For Russell Kirk ghost stories were not mere exercises in gore or terror without purpose. A gulag-and-gas-chamber-infested twentieth century provides demonic fright enough. With scary stories he sought to reawaken a sense of a greater reality, of a world that touches the physical, in an age smothered by materialism and the decay of traditional religion and to partake in a bit of eerie fun as well. As for ghosts, Kirk thought them very real and claimed ghostly folk lived right alongside his family at Piety Hill, his ancestral home in Mecosta, Michigan. “Have I ever seen a ghost?” the conservative philosopher and historian asked. “Why, I am one, and so are you – a geist, a spirit, in a mortal envelope.”
The traditional religious imagery – demons, heaven, purgatory – that animates his work is neither window dressing nor a useful convention around which to stretch a yarn. “I venture to suggest that the more orthodox is a writer’s theology,” he maintained, “the more convincing, as symbols and allegories, his uncanny tales will be.” The modern tale that “isolates itself from this authority drifts aimlessly down Styx.” The terror seems more real, after all, if damnation and salvation are real possibilities, if angels and demons inhabit God’s universe, not solely man’s imagination.
Kirk‘s short fiction revolves around the Christian pilgrimage, often filled with hardship and suffering, in this world and in the next. The path to salvation is not easy. “This world,” as Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann insisted, “through all its ‘media’ says: be happy, take it easy, follow the broad way. Christ in the Gospel says: choose the narrow way, fight and suffer, for this is the road to the only genuine happiness.”
As Kirk’s wayfarers discover, this Lenten road is hard, but the destination, an eternal Easter, will make the perseverance, suffering, and struggle worthwhile.
In “There’s a Long, Long Trail A Winding,” a wandering hobo, Frank Sarsfield, finds courage and grace along this path. The main character is based on an actual hobo, Clinton Wallace, who happened upon the Kirks. In the spirit of Christian charity, they took him in for six years as a hired man – who, incidentally, did little heavy work but liked to set the table and spent his pay on lottery tickets and gifts for small children – until he died and was laid to rest in the Kirk family plot. In fact, Frank the literary character shares a number of Clinton’s proclivities and beliefs. For instance, he scoffs at the notion that prisons can, as modern liberals claim, reform anyone; he abhors violence; he is fond of poetry and good at recalling lines of poetry from memory; and he spends his adult life alternating between prison for petty offenses, such as pilfering church poor boxes, and roaming the countryside. But before the reader merely substitutes Clinton wherever Frank appears in the ghostly tale, he would do well to heed Kirk‘s own words cautioning that “[a]ny resemblance of this book’s characters to actual persons, living or dead, is not coincidental. My lovely young wife may find herself here, or my stalwart old hired man – though translated by a sea change into something new and strange.”
Frank, in Kirk’s tale, is a wandering pilgrim who leads a troubled, guilt-ridden existence for leaving his mother and sister with his drunken and violent father when he was in his teens. He thinks himself without courage and probably damned. “There’s a long, long trail a-winding into the land of my dreams,” he likes to sing, and it has been a purgatorial trail. Perhaps, as an old priest who has taken a liking to him says, Frank may be working out his purgatory in this life, his hardships paying for what he has done in the past. Or, Father O’Malley also suggests, as part of his spiritual journey, Frank may have to gather his courage for one great, signal act of contrition.
In the story Frank stumbles upon the deserted town of Anthonyville. Taking shelter in the stately old Tamarack House, Frank thinks the town dried up after the new highway cut it off from the outside world. Everything seems vaguely familiar. In fact, he has stepped out of time into a world between the present and a past before he was even born, in which he played a decisive role. As the story unfolds, the reader learns that Anthonyville was home to the state prison and Tamarack House, the residence of the General, a former State Supervisor of Prisons and Reformatories, and his family. In the early morning hours of January 14, 1915, convicts escape from the prison and seek their revenge at the house, killing the General. As they are about to harm the General’s little girls, a hired man named Frank, a wanderer who has been in and out of jail, comes down the stairs and, angered that the savage brutes may hurt the children, kills all six of them, making quick work of them with an axe, but not before they shoot him. Frank Sarsfield takes shelter at the seemingly abandoned house January 12, two days before his birthday.
The two Franks are one and the same, and at the house Frank Sarsfield relives or lives for the first time this monumental moment on his journey to salvation. Soon the blood soaked scene fades away, and, to the sixty-year-old hobo, “it was like the recurrent dream which had tormented Frank when he was little: he separated from Mother in the dark, wandering solitary in empty lanes, no soul alive in the universe but little Frank.” As we shall see in another Kirk story, Frank’s Lenten trail is not at its glorious end, but God has given Frank a chance to let his goodness and his fondness of children blossom into a self-sacrificing love which allows three young girls and their mother to live and which propels his own soul closer to the lasting Easter vision.
For Kirk himself, purgatory was no idle speculation. Rather, it amounted to a cornerstone of his faith: “No doctrine is more comforting than the teaching of Purgatory…. For purgatorily, one may be granted opportunity to atone for having let some precious life run out like water from a neglected tap into sterile sands.” For the hobo Frank, purgatory seems to have been part of his earthly pilgrimage. Musing on his own soul’s future path, Kirk saw purgatory in the next world and he knew he would be judged for how he had performed in his appointed task defending, as T.S. Eliot called them, the Permanent Things of life on the “darkling plain against all comers and all odds.” Shortly after penning the autobiography that contains those thoughts, on April 29, 1994, Kirk‘s time on the darkling plain came to an end but not his own, as the faithful Catholic termed it, “tramp from corruption to incorruption.”
In Kirks fiction even the defenders of orthodox religion and the Permanent Things are not immune from dangers and suffering along the pilgrim’s path. For example, in “The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost,” the main character, Father Thomas Montrose, is an Anglo-Catholic priest who maintains the faith in the decaying and dangerous district of Hawkhill in an unnamed city and in the face of his liberal bishop who “spends his days comminating the president of the United States and ordaining lesbians.” Were he to depart his post, he is sure that the next visitor would be a bulldozer. Kirk also makes clear that Father Montrose is not merely holed up in his Romanesque church. In Hawkhill, “which Satan claims for his own,” he is engaged in a battle for souls, including those of “girls off Pentecost Road, fugitive from their pimps.” Much to the dismay of his bishop, who believes more in bad publicity than immortal souls, the celibate clergyman even lodges them occasionally behind the protective walls of the church. Merely maintaining and living the faith are not the only chores on his journey. He must do spiritual battle with demons who wish to possess him, tempting the chaste priest sexually with a beautiful and trusting young woman.
Similarly, in “Watchers at the Strait Gate,” an aging Roman Catholic priest, Father Justin O’Malley, holds out in the farthest reaches of the diocese, St. Enoch’s in Albatross, against the “New Breed types at the chancery.” The stone church he pastors “could have stood with little repair for another two or three centuries; but the New Breed meant to pull it down ‘to facilitate the new liturgy’ once Justin O’Malley was disposed of.” An admirer of John Henry Cardinal Newman, O’Malley notes ironically how “[i]n Newman’s spirit, very nearly, Vatican II had been conceived and convened; but that council had led, vulgarized, to much that Newman would have found anathema.” As we have seen in “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding,” Father O’Malley is a good pastor, providing the meandering Frank with hot meals and money, seeing in him something good that the world missed, and trying to get Frank to confess his sins so as to free him from guilt and save his soul. But now Father O’Malley is tired and wants “for little but to depart in peace.”
For this concerned priest and defender of the faith, his pilgrimage is not over, even though eternal life nears. His wandering acquaintance Frank arrives in the dark of night to help him over those last, rough steps. Frank confesses to the priest that he killed six men, the same men whose death is recorded in “There’s a Long, Long, Trail A-Winding.” Startled, the priest fears Frank has gone mad and turned into, as he once warned him, a berserker. What the priest does not know is that both Frank and he are no longer of this world; they have passed beyond and Frank is returning the priest’s favors by helping him on the last and possibly most dangerous part of their spiritual journey. “I came back here, or maybe was sent back here, to lend you a hand on your journey, Father Justin. I know the way to the little gate, so to speak, fool though I am. It’s fearsome, Father, groping that way when the Watchers are purring in the dark. But the two of us together ….” he tells the priest, who has yet to see his own lifeless body back at the rectory. Soon they begin to make their way through “what seemed a darkling plain,” on guard for the Watchers. Frank tells Father O’Malley: “Let’s have no gnashing of teeth now …. It’s the fainthearted that the Watchers catch.” The way is never easy for pilgrims.
To Kirk, elusive, dangerous Watchers and the strait gate are more than intriguing ideas. The story begins with lines from All’s Well That Ends Well (IV, V, 46- 51):
I am for the house with the narrow gate, which I take to be too little for pomp to enter. Some that humble themselves may, but the many will be too chill and tender, and they’ll be for the flow’ry way that leads to the broad gate and the great fire.
He concludes his autobiography, The Sword of Imagination, with the same lines. In the paragraph immediately preceding the extended quotation, he makes reference to the Watchers and hopes that, in imagination at least, he may be permitted to take the eighteenth-century Mogul sword that hangs above the chimney piece of his beloved Piety Hill so as to “repel certain Watchers – the old Egyptians dreaded them – at the Strait Gate. Quite conceivably imagination of the right sort may be so redemptive hereafter as here.” Hope is a virtue for Christians, and like old Father O’Malley and Frank, he hopes to be brave when he navigates the final leg of his spiritual trek.
Readers meet another sort of pilgrim, Mark Findlay, in “Saviourgate,” one who does not, when the story starts, even know that a spiritual journey is necessary. In fact, the fate of his immortal soul is far from Findlay’s mind: he is contemplating suicide. “I’ve been in oil rigs in Aberdeen for the past two years,” Findlay says, “and I’m not so young as I was, and my wife is in a bad way. Now I’m in deep trouble – not enough ready money, and the banks pressing me hard about over-drafts.” Findlay thinks he has failed his wife, and he hopes that a doctor may rule his suicide on some prescribed capsules an accidental overdose, thus securing the insurance money necessary to meet the debts and have some left for his wife. In this state of mind, while waiting for a train, he stumbles upon the Crosskeys Hotel on a cold Christmas Eve in Northminster.
He dimly remembers that he has been there before. As it turns out, all the people at the inn are dead, and the moment, December 24, 1939, is a happy and timeless one that they are reliving in what is Kirk’s vision of the Church Expectant. The souls in this state may live in any pleasant surrounding or experience any happy moment that they did during life. The souls here have only experienced perhaps a Provisional Judgment, as Canon Hoodman informs Findlay; the Last Judgment remains in the future. The people who have crossed over the Border, as they refer to it, however, have received salvation; their pilgrimage on Earth is done. Bain admits to Findlay that he does not deserve to be there. After the war, Bain started drinking. In life he amounted to nothing, but by dying he saved his soul. He gave his own life to save a young woman whom he loved: “That one decent impulse of mine is why I’m in the same room with the Canon. Because of that violent act for love – she’d never have taken me – everything else that I’d done was forgiven.” The important part of his lifelong pilgrimage of misery came at the very end. In an act of self-sacrificial love, he united himself with the sacrificial Christ of Good Friday, and now enjoys a perpetual Easter.
In the liturgical cycle the worshipper sees, in Father Schmemann’s words, “far, far away – the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom.” The men Findlay encounters at the Crosskeys are enjoying the Kingdom, and they share it with him. He thinks their stories little more than yarns to soothe a cold night, but he is tired and accepts their invitation to stay. He awakes the next morning invigorated and not alarmed that he must have missed the train: “To sleep in that old bed for eternity! That prospect was far more attractive than were those capsules waiting at the station.” No longer does he contemplate suicide; a feeling of hope makes a welcome passenger accompanying his hosts’ charade of the previous night.
Refreshed, Findlay leaves the Crosskeys and hails a cab. He looks behind: Bain is no longer there. Neither is the Crosskeys. The street is in ruins, and the cab driver tells him it has been that way since the war. The Christian nature of the story is further underlined when he asks the name of the street. “Saviourgate, sir.” God, in Kirk’s story, has allowed him to peep through the strait and narrow gate. Having been granted this Easter vision, Findlay will continue his own journey. With his sick wife and financial problems, his pilgrimage, like the pilgrimages of Father Montrose and Father O’Malley and Frank, may not be easy, even starkly Lenten at times, but he knows the final destination.
Books on or by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays on or by Dr. Kirk may be found here. Originally appeared in Modern Age (Summer 1998) and is published here by permission.
1. Prologue to The Princess of All Lands (Sauk City, Wis.,1979), viii.
2. “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale,“ in Kirk’s The Surly Sullen Bell: Ten Stories and Sketches, Uncanny or Uncomfortable, with a Note on the Ghostly Tale (New York, 1962), 238-39.
3. Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (Crestwood, N.Y., 1996), 14.
4. Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1995), 351-52.
5. Kirk, Prologue to The Princess of All Lands, viii.
6. “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding,” in The Princess of All Lands, 188.
7. Ibid., 218.
8. The Sword of Imagination, 475.
10. Watchers at the Strait Gate, 4.
12. Ibid., 235-36.
13. Ibid., 237.
15. Ibid., 254.
16. Ibid., 256.
17. Ibid., 235.
18. The Sword of Imagination, 476.
19. The Princess of All Lands, 225.
20. Ibid., 235.
21. Schmemann, 15.
22. The Princess of All Lands, 236.
23. Ibid., 238.