Review of Russell Kirk, Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales, ed. by Vigen Guroian
In the early 1970s, Barbara Elliott, now an acclaimed Catholic lecturer and writer (Candles Behind the Wall; Street Saints), encountered the Other World in the ancestral home of Dr. Russell Kirk. In the middle of the night, a figure whispered to her: “Amos, Amos.” Frightened, though not out of her wits, Elliott spoke with Dr. Kirk the following morning at breakfast. “Oh yes,” the venerable author reassured her, “that’s just my Uncle Amos.” He pointed to the portrait hanging on the wall in the dining room. Clearly, Uncle Amos, long dead, still visited his nephew and his nephew’s guests from time to time, particularly in the bedroom room where he had died. Kirk and others confirmed Elliott’s story, having similar encounters of their own. Indeed, Mecosta, Michigan, the home of the Kirks, seems to be a place where a very thin veil separates this world from the next. Everywhere, Kirk wrote, the dead are more alive than we are. Kirk also liked to quote T.S. Eliot: “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” We know the most important things of life—salvation, love, hope—with a sense beyond our five physical senses.
Best known for being one of the founders of the post-World War II conservative intellectual movement with his incomparable The Conservative Mind (1953), Kirk, who died in 1994, should also be remembered as one of the foremost short story writers and fantasists of the twentieth century. Eerdman’s new collection, Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales—expertly edited and introduced by Vigen Guroian, with a stunning cover by Sam Torode—brings together nineteen of Dr. Kirk’s short stories, written between 1950 and the author’s death in 1994. Each of the stories is an edifying joy. Though possessing its own singular character, Kirk’s writing resembles that of Flannery O’Connor, Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien. And, perhaps most surprising, considering that Kirk is known more for his cultural criticism than his fiction, Kirk often exceeds the style of those he resembles. Further, classical and medieval references abound throughout his short stories, underscoring Kirk’s expectation of an educated reading audience.
Like his British counterparts, the Inklings, Kirk also challenged the reigning ideologies of the twentieth century not with a counter ideology, but with the moral imagination and the negation of all ideologies. “Yet as the rising generation regains the awareness that ‘nature’ is something more than merely fleshing sensation, and that something may lie above human nature, and something below it—why, the divine and the diabolical rise up again in serious literature,” he wrote. “In this renewal of imagination, fiction of the preternatural and the occult may have a part. Tenebrae are woven into human nature, despite all that meliorists declare.”
Understanding himself to exist as a part of a continuity of writers as well as a part of the communion of saints, Kirk pays great homage in words and ideas to three figures in particular: St. Augustine, Dante, and T.S. Eliot. Indeed, his stories reveal the understanding of Grace and Will found in the writings of St. Augustine. “Within limits, in life the will is free, if only to choose among evils,” states Kirk’s fictional character, Eddie Cain, a redeemed sinner working out his purgation in “Lex Talionis.” Kirk also lovingly employs in his stories the moral imagination—or what Plato called a “divine madness,” the mind beside itself—and the structure of heaven, purgatory, and hell as explored in Dante. And, Kirk gleefully toys with Eliot’s intersections of time and eternity. “We’re not dead, none of us. We’ve come fully alive. And we’re not locked up here; it just that we’ve chosen, or fallen into, this one timeless moment. It’s a good particular timeless moment, isn’t it,” asks Ralph Bain in “Saviourgate,” re-experiencing one of the better conversations of his life, surrounded by interesting companions, good drink, and fine cigars in 1939. His friend, Canon Hoodman, explains the other side of it: “The damned, as I understand it, have no past and no future; no memories, no expectations.” The evil exists only in themselves, trapped in their own subjective miseries.
Kirk explores other themes as well. While each story deals with a theological truth, many of them also deal with the devastation of modernity, especially its conformist bureaucracy and lifeless secularism. Those who would increase the uniformity of life come off rather poorly in Kirk’s stories, and usually come to bad ends. Kirk also reveals the heinous results of their calculations and machinations. As Frank Sarsfield in “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding,” passes through the ruins of a once prosperous town—with a “skeletal church,” a wrecked town hall, and “those scanty foundations” which may have supported a school—the character reads a faded sign: “Remember Your Future/Back the Townsend Plan.” In another story, Kirk describes a St. Louis neighborhood, “Right out to the suburbs of the thirties, within three decades, the city had rotted; it had been as if some diabolic impulse of destruction had conquered everyone and everything.”
Yet, these thoughts too square with Kirk’s theology. How is the individual human person able to become the singular creation—placed in a certain time and a certain place—to cultivate his gifts, overcome his vices, and practice his virtues if a colorless, abstract bureaucracy attempts to overtax, regulate, and plan his life for him? As Kirk wrote in 1963 in an autobiographical essay, “Mine was not an Enlightened mind, I now was aware: it was a Gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure. I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful.” Further, he continued, “the men of the Enlightenment had cold hearts and smug heads; now their successors were in the process of imposing a dreary conformity upon the world.” And, after all, what is Kirk’s The Conservative Mind if not an examination of timeless truths as recorded by Kirk’s moral exemplars from Edmund Burke to T.S. Eliot, each in his own particular time, but touched by the universals of eternity. Indeed, what Gerard Pierce, the protagonist of the final short story, “An Encounter by Mortstone Pond,” says regarding his parents and himself, could apply to all of Kirk’s works, fiction or otherwise. “The pain will end, boy, or nearly end. This too shall pass. You will grow to be a man. They will love you always, being made for eternity.”