Two American authors who used the grotesque to re-enchant the world.
Russell Kirk is having a bit of a moment. Along with small “c” style conservatism gaining political and cultural momentum, there seems to be a growing interest in Kirk’s role as a prophet of its vitality. Ironically, a man who so dutifully articulated the veracity of tradition that his prose sometimes reads in sepia tone is suddenly on the sharp edge of relevance. Kirk himself would have found the humor in it, as he understood that the things he wrote about—the power of the past and our continuous struggle to remember the essential verities of human life—don’t really go in or out of fashion. They are, in fact, an alternative to fashion. Its very antithesis, even. Trends quietly echo the wild ambulations of shifting ideologies. And Kirk, of course, considered ideology the enemy of an eternally enduring moral order. It’s our responsibility to seek out the permanent things without becoming dazed by fad.
So maybe it isn’t so much that Kirk is having a moment but that we’re having a collective flash of lucidity in rediscovering him. On October 19, 2018, The New Criterion hosted a conference on Kirk that inspired the reissuing of his beloved 1961 novel, Old House of Fear by Criterion Books. As New Criterion editor James Panero tells us in the introduction, Old House of Fear outsold all of Kirk’s other books combined, “its royalties [providing] financial buoyancy to the Kirk family for years after publication.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise to newly minted admirers of Kirk that a man with so many varied interests also wrote fiction. It should come as even less of a surprise that that fiction was in the Horace Walpole tradition of the “ghostly story.” Kirk was never shy about admitting he had a “Gothic mind,” and this meant more than a skepticism of Enlightenment smugness but also a literal belief in spirits. In his introduction, Panero observes:
Kirk believed in ghosts. He believed in people who believed in ghosts. He believed in people who believed in the stories of ghosts. Whether ghosts were objective or subjective phenomena, whether they were forces of the universe or the human imagination, he would not definitely say. “Can we imagine the human soul operating without a body?” he said at the end of his life. “You and I are just a collection of some electrical particles, held in suspension temporarily. We aren’t really solid at all. Can there be a collection of such particles in a different form that can occasionally manifest? Nobody knows.”
“Nobody knows” is as good as any a motto for the miasmic eeriness of Kirk’s spectral horror. Drawing from his own experiences as the first American to earn a Doctor of Letters from the University of St. Andrews, Kirk sets Old House of Fear in a far-flung corner of Scotland, where the gray mists and turbulent ocean become supernatural negative capability incarnate. Horror always relies on transitions from the anodyne to the uncanny, and in Old House of Fear that means that the story moves very quickly from the safe and predictable offices of America to an almost primordial Scottish waste. Here, on a remote island called Carnglass, where most of the novel takes place, Kirk transports us to a place where it feels as if anything can happen and fields of mist blur our vision, strange languages and accents, and where the living rock reclaims moldering architectural ruins. This mood is just as essential to the book as the plot itself.
The plot, what literally happens, is simple. Hugh Logan, an American lawyer who was born in Scotland, is employed by industrialist Duncan MacAskival to travel to the remote Hebrides and purchase for him the fictional island of Carnglass, where his ancestral home is currently occupied by a reclusive woman rumored to be of declining health and means. The island itself, said to be nearly inaccessible, has a long and strange history. Inhabited since time out of mind, and the most remote island in the Atlantic to be continuously inhabited, Carnglass serves as a kind of living palimpsest of Northern European culture. The Pics, the Norse, and then eventually the Christian Angles have all left their mark. Looking at photos of the island and its moldering (of course, it would have to be for a story such as this) estate, MacAskival says to Logan:
“Well, much of it is nearly as old as anything in Iona,” MacAskival observed. “That’s the chapel of St. Merin. She was stoned to death, I think, in the days of St. Columba. Sir Alastair restored the chapel as the family burial-vault. And that’s the famous cross of Carnglass, tenth century; or it would be famous, if Lady MacAskival ever let archaeologists ashore. I don’t know what the thing beyond can be. Do you feel more like becoming Laird of Carnglass?”
“It’s a strange island,” Logan said, unsmiling.
“Yet it can’t be so strange as the rumors make it.”
In fact, it is. Logan arrives to Scotland and is immediately hampered by a sense of foreboding, as if someone or something wants to keep him away from the island. A pack of toughs rough him up a little bit. An odd former soldier tries to bribe Logan to give up. When Logan finally does find perilous passage to the remote island, he’s immediately thrown into an armed manhunt, and a complicated situation where the current Lady MacAskival and her beautiful daughter Mary are being held by an armed group of Marxist ideologues bent on using the island to destroy British missile bases. Far from being the sort of story where supernatural intimations are unmasked to reveal themselves as essentially psychological or political, in Old House of Fear, Kirk eventually folds the political nihilism of the villains back into a supernatural context. It isn’t worth spoiling the ending for one who hasn’t yet read it, but suffice to say that, references to Marxism and NATO aside, the novel ends up feeling more like an allegory or fable than political potboiler.
The plot moves at a clip, typically using dialogue to advance the narrative. That’s what makes Old House of Fear exciting. What gives it its depth, and makes it worth returning to repeatedly, is its concern with the permanent things. We get clues and signals throughout the entire novel, but especially towards the beginning, that indicate more is at play here than the acquisition of an ancestral home. Of course, all things are always more than they seem, given Kirk’s belief that the temporal will eventually resolve in the eternal. To paraphrase Ezra Pound, nothing suggests simply itself. Even the eponymous name of the estate has an occluded significance:
Logan bent over the map to find the tiny square that marked the Old House. “That’s an uneasy name, Duncan, for an ironmaster who wants peace and quiet.”
“But it’s a brave old house, Hugh. And the name is Gaelic, not English: ‘fear’ is spelled ‘fir’ or ‘fhir’, sometimes, and it means ‘man’. Old House of Fear is Old House of Man. Old! Why, the foundations go back to Viking times. The Norsemen took Carngless in 799 or thereabouts. But there was some sort of chief’s house—Picts or whatever they were—before then. There’s a tale in the island that Carnglass was Eden: man started there, and woman too, I suppose.”
The name itself refers to the world, the entire history of man, writ small. Our Earth is itself just a large island, after all, far flung in dangerous seas. Reveling in this spirit of analogy, Kirk has architecture play an important role in the novel. Descriptions of buildings are as careful and full of life as the characters themselves. Nature as well. Even the island itself is a “stern mass of masonry… blended into the outcrop of living rock upon which the Old House was built.” Behind everything he depicts in the characters’ experience, Kirk has us sense the unseen presence of some mysterious architect whose intentions, powerful as they are, we’re too tightly wound in our own insular concerns to quite discern. Architecture and natural formations are important because they both imply for Kirk a Christian embodiment. And, of course, the eternal requires embodiment for expression in the temporal.
There are more than a few pagan motifs in Old House of Fear, but at its center it’s a Christian book. It uses the Gothic and the potboiler as different idioms, but what it’s talking about is redemption—of time, history, and people. Even the almost banal language of the setup, the kind of pacing and plot formulation that we might feel as if we’ve already read in a thousand other books, is really a kind of way to lull us into complacency. We’re meant to realize the contrast between the anodyne and the supernatural through language. And so when the reader finally understands that this is absolutely a religious book, and that Kirk’s concerns are with the ultimate, it hits even harder. As he explained in an interview in 1984:
The political ferocity of our age is sufficiently dismaying: men of letters need not conjure up horrors worse than those suffered during the past decade by the Cambodians and Ugandans, Afghans and Ethiopians. What I have attempted, rather, are experiments in the moral imagination. Readers will encounter elements of parable and fable… some clear premise is about the character of human existence… a healthy concept of the character of evil…
Kirk believed in evil. He believed in God. And he believed in ghosts. At his own ancestral home in Mecosta, Michigan, three generations of Kirks—including Russell himself—believed they saw the same ghosts. Their presence is palpable in his fiction, which was its own way of embodying his beliefs rather than arguing for them polemically. Horror for Kirk wasn’t the grotesque alienation from the flesh that we get in gore or “body horror.” It was the inverse of that. It was the articulation of the supernatural, or simply another way to embody the fact of the supernatural. Ghosts are real and God is real, and we can experience their presence—sometimes even in what might seem like their absence. This experience, Kirk tells us not only in his fiction but nonfiction as well, forces upon us certain responsibilities which hardly ever change. Things hardly tend to, in the Old House of Man.