Kirk: Ancestral Shadows

October 31, 2016

kirk-ancestral-shadowsAncestral Shadows
An Anthology of Ghostly Tales
Russell Kirk
(Eerdmans, 2004)
410 p.

Russell Kirk is remembered principally for his writings on politics and culture; I expect that even many of his admirers might be surprised to learn that he wrote fiction, and genre fiction at that. My own knowledge of Kirk has been entirely at second hand, but I had seen one or two appreciative references to these ghost stories, and when the opportunity arose I snatched them up.

I am glad that I did so; they are wonderful. I have made it my habit over the years to read ghost stories (or other macabre matter) during October, and I’ve roamed through classics from H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Oxford Books of This-or-Frightening-That, and whatever else I thought might qualify as (s)cream of the crop. I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed none of those more than I’ve enjoyed these. Kirk’s stories are intricate, original, eerie, and, best of all, superbly written (as the back-cover blurbs from T.S. Eliot, Ray Bradbury, Madeleine L’Engle, and Thomas Howard attest). Kirk brings a sense of atmosphere to his tales, and atmosphere is critical for ghost stories.

I’m no taxonomist of supernatural fiction, but I am told that these are “Gothic” tales; I’m not sure why. They are scary, but outright malevolence is rare, and gore pretty much absent. Kirk himself, in an epilogue to this collection, calls them “experiments in the moral imagination,” and that gets nicely at part of their appeal. The stories couch their uncanny elements within a moral and even a metaphysical framework; haunting spectral presences are here often manifestations of an underlying order rather than disturbances of it. This is perhaps especially so of my favourite of the stories, “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding,” in which an ex-con finds himself caught up into an eerie supernatural encounter as an unwitting agent of justice. It’s simultaneously unsettling and genuinely tender. Its companion piece (and a number of these stories are paired with others sharing the same characters), “Watchers at the Strait Gate,” is also surprisingly touching.

Of the 19 stories collected in this volume, there is naturally some variation in quality. In the earlier stories he sometimes has a tendency to introduce political polemic, scoring points against urban planners and other bureaucrats whom, I gather, gave him nightmares. This I found a bit distracting, but it was less prevalent in the later tales. Also I must admit that I did not finish one of the stories, “The Reflex-Man of Whinneymuir Close”. Its epigraph is from Robert Kirk’s Commonwealth, and it is written in a seventeenth-century Scottish idiom to match. Nothing wrong with the story, so far as I know, but I grew impatient with the style and abandoned it. Mea culpa.

But overall this was a very enjoyable collection, warmly recommended to give you chills.

17 Responses to “Kirk: Ancestral Shadows”

  1. Janet Says:

    Somewhere or other we were talking about these stories and Maclin suggested not reading them all at once. After the first few, I figured that was good advice. They have a sort of gloomy atmosphere that lingers after you quit reading. It’s not that I didn’t like them; I did, but any more would have been too much for me at the time. I need to read a few more.


  2. cburrell Says:

    Yes, but I find that’s not uncommon with short story collections. These I read over two years: about half last October and half this.

  3. Rob Grano Says:

    By all means finish “Reflex Man…” — it’s a minor masterpiece!

    Here’s a review I did of Kirk’s stories for Touchstone some years ago:

  4. cburrell Says:

    That’s a very good review, Rob; thanks for pointing me to it. I think you were one of the people who recommended these stories to me (at Mac’s blog, probably), so I’m happy to have the chance to thank you personally.

    Do you have the Ash-Tree books? I wanted to get them, but they are very pricey.

    I’m sorry to hear that I skipped one of the best stories! I’ll make a point of trying it again next year.

  5. Rob Grano Says:

    You are welcome!

    The same folks who ran Ash-Tree Press also put out the journal All Hallows, which I wrote for, and were also part of a writers’ group I was in. Thus I knew them fairly well and was able to secure review copies. Even so I probably would have bought them anyways. Not sure what they’d go for now, but I imagine they’re not cheap, especially if they’ve gone out of print, which is likely.

  6. cburrell Says:

    Nice. I believe Ash-Tree Press is a Canadian publisher? I thought they might make inexpensive copies available to me because, you know, I’m Canadian too, but I never pursued the idea.

  7. Rob Grano Says:

    Yeah, they started out in the UK, but along the way the Roden’s, the couple that are the proprietors, moved to B.C.

    It’s funny — Barbara Roden was a little hesitant to having the books reviewed in a conservative religious journal, as she’s a little left of center, I think. But then I told her that Kirk had helped found Touchstone!

  8. cburrell Says:

    Everyone in BC is a little left of center.

  9. Mac Horton Says:

    Another book that might interest y’all: The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories. I had picked it up at a sale a while back but not read any of it until this morning, when I read the insightful Preface and the first story, “The Tapestried Room,” by Sir Walter Scott.

    I’ve had the Kirk book for several years but have only read 3/4 or so of the stories, as Janet alludes to above. I’m sure I’ll do the same with the Oxford book.

  10. cburrell Says:

    Your instincts are sound, Mac: that’s a book that I have, and it is excellent. Like you, I’ve not read it all, but it has been one of my “go to” volumes for my annual ghost story binges.

  11. Rob Grano Says:

    I have a collection of R.H. Benson’s ghostly tales called The Light Invisible. The stories are rather “quiet,” but quite enjoyable.

  12. Rob Grano Says:

    E. F. Benson was the brother who was the real ghost story guy — he wrote dozens. R.H., and the other brother Arthur (A.C.) both wrote them too, but in lesser numbers. I had a collection at one time (maybe still do) that had about ten stories by each of them in it.

  13. Janet Says:

    Oh, they are good–and different.


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