We are essences, the General thought, essences that flow like mercury. Each of us is a myriad of particles of energy, held temporarily in combination like purposes or forces we understand no better than did Lucretius.
While he is known mainly for his political writings, Russell Kirk ought to be known also as fiction writer. I have to think that his proclivity for writing ghost and occult stories is what has kept him from receiving recognition. Last month a friend lent me Ancestral Shadows, a collection of Kirk’s short stories. While not every piece was to my taste, I cannot deny that they are all well-written and contain some interesting ideas.
Kirk converted to the Catholic Kirk at the age of 45, but his interest in the uncanny predated that by many years. Sometimes his ghosts are those of damned vicars who are compelled by more just spirits to do a charitable work for their parishioners. Sometimes they are in competition with their own doppelgangers. Sometimes they do not realize they are dead, and are in the midst of an in-between state of purgation.
Yet, Kirk’s ghostly imagination was not originally formed along Catholic lines. He is not obsessed with saintly relics, guided tours of the afterlife, or burning apparitions of poor souls begging for novenas. Even his ideas of Purgatory are more general, and his dead souls are often as ignorant about their current state as the living. A scrupulous Catholic might be tempted to nitpick his fiction against the orthodox doctrines of the afterlife, but that would be to miss much of the pleasure of his chilling tales.
Why write ghost stories in an age of realism? “Literary naturalism is not the only path to apprehension of reality,” he explains. “All important literature has some ethical end; and the tale of the preternatural… can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order.” He believed that the naturalistic bias in art was a product of an unbelieving age, and noted how materialists, even when confronted with clearly ghostly encounters, would dismiss them as mere hallucinations.
As a literary form, then, the uncanny tale can be a means for expressing truths enchantingly. But I do not ask the artist of the fantastic to turn didactic moralist; and I trust that he will not fall into the error that the shapes and voices half-glimpsed and half-heard are symbols merely. For the sake of his art, the teller of ghostly narrations ought never to enjoy the freedom from fear….
In an era of the decay of religious belief, can fiction of the supernatural or preternatural, with its roots in myth and transcendent perception, succeed in being anything better than playful or absurd? The lingering domination of yesteryear’s materialistic and mechanistic theories in natural science persuades most people that if they have encountered inexplicable phenomena–why, they must have been mistaken. How is it possible to perceive a revenant if there cannot possibly be revenants to perceive?
Many of these stories are claimed to be taken from Kirk’s own personal experiences and those of his wife. Mr. Kirk spent much time in Scotland around haunted castles, and the good Mrs. Kirk had some horrifying ghostly encounters of her own. It is not an offense against realistic fiction to feature ghosts and devils, for these are not unreal things. We avoid using them simply because we fear unbelievers (and half-believing Catholics) will scoff at them. We reduce them to allegorical figures or madcap elements of a magical realist style, but this is an injustice. Even Thomas Aquinas concurs that “according to the disposition of Divine providence separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men…. It is also credible that this may occur sometimes to the damned.”
The reduction of these apparitions to mere hallucinations or magical realist symbols is just something comforting we tell ourselves so we can sleep better at night. Kirk knew better. He knew that sometimes a malign and hungry intelligence will stride across the great gulf between Hell and Earth to claim its prey, and that we must always be prepared to flee.