Posts Tagged ‘Russell Kirk’

Kirk: Old House of Fear

October 31, 2021

Old House of Fear
Russell Kirk
(Criterion, 2019) [1961]
230 p.

“When you play with things from the abyss, you run risks.”

The ghost stories of Russell Kirk are wonderful creations. As Halloween approached this year I got a hankering for something in that line, and I recalled that he had written this novel whose title promised something suitably spine-chilling. I took it up with keen anticipation.

I was slightly put out, therefore, when, in the early going, our main character, Hugh Logan, was told for the first time about the grand old titular house :

“But it’s a brave old house, Hugh. And the name is Gaelic, not English: ‘fear’ is spelled ‘fir’ or ‘fhir,’ sometimes, and it means ‘man’ — Old House of Fear is Old House of Man.”

You don’t say? And, for a time, it seemed that this bait-and-switch might be the actual tack the novel was taking. But I am happy to report that as the story progressed the bottom gradually deepened, and strange shapes began to appear in the depths, fleeting at first, but growing bolder.

The Old House is situated on Carnglass, a (sadly fictional) island in the outer Hebrides. An old dying lady lives there, and a wealthy American banker who wants the house sends his lawyer — our hero, Hugh — to negotiate the purchase in person. But the island, he learns, has a bad reputation, and what is waiting for him when he eventually arrives is not at all what he expected. He is not the only party intent on acquiring the house, for one.

It’s a splendid setting, wild and isolated, a natural place for primordial powers to find a refuge from the sleek and brisk powers of the modern world. Kirk once spoke of the “fearful joy” of supernatural tales, and this story conveys that joy, even if not quite so thoroughly or successfully as his best ghostly stories.

Kirk, in his theorizing mode (and of course he is better known for his political and philosophical writing), contended that supernatural tales were better suited to allegorical or symbolic story-telling than more characteristically modern genres such as science fiction. And in passages such as this one:

“With growing speed, the brooding spectre of terror, almost palpable in Carnglass, was enveloping the world. This island was the microcosm of modern existence.”

he hints rather strongly that his story is open to that kind of interpretation. It’s not hard to make headway: on Hugh’s arrival the Old House is already besieged, and even occupied, by a troupe of half-wit criminals who espouse Marxism and have the violent instincts to back it up. Their leader, Dr Jackman, has even been trying to proselytize a young woman who occupies the Old House:

Dr. Jackman did not neglect Miss Mary MacAskival. Upon her he bestowed much valuable time endeavoring to instruct her in progressive social views and in a proper understanding of occult lore… He talked politics and necromancy to her, a queer mixture. The one, she thought, was as mad as the other, or perhaps the politics was a little the madder.

That’s pretty funny in its own right, but it opens up an allegorical reading if we’re so inclined: we see the Old House of Man, with its elusive, uncanny depths, surrounded and infiltrated by crude, thinly rational ideologues with guns. That’s not a bad allegory of modern existence, and it’s certainly a Kirkian one.

Naturally, ideologues with guns cannot, in this story, carry the day.

I enjoyed the book. I did find that the chases and shoot-outs got too much limelight, and the spooky bits too little, and on those grounds I prefer his short stories. But the sense of place is very effectively developed, and I grew quite fond of Mary MacAskival, who charmed me as much as she did our hero. A good book.


Two final notes. First, I stumbled in stupefaction when I read, after a quick shooting episode, that “there were two less snipers to worry about”. Surely that ought to be “two fewer snipers,” no? Kirk wouldn’t make that mistake, would he?

Second, I learned an interesting new word: hoyden. “She was a hoyden of sorts, but quite innocent.” It means “a high-spirited, boisterous, or saucy girl.” A useful word.

Here and there

May 23, 2019

First, some film notes:

  • Terrence Malick’s long-awaited film, A Hidden Life, premiered this week at Cannes, and the critics seemed to like it, calling it his best since The Tree of Life and, perhaps on account of its World War II setting, something of a partner to The Thin Red Line, all of which is wonderfully good news. It’s the film I’ve been most anticipating this year, though whether I’ll actually get to see it this year is another matter.
  • Deal Hudson praises First Reformed, while sketching out its relationship to the so-called transcendental style of film-making.
  • Another good film from last year was the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Ross Douthat argues that it’s “a particularly transparent window into their unique sort of metaphysical agnosticism” — which, if it wasn’t clear, he sees as a good thing. It’s a thoughtful take on the film.
  • There is a documentary from a few years ago — it never found a distributor, which tells you something — called An Open Secret which argues that the grooming system for child actors in Hollywood includes networks of sexual abuse and exploitation. The highest ranking Hollywood brass named in that film was Bryan Singer, director of several X-Men films. A few months ago The Atlantic ran a good piece in which his accusers told their stories.

Then, some book notes:

  • Will Lloyd laments the rise of politicized books for children.
  • It’s my favourite colour and yours, and now Michel Pastoureau has written a book about it. The book was in our home, courtesy the public library, where, alas, it sat in a place of honour for some weeks before being returned, unread. But I would like to read it, and in the meantime Jesse Russell has written an appreciative review.
  • James Panero writes perceptively about the ghost stories of Russell Kirk (which I read a few years ago around about All Hallows Eve).
  • Finally, I have to recommend Michael Weingrad’s superbly barbed exploration of Harold Bloom’s life-long antagonism toward the Inklings, and especially toward C.S. Lewis.

For an envoi, let’s watch Buster Scruggs’ death scene, featuring Gillian Welch and David Rawlings singing “Spurs for Wings”:

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.

A wee bit here, a wee bit there

November 20, 2015

A few wee bits of note:

  • The recent Synod on the Family in Rome hasn’t, by and large, been a laughing matter, so this provides welcome comic relief.
  • Fr Longenecker, a long-time blogger at Standing on my Head, has recently launched a new blog: The Suburban Hermit. If you’ve an interest in things Benedictine, or like to look at old abbeys and read old books, it might be for you. Just today he wrote about our sort-of patroness, St Julian of Norwich.
  • Canada has a new Prime Minister, and he’s setting a new tone in international affairs.
  • Janet Cupo is planning to host an online book club during Advent this year; we’ll be reading Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of GodThere’s probably still time to get a copy if you’re interested; mine arrived in the mail today.
  • My day job, in part.
  • Wouldn’t it be great to have a school like this in your neighbourhood?
  • On a similar note: Russell Kirk on why one might want to learn Latin? I studied it for a year. Avis, avis, avis.
  • One possible reason: to realize more clearly that English is not normal.
  • Did you know there is an animal that can survive being dehydrated for 10 years, being kept at 200 degrees below freezing, and going to outer space? Meet the mightiest wee bit of them all: the tardigrade.

Four great themes

May 16, 2011

“Men read and write only because they are convinced that certain great subjects are worth reading and writing about. Four great themes, it seems to me, have been the inspiration of most important imaginative literature from the dawn of Greek civilization down to our own age. The first of these is religion: the description of the relation between divine nature and human nature, as in Hesiod and Dante and Milton. The second is heroism: the nobility of strong and earnest men, as in Homer or Virgil or Mallory. The third is love: the devotion beyond mere appetite, as in classical legend or medieval romance. The fourth is the intricacy of character and class, ranging all the way from Chaucer to Conrad. Now a society which has lost its religious convictions and its society denies itself the first theme. A society which denies the right to greatness and to distinctions among men deprives itself of the second theme. A society which takes love for no more than the carnal appetite cannot attach real significance even to the novel of adultery. A society which looks upon men as mere production and consumption units of interchangeable value cannot understand the subtle shadings of personality and rank of a different sort of age. The springs of the imagination thus are dried up. For a time, satire can exist by pointing out the decay of faith and heroism and love and variety; but when even the memory of these themes fade, then satire, too, comes to an end. Then boredom triumphs in life and art.”

— Russell Kirk, “English Letters in the Age of Boredom,”
Shenandoah 7 (Spring, 1956).

(Hat-tip: The Imaginative Conservative)