An Anthology of Ghostly Tales
by Russell Kirk
(Eerdmans, 423 pages, $25)
WHEN RECENTLY interviewed by Fangoria magazine about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of his novel The Shining, Stephen King recalled an early conversation wherein the late filmmaker had posited that all ghost stories were at their heart optimistic tales. After all, undead apparitions suggest a life beyond the grave we so fear. “What about Hell?” King asked, playing Devil’s Advocate, to which Kubrick responded icily, “I don’t believe in Hell.”
Many, including myself, find King’s criticism that Kubrick’s final cut wasn’t terrifying enough dead wrong. (Although whether the film was faithful enough to King’s story is entirely open to debate.) But King’s point is well taken: If ghost stories are optimistic expressions about our ability to transcend flesh and blood, then why do they have the power to instill such dread?
Such is the enigma the late Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind (1953) and the man widely regarded as the father of modern conservatism, attempted to explore with a series of gothic-yet-morally-sound horror tales. These short yarns, published steadily from the early 1950s until Kirk’s death in 1994, have now been conveniently collected in Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales.
Kirk has undeniable skill as a writer, and his tales showcase trace elements of gothic works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and even, in a stylistic if not thematic sense, H.P. Lovecraft. Kirk’s crafting of character and scene can be quite enjoyable reading, and his ability to interject philosophical ideas about the nature of the afterlife into his stories is delightful food for thought. For example, in “Saviourgate” the great beyond is described as a place where spirits can pass the time until Judgment Day reliving and properly savoring the best moments of their former lives.
Nevertheless, I find Michael Dirda’s bold declaration last year in the Washington Post that Kirk was “the greatest American author of ghostly tales in the classic style, at least of the post-World War II era,” hyperbolic praise of an almost unimaginable degree. While moral bearings may have suited the brilliant intellectual explorations of Kirk’s nonfiction, an over-abundance of good intentions rendered his forays into supernatural literature largely impotent.
Kirk’s essay, “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale,” included in Ancestral Shadows, helps shed light on his motivations for wading into these dark waters and gives one a clue where he may have gotten off track as well.
“Alarming though (I hope) readers may find these tales, I did not write them to impose meaningless terror upon the innocent,” Kirk writes, adding that he prefers to view his fictional works as “experiments in the moral imagination” containing “elements of parable and fable.”
But in order to alarm readers convincingly, it is necessary that there be a distinct and believable possibility that everything might not turn out all right. When the element of surprise is removed, stories become predictable and terrors mundane. This is the primary problem with Kirk’s work: Good always triumphs over evil. Divine intervention always strikes on time. That might not be much of an issue in a novel laden with suspenseful twists and turns. But in the context of a series of 10 to 20 page stories, inevitable moral victories can numb readers against the intended effect.
As Clive Barker, a true master of the genre, explained in his introduction to the reissue of his own collection of fantasy short stories, Books of Blood, the importance of maintaining menace in stories meant to foster fear cannot be underestimated.
“Here, the monsters triumph, sometimes transforming those they touch in ways that might be deemed obliquely optimistic, but nevertheless surviving to do harm another day,” Barker writes. “If, by chance, the evil is overcome, then it more often than not takes its witnesses and its endurers [sic] down with it.”
Despite the rhetoric, Barker did allow good to triumph occasionally as a strategic literary tactic. Kirk need not have given in to the dark side on the same scale as Barker to mix things up a bit. But there clearly are limitations to effectively exploring the “moral imagination” in this genre, especially when after a couple of stories readers have a fairly good grasp on what that morality is. The names, locations, and circumstances vary, but the end result becomes a blur of too much of the same.
It is understandable why those of the conservative or libertarian persuasion have eagerly embraced Kirk’s short stories. First of all, Kirk’s reputation clearly precedes him, and it’s not as if there are all that many conservatives in the field of horror fiction. It is extraordinarily unlikely that any conservative is going to step forward to say the much acclaimed intellectual founder of the movement they align themselves with is only of middling success in his fiction. Second, even though many of these stories are weak in the-sense-of-impending-doom department, they are written in a classical style that admits to the fantasy party those too snobbish to thrash about in the decidedly low-brow world where most of the more effective examples of the genre are found.
BUT THERE’S ALSO THE FACT that the stories in Ancestral Shadows are steeped in Kirk’s worldview. Antagonists in Kirk’s literature are often somehow connected to the nanny state; settings are often landscapes created by failed liberal policies.
In “The Surly Sullen Bell,” for example, Kirk disparages St. Louis as “a progressive town, in which the air stank from the breweries and the government stank from other fermentation.” In another story set in a nameless, crime-ridden city, Kirk sets the scene thusly, “The vacant lots, a legacy of urban ‘renewal,’ were abandoned to two-footed predators.” On the character side of the coin, it is much the same. The undead priest is strangely not the antagonist in the story entitled “Ex Tenebris.” Rather, it is S.G.W. Barnes, a tax assessor whose faith in secular government’s ability to solve all problems allows him to act out cruelly against the individual. As he drives along the roadways to impose government on heretofore free persons, Barnes curses that “irrational relic of supernatural rubbish — Ash Wednesday.” The nightmarish hillbilly girl from Hell in “The Princess of All Lands,” the best and most frightening story in the collection, is described as a “dull-witted and unschooled girl” from whose mouth “drifted the slogans and liberation-chic of bored bourgeois Women’s Lib zealots.”
“The work of horror really is a dance — a moving, rhythmic search,” says Stephen King in his nonfiction exploration of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, which incidentally lists Kirk’s “Princess of All Lands” as one of the 100 best short horror stories. “And what it’s looking for is the place where you, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level. The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives.”
Kirk’s fiction will still likely be found agreeable to those who simply enjoy a good, if predictable, gothic romp. Pure gothic literature of the Bronte-sisters kind probably would have been better suited to Kirk’s skills. One really does have quite a bit to live up to when labeling one’s work supernatural fiction. Read most any of Kirk’s stories alongside Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,” for example, and it’s no contest which tale is going to keep you up at night.
Perhaps it will not be considered too much of an insult to Kirk’s legacy to suggest he may have been too civilized to tear into humanity with the ferocity necessary to raise goose bumps from the average reader’s flesh. 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.