Russell Kirk gained fame with conservatives as the man who gave intellectual credibility to a movement in retreat with his tour de force The Conservative Mind. In that book, he demonstrated that conservatism had a proud pedigree and a powerful philosophical tradition during a time when many doubted whether it was anything more than an irritable gesture of retrograde minds.
In the wake of the book’s publication, the Michigan State professor became a staple of the many young institutions of the right as they were born in the second half of the 20th century. Kirk was one of the original contributors to National Review and the founder of the journal Modern Age (still being published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute). His writing and lecturing eventually occupied all of his time. He left the university and wrote a series of conservative classics from his much loved “spooky house” in Michigan’s stump country. My own favorite is The Roots of American Order which is a near must-read for anyone interested in the sources of the American liberty which now appears to have saved the world from “scientific” totalitarianism in the last 100 years.
This Kirk, the conservative intellectual, is well known. What is less well known about Russell Kirk is that he was also a prolific writer of ghost stories. The volume under review, Ancestral Shadows, contains19 tales which originally appeared in magazines like Fantasy and Science Fiction, London Mystery Magazine, The Critic, World Review, Frights, Dark Forces, Whispers, and New Terrors. Readers who try this book will find that Russell Kirk, like Walker Percy, G.K. Chesterton, and George Orwell was one of those rare talents capable of walking on both sides of the literary fence between fiction and non-fiction.
I recall once reading a single line from an Ernest Hemingway story that compelled me to seek out the complete work. It was a story about the crucifixion of Christ. The single line was uttered by a Roman soldier after a grisly day’s work. “He was pretty good in there today,” the soldier said, referring to Jesus. You read that and you must know more.
Ancestral Shadows has several lines of like quality in store for the reader. The story “The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost” offers a stirring example. The self-identified “shiny black” Jamaican doctor of divinity and Episcopal priest Raymond Thomas Montrose is the faithful tenant of a great old (and now nearly abandoned church) in a decaying city. He saves those he can (primarily prostitutes he is able to spirit away to more wholesome places) and knows that his parish would likely be shut down by his ultra-liberal bishop if not for the blessing of his very dark skin. The occasion of the stirring sentence is that his church is invaded by a rough man seeking to rape an innocent and uncommonly beautiful young woman who has come under the care of Dr. Montrose. Montrose, however, is more formidable than he appears. Considering the advance of the intruder, he notes with determination, “If we poor feeble sinners – of whom I am the chief – are engaged in a holy war against the forces of Satan, we ought to ensure that not all of the casualties fall on our side.” There is much more to the story than that, but the reader’s mind already has what it needs to create interest.
The collection nicely divides into certain themes. The one I’ve seen other conservatives mention is Kirk’s animosity toward the ever-expanding reach of the great technocrats hoping to do away with old and organic “inefficiencies” in favor of the newer, the better, and what’s next. Certainly, that theme is evident in the collection. The first tale revolves around the determination of a coolly rational urban planner who understands little of the needs of real human beings. Planning officer “Mr. S.G.W. Barner” insensitively plagues the otherwise happy existence of an isolated elderly woman until he discovers that Shakespeare’s declaration “that there are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy” has a dark side. Likewise, the ultra-aggressive Special Interviewer for the rural census Cribben breaks down the privacy of simple people until he goes too far by insisting on a Sunday visit to do business with a family possessed of pronounced hermitic tendencies. He comes to understand, tragically, that sometimes people keep to themselves for good reason.
But there is more to Ancestral Shadows than the kind of work that would have readily identified Kirk as a “Crunchy Con” long before Rod Dreher coined the term. The author is clearly concerned with the spiritual implications of crime. In “Uncle Isaiah” Daniel Kinnaird, a proud man from a family with a lost fortune, is barely surviving with a cleaning business in a declining part of town. He and his employees do good work despite their constantly declining profits. When a local criminal buys his way out of jail and seeks to replenish his coffers through intimidation, Kinnaird is a target seemingly destined to pay protection money lest he get a cement block through his plate glass window. Everyone tells him to pay unless he knows someone “tough”. Kinnaird happens to know a person who meets that description in an unorthodox fashion. His tormentor, the menacing “Costa”, experiences an unanticipated reckoning. Here we have a recurring theme of the best ghost stories, whether by Kirk or others, which is that we live in a moral universe and that justice will eventually have its terrible due.
While it is chilling to read tales of evil men receiving the penalty for their transgressions, the best parts of the collection focus on those who have repented of their wrongs and are striving toward God. In return, they earn a chance at redemption. Eddie Mahaffy wakes from a brutal prison beating to find himself uniquely in the service of the Lord outside the penitentiary walls. The cowardly giant Frank Sarsfield wanders his whole life, pilfering church poorboxes and surrendering or backing out of fights, only to walk into the opportunity to become a brave man and maybe take “Heaven by storm.” Sarsfield is one of three characters to appear in more than one story. In a second appearance, he visits an old priest who showed him mercy and kindness despite his unworthiness and offers an unusual and precious method of repaying his debt. The retired soldier Ralph Bain with his head still soft from a war wound and his small pension offers his strong arms and lovesick heart to a traumatized young widow who will never have him in an act of redemptive service. We meet him again in a strangely pleasant old English bar and hotel where he counsels another half-lost soul somewhere between suicide and starting over.
The reader will also have the opportunity to meet Manfred Arcane, a character who could easily have served as the model for the current series of television commercials about “The Most Interesting Man in the World”. Arcane is a powerful “minister without portfolio” in a small, oil-rich Muslim nation behind the Iron Curtain. He holds his lofty post despite being both a Christian and a capitalist (rumored to receive a 2% royalty on each barrel of oil) because of his great talents and charisma. Arcane is a storyteller and a supernaturalist constantly aware of his own potential for evil. In one tale, he seeks out a Midwestern tourist couple just so he can experience their ordinariness and uncomplicated decency. They are delightfully “centric” he notes (rather than eccentric). Though the wife is completely won over by his exotic charms, he treats her like a daughter and is respectful of her husband, a young American judge.
I strongly recommend Ancestral Shadows. Russell Kirk is an imaginative writer capable of evoking both strong emotion and spiritual reflection. Pick the book up and don’t stop until the end. Many of the best stories are in the second half. The arrangement of the stories leads to simple satisfaction and heightened interest early on followed by delight and perhaps a little awe by the finish. Some of these tales will survive for a very long time.