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When Russell Kirk Was Really Scary

The founder of post-war conservatism was also fascinated by evil and could spin a spooky tale.

No stranger to poverty, Russell Kirk decided in the spring of 1949 to pawn off his winter clothes. He was living in Scotland, earning his Doctor of Letters at the University of St. Andrews, and seasonal warmth was still months away. Regardless, he needed the money for such basic necessities as food. He had joined as many student organizations as possible while in Scotland, not because he believed in their causes, but because they almost always offered snacks and meals at their frequent get-togethers. When not letting the leftist groups treat him to sustenance, he lived on peanut butter and the occasional big breakfast. More often than not, he ate just one meal a day. This little bothered the Stoic Kirk. Indeed, he feared that any wealth would spoil him as a person and as a writer and thinker. The muses, he noted, hated money.

Shortly after Kirk shed himself of winter clothing, the muses must have changed their minds. A telegram arrived from the brand new and well-endowed London Mystery Magazine. Though they had a policy of accepting only stories about the British Isles, they made an exception in Kirk’s case, noting that his submitted short story, “Behind the Stumps,” which took place in Michigan, was extraordinary. “An elusive beauty drifts over this country sprinkled with little lakes, stretches of second-growth woods and cedar swamps, gravelly upland ridges that are gnawed by every rain, now that their cover is gone,” Kirk wrote in “Behind the Stumps.” Yet whatever beauty might exist, it competed with lingering evil. “As if a curser had been pronounced upon these folk and their houses and their crops in reprisal for this violation of nature, everything in Pottawattomie is melting away.”

The story appeared in issue number four, dated June-July 1950, of the magazine, complete with beautiful woodcut illustrations. In letters back to the United States, Kirk admitted this his fiction mixed his own experiences with Michigan folklore. He proved so successful in his writing that his first several published short stories paid for his last four years of graduate school.

During his writing career, Kirk wrote 20 short stories and three novels. He also wrote several shorter pieces on the occult as well as a few articles that gave serious consideration to the existence of ghosts and purgatory. As he had done in “Behind the Stumps,” Kirk toyed with ideas of time, place, sacrifice, heroism, good, evil, purgation, redemption, damnation, and sacramentality in his fiction. While most of his output involved cultural, literary, philosophical, historical, and political criticism, his fiction deserves to be much better recognized and remembered, if not outright re-discovered by modern critics and fans of science fiction, fantasy, and literature. It is not just another element of his writing career; it is vital and unique in and of itself.

Several powerful and successful writers have agreed with this assessment. Master of imagination Ray Bradbury saw Kirk as a kindred spirit. The irascible Harlan Ellison considered Kirk one of the single finest writers in the genre and steered the World Fantasy Association towards naming Kirk’s “There’s a Long, Long Trail a Winding” the best short story of 1977. Edmund Fuller, the renowned literary critic at The Wall Street Journal, praised Kirk’s fiction as well. That Kirk wrote fiction shocked Fuller, he admitted in 1979, but only in the best sense. Only a real conservative, Fuller believed, understood the natures of good and evil, as too many liberals had long ignored such “superstitious” notions. Madeline L’Engle derived “enormous pleasure” from reading Kirk’s fiction, claiming that he was a master of “heavenly and profound love.” Even as recently as 2010, horror’s greatest salesman Stephen King listed Kirk’s collection of short stories, Princess of All Lands, as one of the 100 most important books of the last six decades.

A lover of all things macabre, Kirk played freely if not warmly with the darkness, the twilight, and the tenebrous of human existence. His short stories—though pulpish in heritage—combined a writing style similar to Ray Bradbury’s and an examination of the theological akin to Flannery O’Connor’s. While it’s true that Kirk’s conservatism creeps into his stories from time to time, they are really much more theological than political. Fuller noted that what Kirk brought to his fiction was not related to propaganda, conservative or otherwise, but rather a “wide erudition” that “enriches the fruits of his imagination.” If forced, one might properly label Kirk’s short stories “Augustinian science fiction” or “Augustinian horror”; one should never settle for labeling it mere “gothic fiction” or “ghost tales.” There is nothing tame in Kirk’s writing. When Kirk examines evil, he leaves no stone (or demon) unturned. In several of his stories, the darkness becomes so ominous that I could only continue reading on sunny summer mornings and while sitting on the back deck. For better or worse, I read horror all of the time, yet Kirk’s fiction got to me at a profound level.

For the most part, Kirk’s understanding of evil is fully commensurate with the Western tradition, as defined by Boethius and Saint Augustine, who see it as the absence of good rather than a sovereign force in and of itself. Only in one short story, “Princess of All Lands,” does Kirk get downright disturbingly new-agey and occultish. This is truly the exception that proves the rule however. Kirk is especially good at drawing his heroes as broken men and women seeking redemption.

Kirk’s best work—even when compared to his non-fiction like his justly famous The Conservative Mind and The Roots of American Order—is his final novel, Lord of the Hollow Dark (the word “Lord” is taken from both the Lord of the Rings and the Lord of the Flies). Kirk’s first novel, Old House of Fear, sold more copies than all of his other books combined, and some have credited it with legitimizing horror fiction in the same way that the works of Bradbury and C.S. Lewis had legitimized science fiction. Kirk hoped that Lord of the Hollow Dark might do as well as his first novel, especially given the audience that had recently emerged to purchase Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Accordingly, he had spent years outlining and writing it. He had even secured a mainstream press, St. Martin’s, to publish it.

Sadly, though, Kirk could not have been more incorrect in his predictions of the book’s place in literary history. The Lord of the Hollow Dark is almost certainly the least known of all of his books. Yet, as has been noted, it is his best. Published in 1979 but originally named either Essences or That Archaic Smile, Lord of the Hollow Dark places almost every figure to appear in a T.S. Eliot play and poem in a Scottish castle for the few days leading up to Ash Wednesday. Also bringing in several of his own literary characters, the novel looks at the lengths to which evil will go to achieve its ends. The story itself revolves around the sacrifice of a baby for a Black Mass. Some characters succumb while others resist. Not atypically for Kirk, the heroes are as broken as the bad guys, but how they protect the innocent and one another shapes their successes and failures. Though the main evil of the novel—the “Lord of the Hollow Dark”—is almost certainly Satan himself, the book deals as much with our purgation as it does our damnation. The master of darkness explains:

To extirpate organic life, especially human life, which never should have been created; to condemn human essences to perpetual torment of their own making in a tiny capsule of Time; to assure the triumph of the Lord of This World, Time the Devourer, Conquering Death—this was the assigned labor of Apollinax, and what had been done at Balgrummo Lodging he would accomplish at many other auspicious spots, for the greater glory of the Lord of This World. He would invert all symbols of truth, annihilate all resistance, entomb all souls—all in the cause of pure spirit, for the flesh is corruption, all flesh being grass. Apollinax knew himself for a high priest of the Lord of This World, deserving well of his master. Strip the garment from the flesh, strip the flesh from the bone, strip the bone from the soul, strip the soul from the spirit; then the freed spirit is wedded to the Lord of This World, for all eternity.

The novel serves as a sort of mystery in and of itself. That is, while the reader can thoroughly enjoy the plot as plot, he can also piece together the background (and backgrounds) of each of the characters. As noted above, T.S. Eliot plays the most significant role in Kirk’s inverted and demonic setting, but a number of ideas from Kirk’s favorite writers and thinkers—such as Plato, Virgil, Saint Augustine, C.S. Lewis, and Willa Cather—make appearances, too. Lord of the Hollow Dark, therefore, can be just a great adventure story, or it can be a profound intellectual exercise.

If there is justice in the world, some great literary critic of our era will re-discover Russell Amos Augustine Kirk—not only as the founder of post-war conservatism, but as a writer of speculative fiction. He asked all of the most important questions in a way that touched the soul as much as it did the intellect.

Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.