His was no Enlightenment mind, Kirk now became aware; it was a Gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure.-Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination, 68
As J.R.R. Tolkien assisted many with his most informative essay, On Fairy Stories, Russell Kirk provides a short, but helpful primer into the genre of “ghost stories.” Now, of course, reading the essay, “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale,” the reader realizes that “ghost stories” are not merely about “ghosts” just as “fairy-tales” are not merely about “fairies.”
As with G.K. Chesterton’s assertion in his “Ethics of Elfland,” fairytales are inherently moral as they reflect a universe of moral order and consequences when good is dismissed and evil embraced. Russell Kirk writing of his own ghost stories says, “What I have attempted, rather, are experiments in the moral imagination. Readers will encounter elements of parable and fable…literary naturalism is not the only path to apprehension of reality. All important literature has some ethical end; and the tale of the preternatural…can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order.” The key here is the ethical end toward which great literature often aims, but has been rejected in our own moment.
Just as in the natural order there are laws that must be yielded to, in “ghost stories” there is a parallel principal within the supernatural order. These accompanying laws have equally real results when adhered to or when dismissed. Again Kirk, “The better uncanny stories are underlain by healthy concept of the character of evil. Defying nature, the necromancer conjures up what ought not to rise again this side of Judgment Day. But these dark powers do not rule the universe: by bell, book, and candle, symbolically at least, we can push them down under.”
For Kirk, the “ghost tale” may better communicate certain truths when compared to science fiction. “For symbol and allegory, the shadow–world is a better realm than the mechanized empire of science fiction.” It is so important to stress here, for the reader of this essay, that the realities these stories speak of are not merely symbol or allegory, as it is the case that a symbol (by he nature of being a symbol) points to or hints at a reality beyond itself. In other words, an allegory is parallel to something that is really real beyond itself. If this is not the case, then allegories and symbols merely refer to other symbols and allegories and the mirror maze becomes a prison.
Additionally, Russell Kirk gives further insight into another value of the “ghost tale” which is also true of liberal arts grounded in fine letters. “The story of the supernatural or mystical can disclose aspects of human conduct and human longing to which the positivistic psychologist has blinded himself.” The human heart longs for “transcendent perception” and “arcane truths about good and evil” that answers questions we have about the meaning and truth of things. Kirk adds, “as a literary form, then, the uncanny tale can be a means for expressing truths enchantingly.” Man are drawn to this literary genre as it affirms what most of us know, and that is the truth that our senses are not capable of apprehending all that was, is, or will be. While the ‘scientists’ or ‘materialists’ will not acknowledge it, ‘nature’ is something more than mere fleshly 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.”So the scientists, mechanists, or fundamentalist who resists these tales of transcendence, should more resist the ignorant order that loses touch of the ultimate reality to which these parables are set next to and offer a glimpse into. It is our narrow, shallow, and hollow view of reality that should be resisted by those of us drawn to the dark, scary, and mysterious stories that point us to what is.
Find Dr. Kirk’s books (including his ghost stories) in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.