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There is a rare joy that comes from discovering a treasure of a book that you’re sure few have ever heard about. It’s like you’re in on a delicious little secret, and it makes a good book even better. It feels like it is increasingly difficult to find these rare gems, and once you do, you become a sort of evangelist, telling everyone who will listen: “You gotta read this!” That’s what happened to me when I discovered the fiction of Russell Kirk.
I first mentioned him here in the rabbit room on Halloween when I posted my review of his book of ghostly tales, Ancestral Shadows. A devout Christian man, Kirk was described by both Time and Newsweek as one of America’s leading thinkers and is widely regarded as the father of the modern conservative movement, having written many political essays and books that have helped to shape America, the best known among these being The Conservative Mind. Among other things, he is also the only American to hold the highest arts degree (earned) of the senior Scottish university—doctor of letters of St. Andrews. Well, if this all sounds boring to you, just wait.
You see, in his spare time Kirk would put his considerable powers of erudition to the task of writing ghostly tales and thrillers for his own enjoyment and as experiments in “recovering the moral imagination.” His work is similar to Tolkien, Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton in that there are deep convictions and a theology guiding his stories. These deep moorings both anchor his work and give it wings. I’m not one to usually read ghost tales, but with Kirk there is the assurance that he isn’t going to take you anyplace that will leave you feeling sullied or demonized. Make no mistake, his stories are delightfully chilling, but they play out in a very moral universe and testify to redemption, retribution, and hope.
After reading Ancestral Shadows, I was happy to discover Old House Of Fear – a novel that outsold all his other books combined. Old House Of Fear is a gothic romance that follows the adventure of Lawyer Hugh Logan who leaves Michigan on an errand for his Scots-born industrialist friend Duncan MacAskival to purchase from a Lady MacAskival the Island of Carnglass in the Hebrides off of Scotland and the Old House of Fear which is perched there. It’s not long before Logan encounters dangerous interference making it clear that there is more to this business in Carnglass than meets the eye.
With its heavy mists, unyielding cliff walls, and a deadly reef of “needles” surrounding it, the island is as forbidding as it is remote. After overcoming incredible odds to merely reach the island, the worst still lay ahead for Logan as he discovers that the island and Lady MacAskival are now under the control of a kind of Marxist warlock named Dr. Jackman – an extremist political refugee and evil genius with “a third eye” in the middle of his forehead, a scar from a war wound that ought to have taken his life. It’s soon clear that Jackman has dark plans for The Old House Of Fear and it’s inhabitants, including the captive young Mary MacAskival.
On one level, this is just a rousing thrill of a little book, but it’s also more than that if you care to dig deeper. “What Kirk has actually achieved is a political morality tale. For all the apparent ectoplasm floating about it, the Old House of Fear is haunted not by ghosts but by the shadow of the welfare state,” wrote Time in 1960. The good news is that the book never feels like it has an agenda and like the best of G.K. Chesterton’s novels is just an exciting tale well told.
If you’re in the mood for a thrilling mystery set on a misty Scottish Island in an imposing castle where bogles may roam the corridors, haunted eyes gleam in the dark, trap doors beneath the cellar give way to curiously deformed skeletons, and theatrical baddies hatch diabolical plans while an unlikely hero and heroine (did I fail to mention that this is in part a love story as well?) try to thwart their plot before perishing on the island, then Old House Of Fear is for you. It’s also a book that is as intelligent as it is entertaining, offering a “microcosm of modern existence” as it pits the philosophies of its chief characters against each other.
Oh yeah, and it’s just good clean fun, too. C’mon, give it a chance – and then let me know what you think of it!