A Good Scare: the Redemptive Ghost Stories of Russell Kirk

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Since we’re fast approaching Halloween, I couldn’t resist an opportunity to write about one of my favorite books of the last few years: Russell Kirk’s Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales.

I’m not typically a reader of scary books or ghost tales, but my wife Taya and I read a review of this book (in some intelligent faith-based magazine whose title escapes me now) prompting me to give it to her as a birthday gift. She gushed about it after reading it and told me I HAD to read it right away. Reluctant at first, I finally got around to it this summer and was immediately hooked.

Russell Kirk was a respected thinker whose essays helped form and affirm a thoughtful conservatism that influenced and excited the political ideals of his day. He is still widely regarded as the father of the modern conservative movement (or at least the better aspects of it). The New York Times acknowledged the scale of his influence when in 1998 it wrote that Kirk’s 1953 book The Conservative Mind “gave American conservatives an identity and a genealogy and catalyzed the postwar movement.” However, I hope all this talk about his political ideology won’t keep anyone from reading Ancestral Shadows or weigh it down with unnecessary baggage–this is not a political book.

In his spare time, Dr. Kirk would write ghost stories for his own enjoyment. He found the genre to be fertile ground for exploring redemptive themes of justice, retribution, salvation and grace. In his own words: “Alarming though (I hope) readers may find these tales, I do not write them to impose meaningless terror upon the innocent . . . What I have attempted, rather, are experiments in the moral imagination . . . All important literature has some ethical end,” Kirk says, “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.”

It’s this that sets his stories apart from so many other ghost tales. Take for instance “There’s a Long, Long Trail a-Winding”, which is one of the scarier stories in the collection but whose ending left me with a deep sense of joy. And also “The Invasion of The Church of The Holy Ghost”, a story that explores possession and guardian angels.

This being said, these stories aren’t heavy handed and don’t read like they have an agenda. They just read like really good ghost stories that exist in a moral universe. Many of them are delightfully creepy, and I could literally feel the hair on my neck stand at attention as I’d read them right before bed! (Not that I have a hairy neck.) One of the things I appreciated most about this book is that I felt like I could trust Dr. Kirk to not take me where I didn’t want to go. Unlike many scary stories or films that combine nihilism with gore and horrific violence, Kirk’s universe is informed by a fully developed faith and he’s as interested in giving us a good scare as he is in raising the larger questions of morality and justice and the consequences when they’re ignored – in this life and the next.

The stories were addictive! I couldn’t wait to read the next one. In several of them, there are common recurring characters – like Manfred Arcane who is minister without portfolio of the Commonwealth Hamnegri and whose mystical stories take place in the middle east (who also shows up in another Kirk novel, A Creature Of The Twilight: His Memorials), and Frank Sarsfield, the kindly criminal who is given a chance for one last act of sacrificial heroism before he dies – but most of them are stand alone stories. If I were to compare them to anything, I would say they reminded me of G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown Mysteries” (another favorite of mine).

From the forward: “In the tradition of Defoe, Stevenson, Hawthorne, Coleridge, Poe, and other master writers, these frightful stories conjure the creaks and shadows of the very places where they came to life through Kirk’s pen: haunted St. Andrews, the Isle of Eigg, Kellie Castle, Balcarres House, Durie House (“which has the most persistent of all country-house specters”), and Kirk’s own ancestral spooky house in Mecosta, Michigan.”

The only let down of this book is that there will likely not be another of it’s kind. Dr. Kirk passed away in 1994 and there doesn’t seem to be a market for thoughtful ghost stories informed by Christian ideology. I enjoyed it so much that I grieved upon finishing it. But like the specters between it’s covers, I guess you could say that the book haunts me still. I will likely return to it throughout the years.

But if you’re still not persuaded by my recommendation, consider the other great authors who offer their endorsement on the back of the dust jacket. Madeleine L’Engle, T.S. Eliot, Robert Aikman, and Ray Bradbury who wrote: “For too many years Russell Kirk, almost like the title of this book, remained half seen in the American literary scene. It is time his critics and readers brought him out into the full light. He deserves to be considered a fine writer and an amazing thinker in literature and in politics.”


9 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Jason,

    My library in the studio has a shelf high up (fairly kid-proof) that’s crammed full of books on possession and exorcism, the occult, witchcraft, Tal Brooke’s Lord of the Air, Biblical Demonology by Unger, several books by Carlos Casteneda (very revealing when read from a Christian perspective) and many others. As a kid I loved ghost stories, and as a teen got into reading Stephen King, though I had to lay that down after awhile because he messed with my head too much. So, needless to say, your review got me all fired up to order Kirk’s book. Thanks for the solid information.
    Ron

  2. Tom

    Thanks for the review Jason! I think I can safely say that I would have never heard of Russell Kirk apart from this review so thank you- I will have to check this one out!

    Tom

  3. Joshua Keel

    Ron,

    What do you mean by saying that Stephen King messed with your head? I’m just curious. Most of the time I think I like my head being messed with, in the sense that I begin to see things from a different perspective and think harder about my reality. I’m not really familiar with King, so I’m interested to know why you mentioned this.

    By the way, I’m definitely checking this book out ASAP. I just got done listening to The Vampyre on the Classic Tales Podcast. I loved it.

    Josh

  4. John Pocsik

    I recall, way back in the 60s, picking up Kirk’s OLD HOUSE OF FEAR and THE SURLY SULLEN BELL – picking them up, marveling at the time how the writing seemed
    to capture the best of the Hammer Films ‘gothic revival’, and then dutifully filing them away, like any dutiful collector of the Weird and the Wonderful. Besides,
    being a third generation Lovecraft Circle writer (or so I envisioned myself to be), I had bigger entities to trap and fry.

    Now, at the end of my life, with sight going and time to reflect on an interesting
    life given over to the solitary passion of reading, I’ve spent this past summer
    immersed in Dr. Kirk’s fictions. Truly, a remarkable writer. I recall once, writing to to him regarding Manfred Arcane; but it wasn’t until this year that I actually sat down and made the acquaintance of this memorable white-bearded gent – at home slaughtering hundreds at the Fords of the Krokul or delving deep underground in the haunted Weem.

    And I totally agree with you that ANCESTRAL SHADOWS belongs on every
    weird fiction connoisseur’s bookshelf: there isn’t a weak story in it –
    and Kirk’s “Catholic” influence only makes each story more meaningful.

    I hope all of the writers you’ve mentioned will never fade from the public eye; certainly they will always be close to each of us who have savored their
    treasures. I’ve done my bit for William Hope Hodgson as “Simon Revelstroke”.
    And I appreciate your efforts to keep Dr. Kirk ‘above ground.’

  5. Carlos

    Thanks for the review Jason! I took knowledge of your blog via the Kirk Center.
    I`m reading this book right now. This is excellent like all Russell Kirk`book. I wish it was translated into Spanish as were other of his books to understand it better.

  6. John F. MacMichael

    For those who might enjoy more of Dr. Kirk’s excellent fiction, I would like to recommend his novels:

    “Old House of Fear” is a lovely Gothic story set on remote and haunted Scottish island.

    “A Creature of the Twilight” introduces that courtly, subtle and sinister gentleman Manfred Arcane. Set in the fictional African country of Hamnegri, Arcane gambles his life amid revolution and civil war.

    “Lord of the Hollow Dark” takes Manfred Arcane from Africa to an ancient Scottish house with a strange and bloody history. It is the most overtly fantastic of his novels and features a haunted labyrinth, a possessed man, several ghosts and a cast of diverse sinners, some searching for redemption and others eagerly in quest of their own damnation.

    I do not believe any of the above are currently in print but used copies are easily found thanks to the marvel of the Internet.

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