Guest Post: An ‘On Fairy Stories’ for Ghost Stories and Horror? Conservative Russell Kirk and the Mythopoeia of Horror Fiction

“All important literature has some ethical end; and the tale of the preternatural…can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order.”

Russell Kirk is justly renowned for his revival of Burkean conservatism in politics. What is not as well known is his love of great literature and his accomplishments as a writer of ghost stories and horror himself. Chris Calderon has written this brief introduction to the man and his work to encourage HogwartsProfessor readers to read Kirk’s ‘Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale,’ what some believe is the horror-able equivalent to Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories.’ I highly recommend it.

The only reason I have for giving a brief intro to the thought of someone else is very simple: the great majority of both readers and non-readers don’t know who Russell Kirk is, and the great majority will go to the grave never even knowing the self-styled “Sage of Mecosta” once walked about the place (and for all any of us know, probably still does).

Briefly, Kirk was, to a very small coterie of critics, writers, pundits and politicians something of a hero, I guess.  At least he was regarded as what’s known as a genuine Man of Letters.  He was a critic and writer on the interrelated subjects of political history, theology, and literary criticism. His The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot and A Conservative Reader are staples of the modern conservative movement (Kirk helped found the political journal, National Review, of which, with William Buckley, he is a patron saint). In other words, he was what nowadays probably be called a social pundit, though it’s the designation of critic that probably sums him up best (though in today’s narrowly compacted public square he’d most likely be labeled a Catholic apologist).

Along with writers like T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Kirk approached the writing and study of literature from a Christian perspective (in his case, American Catholicism).  This conviction shaped everything he did, from a study of the thought of Edmund Burke, to what I still regard as the best biography of the Four Quartets author, Eliot and his Age.  Kirk’s belief about fiction, as he put it, was “All important literature has some ethical end; and the tale of the preternatural…can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order.” This brings us to one other thing Kirk shared in common with the Inklings.  Like them, he was a writer of fantastic fiction.  The difference was that his chosen field of work was the Horror genre. See Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales for a collection of his ghost stories and Old House of Fear for his best known gothic novel.

Ghost stories and the like are not a topic generating much discussion at HogwartsProfessor!  Which just makes Kirk’s beliefs about it all the more novel.  His basic claim for the genre was that it fulfills the same Mythopoeic functions as either Fantasy or Science Fiction.  Does this mean that Kirk would be willing to say certain types of Supernatural tales offer their own bone-chilling form of Escape, Recovery, and Consolation?  While I’ve never seen an essay where he used those words exactly, he was more than familiar with the writings of both Tolkien and Lewis, and his criticism speaks to all these ideas.

In A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale Kirk made a deliberate effort to reveal the mythopeic heart beating in the works of Poe and Hawthorne.  Whether or not he will leave others convinced is something others will have to make up their own minds about.  And with that, I turn the floor over to the esteemed Mr Kirk via this link to his Cautionary Note essay online about this very subjectAnd for those who want more, be sure to check out Jeffrey Dennis Pearce’s webpage devoted to Kirk’s thoughts on the genre, Ghostly Kirk.

A sample from Cautionary note:

Since most modern men have ceased to recognize their own souls, the spectral tale has been out of fashion, especially in America. As Cardinal Manning said, all differences of opinion are theological at bottom; and this fact has its bearing upon literary tastes. Because—even though they may be churchgoers—the majority of Americans do not much hunger after personal immortality, they cannot shiver at someone else’s fictitious spirit.

Perhaps the primary error of the Enlightenment was the notion that dissolving old faiths, creeds, and loyalties would lead to a universal sweet rationalism. But deprive man of St. Salvator, and he will seek, at best, St. Science—even though he understands Darwin, say, no better than he understood Augustine. Similarly, our longing for the invisible springs eternal, merely changing its direction from age to age. So if one takes away from man a belief in spirits, it does not follow that thereafter he will concern himself wholly with Bright Reality; more probably, his fancy will seek some new realm—and perhaps a worse credulity.

Thus stories of the supernatural have been supplanted by “science fiction.” Though the talent of H. G. Wells did in that genrenearly everything worth undertaking, a flood of “scientific” and “futuristic” fantasies continues to deluge America. With few exceptions, these writings are banal and meaningless. My present point, however, is simply that many people today have a faith in “life on other planets” as burning and genuine as belief in a literal Heaven and a literal Hell was among twelfth-century folk, say—but upon authority far inferior. . . . Having demolished, to their own satisfaction, the whole edifice of religious learning, abruptly and unconsciously they experience the need for belief in something not mundane; and so, defying their own inductive and mechanistic premises, they take up the cause of Martians and Jovians. As for angels and devils, let alone bogies—why, Hell, such notions are superstitious!

But if the stubborn fact remains that, although not one well-reputed person claims to have seen the men in the flying saucers, a great many well-reputed persons, over centuries, have claimed to have seen ghosts; or, more strictly speaking, to have perceived certain “psychic phenomena.” From Pliny onward, the literature of our civilization is full of such narrations. Scholars have analyzed soberly such appearances, from Father Noel Taillepied’s Treatise on Ghosts (1588) to Father Herbert Thurston’sGhosts and Poltergeists (1955). The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research has examined painstakingly, for decades, the data of psychic manifestations. Eminent people so different in character as the Wesleys and Lord Castlereagh have been confronted by terrifying apparitions….

Do read the whole thing!

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