Ralph Bains is the sort of guy a reader of The American Spectator would like to meet. Especially after he was dead. And if someone in Hollywood is looking for an original, compelling idea for a movie they should read Russell Kirk’s Ancestral Shadows, to which Shawn Macomber was far too unkind in this space last week. If he doesn’t find them scary, he should imagine meeting Eddie Cain some dark night.
Macomber’s specific indictment is that Kirk adopts Stanley Kubrick’s vision that all ghost stories are at heart optimistic and that such a view is incompatible with true Stephen King terror. Macomber credits Kirk with some skill as a writer but complains that his stories are “largely impotent” because of “an over-abundance of good intentions.” It is a profound misreading.
King himself in discussing the matter with Kubrick asked about Hell and Kubrick evidently replied, “I don’t believe in Hell.” Well, Russell Kirk does. And so, too late, do not a few of the characters in this book. Kirk’s universe is, to be sure, a friendly one, the product of an omnipotent and omniscient God who is Love. But the horror at the heart of many of these stories is that we may not merely succumb to evil but actively embrace sin. Macomber complains that “in order to alarm readers convincingly, it is necessary that there be a distinct and believable possibility that everything may not turn out right….This is the primary problem with Kirk’s work: Good always triumphs over evil.” And he therefore invites us to “Read most any of Kirk’s stories alongside [H.P.] Lovecraft’s ‘The Rats in the Walls,’ for example, and it’s no contest which tale is going to keep you up at night.”
It’s true, but not the way he meant it. “The Rats” is one of Lovecraft’s stories that is far more tiresomely headed for disaster than any of Kirk’s for happiness. Kirk’s characters must cling to right choice to the very end, or leap for it, in the face of the capacity to do the reverse, and some fail horribly. Lovecraft’s characters often cannot choose, for no reason that is ever adequately explained, and, when they can, it doesn’t help.
I am an admirer of Lovecraft and a defender of his work against those who assume, not implausibly, that anyone who combines horror and science fiction ought first and foremost to frighten off publishers. But a reviewer, and an intelligent reader, want to ask of any author first what he was trying to do, then how well he did it, and finally whether he should have bothered. Lovecraft was trying to depict a universe terrifyingly hostile to human purposes through an alien indifference to any of our needs or aspirations more lethal than any malign intent could ever be. And he does it quite well, despite a certain Gothic sameness to his style after a while (please, Lord, not another gambrel roof).
Lovecraft clearly did not believe in Cthulhu and the Old Ones, unlike some of his dorkier acolytes, but the notion of finding the hidden mythological key to the universe and realizing it isn’t meant for or useful to humans is a powerful literary device and he carries off this strange act of imagination very creatively. And, yes, it was worth doing, although I pity the man who saw the universe this way. It tells the rest of us what beliefs to avoid.
In his “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale” at the end of the book, Kirk reports that “Gerald Heard said to me once that the good ghost story must have for its kernel some clear premise about the character of human existence…” Lovecraft was an atheist and a socialist and his fiction conveys his metaphysics well. Kirk was a Catholic and a conservative, and it is this difference that makes his fiction ultimately superior.
Kirk’s stories qualify as literature on other grounds, starting with being literate; it helps to know who Setebos was, and the woman of Endor, and what the Lex Talionis might be. His references are to real mythology and history; Lovecraft’s to invented ones, an interesting illustration of the difference between the conservative and the radical in itself. Kirk also shows more wit than Lovecraft ever did, like the comment in “Fate’s Purse” that “If the judge himself had owned both the Brownlee farm and Hell, he would have rented out the Brownlee place and lived in Hell.” But at bottom the value of Kirk’s prose is that he is trying to tell you something he considers vitally important and optimistic, and does it well.
It may seem more than a bit didactic for Eddie Cain to tell himself, “Yes, ‘hereafter’ was everything: without that prospect, all life would have been a nasty joke…” But the story does not tell us this truth, it shows us. The fate of Ralph Bain tells us more about how there could be a heaven and how we can get there than any theological treatise. As for evil and Hell, in “The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost” the narrator has a positively Chestertonian thought about his sleazy slum neighborhood: “The hideousness of it hurts as much as the depravity.” (That story also features what I have elsewhere suggested is the perfect slogan for our troubled times: “Stark Naked or Your Money Back.”)
Mr. Macomber ended his review by saying, “For those looking for supernatural tales that will make their hearts race and their skin crawl, despite the hype, they’d be well-advised to look elsewhere.” Not so. If Hollywood gets hold of Ancestral Shadows, and doesn’t botch it horribly, the result would surely secure the approval of The American Spectator for all the right reasons, including a few nights of troubled sleep not over the question whether the universe might be like this but over whether we might be.