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russell kirk

As Russell Kirk recounted in “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale,” all ghost tales must have “some clear premise about the character of human existence–some theological premise” according to Gerald Head (402). Kirk certainly took this to heart when writing his numerous ghostly tales over some thirty-year period. Taken as a whole, the stories show a progression over time, made by Kirk, with regard to the subject matter and themes. Following a natural progression likely based on Kirk’s own life, the stories increasingly focused on salvation, grace, and heaven, and other religious ideas, perhaps coinciding with Kirk’s maturation in his faith. Two early stories, though, revolved around a subject that Kirk built his entire career and reputation on: politics.

Less directly concerned with theological themes and motives, Kirk made social commentary the prominent theme in “Ex Tenebris” and “Behind the Stumps,” the first two stories of editor Vigen Guroian’s Ancestral Shadows, an anthology of Kirk’s short stories (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004). That is not to say, however, that theology lay dormant in those early endeavors into fiction. Rather, it merely simmered in the background, while the issue of government intervention, social planning, and concern with the quantifiable occupied the foreground. Indeed, in “Ex Tenebris” (Latin for “out of darkness”) the reader meets S.G.W. Barner, a government planning officer, who desired to leave “not one stone…upon another at Low Wentford” (5). To accomplish this end, Mr. Barner needed to evict the “ancient” Mrs. Oliver, the only living soul in the war-destroyed neighborhood, and destroy her cottage. From the outset, Kirk opposes the character of Mr. Barner (representing those that want detailed community planning) with that of Mrs. Oliver (representing those that want to cherish the past and be left alone), juxtaposing for his audience the tension of the progressives and conservatives. Mr. Barner sees little use for what is old: “Ruins are reminiscent of the past; and the Past is a dead hand impeding progressive planning” (5). Mrs. Oliver is weak, potentially crazy, and unable to hold out against Mr. Barner much longer. To rectify this and to bring the story into his style, Kirk introduces a ghostly, shadowy figure to Mrs. Oliver, Vicar Hargreaves, who is of questionable substance and occupation (Hargreaves claims to be the vicar at the church that is partially remaining in Low Wentford). Kirk uses this apparition as the protagonist who comforts Mrs. Oliver and eliminates the pest of Mr. Barner. The “moral imagination” Kirk seeks to cultivate is respect for the past and a disdain for progressive plans that impersonally impose a grand design on others without accounting for tradition, or, for that matter, what is best for those it is forced upon. He uses the other wordly for positive purposes in this world, namely, to combat evil. Mrs. Oliver, despite her peculiarities, triumphs in the end.

Despite beginning “Behind the Stumps” with a reference to the biblical story of Samson and Delilah in Judges 16, Kirk once again continues to focus primarily on the political motivations of the characters. Cribben, a Special Interviewer for the Regional Office of the Special Census, travels to Pottawattomie County to make sure the census is accurate and all persons are numbered. One rather scathing sentence sums up the character of Cribbens: “For Cribbens was a man quite devoid of imagination” (21). For Kirk, this is one of the worst things to plague a person. Unwilling to let go of some things of the details, the minutia of his job and see a larger view, Cribbens’ pedantic personality ultimately leads to his demise. He bothers only with what is involved with his job, nothing more, nothing less. This odd drive leads Cribbens to a harrowing farm far outside the town limits to a place owned owned by the Gholsons, Barren Mill. Cutting to the end, Cribbens has a heart attack in the old farmhouse after seeing the shadow of former resident. Kirk wants to teach that what is quantifiable should not be the sole preoccupation of someone. He successfully accomplished this through references and imagery, such as the farm’s name Barren Mill, and shows not only the benefit of enjoying life, but of being weary of those places that strongly protest visitors.

Looking beyond the commentary on the stories themselves, I was intrigued to read in the “Cautionary Note” that Kirk did not write the stories for children. In my own haste, I misinterpreted this statement to mean “not intended for children,” at which I was taken aback. I viewed these stories as excellent timeless moral lessons for children and adults alike. To be certain, not all of the stories or elements are suitable for children, but it would be useful to read to maturing young adults. After reflection on this sentence, I realized my mistake in interpretation: Kirk intended the stories to reach an adult audience, while not explicitly excluding children from being exposed to them. This reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ note “To Lucy Barfield” at the beginning of the Chronicles of Narnia where he says he hopes she will pick up fairy tales again as an adult. Writing under slightly different circumstances, Kirk and Lewis still seek to reach an audience that the general public may not think to be the true intention.

Additionally in the “Cautionary Note,” Kirk remarked “the betty uncanny stories are underlain by a healthy concept of the character of evil” (403). This immediately recalled T.S. Eliot’s words from After Strange Gods that “the perception of Good and Evil… is the first requisite of spiritual life” (53). While Kirk’s stories do focus heavily on the evil in the world, Kirk puts evil in its correct light: as the absence of good. Kirk allows the idea of goodness to appear (the character of Mrs. Oliver, in particular), while still examining the evil that does persist. This orthodox, to use Eliot’s word, understanding allows Kirk’s stories to have success both as literature and as moral lessons.

*****

Addenda:

On a completely personal note, I want to comment on my initial reactions to Kirk’s ghost stories. Prior to Ancestral Shadows, I had not read any serious ghost stories as far as I can remember. I dove into the first story with an open mind, not knowing what to expect from a man whose non-fiction work I admired and respected. After my eyes excitedly read the final few words of the first story, I paused and attempted to digest what I just read. The hair on the back of my neck slowly returned to their normal limp state after experiencing the great hair-raising twist at the end of the story. Quite frankly I was surprised, but immediately taken by Kirk’s ability to make a point clearly and in the medium such as he did, while still allowing ambiguity for the reader to have their own interpretation as to the ultimate end of the characters. Little did I know I was going to be further impressed by rest of his stories.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Thanks to Mr Meragaglia for this post. Burke explains some of the stagecraft of ambiguity in his "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful" (1756). Next, luxuriate in Saint Russell's own favourite ghost-story writer, M.R. James: he would still make my hair stand on end if I had any left.

  2. Nice post Alex! It was an informative and contemplative read! You have reminded me of the broad mindedness of Kirk. As I am in D.C., I treasure people and ideas that affect politics while still recognizing the higher things. Not only does Kirk's work constantly point to the divine and to the earthly reality–often manifest in politics–but he does so with imagination, entertainment, and the myth. This is what makes him so extradordinary, so thank you for taking the time to remind us of his fiction!

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