Russell Kirk believed in ghosts — and he wanted you to believe in them, too.
As one of the great conservative minds of the 20th century, Kirk is best known as a founding intellectual of a modern political movement. When he wasn’t writing books about Edmund Burke or columns for National Review, however, he was scribbling away for publications such as Fantasy and Science Fiction, London Mystery Magazine, and New Terrors. In 1958, T. S. Eliot wrote to him: “How amazingly versatile and prolific you are! Now you have written what I should have least expected of you — ghost stories!”
If Eliot had been a bit more familiar with Kirk, he wouldn’t have been surprised at all. Kirk often talked about his brushes with revenants, and was convinced that his big house in Mecosta, Mich., was haunted. Visitors to his home — myself included, as a college student on a trip sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute — were regaled with ghost stories told by candlelight.
Kirk’s most-influential book was The Conservative Mind, but his most popular one was a novel, The Old House of Fear. It made the bestseller lists in the early 1960s and sold more copies than all of Kirk’s other books combined. It employed the conventions of Gothic fiction to tell a great story set on a remote and mysterious Scottish island — and also to satirize Marxism and liberalism.
Many of Kirk’s books remain in print, but The Old House of Fear is not one of them. It isn’t easy to find copies on the secondhand market, either. The same goes for Kirk’s other fiction — mainly ghost stories told in a traditional vein — even though collections of them were published in the 1980s.
Today, however, it’s a bit easier, and will remain so for a short time. Ash-Tree Press, a small publisher in rural British Columbia, has just issued Off the Sand Road, the first of two volumes that will collect all of Kirk’s short fiction. The second book, What Shadows We Pursue, is scheduled for release in late March. (Sadly, there are no plans to reprint The Old House of Fear.)
“Kirk was one of the most original ghost-story authors,” says Christopher Roden, who runs Ash-Tree Press with his wife, Barbara. “We thought there would be a market for what he wrote.”
It’s apparently a pretty limited market — only 500 copies of Off the Sand Road have been printed. (So buy some right now!) They’re aimed chiefly at a specialty audience that devours ghostly tales in the mold of M. R. James and E. F. Benson.
Yet Kirk’s literary appeal ought to be broader than that. “I’d go so far as to suggest that to find the greatest American author of ghostly fiction, one need look no further than Russell Kirk,” writes John Pelan in his introduction to Off the Sand Road.
Kirk deserves a place alongside the classic authors of supernatural fiction, such as Algernon Blackwood, H. P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, Edgar Allen Poe. The books of these writers are still in print, and are usually found on the “horror” shelves at mainstream bookstores.
What sets Kirk apart from most genre writers, however, is a sharp moral imagination. “The better uncanny stories are underlain by a healthy concept of the character of evil,” he wrote in a short essay that is included in Off the Sand Road. “Defying nature, the necromancer conjures up what ought not to rise again this side of Judgment Day. But those dark powers do not rule the universe: by bell, book, and candle, symbolically at least, we can push them down under.”
Kirk seemed to think that conservatives especially would appreciate ghostly fiction, given its requirement that readers acknowledge their inability to know all things — a foundational principle of modern conservatism. “Mine was not an enlightened mind,” Kirk once wrote, “it was a Gothic mind, medieval in it temper and structure. I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. I despised sophisters and calculators; I was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. I would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle.”
It almost sounds like something from Kirk’s famous introduction to The Portable Conservative Reader, in which he enunciates his distinctive brand of conservatism — including its firm rejection of materialist philosophy. And is there anything that rejects materialism more firmly than an old-fashioned ghost story?
If you’re an admirer of Kirk’s nonfiction, a lover of ghostly lore, a conservative with a literary streak, or just somebody who likes to read haunted tales on dark nights — get yourself a copy of Off the Sand Road. And remember: There are only 500 copies to be had, which means they’ll soon vanish like an apparition from another world.