The Old House of Fear by Russell Kirk

oldhouseoffear.jpgIn his farsical “review” of The Essential Russell Kirk Alan Wolfe dedicated a chunk of his time to a description of Kirk’s most popular book The Old House of Fear. Wolfe commented that he found it dreary and that:

His explicitly political writings are just as fantastic as Old House of Fear. And his fiction is as didactic as anything he writes about Plato or Coleridge.

Seeing how Wolfe had gotten just about everything wrong in his essay, I thought it might be interesting to see if his criticisms of Kirk’s fiction had any more merit. Not surprisingly they do not.

The Old House of Fear is best described as a Gothic novel. Let’s go to Wikipedia:

Gothic fiction is a genre of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance. As a genre, it is generally believed to have been invented by the English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto. The effect of Gothic fiction depends on a pleasing sort of terror, an extension of essentially Romantic literary pleasures that were relatively new at the time of Walpole’s novel.

Prominent features of Gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and Gothic architecture, castles, darkness, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets and hereditary curses.

(for more on the Gothic novel see here)

Old House of Fear fits this description nicely as it contains both horror and romance and all of the prominent features listed above. The story focuses on Hugh Logan an attorney sent by an aging and wealthy industrialist to purchase the Scottish island of Carnglass in the Hebrides and its castle The Old House of Fear. The industrialist, Duncan MacAskival, is a distant relative of the clan that has lived on the island for centuries. The island is now owned by the widowed Lady MacAskival but she is old and dying.

Duncan MacAskival has been trying to negotiate the sale of the island for years to no avail. But when he finally receives word that Lady MacAskival is willing to meet to discuss the sale, he is determined to conclude a deal. Logan is dispatched to try and convince her. From the very beginning, however, he finds his way blocked and the situation more complex that he had thought.

It turns out the island is controlled by a madman named Dr. Edmund Jackman who is attempting to use Lady MacAskival’s money for evil ends in order to win back approval from his former communist paymasters. Although he manages to get to the island, soon Logan is worried about surviving Carnglass rather than buying it.

So what to make of this slim but strange tale? I think the answer will depend on your taste. Wolfe complains that Kirk’s fiction is overly didactic and dreary, but both are a matter of taste. I personally didn’t find much merit in either of these claims.

I didn’t find the political social commentary to have overwhelmed or undermined the story. But there is clearly a political/social/moral element to the story. In fact, the original Time Magazine review argued:

“This Gothick tale,” says Author Russell Kirk, is “in unblushing line of direct descent from The Castle of Otranto.” He is wrong. Historian Kirk (The Conservative Mind) has expertly stuffed his book with all the claptrappings of the Gothic romance, but what he has actually achieved is a political morality tale. For all the apparent ectoplasm floating about it, the Old House of Fear is haunted not by ghosts but by the shadow of the welfare state.

But as noted in the links above, this is typical of Gothic fiction:

[T]he Gothic novel could be seen as a description of a fallen world. We experience this fallen world though all aspects of the novel: plot, setting, characterization, and theme.

The setting is greatly influential in Gothic novels. It not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling . . . Even though the Gothic Novel deals with the sublime and the supernatural, the underlying theme of the fallen hero applies to the real world as well. Once we look past the terror aspect of this literature, we can connect with it on a human level. Furthermore, the prevalent fears of murder, rape, sin, and the unknown are fears that we face in life. In the Gothic world they are merely multiplied.

All of this is true of The Old House of Fear. Kirk has merely added a political element prevalent at the time: the specter of communism. But Jackman’s communism is not just a prop for commentary it is a part of his character and helps set up both his motivation and mindset. Does Kirk uses this to include his own views on ideology and communism in particular? Sure, but not in such a way as to derail the story in my opinion.

No, the didacticism is not likely to spoil your enjoyment of the book as much as the conventions of the genre. I think fellow blogger A. Walter in his review gets it about right:

Russell Kirk’s Old House of Fear, first published in 1961 and now reprinted by Wm. B. Eerdmans, will be for the right audience — fans of Kirk’s superb ghost stories and of the Victorian gothic-adventure tale — a highly entertaining read. For today’s general reader, however, it is likely to be a disappointment. One [sic] the one hand, Kirk’s prose is often a joy in itself, and his characters are always a delight. Kirk manages to create larger than life characters in just a few sentences, and his heroes are refreshingly (almost disarmingly) audacious and proactive. They are men in the Indiana Jones mold, able to take care of themselves in almost any situation. Even more importantly, the book has a truly satisfying and chilling finale moment which, in a well-rounded novel, would have been its crowning jewel.

The central flaw that prevents the book from being really exceptional, though, is a certain imbalance between “back story” and present-moment narrative. That is, the book relies on a large amount of background material which is well thought-out and very involving. In the active narrative of the novel, though, Kirk fails to flesh out a few things in a convincing manner. We have a villain with a terrible reputation who never becomes quite as menacing as we expect. There is one narrow escape for our hero that comes a bit too soon, and too easily. And, finally, there is a romantic subplot that is both convenient and sudden, a bad combination. It may be true that all of these elements correspond with traditional, gothic-tale conventions, but to today’s ears this argument can only be heard as a plea for indulging unsophisticated storytelling. Kirk obviously had a great affection for the tales he was paying homage to in Old House of Fear, and for those who share this affection, his enthusiasm will certainly be infectious. Unfortunately, many others are likely to find the novel only infrequently engaging.

If you share Kirk’s love for not only the Gothic tale, but also for the history and architecture of out of the way places like the Hebrides, you will probably enjoy The Old House of Fear. Kirk’s fascination for all of these things comes through clearly in the novel. And as Walter also notes, Kirk’s unique prose style is also in frequent evidence.

I will admit that I am not a big fan of this genre or style, but I certainly didn’t find it dreary or obvious politics dressed up as bad fiction. It reminded me of another conservative’s fiction: William F. Buckley’s Blackford Oakes series. In the same way that Buckley brought his own unique style and perspective to the spy novel, I think Kirk brought his own unique voice and interests to the Gothic tale or ghost story. This was an important part of his personality and he enjoyed bringing it to life in his fiction.

As has been noted, The Old House of Fear must have done something right as it was Kirk’s most popular book. It was on the bestseller lists when it was originally published and sold more than all of his other books combined. A great many people found in Kirk’s fiction something more than just stale didacticism. Fans of Kirk will want to check out his fiction if they haven’t already, but if you like fiction with a Gothic slant, or like romantic mysteries set in exotic locales, The Old House of Fear may interest you as well.

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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