At Halloween, Russell Kirk and his beloved Piety Hill beamed in joyful frightfulness. Gregorian chants drifted mysteriously through the October night from the imposing Italianate house, interrupted only by the shrieks of cats and the howls of wolves. The Wizard of Mecosta himself, his doctoral robes from St. Andrews in Scotland billowing around him, greeted the wide-eyed trick-or-treaters.
A man of letters known for his history of Anglo-American conservative thought and his sensitive treatment of T. S. Eliot, Dr. Kirk took great pride in bringing, as he put it, “dreadful joy” to the hundreds of costumed children who tramped their way through the fallen leaves to the Kirk family’s doorstep. Though he is no longer with us to ring in All Hallows Eve, he continues to bring dreadful joy through his ghostly tales. These stories fell out of print, but in the last several years they’ve returned in fine editions from Ash-Tree Press and Wm. B. Eerdmans.
It shouldn’t be thought that Kirk was a divided man: Burkean scholar and columnist of matters academic for National Review on the one side, the fashioner of uncanny yarns and contributor to Fantasy and Science Fiction on the other.
In his canons of conservative thought, he recognizes man’s dependence on the divine: “Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.” He quoted approvingly a prominent historian of the Tory party: “Every Tory is a realist: he knows that there are great forces in heaven and earth that man’s philosophy cannot plumb or fathom.” The belief in God’s mysterious Providence provides the foundation for Kirk’s work in history and politics–and for his ghostly tales.
Let us first be clear on one thing: Russell Kirk believed in ghosts.
This may sound strange. It may even prompt a nervous laugh. We’re told these days the soul is a metaphor for consciousness, at best an emergent property of man’s brain. And yet I’m reminded of a passage in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas.
Before a pyramid, the young prince Rassleas maintains there’s no need to fear the dead as “he that is once buried will be seen no more.” Not necessarily, replies the prince’s tutor and guide, Imlac. “That the dead are seen no more… I will not undertake to maintain against the concurrent and unvaried testimony of all ages, and of all nations… This opinion, which, perhaps, prevails, as far as human nature is diffused, could become universal only by its truth …. That it is doubted by single [quibblers] can very little weaken the general evidence, and some who deny it with their tongues confess it by their fears.”
I fear I must part company with Imlac, however, when he discusses where specters are likely to appear. So, I’m confident, would Kirk. “There can be no reason,” Imlac insists, “why specters should haunt the pyramid more than other places…” Yet some places seem more prone to the uncanny. Kirk believed in “thin places,” those spots where the distance between this world and the next narrows to but a sliver. There, if only for an instance, frightful or beatific glimpses may be had.
As fortune would have it, his own Piety Hill seems to have been one of those thin places. This he loved to note. Before Kirk’s time, spiritualist and Swedenborgian notions had fascinated the family. The parlor at Piety Hill was home to séances, the supposed levitation of a chair and table, and a fiddle that played itself. Kirk himself reported seeing strange things. So did visitors and other family members.
“Perhaps,” Kirk wrote in his autobiography, which is told in the third person, “a relish for the uncanny worked in his genes; he found such mysteries more entertaining than affrighting. In the course of a vagrant life he would collect narratives of the occult–in haunted St. Andrews, in the castles and country houses of Fife, in the Hebrides in Ireland, even in the palazzi of Florence.” Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, most of the high strangeness of his ancestral home died away after a fire, on Ash Wednesday of 1975, claimed the old part of the house.
The scholars, students, and various wayfarers who stayed with the Kirks attest to his love of ghost stories. Professor Russell Hittinger recalled his first trip to Piety Hill for a conference on whether virtue can be taught. After hours of discussion, he said, everyone “retired to the living room on the final evening, whereupon Russell told ghost stories. I returned more than once to these annual affairs in Mecosta, and I can assure you that the ghosts always had the final word.”
Sometimes, a true ghost story, too fragmentary to stand on its own, would catch Kirk’s fancy, or something that happened in his own life or to his friends or family, or memories of country houses or old churches. Kirk said he would “patch together these fragments, retaining and embellishing the sound images, discarding the unsound, finding a continuity to join them.” What emerged? Some of the finest ghostly tales of the last century.
For instance, in “Saviourgate,” a desperate man stumbles upon a lovely hotel and a taste of heaven. Rarely has the connection between past and present been presented so skillfully and mysteriously as in “An Encounter by Mortstone Pond.” Another story where God’s view of time comes into play is the purgatorial “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding.”
In “The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost,” an Episcopal clergyman finds himself faced with evil and its snares. A Catholic priest needs some unlikely help to make it past the “Watchers at the Strait Gate.” And in “The Surly Sullen Bell,” a man must finally choose to blow hot or cold.
The larger expanses of life open in these supernatural tales: love, courage, timeless moments that will survive the grave, purgation, the reality of evil, hell, damnation, and even glimpses of heaven. But don’t forget they’re also good eerie fun–especially on a chilly October night when the wind howls and rustles the fallen leaves.
– R. Andrew Newman is a freelance writer in Nebraska.