16 May 2009
Ghost Stories by Russell Kirk
Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales by Russell Kirk
The final piece in this anthology is an essay by Kirk, “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale.” He writes that his tales are “experiments in the moral imagination,” which will include “elements of parable and fable.” “The good ghost story,” he says, “must have for its kernel some clear premise about the character of human existence – some theological premise, if you will.” He reminds us that “all important literature has some ethical end; and the tale of the preternatural [. . .] can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order.”
One reason this is so is because the best of such stories “are underlain by a healthy concept of the character of evil” – but also by the knowledge that evil powers “do not rule the universe; by bell, book, and candle, symbolically at least, we can push them down under.” He is clear that he believes in the supernatural, that he refuses merely material, scientific explanations (or hallucination) for the glimpses of it that people sometimes have, and he also tells us that these glimpses must be fleshed out, by the imagination, to create a good tale.
The ghostly tale can be “a means for expressing truth enchantingly,” he writes, but not at the expense of exercising “didactic moralism” nor by losing real fear of real evil – the “shapes and voices half-glimpsed and half-heard are [not] symbols merely.” He takes note of the materialistic nature of his culture (born in 1918, he lived through most of the 20th century), and remarks on his hope that “as the rising generation regains the awareness that ‘nature’ is something more than more fleshly sensation, and that something may lie above human nature, and something below it – why, the divine and the diabolical [may] rise up again in serious literature.”
The tales are fascinating and well-told. Occasionally a character from one story reappears in another, and – while each story is complete in itself – it is helpful to know the earlier tale, so I recommend reading them in order. It’s hard to reveal much about them, as the element of mystery and suspense is necessary for full enjoyment. There are tales of retribution and of beneficent help from beyond the grave, of possession and attempted possession, of heroics in the face of monstrous supernatural evil, of pride and humility, set around the world in city and country, musty old mansions and ancient cathedrals.
Kirk’s tales remind me often of Charles Williams’ novels (and Kirk was familiar with these). I don’t find the stories didactic; they are simply fascinating tales, well-told. Of course, I share Kirk’s Christian worldview, which allows for the actual existence of clearly distinct good and evil – and for good to have ultimate power over evil. His narrative style is easy to read, self-effacing – his skillful craftsmanship ensures that the reader’s attention is given to the story itself. Each story shows evil as evil, and unashamedly shows us good ascendant over it. Characters have choices, and, much as in Williams’ work, the choices lead them toward heaven or hell. Choices are sometimes offered in that murky world between living and dying, past and present, too; the shadowland where time is no longer in play.
“I present [these tales] to you unabashed,” Kirk writes. “They may impart some arcane truths about good and evil: as Chesterton put it, all life is an allegory, and we can understand it only in parable.” Certainly he has succeeded in his goal, perhaps beyond his expectations, and I shall read these stories many times, gladly obeying his final injunction: “Pray for us scribbling sinners now and at the hour of our death.” God rest us all in His eternal goodness.
Russell Kirk is an icon of the conservative movement, right up there with William F. Buckley, and has written on politics, culture, and economics (he even wrote an economics text for high school which my son greatly benefited from).