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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.”