Russell

Kirk gained fame with conservatives as the man who gave intellectual

credibility to a movement in retreat with his tour de force The Conservative

Mind.  In that book, he demonstrated that conservatism had

a proud pedigree and a powerful philosophical tradition during a time

when many doubted whether it was anything more than an irritable gesture

of retrograde minds. 

      In

the wake of the book’s publication, the Michigan State professor became

a staple of the many young institutions of the right as they were born

in the second half of the 20th century.  Kirk was one

of the original contributors to National Review and the founder

of the journal Modern Age (still being published by the Intercollegiate

Studies Institute).  His writing and lecturing eventually occupied

all of his time.  He left the university and wrote a series of

conservative classics from his much loved “spooky house” in Michigan’s

stump country.  My own favorite is The Roots of American Order

which is a near must-read for anyone interested in the sources of the

American liberty which now appears to have saved the world from “scientific”

totalitarianism in the last 100 years.

      This

Kirk, the conservative intellectual, is well known.  What is less

well known about Russell Kirk is that he was also a prolific writer

of ghost stories.  The volume under review, Ancestral Shadows,

contains19 tales which originally appeared in magazines like Fantasy

and Science Fiction, London Mystery Magazine, The Critic,

World Review, Frights, Dark Forces, Whispers,

and New Terrors.  Readers who try this book will find that

Russell Kirk, like Walker Percy, G.K. Chesterton, and George Orwell

was one of those rare talents capable of walking on both sides of the

literary fence between fiction and non-fiction.

      I

recall once reading a single line from an Ernest Hemingway story that

compelled me to seek out the complete work.  It was a story about

the crucifixion of Christ.  The single line was uttered by a Roman

soldier after a grisly day’s work.  “He was pretty good in

there today,” the soldier said, referring to Jesus.  You read

that and you must know more. 

      Ancestral

Shadows has several lines of like quality in store for the reader. 

The story “The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost” offers

a stirring example.  The self-identified “shiny black” Jamaican

doctor of divinity and Episcopal priest Raymond Thomas Montrose is the

faithful tenant of a great old (and now nearly abandoned church) in

a decaying city.  He saves those he can (primarily prostitutes

he is able to spirit away to more wholesome places) and knows that his

parish would likely be shut down by his ultra-liberal bishop if not

for the blessing of his very dark skin.  The occasion of the stirring

sentence is that his church is invaded by a rough man seeking to rape

an innocent and uncommonly beautiful young woman who has come under

the care of Dr. Montrose.  Montrose, however, is more formidable

than he appears.  Considering the advance of the intruder, he notes

with determination, “If we poor feeble sinners – of whom I am the

chief – are engaged in a holy war against the forces of Satan, we

ought to ensure that not all of the casualties fall on our side.” 

There is much more to the story than that, but the reader’s mind already

has what it needs to create interest.

      The

collection nicely divides into certain themes.  The one I’ve

seen other conservatives mention is Kirk’s animosity toward the ever-expanding

reach of the great technocrats hoping to do away with old and organic

“inefficiencies” in favor of the newer, the better, and what’s

next.  Certainly, that theme is evident in the collection. 

The first tale revolves around the determination of a coolly rational

urban planner who understands little of the needs of real human beings. 

Planning officer “Mr. S.G.W. Barner” insensitively plagues the otherwise

happy existence of an isolated elderly woman until he discovers that

Shakespeare’s declaration “that there are more things in heaven

and earth . . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy” has a dark

side.  Likewise, the ultra-aggressive Special Interviewer for the

rural census Cribben breaks down the privacy of simple people until

he goes too far by insisting on a Sunday visit to do business with a

family possessed of pronounced hermitic tendencies.  He comes to

understand, tragically, that sometimes people keep to themselves for

good reason.

      But

there is more to Ancestral Shadows than the kind of work that

would have readily identified Kirk as a “Crunchy Con” long before

Rod Dreher coined the term. The author is clearly concerned with the

spiritual implications of crime.  In “Uncle Isaiah” Daniel

Kinnaird, a proud man from a family with a lost fortune, is barely surviving

with a cleaning business in a declining part of town.  He and his

employees do good work despite their constantly declining profits. 

When a local criminal buys his way out of jail and seeks to replenish

his coffers through intimidation, Kinnaird is a target seemingly destined

to pay protection money lest he get a cement block through his plate

glass window.  Everyone tells him to pay unless he knows someone

“tough”.  Kinnaird happens to know a person who meets that

description in an unorthodox fashion.  His tormentor, the menacing

“Costa”, experiences an unanticipated reckoning.  Here we have

a recurring theme of the best ghost stories, whether by Kirk or others,

which is that we live in a moral universe and that justice will eventually

have its terrible due. 

      While

it is chilling to read tales of evil men receiving the penalty for their

transgressions, the best parts of the collection focus on those who

have repented of their wrongs and are striving toward God.  In

return, they earn a chance at redemption.  Eddie Mahaffy wakes

from a brutal prison beating to find himself uniquely in the service

of the Lord outside the penitentiary walls.  The cowardly giant

Frank Sarsfield wanders his whole life, pilfering church poorboxes and

surrendering or backing out of fights, only to walk into the opportunity

to become a brave man and maybe take “Heaven by storm.” Sarsfield

is one of three characters to appear in more than one story.  In

a second appearance, he visits an old priest who showed him mercy and

kindness despite his unworthiness and offers an unusual and precious

method of repaying his debt.  The retired soldier Ralph Bain with

his head still soft from a war wound and his small pension offers his

strong arms and lovesick heart to a traumatized young widow who will

never have him in an act of redemptive service.  We meet him again

in a strangely pleasant old English bar and hotel where he counsels

another half-lost soul somewhere between suicide and starting over.

      The

reader will also have the opportunity to meet Manfred Arcane, a character

who could easily have served as the model for the current series of

television commercials about “The Most Interesting Man in the World”. 

Arcane is a powerful “minister without portfolio” in a small, oil-rich

Muslim nation behind the Iron Curtain.  He holds his lofty post

despite being both a Christian and a capitalist (rumored to receive

a 2% royalty on each barrel of oil) because of his great talents and

charisma.  Arcane is a storyteller and a supernaturalist constantly

aware of his own potential for evil.  In one tale, he seeks out

a Midwestern tourist couple just so he can experience their ordinariness

and uncomplicated decency.  They are delightfully “centric”

he notes (rather than eccentric).  Though the wife is completely

won over by his exotic charms, he treats her like a daughter and is

respectful of her husband, a young American judge.

      I

strongly recommend Ancestral Shadows.  Russell Kirk is an

imaginative writer capable of evoking both strong emotion and spiritual

reflection.  Pick the book up and don’t stop until the end. 

Many of the best stories are in the second half.  The arrangement

of the stories leads to simple satisfaction and heightened interest

early on followed by delight and perhaps a little awe by the finish. 

Some of these tales will survive for a very long time.