On Conservatism and Ghostly Tales

I wish that I had seen this before Halloween. The University Bookman has published a review of Russell Kirk’s gothic novel Lord of the Hollow Dark. It’s one of my favorite gothic novels, admittedly, a genre with which I have limited experience. All Hallows Eve was one of Dr. Kirk’s favorite holidays. Like Christmas, today Halloween is very much a (ugh) consumerized holiday, “severed from its Catholic roots as a solemn day in honor of the saints and even from the earlier Celtic festival of Samhain, where the dead mingled with the living as newly departed souls traveled to the otherworld.” However, Kirk still believed that it was a time that could remind us that “there are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy.”

Kirk, author of many short ghostly tales and three novels, was considered a master of the genre. No doubt quite a surprise to many readers of his political and cultural works. However, he understood the genre to be an excellent outlet for the exploration of what is more than mere materialism. He writes in his essay “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale,”

[A]s the rising generation regains the awareness that ‘nature’ is something more than mere fleshly sensation, and that something may lie above human nature, and something below it—why, the divine and diabolical rise up again in serious literature.

Something like that, the author of the review thinks, could be happening now with the fascination with vampires and such in popular literature. We’ll see. The author presents the possibility but is as dubious as I am that these works actually “uplift humanity.” Kirk’s characters prevailed in his stories because of their “timeless virtues” and aid from sources more than natural, a lesson on the value of tradition in preserving salient virtues and the mystery of human existence. This is why, for Kirk, the ghost story is a peculiarly conservative genre. He writes,

[The writing of ghost stories] has been a skill innately conservative. As M. R. James wrote of Le Fanu, “The ghost story is in itself a slightly old-fashioned form; it needs some deliberateness in the telling; we listen to it the more readily if the narrator poses as elderly, or throws back his experience to ‘some thirty years ago.’” If faithless to this trust, the ghost-story writer will deserve to be hounded to his doom by the late James Thurber’s favorite monster, the Todal, “a creature of the Devil, sent to punish evil-doers for having done less evil than they should.”

Stories of ghosts, if Cicero was right that ghosts are the damned haunting the places of their evil deeds, are a reminder that “[T]enebrae ineluctably form part of the nature of things; nor should we complain, for without darkness there cannot be light.” This is why Kirk liked Halloween.

Kirk saw how occasions such as All Hallows Eve might serve as opportunities to take back the moral imagination from the diabolical. It is an occasion to remember saints who continue speaking through a legacy of lives that sought to push under the dark powers of their times.

That’s Kirk’s understanding of ghost stories. But I haven’t even discussed Lord of the Hollow Dark. Go and read the review. It’s a great book.

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Categories: Cultural development, Traditionalism | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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