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TALES/ The Ghosts of Russell Kirk

DANIEL HOFFMAN reviews “Ancestral Shadows”, the anthology of short stories written by Russel Kirk, well known for his most significant work, “The Conservative Mind”

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Now you have written what I should have least expected of you – ghost stories!” T.S. Eliot

The month of May marks the 61st anniversary of the publication of Russell Kirk’s most significant work, “The Conservative Mind”. Widely considered a political science book, this important work was not intended to be contained in this singular space. Kirk’s was a mind that sought to influence in all realms, and he viewed politics as just one of the ways that humans could express their deepest views. “Moral imagination” is a phrase that is often used when discussing Professor Kirk with those who know his work well. “Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.” This quote comes from the first of what Kirk considered his six canons of conservative thought. The first canon states “that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead”.

Kirk did not see conservatism as a political ideology bound by certain dogmatic precepts; rather, he believed it was capable of preserving the “ancient moral traditions of humanity” by the ability of talented individuals to express timeless principles and convictions in ways that are fitted to each time. He seems to have held in special contempt those “meddlers” and “calculators” who view society as some kind of machine that can be updated, even torn down, and “recast” for the benefit of all.

It is in this light that Professor Kirk, known for his enjoyment of telling ghostly tales in his family home, Piety Hill, in Mecosta, Michigan, experimented in the world of “moral imagination” by writing ghost stories. Fortunately these short stories were collected in an anthology, titled “Ancestral Shadows”. The anthology contains stories that are haunting, delightful, and disturbing at the same time, and full of an imminent presence that is just beyond our human faculties. Kirk’s ghost stories are not of the modern type –full of gratuitous horror and gore that makes one wonder what worm twists in the minds of those who produced them. No, his tales work to convey moral judgments that point towards Divine Justice. This sense of justice is strong throughout the anthology, and some of us moderns may be a bit unsettled by an apparent lack of mercy, but it is there. Kirk’s roots lie deep in the history of the English speaking world, and while a devout Catholic, he was imbued with a sense of morality that was clearly developed from his Scottish and Anglo-American roots. This pointed him towards a realistic view of the fallen nature of man, and the need, in some cases, to be guided by a sense (even a fear) of the retributive effects of justice.

This sense of justice can be discovered in the personalities that Kirk uses as “heroes’ to reveal that “something more” is beyond our grasp, and the judgment that awaits us. This is shown in dramatic fashion by allowing some of these characters - like the Vicar Hargreaves in “Ex Tenebris”, or the evil Lord Balgrummo in “Balgrummo’s Hell” - to be used by a greater will to defend the innocent and, yes, punish evil.