The Princess of All Lands by Russell Kirk.
On the surface, these are mere ghost stories, tales written, in Kirk’s words, “mainly in the hope of discomforting an old man on a winter’s night, or a girl in the bloom of her youth.” Most have in fact seen publication in popular magazines such as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
They are well-done ghost stories, of course, and they are likely to achieve their purpose of entertainment. My favorite of the collection, “The Last God’s Dream,” skillfully weaves together history, travelogue, archeology, and some astute commentary on the nature of our times into a story that can be enjoyed more than once.
But there is more to Kirk’s tales than that.
“Have I ever seen a ghost?” Kirk asks in the Preface. “Why, I am one, and so are you, a geist, a spirit, in a mortal envelope.”
That nicely sets Kirk off from most tellers of supernatural tales: like C. S. Lewis before him, Kirk truly believes in miracles. This universe and its order were created, and the Creator can and does allow exceptions to His rules. It remains, though, God’s universe, and Lucifer can only claim his own. Kirk’s fantasy, like Lewis’s, comes from the pen of one who takes Christianity seriously.
Not that these are moral tracts any more than Lewis’s fantasies were. Kirk can spin a yarn with the best of us. He deftly creates characters for whom one cares, and threatens them with real dangers. He also gives us petty bureaucrats whose souls have long ago withered, mean little people bent on making the world over into their own likeness, so that we cheer when they receive their just deserts.
The age seems not much to care for desert: for the notion that justice consists of giving to each his due, and what some are due is a swift kick or worse. Certainly those who call themselves the intelligentsia do not care for the notion, any more than they care for the concept of fault. In what passes for philosophy classes on nine campuses out of ten, men are allowed to receive credit for virtuous choices (namely, for choosing to become atheist humanists like their professors) but are never to be condemned for choosing evil (although, perhaps, an exception might be made for those who perversely adhere to Christianity . . .).
Not so with Kirk. One may choose; and the choice has real consequences for both body and soul. Not that being virtuous will necessarily save your body. Kirk would never deny his characters the opportunity for heroism, and how can one be truly heroic if the dangers are not real? In the first story of the collection, “Sorworth Place,” a young officer makes the proper choice and dies for it. Kirk’s villains, however, face something far worse than death. He will never let you forget that Hell exists, and you can go there any time you like. “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea” is for Kirk quite literally true.
In asserting that we are all ghosts, Kirk says no more than Christianity teaches. We are all of us taught that Lazarus came back from death, and most of us that the saints have appeared from time to time. True, in our age of materialistic science we are apt to be a bit schizophrenic, singing hymns on Sundays and scoffing at any assertion that we are all creatures of the spirit the other six days of the week; but pressed closely for an answer, we might, many of us, admit the possibility that the saints might return. We would quickly add, “But it’s not likely. Not in this age.”
But why not in this age? And if saints, why not devils as well?
Kirk asks, Why not indeed? Does Einstein tell us that time is stranger than we know? Do the physicists now tell us that black holes and naked singularities threaten all we know of causality and make mock of our physical laws? Has our orderly universe developed cracks in it, cracks through which we might travel in time and space? Kirk, no physicist, knew that all along, and reminds us that once we all knew it. He blurs the boundaries between the real and spiritual worlds with a skill that any fantasy writer must envy, and spins nakedly Christian yarns so well that pagan institutions like the World Fantasy Association and the Science Fiction Writers of America take him seriously at award time.
The world lost much when C. S. Lewis died, and I have seen few who might replace him. Comes now Russell Kirk, who has already had a great and beneficial influence over political philosophy; and if he has not yet climbed to the heights reached by Lewis’s novels, surely he is moving toward those peaks. The stories from this volume are included in Ancestral Shadows (Eerdmans 2004), Kirk’s collected ghostly tales.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
Dr. Jerry Pournelle, co-author of the best-selling novel Lucifer’s Hammer and much other fiction. This essay is reprinted with the gracious permission of The University Bookman (Volume 19, Number 4, Summer 1979).