CLR Rating: ★★★★★
Off The Sand Road: Ghost Stories Volume One
Russel Kirk
Ash-Tree Press, 206pp
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Beware The Demons and Beasties That Go Bump in the Night

Russell Kirk is best remembered as the author of the seminal study, The Conservative Mind, From Burke to Santayana, published in 1953. A book that was in large measure responsible for the rebirth of the moribund conservative political movement that would come to fruition in the 1980’s. Throughout his career Dr. Kirk, the only American to earn a degree of doctor of letters from St. Andrews University in Scotland, published over thirty books and countless articles, essays, and reviews. He was a syndicated columnist for a number of years and a regular contributor to Bill Buckley’s National Review. His singular accomplishments in the highly competitive field of letters has yet to be duplicated. And, perhaps more importantly, Russell Kirk was that rare intellectual; he loved mankind.

A convert to Christianity, Kirk believed “…that there exists a realm of being beyond this temporal world and that a mysterious providence works in human affairs—that man is made for eternity.” In part, this spiritual conversion coincided with a discovery of self- his own “nature.” Both acts the product of Kirk’s acumen, commingled with an inherent comprehension of his “illative sense.” And, his conversion is all the more interesting because the moment of his spiritual and intellectual epiphany came while ensconced on the Great Salt Lake Desert! However, in the end, Kirk’s theology, after much study of the church fathers, particularly Ambrose and John Henry Newman, became both orthodox and catholic, while intellectually he embraced the medieval “in its temper and structure.” Accordingly, he centered his life on the “catechetical” axiom that the purpose for action and work was “…to know God and enjoy Him forever.” Which would, of course, please Aquinas immensely.

His faith (along with that of his wife and family) was not only exhibited at Sunday morning mass, but also lived daily. He made his ancestral home, Piety Hill in Mecosta, Michigan a refuge not only for his extended family and invited guests but also for desperate unwed mothers, students seeking wisdom, and the downtrodden in search of shelter. Kirk and his wife, Annette, would be among the first to take a public stand against the abortion-on-demand legislation in Michigan in 1972.

Because of the need to support his extended family and the desire to “experiment with the moral imagination,” Russell Kirk wrote Gothic fiction and classic horror tales. One gets the impression in reading his eloquent and succinct memoirs, The Sword of Imagination, that he had to write these stories. Indeed, a number of them were the recitation of events in his life, with just a dash of tumult and panache.

Kirk’s “burglar-butler,” Clinton Wallace, was the model for the character, Frank Sarsfield, in his highly acclaimed short story, There’s a Long, Long Trail-a-winding (Sarsfield appears in several other tales as well). At the end of the story, Frank Sarsfield, died in a snowdrift. One year after the story was written Clinton Wallace was walking home to Piety Hill after seeing the movie, Across the Great Divide, when he too fell dead in a snowdrift.

Dr. Kirk’s success as a writer of fiction was immediate. In his memoirs, he tells us that his Gothic novel, Old House of Fear, published in 1961 by Fleet Publishing Corporation, “…sold (more copies) than all of (his) other books combined.” His short fiction produced three book length anthologies. In 1966 he was awarded the Ann Radcliffe Award for Gothic fiction for Old House of Fear, and his first horror anthology, The Surly Sullen Bell. In 1979 his second collection, The Princess of All Lands, appeared. Arkham House published Kirk’s third horror anthology, Watchers at the Strait Gate, in 1984.

Sadly, these collections went out of print, and became difficult to locate. However, in 2002 the first volume of Russell Kirk’s horror stories, Off the Sand Road, was published by Barbara and Christopher Roden, proprietors of the Ash-Tree Press of Ashcroft, British Columbia. In 2003 the Roden’s supervised the publishing of a second volume of Kirk’s supernatural stories: What Shadows We Pursue. These two volumes constitute the complete collection of Russell Kirk’s short fiction. Because of the extremely high quality and low-print runs (there are only 500 copies of each book available) the cost is a bit high. However, I have rarely seen books so beautifully constructed and suitable to be handed down from one generation to the next. I should think Dr. Kirk would appreciate that most of all.

Aficionados of horror fiction understand M. R. James’s remark that, “true horror is perdition.” Thus, we might argue that the most accomplished horror writers were either Christians or those bedeviled folk who’d abandoned the old faith and faced damnation with a certain élan. The well-written horror tale reveals a truth, a metaphysical absolute, a universal, hopefully with guile and ambiance, but a truth just the same. And, it does so without engaging in sophistry, for the true horror writer is consumed by a cacoethes to engage his moral imagination, to reveal a sliver of the transcendent, in much the same way Mel Gibson hoped to convey Christ’s Passion in his recent movie. Ideally, tales of the supernatural depict the confrontation between absolute evil and man. The prize is the protagonist’s soul; the outcome is inevitably determined by faith!

In many cases this yearning is the result of a signal event in the author’s life; a confrontation with a revenant, perhaps! This is what occurred in Kirk’s life. He lived happily among ghostly apparitions at Piety Hill, and told any number of “True Relations (my own experiences)” to guests sated with good meat, a respectable merlot, and a decent cigar. Gathered in the candle-lit parlor on a dark and gloomy night, as the winds crashed against the doors and windows of the old manor house, Russell Kirk -the true believer- gave his ghostly perorations, providing a nexus between this generation and the old ones.

Kirk’s writing style and his stories spring from an accomplished literary age, when appropriate consideration was given to language and “story,” not just character and plot. He directs you into an uncertain past, eschewing modernity, for scientism and positivism have nothing to offer but quiet despair. There is violence-Original sin demands it-but not in the churlish, vulgar, manner of a Stephen King. And, one suspects that the late Fr. Malachi Martin would appreciate Kirk’s knowledge and expertise of the spiritually corrupting effects of demonic possession. Ghosts are one thing; demons are quite another!

In the classic story, The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost, we meet the good Father Raymond Thomas Montrose, “…rector of the Church of the Holy Ghost in the parish of Hawkhill.” Hawkhill is a slum, the pimps rule the streets, the gangs are vicious, and the good Father Montrose is celibate. But, the Episcopalian priest has a friend in the blind, “Fork” Causland, who will play the church organ, and protect the priest both physically and spiritually, for Father Montrose is about to enter the world of concupiscent demons and abiding angels. The contest is as ancient as time itself; the outcome dependent, as always, on a man’s faith!

The Surly Sullen Bell tells the story of human frailty, love lost, and the evil inherent in man. Nancy Schumacher is a fey woman, dominated by a controlling husband and his addictive, specially brewed coffee, and she is dying of unknown causes that mystify the medical savants. Her knight errant is Frank Loring, an old paramour come to save her! Ten years earlier Frank lost Nancy because he “…never really fought,” and Nancy’s comment now is simply that Frank was not meant “…to win battles.” Is it sufficient to be righteous, to be a “good” man, or must we act against evil?

Uncle Isaiah is a delightfully dark tale of retribution and familial responsibilities. Daniel Kinnaird is about to lose his business. Bruno Costa, a recent inhabitant of certain unspecified state facilities, demands protection payments or Kinnaird’s business will, shall we say, suffer. Daniel Kinnaird is of an old and somewhat odd, Irish lineage. His uncle, Isaiah, perhaps the oddest of the Kinnairds, takes umbrage with Mr. Costa’s proposal and deals with the matter. You see, dear reader, the police and politicians couldn’t help Daniel Kinnaird but his uncle could. Isaiah succinctly comments, “Mr. Costa scarcely understands our family, Daniel.” Indeed!

The above examples are illustrative of Kirk’s mastery of his genre. A classicist, Romanticist, and Medievalist, arguably the 20th Century’s most accomplished man-of-letters, Russell Kirk was well suited to write horror fiction. It was his education, his intent to hold firmly and dearly to the “permanent things,” his faith in a risen Savior, all commingled in a delightful concinnity that give credence to his narratives, embolden his plot, and convey to his audience the certain truth that beyond this “reality” there lies mysteries that God has, in His mercy, kept hidden! Kirk journeyed to the abyss and peered over. He returned with stories that warned us all to seek redemption for our sins, to find the joy of spiritual awakening, and to repudiate evil at every turn! To his credit, that’s how Russell Kirk lived his life.

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