The Princess of All Lands
by Russell Kirk.
Arkham House, 1979.
Hardcover, 238 pages.
(Stories reprinted in Ancestral Shadows, ISI, 2004).
Reviewed by Stephen Schmalhofer
One unexpected benefit of moving from New York City to Connecticut is the recovery of October from Halloween drunks disturbed by distilled spirits. At dusk, cemeteries and churchyards gather darkness about our town. Carrying groceries to the car on a quiet night, I imagine the echoes of horseshoes during General Putnam’s race away from British troops and hear him yell back “Damn ye!” in mocking frustration from the bottom of the hill that now bears his name. “Have I ever seen a ghost? Why I am one and so are you—a geist, a spirit in a mortal envelope,” writes Russell Kirk from Piety Hill in the introduction to The Princess of All Lands, a collection of nine short ghost stories.
Kirk’s ghosts are not movie monsters and in several stories Kirk shows only flashes of their faces. In “Behind the Stumps” and “Ex Tenebris,” Kirk’s undead ghouls give gooseflesh but the unyielding county assessor and the arrogant town planner make your skin flush with frustration. In Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh’s Professor Silenus asked in exasperation “Why can’t the creatures stay in one place? Up and down, in and out, round and round!” In “Ex Tenebris,” Kirk’s Mr. S. G. W. Barner is obsessed with integrating an old row of houses “with the progressive aspirations of planned industrial society.” A solitary resident refuses to leave her home and cultivates rose bushes among the ruins. Old Mrs. Oliver misheard the man, dismissing his earnest but threatening promise of “communal amenities, including six cinemas” since she dislikes Communists.
Kirk avoids cheap horror-house tricks; no zombies here. Instead of the Night of the Living Dead, Kirk wants us to know what it means to live well and to have a good death. In “Sorworth Place,” war veteran Ralph Bain is Don Quixote, his mind bent by shrapnel rather than sleeplessness. A final act of chivalry saves his soul. Kirk writes to make your heart beat faster, not for a cheap thrill, but in the spirit of John Henry Newman, whose motto is cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart). Kirk wants your heart to race with the urgency of Newman in his Apologia pro vita Sua: “Am I in safety, were I to die tonight?”
One of the more ambitious stories, “The Last God’s Dream,” is a rehabilitation of the Emperor Diocletian led by Manfred Arcane, Kirk’s host of immense charm matching Joseph Epstein’s recent definition:
“A glass of wine in his hand, a touch aloof, but never off-puttingly so, he steps in to make a casual but telling observation, offers a witty remark, formulates rather better than anyone else what is really on everyone else’s mind. If a short definition of charm is wanted, charm is the person, man or woman, whom you never want to leave the room.”
Arcane steps in as an impromptu concierge for an American couple among the sphinxes and shadows around Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia. More of a half-remembered dream than a nightmare, Kirk replaces pools of blood with pots of strong coffee; spices, not spectres. By mysterious means, Arcane discovers a secret passage into the emperor’s long-lost bed chamber where he still slumbers like Alice’s Red King. Kirk’s Diocletian is a naturally pious ruler in an uncertain age, acting on imperfect information from the far corners of the Roman Empire. As Arcane struggles with his schoolboy Latin, the old emperor writes his own rise and fall: “I have raised legions and cabbages.”
In Kirk’s “Inferno,” Lord Balgrummo, once a prosperous and popular member of society, began to dabble in the dark arts until he finally opened the door to, in the words of St. Robert Bellarmine S.J., “that beast, who would ever gnaw and would never be satisfied with gnawing us.” In his private chapel Lord Balgrummo dined with the Devil and the Devil devoured him. Now Lord Balgrummo is living in sin, entombed alive in his enormous house rotting with black mold that matches the color of his soul. A greedy visitor’s careful planning to steal the mansion’s valuable art collection draws him deeper into Balgrummo’s darkness until it is too late. If I could suggest one obvious improvement to “Balgrummo’s Hell” in light of recent events: Rename the title character Archbishop Balgrummo and lock him away in his seminary.
In the final story, “Saviorgate,” Ralph Bain is back and is surprised by old friends at a cozy little country hotel on Christmas Eve. Stepping in out of the snow, Bain takes Chesterton’s advice and follows “the feet where all souls meet / At the inn at the end of the world.” A wartime pal and a local Canon welcome him but notice that, like Dante, he has been given a temporary tour of the other side of “the Border.” They try to teach him a bit of pub metaphysics, explaining that they have passed the Provisional Judgment and can now relive their best moments in Time as they await the Last Judgment and the Beatific Vision. Bain is unconvinced. “What’s wrong with the present everlasting moment? Ah, I know: no cigars.” While anxious to catch his midnight train and avoid missing a desperate London business meeting in the morning, he nearly gives up and swallows the pills in his bag. Like George Bailey at the bridge, Bain realizes that “behind this evening’s charade there had moved some quickening power, some hint of glimpse of hope.” Persuaded that how a man dies matters, he resolves not to “plunge himself into nothingness without another effort or two.”
Why did Kirk write these ghost stories? “[M]ainly in the hope of discomforting an old man on a winter’s night, or a girl in the bloom of her youth.” Not to summon spirits from beyond, but to “conjure up in you a dreadful joy, like that of a small boy on a secret stair.” Cardinal Newman reminds us of “the first lesson of mingled humility and joyfulness” taught by a strange messenger from the other world: “Fear not,” said the Angel, “for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
Stephen Schmalhofer writes from Connecticut.