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Piety Hill

Piety Hill

The curtain between the world of the living and of the dead was for Russell Kirk truly thin, as evidenced in his scholarly work and in his fiction. This essay deals specifically with the role of sacramental and anti-sacramental soil as found in Mecosta, Michigan, and its environs–at least as Russell Kirk understood this and imagined it.

“Some mediums are charlatans, but others possess genuine, if inexplicable and dangerous power,” Kirk argued in 1967. “I advise no one to meddle with the next world who is not very strong of mind and heart,” he continued.[1] As late as 1973, though, Kirk continued to read the Tarot cards for guests, and he maintained his love of Halloween—“an annual occasion of dreadful joy at my house”—to the end of his life.[2] “Kirk was old hand at telling fortunes by the Tarot, long before the art was taken up by hippies,” he wrote of himself in a publicity brochure.[3] “My fortunes invariably are melancholy, and as invariably come to pass,” he believed.[4] From his earliest memories as a child, Kirk believed in ghosts.[5] Having been raised among deracinated Puritans, Spiritualists, and Swedenborgians, he witnessed “that uncanny business,” of auto writing, the levitations of great-grandmothers, rocking chairs, playing musical instruments, and tables, visitations from the dead (sometimes in spectral form), and seances as a normal part of his upbringing.[6] “Henry James was a man with Swedenborgian forebears who didn’t believe in ghosts; I am one with Swedenborgian forebears who DOES believe in ghosts,” Kirk wrote in a private letter to philosopher Eric Voegelin. “Everybody who stays here in my ancestral house of Piety Hill becomes a more fervent believer than even I am,” he continued.[7] According to Kirk, the ghostly phenomena only increased with the passing of years, until 1975, when the house burned. Consumed by fire, all of the ghosts departed Piety Hill.[8]

For the most part, he lamented, ghosts simply are restless spirits that have not enjoyed the sleep of the just prior to God’s final judgment. Exorcism helps the living as much as it frees the dead.[9] Rather than fear them, Kirk claimed, the living should pity them, enabling them to break free of the bonds of this world whenever and wherever possible. “I have no desire for my dear ones to walk the night,” he wrote in 1967. “Let them sleep sound, until the Last Trump.”[10]

Having grown up with the otherworldly phenomena, Kirk delved deeply into and read extensively in the serious literature about the supernatural and the occult.[11] He also investigated a number of claims in the U.S. and in Europe, and he even contributed to at least one serious work of the occult, Brad Steiger’s 1969, Stranger Powers of ESP. Though he received no authorial credit on the cover of the book, Kirk wrote chapter 2, “A Note on Ghostly Phenomena in Russell Kirk’s Old House at Mecosta, Michigan.”[12] A belief in the supernatural, he held, served as a marker for our understanding of faith. In an age of faith, the human person took the supernatural as natural. One saw unusual things, and saints radiated, as represented in the “halo” of art. In an age of scientism, the person and the culture dismissed the supernatural event as ridiculous and religion as a whole as superstitious.[13] But, as Kirk put it rather humorously, the haunting and haunted spirits of the world, in turn, “simply ignore rationalists.”[14] Regardless, he argued, a mass of anecdotal evidences has sprung forth from almost every era and every culture and religion in human history of the appearance of ghosts, revenants, and poltergeists.[15] To ignore all of this, he argued, served as pure obstinacy. “Have I ever seen a ghost? Why, I am one, and so are you—a geist, a spirit, in a mortal envelope,” he wrote in 1979.[16]

Kirk’s belief went well beyond this clever statement, however. As a child, he encountered two ghostly figures, staring at him from the outside in a blizzard. The taller one, wearing a beard, was Dr. Cady. The shorter, wearing a turban, was Patti. Kirk’s Aunt Fay had encountered the same figures as a little girl, and Kirk’s daughter, Monica, encountered them as a child as well.[17] Dr. Cady appeared as a real figure, doctor of the paranormal, and husband of Yolande in Kirk’s short story, “The Princess of All Lands.” As a graduate student in Scotland, he saw fairies, goblins, and several ghosts. He was especially taken with one simply known as Captain Gair.

6097004_300x300As Kirk believed it, his ancestors haunted Piety Hill until the great fire destroyed it all on Ash Wednesday, 1975.[18] Kirk loved noting when a ghost appeared, especially in his conversations and personal correspondence. In one typical letter, dated August 5, 1972, he wrote: “The ghosts have been obliging visitors in recent months. The Crying Baby has been heard again, most distinctly.” And, he continued, an English visitor encountered the “Man in the Checked Coat and High Collar.” Kirk assumed it was his great-uncle, Raymond, who had died because a crazy person had beat his head in with a hammer. Interestingly enough, the recipient of this letter was long-time friend, Ray Bradbury.[19] When Piety Hill burned to the ground in 1975, many witnesses claimed ghostly apparitions departed the structure through the burning windows. Pictures of the event do indeed reveal strange shapes and faces—many of which vaguely resemble Kirk’s long-dead relatives—fleeing.[20]

Logically, if initially counter-intuitively, Kirk’s writing of ghost stories makes sense with his own understanding of conservatism as a protection, cultivation, and advancement of timeless truths. Just as Kirk believed human existence to form a continuity from Adam to the last man—through the Logos—so too did a continuity exist from the lowest being to the perfection of the Holy Trinity in the great chain of being. A ghost, as Kirk understood it, was a soul trapped between physical and eternal existence. More often than not, they deserve our pity or appreciation rather than our anger or disgust or fear. As to those who haunted his house, Kirk felt only wonder and admiration. Somehow, they connected him to time, family, hearth, and home. They haunted him.

The continuity of family, building, and even furniture in my Mecosta house presumably favors the faithful survival of traces of a vanished consciousness, and reminds one of Santayana’s theory that emotion may imbed itself in matter, to be detached long after by another consciousness under peculiar conditions of receptivity. I have no desire to exorcise. If shades tolerate me, I tolerate them.[21]

It’s also worth remembering the obvious—that a haunting comes from beyond time, but somehow mysteriously tying the present to the past. A Catholic shrine, a place of pilgrimage, is as haunted as is a house that experienced a brutal murder.

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Stephen King

Kirk and Stephen King share a great deal in common, especially in a desire to entertain by openly professing a belief in something much larger than observable and quantifiable reality.[22] Certainly, King is fundamentally more sensationalist and willing to employ gratuitous language and noxiously graphic sex scenes in a way Kirk would never have even considered or entertained. Kirk, instead, allows one to realize what is happening in the background without the need to be explicit. “She cursed Yolande foully and at length,” Kirk described in his short story, “The Princess of All Lands.”[23] The reader knows that such R-rated events occur, but she or he does not need the author’s imagery to make it so blatant. One can only contemplate what King might do with such a scene. Instead of a seven word sentence which tells the reader all he or she needs to know, King would write a page or two, describing every minute aspect of the conversation with the foulest language possible made explicit. The important exception in King’s writing is his profound, meaningful, and terrifying second novel, Salem’s Lot. The story of Stoker’s Dracula, set in Maine in 1975 and 1976, King ably explores the nature of sin and heroism, leaving behind the overuse of the foul and unremittingly dark and employing perhaps the best style of his long career. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kirk and King also shared the same literary agent, Kirby McCauley.[24] Equally unsurprisingly, King considered Kirk’s edited collection of his short stories, Princess of All Lands, one of the finest 100 books of our era.[25]

Still, there are a number of similarities between the two writers. While King possesses a darker imagination and a distaste for all organized religion, what he once called “Dark Christianity,” the difference between the two authors is a matter of degree. As Jim Person points out, Kirk’s memoir of the horrors of Mecosta County, “Lost Lake”—fictionalized in his “Off the Sand Road”—offers a reality of evil far beyond anything King ever conceived. In “Lost Lake,” for example, Kirk tells the story of several children playing a game with the body of a dead baby.[26]

Some months later, the Van Tassell children invited some classmates home to play with their new doll. This was in the dead of winter. When the guests arrived, they did indeed find the Van Tassel children sliding downhill on a sled with a new doll. But that new doll was a human baby, the youngest Van Tassel, dead and frozen stiff. The baby had died the previous week, and had been put into the woodshed for burial when the frost was out of the ground; the other children had asked if they might have the corpse for a doll, and Mrs. Van Tassel had given it to them.[27]

Russell Kirk  - Version 3The two authors even appeared together in several collections, and in their non-fiction, the two possess a remarkably similar writing style.[28] They also each possess a love for the wonder of children, a distrust of authorities as well as materialism, a skepticism about the latent cultural Calvinism of New England, a distaste for urban renewal, and a desire to explore questions of free will and predestination. Perhaps most strikingly in hindsight, each could be considered a regional writer. Whereas Kirk explored central Michigan, King’s best works consider the quirks of western Maine. King’s fictional Maine towns of Castle Rock, Jerusalem’s Lot, and Derry seem barely to cover the abyss, allowing the most evil of things to enter into this world, generation after generation. Kirk offers a similar idea in his own Michigan fiction, calling Mecosta County “Potawattomie County” and Mecosta village “Bear City.” In an important non-fiction essay, though often included in Kirk’s fiction, “Lost Lake,” the Michiganian described the power of place and the lingering evil it might contain. Around Lost Lake, in particular though in Mecosta County in general, “the genius loci is malevolent,” he argued. Barely evolved past tundra, “the land is blown-sand with a precarious inch or two of humus deposited upon it.” But, Lost Lake was even more so than Mecosta County. Even the local wildlife has enough sense to ignore the area of Lost Lake, he continued. The weather operated strangely there as well, he claimed. “A fatality clings to some places,” he continued, “not merely to historic houses and battlefields, but to obscure corners recorded only in the short and simple annals of the poor.”[29] Kirk makes a similar point about the area west of St. Andrew’s, Scotland. Perhaps in the way that saints and martyrs make a ground holy, allowing it to reflect the Edenic elements of pre-fallen creation and the light of the Logos, certain areas cannot escape the dreadful effects of the fall. King and Kirk are not alone among American authors to make such a claim. Willa Cather’s very disturbing chapter, “Snake Root,” in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), offers the antediluvian voices of the damned who had for centuries received the offerings of living babies.[30] One can also find similar arguments made explicitly and sometimes merely lingering latently in the works Nathaniel Hawthorne (New England) and Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy (both in the American South). Each of these authors employs the idea of an anti-sacramental land, a nexus between living and the abyss. Or, as one of Stephen King’s most interesting characters put it in his profound and profoundly disturbing novel, It, “It’s because of that soil,” a father in the story states. “It seems that bad things, hurtful things, do right well in the soil of this town. I’ve thought so again and again over the years. I don’t know why it should be . . . but it is.”[31] It would be difficult to find a passage in modern horror that more closely resembles Kirk’s thoughts on Lost Lake.

In large, however, Kirk’s own statement about why he wrote such stories seems correct. “Why did I write these sepulchral fantasies,” he asked. “Why, partly to remind you and myself that we are spirits in prison; and mainly in the hope of discomforting an old man on a winter’s night, or a girl in the bloom of her youth.”[32] Any work dealing with Kirk that compartmentalizes or dismisses Kirk’s storytelling side would not to justice to the man who wrote The Conservative Mind. Each aspect is a fundamental aspect of the man. They are aspects not in tension with one another, but in harmony.

This essay is based on a talk prepared for the Midwestern History Association. Books by Bradley Birzer or on or by Russell Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Birzer explores this topic fully in chapter eight of his forthcoming book, Russell Kirk: American Conservative (on shelves, November 5, 2015). It can be pre-ordered here.


[1] RAK, “Bishop has Perfect Faith in the Séance,” The Progress-Index (October 13, 1967), 6; RAK, “Sounds in the Night Can’t Be Explained,” To the Point Column, Ada Evening News (August 7, 1973), 4; RAK, “The Devil in American Flesh,” To the Point column, Ada Evening News (June 12, 1974), 4.

[2] RAK, “Next: Doctors of Necromancy?” Danville (VA) Register (October 30, 1971), 4; RAK, “Confessions of a Fortuneteller,” To the Point column, Ada Evening News (August 8, 1972), 4; and RAK, “Cult of the Occult,” To the Point column, Ada Evening News (April 25, 1972), 4.   He did, however, eventually give up tarot reading, believing it a little too dark and unhealthy. He never lost his love for Halloween, however. He gloried in dressing as “The Great Pumpkin,” wearing his orange DLitt robes from St. Andrew’s, and answering the door for expectant children. See AYCK, “Life with Russell Kirk,” speech given at the Heritage Foundation, November 17, 1995, and published in The Heritage Lectures #547. RAK offered his best explanation of his love of Halloween and its pagan and Christian traditions in 1986. See RAK, “Halloween’s Horrors: All Too Human in the USA,” New York Newsday (October 31, 1986), 87.

[3] RAK, “Sidelights: Supplementary Material,” ca. 1971 or 1972, in RKCCR. He made a similar comment in RAK, “Things That Go Bump in the Night,” National Review 26 (May 10, 1974), 538.

[4] RAK, “All Hallows Eve,” TTP, Ada Evening News (October 31, 1966), 4.

[5] RAK, “A Man of Reason and Faith,” Sunday Visitor (January 23, 1977): 1, 10.

[6] RAK, “Bishop has Perfect Faith in the Seance,” The Progress-Index (October 13, 1967), 6; RAK, “Lost Lake,” Southwest Review 42 (1957): 320; and Sword of Imagination, 15-23.

[7] RAK to Eric Voegelin, July 19, 1971, in RKCCR.

[8] RAK, Sword, 22.

[9] RAK, “Bishop has Perfect Faith in the Séance,” The Progress-Index (October 13, 1967), 6.

[10] RAK, “Voices from Beyond,” Ada Evening News (October 13, 1967), 4.

[11] RAK, “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale,” The Critic (April-May 1962): 17. The same essay is reprinted as the conclusion to RAK, Surly Sullen Bell (Fleet, 1962), 231-240. RAK employed the same title for the introduction to his 1984 collection, Watchers at the Strait Gate (Arkham House, 1984), ix-xiv. By 1984, however, RAK had radically altered this piece. While the themes remain similar, the examples used to illustrate his points are quite different. Vigen Guroian’s edited collection, RAK, Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales (Eerdmans, 2004), 402-406, reprints the 1984 version. Also important is RAK, “Prologue,” to The Princess of All Lands (Arkham House, 1979), vii-viii; as well as his “The Canon of the Ghostly Tales,” introduction to Canon Basil A. Smith, The Scallion Stone (Chapel Hill, NC: Whispers Press, 1980), xi-xv.

[12] RAK, “A Note on Ghostly Phenomena in Russell Kirk’s Old House at Mecosta, Michigan,” in Brad Steiger, Strange Power of ESP (New York: Belmont Books, 1969), 20-27. A note on page 20 reads: “This chapter was written for this book by Russell Kirk.” I am indebted to Mr. Steiger for sharing his views on RAK via correspondence. RAK even started to explore the veracity of UFO sightings in the 1960s. See RAK, “The Unexpected Visitors,” To the Point column, Ada Evening News (April 5, 1966), 4.

[13] RAK, “A Cautionary Note,” 17. See also, RAK’s 1954 book, St. Andrews, discussed previously in this work. It should be noted, RAK especially disliked the literary genre of science-fiction, seeing it, in general, as banal and meaningless,” a superficial mirroring of the works of H.G. Wells. This is surprising, given how thoughtful writers such as Walter Miller, James Blish, or Kingsley Amis could be, and how much in line they would be with RAK’s own understanding of the world. The best science fiction, to RAK’s mind, was that of Ray Bradbury and C.S. Lewis, the kind that is far more fantasy set in space, rather than what might be termed hard science fiction. These are, essentially, what literary critic and biographer Joseph Pearce would call “theological thrillers.”

[14] RAK, “Racketing Spirits,” Ada Evening News (February 13, 1966), 4.

[15] RAK, “A Cautionary Note,” 18.

[16] RAK, “Prologue,” to The Princess of All Lands, viii.

[17] RAK, “Invisible Playmates,” TTP, Ada Evening News (October 15, 1969), 4.

[18] RAK remained skeptical that all of the ghosts had fled on Ash Wednesday, 1975. A decade later, in a newspaper interview with Steve Masty, RAK admitted, “At night there are still noises.” See Steve Masty, “Ghost Stories: Russell Kirk Keeps Spirited Company,” Washington Times (October 31, 1985), B3.

[19] RAK to Ray Bradbury, August 5, 1972, in RKCCR.

[20] Masty, “Ghost Stories: Russell Kirk Keeps Spirited Company,” B3.

[21] RAK, “A Note on Ghostly Phenomena,” 27. RAK also believed the High Street, the street upon which sat his Pittenweem, Scotland, house in the 1960s and 1970s, to be haunted. Supposedly, a hanged gypsy from 1888 still prowled the area. See RAK, “Own a Haunted House,” TTP, Ada Evening News (September 4, 1966), 4. When traveling, RAK often sought out the ghostly. In 1967, for example, he visited the Thomas Whaley house in San Diego. “This venerable residence (which has a courtroom in its wings) positively overflows with ghosts.” RAK, “Haunted California,” TTP, Ada Evening News (March 10, 1967), 3.

[22] On King’s belief in God and “intelligent design” see his interview with NPR entitled, “Stephen King On Growing Up, Believing In God And Getting Scared,” May 28, 2013. Transcript available at

[23] RAK, “Princess of All Lands,” 63.

[24[ “My employment of unremittingly dark” is borrowed from the writings and speeches of J.R.R. Tolkien. On Kirby McCauley, see the McCauley-RAK correspondence, RKCCR. See also King, Danse Macabre (1981; Gallery Book, New York, 2010), 222; and his rather confessional On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000; Scriber, New York, 2010).

[25] See Appendix 2, “The Books,” in King, Danse Macabre, rev. ed. (2010), 446.

[26] In the 1989 preface to the complete and uncut version of The Stand, King labeled his novel, a “long tale of dark Christianity” (p. xvi). On an understanding of King’s “dark Christianity” as anti-institutional and anti-clerical, see Ross Douthat, “Stephen King’s American Apocalypse,” First Things (February 2007); and Paul M. Zahl, “Popular Culture: Stephen King’s Redemption,” Christianity Today 44 (March 6, 2000). James Person recognizes the similarities between King and RAK in his excellent biography, Russell Kirk, 110.

[27] RAK, “Lost Lake,” 322.

[28] See, for example, Kirby McCauley, ed., Dark Forces: New Stories of Suspense and Supernatural Horror (Viking, 1980). King’s famous stories, ‘The Mist,” appears shortly after RAK’s “Peculiar Demesne.” The stories of Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, and Gene Wolfe also appear in the collection. They also appeared together in an earlier collection: Gerald W. Page, ed., The Years Best Horror Stories Series VI (Daw Books, 1978). They appeared together again in Terry Carr, ed., Fantasy Annual III (New York: Pocket Books, 1981), along with Harland Ellison, Fritz Lieber, and Orson Scott Card; and in The Color of Evil (New York, Tor: 1987). As to a similar writing style, see Stephen King, “A Preface in Two Parts,” in The Stand (New York: Anchor Books, 1989), xi-xvi. Each appeals to certain authorities, and each addresses the reader in like fashion. Each is also exceedingly eccentric in personality and lifestyle. Even in some of King’s fiction, such as Needful Things, the story of a demon offering temptations to a town deeply divided along Protestant-Catholic lines, Kirkian themes abound. See, for example, Stephen King, Needful Things (New York: Viking, 1991), a book that also has much in common with Ray Bradbury’s faerie, dark fantasy. If King ever read RAK, he makes no mention of it in his various non-fiction works. In fairness, it must be noticed that RAK did not appreciate that many of his stories appeared with the authors that often showed up in anthologies. “I don’t relish my company,” he wrote to Bradbury. “Most of the these ‘horror’ stories are mere childish nastiness, anti-erotic when pretending to be sexually exciting. I suppose that the prevalence of the Naked Girlie magazines accounts for the pseudo-erotic—semen-fixed without being seminal—character of such writing by people (some of them, anyway) who know better; they want to be paid, and the girlie magazines pay. It would be better to fry chicken for Colonel Sanders’ successors.” RAK to Bradbury, n.d., but ca. Fall 1979, in RKCCR. RAK made similar claims to others. See RAK to Filler, October 7, 1977, in RKCCR.

[29] RAK, “Lost Lake,” Southwest Review 42 (1957): 318, 320, 323-324. The “short and simple annals of the poor” is a clever play on Abraham Lincoln’s campaign literature from 1860. In the same article, RAK recorded that once while visiting Lost Lake with his close friend, Peter Stanlis, the two became very spooked, departing the area as quickly as possible. For a nicer view of Mecosta and its environs, see RAK, “The State of Things,” Michigan Academician 4 (Spring 1974): 363-365; and RAK, “Mecosta County: Where the Country Spirit is Alive and Well,” Michigan Living 70 (April 1987): 30-32.

[30] Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927; New York: Vintage, 1990), 130.

[31] Stephen King, It (Viking/Signet, 1987), 537.

[32] RAK, “Prologue,” Princess, viii.

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7 replies to this post
  1. This is superb, and having heard many ghostly tales and analysis from Dr Kirk, this essay captures it all most accurately.

  2. I have always been ambivalent re: ‘ghosts.’ Even as a youth in a working class Catholic parish, taught by nuns as devoted to Christ as they were aware of the Devil, I assumed these manifestations were demonic in origin. But, Dr. Bizer’s essay, even at this late date, has caused me to ruminate on the question.

  3. Sensible people don’t fool around with the occult. CS Lewis put it well, that the two mistakes in dealing with devils is to 1) think they don’t exist, or 2) believe they do, but then take an unhealthy interest in them.

      • I don’t know. I haven’t read that book. I have read a lot of his non-fiction books about religion, and Lewis was clearly able to separate what he put into his stories (which often featured magic of various kinds) from what he wrote about in the real world, where he had nothing good at all to say about the notion of humans dabbling in unnatural powers, such as sorcery and witchcraft. This message is put forth in his first Narnia story, “The Magician’s Nephew”, where the magician of the title starts fooling around (successfully) with ways of gaining entrance to other worlds, and uses that power to send one character there, and then has the other characteer use the same magic to retrieve her, the magician being too cowardly to go himself.

        Personally, I am of the belief that science has thorouhly discredited the whole notion of magic (but not miracles), but that doesn’t mean people should fool around with this stuff all the same.

  4. Nate, Steve, and Bob, thanks so much for the good words. All of this comes from chapter 8 in the book. And, I go into immense detail. Maybe too much detail. . . .

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