Russell Kirk’s Ghostly Fiction Invites Us to Embrace and Live the Mystery

If I say the word “ghost” at a polite gathering (coffeehouse, cocktail party, a friend’s wedding reception), some will recoil, albeit perhaps only slightly. How, they’ll ask with polite but nervous laughter, can anyone believe in such a thing? And quickly move the subject to greener, more sunlit pastures. Others are likely to retort: Who could believe in such a thing! The absence of a question mark and the inclusion of an exclamation point no typographical oversight, this they know for Richard Dawkins tells them so.

Affirming their openness, some will answer: Who knows? Excitedly, a handful may relate that as a matter of fact they converse every Thursday evening with the shade of their late Aunt Gertrude while folding laundry in the basement. If our gathering were truly diverse—not diverse after the manner diversity committees in business and academia reckon diversity—I might mention things preternatural only to find myself warned ominously never to raise again such matters without the appropriate safeguards lest the souls of the dead sour the milk of my goat herd.

Yet another group might, with a wink, respond: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Risking however slightly a foray into pedantry, let us call to mind the context of our playful guests’ quotation. Fresh from witnessing something or someone spectral claiming to be his friend’s dead father, Horatio struggles with where and how such a thing—a ghost—could reside on his mental map. “O day and night,” he exclaims, “but this is wondrous strange!” Hamlet’s reply, immediately before his often quoted line on things in heaven and earth, bears repeating: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.”

I have long maintained that Russell Kirk’s ghostly fiction—at one time unjustly marginalized as strictly avocational or the eccentric flourishes of the Wizard of Mecosta—provides a key to his work and thought. And beyond unlocking the door prominently labeled Kirk’s Thought, consideration of his eerie tales may provide entrance to passageways heretofore feared sealed away in this haunted mansion of a world, a mansion wickedly, eerily, gloriously, and, above all, mysteriously haunted.

Do I, in this space, dare hope to connect the dots between Kirk’s fiction and his thought? Even more, do I dare to connect the dots between Kirk’s fiction and that reality in which we live and move and have our being? Such a monumental undertaking is beyond the scope of this brief essay. In my defense, it may be that those dots by their very nature cannot be connected like so many lines of communication and authority on an institution’s master plan of internal governance. Because life rejects such easy categorizing, what follows may well be suited to commence the connecting, seeing as though the truest, most real path between two points (or dots) may not be the shortest after all, that not all mysteries can be solved, and that even their solving more often than not leads to deeper mystery. And so, as Hamlet suggests, we ought to “as a stranger give it welcome.”

By all means let us welcome mystery. For if we prove inhospitable, the world around us, the world within us, and the world to come which may already be closer than we realize, why, these worlds will remain a mystery—but in the sense that these worlds are closed to us. So Dr. Kirk’s fiction suggests. Since life never comes to a full stop, there simply can be no way for us to have our ideological ducks all nicely in a row before taking up the business of living. Employing what we have managed to learn and experience previously, we must continue to learn and to face the challenges and obstacles, tragedies and wonders confronting us as we go along. Abstractions can prove airy and dry, even dangerous, if the street be not two ways, if the lived world and abstractions fail to inform one another. Thus it seems a wise and altogether fitting course to move from the abstract to the texts themselves.

Across more than three decades, Kirk spared time from his essays, books, and columns on politics, history, literature, and culture, to produce three novels and 20-some short stories. These uncanny tales appeared on both sides of the Atlantic in such periodicals and anthologies as Fantasy and Science Fiction, The London Mystery Magazine, Queens’ Quarterly, Whispers, Frights, and Dark Forces; and were collected in three editions. For the first collection of short fiction (with a delightfully rambling 19th century-sounding title), The Surly Sullen Bell: Ten Stories and Sketches, Uncanny or Uncomfortable, with a Note on the Ghostly Tale, and his first novel, Old House of Fear, he earned the Anne Radcliffe Award. In 1970, the Count Dracula Society bestowed upon him a knighthood for his ghostly fiction; and in 1977, “There’s a Long, Long Trail a-Winding” gained him a World Fantasy Award. Even if he’d never penned The Conservative Mind, then, there’d be a place for Kirk in the annals of 20th century literature. Regrettably, the collections showcasing his fiction fell out of print. Since Dr. Kirk’s untimely passing in 1994, however, his fiction has gained new life as well as new readers, first a two volume set published by Ash-Tree Press, followed by a single volume edition, Ancestral Shadows, from Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Much has, and still more should be, said in regard to the Kirk canon of fiction. Here, however, I have two particular stories in mind: The Surly Sullen Bell” (The London Mystery Magazine, December 1950–January 1951) and “An Encounter at Mortstone Pond” (Watchers at the Strait Gate, 1984). Over the years his stories grew more explicitly theological, but the growth was natural, the seeds having been there from the beginning. Although three decades separate the two stories, it will become apparent they clearly emerged from the same hand and the same soul.

In “The Surly Sullen Bell,” the title of which is taken from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, readers meet a sinner who seems not much of a sinner. A traveling salesman for a publishing company and a bachelor who (with Eliot’s Alfred J. Prufrock) has “seen the moment of [his] greatness flicker,” Frank Loring never had the courage “[t]o have bitten off the matter with a smile, / To have squeezed the universe into a ball / To roll it towards some overwhelming question.” What is Loring’s overwhelming question? Back in his college days, he never fought for the hand of a young woman, Nancy Birrell, and so she ended up the bride of a self-assured fraternity president. Such is life, one may be tempted to say. But that’s the point: Such is life and one had best attend to it. “You never truly fought for me,” Nancy reminds him after they meet again, some ten years removed from college. “Our every decision, lifelong, is irrevocable for good or evil, Eliot was to say often in his later years,” Kirk wrote in Eliot and His Age. “But Prufrock can hold to no decision for so much as a minute . . . [H]e lacks the strength ‘to force the moment to its crisis.’ He is a Hollow Man.” So is Frank Loring.

Loring’s job brings him to a city he would as soon avoid, St. Louis, the home of Nancy and her husband. Not only painful memories, but the ugliness of the city makes him want to stay clear: “a progressive town, in which the air stank from the breweries and the government stank from other fermentation” and in which urban renewers have worked their ruinous magic. While selling books, he happens across Nancy’s husband, Godfrey Schumacher.

Schumacher has changed, the past fraternity president having grown frustrated, and while Schumacher is out of the room, Nancy informs Loring her husband figured he would go far in life. But he has managed only a professorship of Spanish; he cannot manage even to secure a position as a dean, a feat, she reminds Loring, that is hardly impressive these days. He “stopped trying in everyday life, Frank—‘in this plane,’ he’d say—and he’s seeing what will can do. He never loved anyone but himself, and now he detests the whole world because people won’t permit him to own them.” Reminiscent of Satan, who cannot bring himself to accept his position in the scheme of things, Schumacher believes he can be a master on the spiritual plane, the world of dreams, where will is all powerful. Dreams, he contends, manifest a person’s will, and he warns Loring, “You ought to exercise what will is in you, Frank, for you never can tell when it may have to put up a fight.”

There is nothing, no one, not even his wife, Schumacher will spare in his attempt for power and control. On the surface he is caring. His wife ill (from the small doses of poison he adds to her nightly cups of coffee), he reads and cooks for her. In reality, Nancy says, he “wants to possess me, absorb me, lose me in himself.” In an uncanny tale, Kirk opens a door to the mystery of iniquity, or the horror of, to use clinical language, a mentally abusive husband who seeks to control his wife, to drain her of anything from before him and outside of him so as to make his domination complete.

Bending his intellect in an unnatural and evil fashion, Schumacher studies, among other occult tracts, Satan’s Wonderful World Unveiled and decorates the room in which his sickly wife spends most of her days with paintings of hell, four on each of the four walls, prints by Breughel, Bosch, Teniers, and Botticelli. Like the demons, he demands sacrifice and submission. He invites Loring because he desires to know—to own—everything from his wife’s life, and Loring is a part of her past. Nancy tells Loring that her will is too strong to be possessed, but she knows her mortal envelope is weaker than her will and asks him to look out for her young son in the future.

Nancy may be strong enough, but isLoring? Soon this Prufrock will be tested. Prufrock, Kirk observed, failed to make the great, even painful leap to love and the possibility of a meaningful life; and “[f]or love to endure, there must exist a community of souls. But Prufrock has rejected his part in the moral conversation of mankind; his song is a monologue of mankind; he ends in an infernal isolation.” Will Loring? His life too has become a monologue.

Walking back to his hotel from the Schumachers’, Loring makes his way through the Old Town, that part of St. Louis which after the urban renewers got done with it amounts to a collection of dilapidated and abandoned buildings, a “bulldozed wilderness that was once a historic community.” The wasteland of Old Town provides a fitting material backdrop for the spiritual battle between Schumacher and Loring.

A face appears before Loring: Schumacher’s. Scrambling into an alley through the snow drifts, he thinks himself safe, but through a window in a house wall catches sight of Schumacher’s face once more. On a shadowy plane between this and other worlds, Schumacher has ambushed his wife’s first love. No longer is Loring aware of the physical world around him: “visions of torment unceasing, ecstasies of revulsion, went round and round and round. And out of the chinks and corners of these abrabesques peered the eyes of Schumacher.”

Loring tries to hide from the menacing eyes, but there are other eyes—Nancy’s. He can hear her voice, “You never really fought, you never really fought.” Though he desires the darkness to consume him, “something held him” and to his mind comes a picture on her couch, saying, “My little boy . . .” Then “some wild struggle of will, or wills, was fought out then, lasting only seconds, perhaps, but seeming aeons. And abruptly Frank Loring sat up in the snow.” The face of Schumacher remains in the broken window, Loring “wailed shrilly,” and the face “seemed to dissolve into its constituent atoms, and Loring was looking into an empty ruin.”

Making his way to a police station and falling into the arms of a sergeant, he reports he has been poisoned. Yet he lives, lives perhaps for the first time, because he dared to love. For once, Loring fought and managed to save himself. He could not save Nancy from a physical death; such was not in his powers. But he finally blew hot or cold, no longer lukewarm. Life may seem like one thing after another, and yet in the most mundane seeming of lives, Kirk insisted, there is the stuff of heaven or hell, there are decisions to be made that will echo across the ages. So it was for traveling salesman Frank Loring.

More than 30 years after “The Surly Sullen Bell,” Kirk wrote one of his last ghostly tales, “An Encounter at Mortstone Pond.” These two stories aptly bookend his oeuvre. This tale opens in 1919 with a ten-year-old boy thinking of death. Of death there had been much lately. Like so many young men, his father was tramped into muddy, French fields the previous year. Last week, his mother was laid to rest. Their home at Mortstone Pond is to be sold and he sent off to live with an aunt in San Francisco. Had he loved his mother as she should have been loved? Now Gerard Peirce is “wholly and forever alone. There could be no relief, ever from his misery. He had prayed by his mother’s bedside in her pretty room for a month, as she lay dying . . .” She had tried to comfort her young son: “You must grow up, my darling, to be the sort of man your father was.” He knows what he must do. Nor is it the first time the thought has crossed his mind. He races to the dyke to throw himself over the dam and end the loneliness, the pain.

There on the dyke a chill runs through his body, and though no one is in sight, he realizes he is not alone. Scared enough to cry for help, he finds he cannot muster a voice, and as he walks with this presence, “certain words from without were impressed upon his consciousness—although no voice sounded in his ears, as speech is heard.” He hears internally: “The pain will end, boy, or nearly end. This too shall pass. You will grow to be a man. They will love you always, being made for an eternity.” The chill passing from him, along with the presence, he runs to his mother’s grave to pray. He finds the strength to go on, repeating those lines—“The pain will end, or nearly end.”

Young Gerard develops the stoical qualities, implicit in those lines he heard on the dyke, to make it through life. Donning his country’s uniform, he in fact becomes the sort of man his father was. The story moves forward to 1969, and Gerard, now Major General Gerard Peirce, or “what was left of him,” comes home from war.

Wounded in combat, he walks with an artificial leg; quiet and reserved, like a Roman finally come home from warring on the Empire’s lonely frontiers, to end his days peacefully tending his garden.

Doctors, however, have advised him to put his affairs in order as he may not have much longer to live. Wondering if his mother’s grave is without an inscription, he flies to Michigan where he walks, painfully and with a limp, on the same paths and on the same dyke upon which he ran, played, and wept as a child. “His hearing and his eyesight had suffered at Hue . . . [but] he did not require keenness of eye and ear to know that he was accompanied” What or who accompanies him—is it a young boy?—is deeply in despair, torment, and anger, emotionally not unlike the young men under his command whose bodies he had seen ripped apart. Words came to him: “ ‘The pain will end, boy, or nearly end. This too shall pass. You will grow to be a man. They will love you always, being made for eternity.’ Was it an illusion that for the briefest possible moment, flesh encountered flesh?” He walks with the young presence for awhile before “what had been little despairing Gerard Peirce, perhaps heartened, was swept away by the current of Time.”

After the encounter, the aged Gerard wonders what had happened, pondering the mystery of existence:

We are essences—but insubstantial really, such stuff as dreams are made of, not understanding death because we do not know what life is. Across the gulf of years, had the boy who was to be man and the man who had been a boy met in some fashion? Had conscience spoken briefly to a conscience?

“[N]ot understanding death because we do not know what life is.” We understand by living and, though terrifying to consider, by dying. By engaging and reflecting, not mere theorizing, we understand; by living the mystery we understand. “Did [those words] really issue from me? Or were they put in to my consciousness by a tender Other?” Before his mother’s grave he kneels, now as a man as he had decades earlier as a boy. Someone—he can’t think of whom—had taken time to engrave an inscription on his mother’s headstone. Taken from Eliot, the epitaph reads,

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire
Beyond the language of the living.

Those same lines grace Dr. Kirk’s own gravestone. But his works speak still, inviting readers not to avert their eyes from the mystery, but, rather, to invite, to embrace, and to live the mystery. In parable and allegory, Kirk’s fiction sketches the truth of Hamlet’s reply to Horatio. There is indeed more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in dreary philosophies.

R. Andrew Newman teaches English and journalism and chairs the Division of Language andArts at Western Nebraska Community College.