Ancestral Shadows by Russell Kirk

Close readers of this site know that Russell Kirk is one of my intellectual mentors. Despite having lived in the same state (Michigan) for many years I never had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Kirk. But his writing, which I discovered while working for the Heritage Foundation in D.C., has had a big impact on my political philosophy (see here and here). Kirk is most famous for his groundbreaking The Conservative Mind, and for works like The Roots of American Order and A Program for Conservatives. Kirk had a unique ability to blend together political philosophy and history in a way that was both educational and inspirational; that illuminated the past but also pointed a path for the future.

Despite his accomplishments as one of the fathers of modern American conservatism, Russell Kirk is not exactly a household name. Even less known is that Kirk was also an award winning fiction writer. In fact, in a recent review Michael Dirda lauds Kirk as the “greatest American author of ghostly tales in the classic style, at least of the post-World War II era.” Two recently released collections of Kirk’s short stories prompted this praise. Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales, published by Eerdmans, collects a wide array of Kirk’s ghostly tales but those seeking the complete collection will need to seek out the costlier but complete Off the Sand Road and What Shadows We Pursue by Ash Tree Press. I recently finished reading Ancestral Shadows and, despite my knowledge of Kirk, was amazed at the skill and imagination these stories reveal.

What struck me as I was reading was Kirk’s ability to create believable and compelling characters. Despite the supernatural and “uncanny” nature of these stories, the characters within are believable and memorable; events may over-take them but the action doesn’t overshadow them. This is the problem with so much of modern horror films, the over-the-top action becomes the focus rather than the characters themselves. Creepy and unnerving stories require imaginative characters and unique settings. They come from a blend of the recognizable and the unknown.

In the opening story, Ex Tenebris, Kirk introduces two interesting characters the widow Mrs. Oliver and the planning officer S. G. W. Barner. Here are Kirk’s descriptions to give you a taste of his style. Mrs. Oliver:

In the last sound cottage lives Mrs. Oliver, an ancient little women with a nose that very nearly meets her chin. She wears a countrywoman’s cloak of the old pattern, weeds her garden, and sometimes walks as far as the high-arched bridge which, built long before the cottages, has survived them.

Mr. S. G. W. Barner:

With a positive passion of social indignation then, S. G. W. Barner – a thick-chested, hairy man, forever carrying a dispatch case, stooping and heavy of tread, rather like a large earnest ape (as Sir Gerald had observed to Lady Ogham, after an unpleasant encounter at county-council meeting) – objected against Mrs. Oliver’s tenancy of the little red-tiled cottage.

These characters are typical of many of Kirk’s early tales. One character lives on the edge of society (for example the elderly, old fashioned parsons, restless souls pushed aside by modernity) but stubbornly holds to their beliefs and traditions against the constant pressure of “progress” and “the future.” The other is the un-imaginative, plodding, and destructive force of progress; refusing to recognize the wisdom of the past or the potential for harm in disturbing things best left alone. Kirk sides with the former. Not surprisingly, Mr. Barner meets an untimely end.

In Behind the Stumps we meet another one of these forces of modernity, this time a census worker named Cribben:

Tall, forty, stiff as a stick, this Cribben – walking chin up, chest out, joints rigid, in a sort of nervous defiance of humanity. He looked insufferable. He was insufferable . . . He laughed dutifully at other men’s jokes; he would go out of his way to write a friendly letter of recommendation; but somehow no one ever asked him out or looked him up. A failure in everything was Cribben – ex-engineer, ex-chief clerk, ex-artillery captain, ex-foundry partner. He told himself he had been completely reliable in every little particular, which was true; and he told himself he had failed because of his immaculate honesty in a mob of rogues, which was false. He had failed because he was precise . . . Cribben did not spare himself; no man was ever more methodical, more painstaking. Reliable in every particular, yes; but so devoted to these particulars that generalities went to pot.

The apt descriptions of interesting characters continue throughout the collection but the stories are more than just character sketches with spooky endings. Their plots and settings are imaginative and varied. The Surly Sullen Bell is a tragic story of unfulfilled love blended with a creepy horror plot. Balgrummo’s Hell is a more traditional plot where greed leads to a horrific end. But even here the horror encountered is subtle and mysterious rather than loud and bloody. Lord Balgrummo is no ordinary devil. In a warning for bibliophiles, What Shadows We Pursue describes how an obsessive love of books brings treachery and death to a family. In Saviourgate a desperate man inadvertently steps outside of time and place and finds the courage to face life again through a glimpse of the hereafter.

To give you a deeper sense of what nuggets this collection holds, let me attempt to pick out a few favorites. The strongest of the stories in this collection are probably The Princess of All Lands, There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding, and The Invasion of the Church of Holy Ghost. In these three stories can be found the imagination, skill, and power of Kirk’s writing. Perhaps a quick overview of the first two will give you a flavor of this unique collection.

The Princess of All Lands tells the story – based on the real life experience of Kirk’s Wife Annette – of Yolande a young woman of unique heritage and with unique abilities. It seems Yolande’s great-great-grandfather was, according to legend, an Indian prophet and conjurer and this lineage has been passed down to her. She is said to have “the virtue” which she describes as “an essence, a power, something that flows into you and out of you, letting you do acts that are good or evil.” Traveling home on Halloween – her birthday – she stops to pick up a young girl hitchhiking. This troubled young women, who travels with a loaded gun, has dark plans for Yolande. The story is told from the perspective of Yolande but she uses the car ride to tell the hitchhiker, and the reader, the unique story of her life. But as she tells her story, and as it becomes clear that the young women means Yolande harm, the tension builds and the reader realizes that these two women’s pasts are intertwined. Whether evil or good will get the upper hand isn’t finally resolved until the final page.

The Princess of All Lands is a unique mix of ghost story, para-normal mystery, and thriller. Kirk uses the first person perspective to bring out Yolande’s personality and her history. He effectively captures the voice of both the main character and her antagonist in the tension filled exchange they have in route to “Pompey Eye.” The tension is built on both the very real physical danger Yolande faces but also in the spiritual danger represented by the “seven year Indian” figure that haunts her past and seems destined to threaten her future.

There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding is a very different story but it also centers on a character with a troubled past. The main character here is Frank Sarsfield an aging hobo caught in a snow storm in the rural Midwest. Seeking shelter from the violent snow storm Frank stumbles upon an old Italianate farm house labeled Tamarack House. Sarsfield manages to escape the storm by entering the house via a storm cellar and finds the house uninhabited but stored with food and bedding. Given his circumstances he decides to ride out the weather in this fine old house.

But as readers might surmise the story doesn’t end their. Searching for paper with which to write his sister – who he hasn’t seen for nine years – Sarsfield discovers a letter that appears to be written from the original owners grand-daughter to her grand-niece. The letter tells the story of events of some fifty years prior relating to a prison break and an assault on the Tamarack House. Sarasfield’s past is outlined in his letter to his sister and the story of the house in which he is writing is related through the letter he discovers. But the latter letter is cut off before the climax to the story is reached. Touched by the letter and by the beauty of the house – and caught up in a kind of nostalgia for the family that used to inhabit it- Frank heads off to bed. But somewhere in between sleep and consciousness Frank’s history and the history of the house become in-twinned. Upon “waking” Frank finds himself living out the events that would make up the completion of the letter he stumbled upon the day before. In the oddly touching and violent conclusion, Sarsfield finds both redemption and the answer to the mystery of the empty house.

There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding is a powerful combination of character and plot. Frank Sarsfield is a great character. A hopeless wanderer who left home at age 15 never to see his parents again and spends time in and out of prison. A troubled soul but also an intelligent and self-taught man who eschews violence. Frank is a symbol of both the individual who seems incapable of fitting in to society and the spiritual seeker buffeted by his own fallen nature. Frank is seeking heaven but, like his inability to settle down in real life, seems to always come up short.

The story is also compelling. Like many of Kirk’s stories it deals with redemption and vengeance. Also similarly, the conclusion involves the mystery of time and place; a supernatural blurring of these lines in which the main character meets, and comes to terms with, his destiny. In the above noted review Michael Dirda has this to say about his reaction to this powerful story: “It’s not often that I cry at the end of a ghost story.”

As I hope the very limited descriptions above make clear, this collection is not just a bunch of spooky camp fire stories. Rather, the stories display an amazing range of characters, plots, and styles. In fiction, as in non, Kirk was a writer of the highest level. If, like Kirk, you have a Gothic frame of mind, if you enjoy stories about the super or preternatural, or if you simply enjoy quality writing I recommend that you pick up Ancestral Shadows. It is a rare collection of stories that make up an almost lost art.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


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