Russell Kirk was haunted by the past. Ghosts prowled his house, peering through windows, moving furniture, startling guests. Far from resenting these presences, Kirk welcomed them. For he regarded society as “a spiritual union of the dead, the living, and those yet unborn.” He propounded this view in studies that helped to define the conservative movement as it emerged in the mid-twentieth century. But he expressed it most vividly in supernatural tales that reveal the gothic cast of the conservative mind.
Kirk began writing ghost stories to supplement his income while a student at the University of St Andrews. By the end of his life, he had written twenty-two ghost stories and two gothic novels, a modest output representing a significant accomplishment. Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda has called Kirk “the greatest American author of ghostly tales in the classic style, at least of the post–World War II era,” and it is hard to disagree.
Though Kirk is known as a defender of order, he tends in his fiction to side with eccentrics and rebels who defy propriety for the sake of something higher. “I’d rather be scandalous than damned,” says the heroine of “Sorworth Place.” And so she scandalously asks a man to stay the night in order to guard her from a spirit that would drag her down to hell. “The relish for risk, denial, experience far out of the ordinary moves sinners and saints both,” the narrator observes in “Lex Talionis.” In that story, as in others, Kirk chooses as his hero an ex-convict.
Kirk’s sympathy encompasses the ghosts themselves. M. R. James, one of the form’s great practitioners, held that the specter in a ghost story always “should be malevolent or odious.” Kirk stood this dictum on its head by depicting ghosts who are friends to the innocent and guides to the lost. For James, a ghost’s touch—hairy, clammy, dead yet moving—is terrible. For Kirk, it can be strangely comforting. In “An Encounter by Mortstone Pond,” Kirk describes an orphan boy who recently buried his mother. One day the boy’s sad thoughts are interrupted by the frightening realization that some spirit has drawn near. But then, inaudibly, words of comfort come to him, and he feels “the faintest pressure upon his right hand.” Someone, somehow, has eased his suffering.
Here and in other stories, it is easy to detect the influence of Kirk’s religious background. For Kirk’s family had long been drawn to the spiritualist ideas derived from Emanuel Swedenborg. A spiritualist chapel had once stood on the site of his family’s house in Mecosta, Michigan, and in the 1880s, Kirk’s great-grandmother held séances in her parlor, levitating in her rocking chair. Dead kinsmen communicated with the living. “I was shot, shot, shot to pieces,” reported one who had died in the Civil War.
Kirk, who converted to Catholicism in middle age, suggested that “the more orthodox is a writer’s theology, the more convincing, as symbols and allegories, his uncanny tales will be.” Certainly a belief that the soul outlasts life, and that good and evil are real and distinct, is essential for classic stories of the supernatural. But it is notable that the first master of the ghost story, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, was drawn to, and drew upon, the teachings of Swedenborg. If the biographies of Le Fanu and Kirk are any indication, the ghost story owes more to the strange spiritual currents of the nineteenth century than to the Nicene Creed.
It is worth asking how far these metaphysical speculations went in shaping Kirk’s conservative outlook. Conservatives often praise tradition as a “democracy of the dead,” and Kirk’s intellectual hero, Edmund Burke, argued that the state was nothing less than a part of a “great primaeval contract of eternal society” connecting “the visible and invisible world.” Kirk’s stories propose that we take these ideas literally. For him, the world is one great haunted house, in which the dead and the living continue to interact.
The line Kirk draws between the dead and the living is so indistinct, it can be hard to know which side you’re on. In “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding,” a man seeks refuge from a snowstorm in a grand, unoccupied house. As he admires its “apple-pie order,” he finds himself drawn to the portraits of its departed inhabitants. He dreams that he is among them in happier times, and he begins to see their shades. Only later does he realize that he has come to that particular house on that particular day because he is himself a ghost, fated to re-enact the events of his final day on earth.
Kirk was fond of quoting Burke’s remark on the vain and fleeting nature of life—“What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!”—and several of his stories take up the idea that however firm and whole we imagine ourselves to be, we are only dim reflections of a more substantial reality. In “Watchers at the Strait Gate,” a man who fears for his life at the hands of a late-night visitor learns that he is already dead, and his caller has come to guide him to the next life. As he sets out on his journey, “the sensual world that could be understood only in parable faded to the shadow of a shade.” The soul bound for heaven is more solid than the world it leaves behind.
The ghost story emerged around the turn of the nineteenth century from the tradition of gothic fiction inaugurated by Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Kirk cherished this lineage and described his first novel, Old House of Fear, as a “gothick tale, in unblushing line of direct descent” from Walpole’s work. In Otranto and other early gothic tales, the typical site of ghostly encounters was the moldering castle. In time, the castle was replaced by the manor house, and finally by the Victorian home. Through these changes, the haunted structure remained a symbol of the forbidding past. It evoked a time when people had been in thrall to religious, familial, and political structures rejected by modern society. It was a sign, as Marx put it, that “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”
Kirk upended these gothic conceits. For him, the supposedly benighted past was to be learned from. He depicted the Victorian mansion—the haunted structure most menacing to bourgeois America—as a site of beauty and order rather than repression and violence. In “Lex Talionis,” a man who has broken into a condemned Victorian home admires “the former glories of the house” evoked by the stained glass doors, walnut pillars, and marble floors. These things spoke to Kirk not of a sinister past but of an appealing alternative to the efficient and rational future envisioned by some.
Wide as it was, Kirk’s sympathy had limits. His ghost stories and gothic novels reflect his attachment to a particular vision of society and his hostility to its perceived enemies. Kirk cherished a vision of order centered on family, faith, and property. He was capable of ridiculing, as in one story, those who expatiate on “the decay of old families and the follies of socialism.” But as a rule his villains were the chosen enemies of the mid-century right. In Old House of Fear, for example, the villain is a committed Communist, and he tries to corrupt a young woman by schooling her “in progressive social views and in a proper understanding of occult lore.”
In Lord of the Hollow Dark, his final novel, Kirk gives the fullest sense of those he viewed with suspicion. An unmarried young woman with an infant child is invited to a Scottish castle, where, it is rumored, occult rites were long ago performed. The man leading the party is a progressive visionary who now intends to stage a Black Mass and orgy. The eager congregants include Professor Channing-Cheetah, a humanitarian who thinks people are “nice” unless they happen to be “exploiters” who occupy indigenous land; Mr. Eugenides, a kingpin in the flesh trade; Mr. Hakagawa, an arch-abortionist; and Mr. Bleistein, a businessman who holds a “thick cigar” and has left a “trail of bankrupt international companies behind him.” These names, taken from the poems of T. S. Eliot, are meant to tell us something about each guest, and the last is notable. Eliot described “Bleistein with a cigar” as a “Chicago Semite Viennese” and mocked him in some of his cruelest lines.
We soon learn that these people mean to kill the woman and her child as part of their ceremony. They are international elites, bound together by sexual perversity and the consumption of innocent flesh. The coincidence between Kirk’s novel and some of today’s wilder speculations about the nature of the global elite is striking. Perhaps there is something inherently gothic in the way we view our politics. Both left and right imagine far-reaching conspiracies—whether the ancient alliance of feudal repression, religious obscurantism, and sexual hypocrisy feared by some on the left, or the unholy conclave of political radicals, moral perverts, and international businessmen that stalks the nightmares of some on the right. It is no coincidence that the Gothic novel emerged in the age of revolution, when the opposition between reaction and progress, tradition and modernity, was the stuff of popular fiction as well as political debate. Kirk was drawn to the gothic tale in part because his intellectual life was concerned with the contest between old and new.
Even those who sometimes regret Kirk’s selection of villains will find in his fiction a rejoinder to the conspiratorial assumption that those unlike us must be engaged in acts of perversity. At the end of his final novel, we learn that the bygone figures once suspected of engaging in satanic ceremonies were in fact Catholic recusants devoutly hearing the Mass. This is the gentle teaching of Kirk’s stories: The past we despise could be worth cherishing. The specters we fear might mean us no harm, and the moldering castle may be our true home.
Matthew Schmitz is a founder and editor of Compact.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?