An Anthology of Ghostly Tales
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.