Russell Kirk’s horror stories are fundamentally conservative, insinuating a chain of being that connects the living and the dead, reminding us of our duty and obligations to the past. They challenge us by piercing our day-to-day sense of the temporal with bright flashes of eternal order. And they lay upon us the heavy but joyous responsibility of harmonizing ourselves with that order.
In April 1909, a relatively youthful Carl Jung paid a visit to Vienna to meet with the founder of the nascent field of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and discuss the paranormal. The master, being a materialist, rejected any notion of the para out of hand, of course. But then something strange happened. As Jung related in a later interview:
While Freud was going on in this way, I had a curious sensation. It was as if my diaphragm were made of iron and was becoming red-hot—a glowing vault. And at that moment there was such a loud report in the bookcase, which stood right next to us, that we both started up in alarm, fearing the thing was going to topple over on us. I said to Freud: “There is an example of a so-called catalytic exteriorisation phenomenon.”
“Oh, come,” he exclaimed. “That is sheer bosh.”
“It is not,” I replied. “You are mistaken, Herr Professor. And to prove my point I now predict that there will be another loud report!” Sure enough, no sooner had I said the words than the same detonation went off in the bookcase.
To this day I do not know what gave me this certainty.
Horror is a fundamentally conservative literary genre, but one with a very clear demarcation line separating its adherents. We can call this divide “the bump,” both after things which go bump in the night—or bookcases that go bump in the study—and our either Jung- or Freud-like reaction. The horror facing the entrenched materialist derives from the almost claustrophobic sense that “this is all there is.” The world itself is gruesome and inescapable. The most we can hope for is temporary peace and, if not a complete shedding of all illusions, then at least the cultivation of those illusions that are of pragmatic use in shielding ourselves from the sick world. This kind of horror veers toward disgust and nihilism.
Another type of horror interprets the bump as a sign that Reality is more than we think it is. Perhaps it is even more than we are able to think it is. More than simply infusing contemporary positivist worldviews with a heady dose of metaphysical ambiguity, this brand of horror suggests that the foundation of the world isn’t material at all. It spiritualizes the anodyne. It offers a partial glimpse at the mystery animating all existence. It tends not toward disgust but toward a revelation that confronts us with the Rilkean imperative to change our lives. Its demand is that we harmonize ourselves with the mystery.
Russell Kirk’s horror, to use the term in its largest sense, might be one of the best examples of spiritualized, revelatory fiction. That alone would be an achievement. But through Kirk’s work we are also better able to understand that other type of reaction to “the bump”—the materialist angst at the horror of existence—and to view it from such a vantage point that we can discern the common source from which both schools spring.
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The peripatetic Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, disheveled and clownish gadfly that he is, does occasionally, perhaps inadvertently, utter a simple and obvious psychological truth. In his entertaining film A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Žižek suggests in so many words that in order to understand what a horror story is actually about we must focus on what’s happening outside the sensation of terror and spectacle of the paranormal. His advice makes for a useful scalpel in dissecting the psychological horror of Freud’s “bump,” in which the paranormal elements are either self-referential expressions of states of mind or allegorical renderings of disgust with the natural world. An example might be taken from John Carpenter’s 1982 B-movie classic The Thing, in which a group of scientists isolated in Antarctica encounters an extraterrestrial organism that assimilates (kills) and mimics other organisms. The film is a classic of nihilistic horror, and using Žižek’s scalpel it’s easy to discern that what it’s actually about is a general disgust at organic life itself. Even in the cold, abstract Arctic, where men of the mind have secluded themselves in order to gain perspective on profound truths, physical life refuses to be intellectualized and invades the cerebral world as if it were an alien presence.
Carpenter’s The Thing strongly echoes the same themes first put forth by the American master of nihilist horror, H. P. Lovecraft. It isn’t a stretch to say that most contemporary horror as we encounter it in movies and on television was influenced by Lovecraft’s disdainful, almost paranoid hatred for the world as it is. French novelist Michel Houellebecq writes in his book-length appreciation of Lovecraft, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life:
Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition towards chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half-dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will disappear. And human actions are as free and stripped of meaning as the unfettered movement of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure “Victorian fictions.” All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact, and radiant.
Lovecraft’s wholly materialistic fiction, his disgust at being fettered by the vicissitudes of the natural world, is made radiant with the knowledge that, though things exist, their existence is entirely arbitrary. He gets us coming and going, in other words. He’s disgusted by the sheer fact of existence, and simultaneously horrified that it carries no meaning beyond itself. This is the pure nihilism of gore and the animating pathos of films such as Hostel and Saw.
When it comes to this kind of horror, human institutions are merely a thin film protecting us from the truly revolting nature of life. Materialist horror operates by peeling back the pathetically flimsy protections of culture to reveal the naked and vast horror of what it considers pure existence. The horror itself results from life being completely denuded of its mystery, or perhaps from finding mystery to be an inadequate illusion we use to spare ourselves from the bare facts of existence. There’s something pornographic in this compulsion to expose in nihilistic horror. Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han defines the erotic against the pornographic as something that interrupts, tarries, and holds us at a distance, while the pornographic presents itself as bare fact delivered directly and without intermediary. Narrative is erotic, but facts are pornographic. The supernatural suggests a distance between subject and object, but the aptly named “torture porn” of films like Saw collapse the space between meaning and existence, reducing both to a false equivalency: a severed limb shown in close up is the totality of meaning in the universe.
Opposing The Thing, the bare fact, is The Presence. Kirk’s fiction is rich with it. Though his output was relatively modest, comprising in total some twenty-two stories along with three novels that were written predominantly in short bursts throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Kirk’s fiction burns even more incandescently for its brevity and focus. Collected and recollected in books such as Ancestral Shadows and The Surly Sullen Bell, Kirk’s fiction isn’t always easy to acquire. Special orders and calls to book dealers are occasionally necessary for a few of the more rare collections, yet he always remains timely: the dynamics of The Presence being echoed in both the subject matter of the works themselves and their occasionally enigmatic physical existence, suggesting a constant interplay between the ephemeral and eternal.
Kirk’s fiction is suffused with The Presence. You find it sensed by both the older man and younger boy in “An Encounter by Mortstone Pond.” The Presence haunts Stoneburner in “What Shadows We Pursue.” We’re almost tricked into thinking the eponymous Presence has betrayed itself by materializing in “Uncle Isaiah.” Old House of Fear is absolutely permeated with Presence. But what is it? It might help to think of The Presence as the exact inverse of The Thing. If The Thing is horrible because it exists, and because it implies a nihilistic void in which the material world is all that exists, then The Presence is summarized by T. E. Hulme’s phrase “Nothing suggests itself.” The Presence, a sense of something that can’t quite be acquired by the senses, intimates a metaphysical order lying outside the material world that also gives that world coherence.
The horror of The Thing is a plaintive howl of nihilism. The horror of The Presence is a humbling challenge to our pragmatic, everyday experience of the world. The Thing is disgusting, but The Presence is awful in the traditional sense of the word, as being full of awe. It unsettles and challenges while offering a terrible glimpse of the sublime. A few contemporary cinematic examples of this school of horror can be found in The Sixth Sense, The Others, and perhaps surprisingly The Exorcist.
The Exorcist, based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty (which itself is based on a reputedly documented exorcism case from the 1940s), feints as if it means to disgust us in the manner of The Thing—the body of a young girl is completely ravaged in the most disgusting ways possible. But the mechanics of the story are more complicated. If the story were to fit snugly into the subgenre of materialist horror, the body itself would be the locus of terror. The horror would emanate from the flesh, which would disgust us by its very existence. But that isn’t the case. In The Exorcist, the material world is revealed to be a battleground for forces originating at a higher level of metaphysical reality. The world isn’t all that is the case. The world is infused, loaded, with meaning. The struggle is for characters to humble themselves into acceptance of a much richer order to existence than they previously assumed. D. C. Schindler explains in his masterly Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty that “dia-ballō means ‘to divide,’ ‘to set apart or at odds,’ ” and this is exactly what the diabolical force means to do in The Exorcist: to foster a sense of separation from the divine order. To convince us that life itself is disgusting. Or as the older Father Merrin explains to the younger Father Karras when asked why the devil chose to possess the little girl Regan: “I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as . . . animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.” Of course, that this challenge itself comes from a metaphysical source, even a malevolent one, ultimately undermines the intentions of the diabolical force. At its heart, The Exorcist is about the triumph of The Presence over The Thing.
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Russell Kirk’s horror was written within the idiom of The Presence. Its reaction to “the bump,” be it miracle or ghostly presence, is one of a generally awed acceptance. This also happened to be Kirk’s own reaction to his personal paranormal experiences. James E. Person Jr. describes in Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind that, until it burned down on Ash Wednesday in 1975, visitors to Kirk’s Piety Hill homestead in Mecosta, Michigan, “reported uncanny nocturnal sightings and sounds in and around the old place.” Russell Kirk had a memory as a child of looking out of his window from bed one night and seeing two figures, one wearing a top hat and the other a turban. Years later Kirk’s aunt would confess to having seen the figures herself when she was a child, and one of Kirk’s daughters was even witnessed interacting with them when she was only two years old. As Person writes, “Such an atmosphere, combined with the occasionally bizarre natural occurrences of life in rural Mecosta County, went far towards shaping Kirk’s self-styled ‘Gothic mind.’ ”
“Gothic” is the shorthand we’ve come to use in describing Kirk’s horror. And while he did work within that genre, his writing also has a habit of exceeding the limits of the category simply by virtue of its profound spiritual focus. He’s often credited with breathing new life into the Gothic genre, but that isn’t quite right. It might be more accurate to say instead that, as a by-product of Kirk’s using a Gothic vehicle to express high spiritual drama, he illustrated the case for its continued relevance. The point wasn’t the Gothic per se, but that the Gothic was a useful vessel for exploring what lies beyond.
But why the Gothic? Kirk certainly seemed to have a penchant for its moods and symbols. As he wrote in Confessions of a Bohemian Tory:
Mine was not an Enlightened mind… it was a Gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure. I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. I despised the sophisters and calculators; I was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. I would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle.
In a literary sense, the Gothic tradition was at one time synonymous with the word horror: moldering castles, specters, ancient and baroque genealogical dramas. But the Gothic’s larger imaginative ambit encompasses something akin to a spiritual reaction against eighteenth-century utilitarianism—which means against the animating logic of the modern world itself. The word Gothic refers to the so-called barbarian tribes that sacked Rome in 410 A.D. and whose name afterward became forever associated with irrational destruction and the ruin of earthly order. The architectural style of mid-thirteenth-century northwestern Europe, cathedrals with vast internal space, glorious facades, and soaring spires, also came to share the name. What those structures stood for was arguably more threatening to Caesar and his figurative progeny than armed bands of wild Germanic warriors. And so when the revival of interest in all things Gothic occurred in the mid-eighteenth century, it was, Richard Davenport-Hines writes in Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin, “an expression of the Counter-Enlightenment, the emotional, aesthetic and philosophical reaction against the prevalent eighteenth-century belief that by right reasoning humankind could achieve true knowledge and harmonious synthesis, and hence obtain perfect virtue and felicity.”
Of course, you can push against the Enlightenment and still be pushing in the wrong direction. Not all Gothic figures attuned themselves to the transcendent ambitions of Chartres. The Marquis de Sade, for instance, is an example of someone pushing against rationality without embracing the emancipatory potential of the divine. The Gothic seemed broad enough a category to include figures with almost diametrically opposing worldviews (take Sade and Burke, for instance), and as it changed over time to respond to ever fresh nightmares birthed by Enlightenment excesses of rationality, the true measure of its scope and adaptability became clear. The Gothic is, as novelist Patrick McGrath writes in the essay “Transgression and Decay,” “a supple and resilient genre that shows no sign of exhaustion. Rather, it is capable of infinite renewal, as its diverse themes and rich stock of symbols are gathered up and reinvested with meaning by successive generations of artists.” It’s more useful to think of the Gothic less as a focused and minor literary genre and more as a modality, a sort of orientation toward the world. The Gothic is like jazz in that way, forever balancing an awareness of its own past and traditions with a push toward innovative appropriation of the present moment, whatever that moment might consist of. And, as Russell Kirk was well aware, it’s in this tight space where all time is perfectly balanced that we are able to catch a keyhole glimpse of eternity.
The traditionally Gothic elements in Kirk’s fiction are numerous and pronounced. In his only novel-length horror work, Old House of Fear, a sort of “greatest hits” of Gothic elements drawn from the lineage of Anne Radcliffe and Horace Walpole form the narrative structure on which the book hangs. A young Scottish-born but American lawyer, Hugh Logan, is tasked with traveling to a remote and ancient Scottish island to purchase a moldering estate. The origins of the money involved in the deal are as arcane and mysterious as the ties of kinship between the inhabitants of the estate. The personalities and motives of the inhabitants of the island are opaque and enigmatic, and both the climate of the island and the condition of the estate mirror the mood of the story itself: furtive, perplexing, occasionally hostile, and definitely mystifying.
Any bare retelling of the novel’s plot is misleading. It reduces the story to just that, simply a spine-tingling tale. After much hassle and delay, Logan reaches the island called Carnglass, where he encounters an assortment of rough characters bent on siphoning away the vast and ancient fortunes of the estate’s elderly owner, Lady MacAskival, and her fiery niece, Mary. The most nefarious character, Dr. Edmund Jackman, is an agent of the Kremlin. Lurking behind all of this is The Presence of “the Firgower,” a goat-man with a third eye on its forehead. As Person writes, the novel “tells of desperate pursuit, hairbreadth escapes, dashes through secret underground passages, romance, and rescue.” And fitting snugly within Gothic tradition, Logan saves Mary MacAskival from the diabolical (in the Schindlerian sense of being separated from true order) Jackman, and the tale ends with Logan and Mary in love. Their story mirrors the mythic history of the island itself, where a legend says that a Viking prince once rescued a Pictish princess from the fabled Firgower. As we learn in the beginning of the novel, “the name [House of Fear] is Gaelic, not English: ‘fear’ is spelled ‘fir’ or ‘fhir,’ sometimes, and it means ‘man.’ Old House of Fear is Old House of Man!” The estate, and the “fear” suffusing the novel, are fated for redemption through the reenactment of an ancient triumph over evil. Past and present are connected by this redemption, and so the triumph is really over time itself.
Old House of Fear is a triumph of the Gothic form, and is infused with a spiritual energy rarely achieved within the genre. This accomplishment comes not in spite of but by virtue of Kirk’s deep knowledge of and affectionate loyalty to the themes of the Gothic tradition. Working within the tight idiom of a genre, every “move” one makes is exaggerated. By playing on traditional themes such as ruin, despair, inheritance, and kinship, Russell Kirk was able to work the parts into something equaling much more than the whole of the sum. A few metaphors might help explain how this happens. The jazz musician Miles Davis got his start playing Bebop, a form of jazz that prized speed and virtuosity in playing with the deconstruction of traditional jazz standards into a flurry of chord and key changes. In the late ’50s, Davis pioneered a different way to play in Modal jazz, which eschewed chord changes for slower explorations of harmonizing polytonal scales and pitches. But it was recognizable as jazz. If Davis had pushed the idiom beyond its ability to shoulder a coherent identity, it wouldn’t have been recognizable as jazz, or perhaps even as music. If he had continued to play straight Bebop, he would have been engaging in empty repetition. Likewise, Kirk’s creative fidelity to tradition allows him to overcome the sterility of repetition by bending its firmly rooted arc towards his own unique and highly spiritualized vision.
Perhaps the purest expression of that spiritual arc in Kirk’s fiction can be found in the story “An Encounter by Mortstone Pond.” In it, a young and recently orphaned boy named Gerard Pierce is taking a final walk around familiar Michigan ground before he’s forced to move to California to be raised by relatives. While walking along a dyke, Kirk writes, Gerard “became aware he was not alone.” We have here, of course, The Presence, which mysteriously communicates this message to the bereaved Gerard: “The pain will end, boy, or nearly end. This too shall pass. You will grow to be a man. They will love you always, being made for eternity.” The experience is shocking, as it should be, a challenge to pinched secular notions of reality. In the second half of this short story, Pierce is now an aged and sickly adult, highly decorated as a soldier wounded in war. He returns to his old Michigan home one last time as part of a goodbye to the world. While again walking along the dyke, he senses The Presence of a young boy. Words come to the older Pierce as he repeats what he once heard so long ago as a boy along this same dyke.
In “An Encounter” we have an almost unadulterated glimpse of Kirk’s metaphysics: “We are essences—but insubstantial really, such stuff as dreams are made of, not understanding death because we do not know what life is…. Personality is a mask: the soul seems indefinable. What gives coherence to our essences? In erring reason’s spite, the General wondered, am I part of that once-venerated Mystical Body?” Much like Miles Davis’s modalities, even Kirk’s less obviously Gothic work, which “An Encounter” represents, harmonizes beautifully with the themes and symbols of the genre as he used them.
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The two reactions to “the bump,” the two modes of horror in the guises of The Thing and The Presence, might seem at a glance to be diametrically opposed. Even Kirk himself, in “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale,” which serves as an introduction to his 1984 collection of mostly previously published stories, Watchers at the Strait Gate, opposes the two: “C. G. Jung’s theories about psychic phenomena differed radically from Freud’s. Startling personal experience converted Jung from his previous belief that such phenomena were subjective ‘unconscious projections’ to his later conviction that ‘an exclusively psychological approach’ cannot suffice for study of psychic phenomena of the ghostly variety.” And yet the horror literature of the purely psychological camp shares a common antecedent with writing in the spirit of The Presence: both are fundamentally conservative.
The conservatism of Kirk’s horror is easy to comprehend, despite the surprise T. S. Eliot expressed in a letter to Kirk upon discovering his penchant for horror: “How amazingly versatile and prolific you are. Now you have been writing what I should have least suspected of you—ghost stories!” For horror, as a genre, tends to conform to conservative principles as Russell Kirk himself articulated them. Horror insinuates a chain of being that connects the living and the dead, reminding us of our duty and obligations to the past (anyone who thinks the film Poltergeist isn’t a fundamentally conservative cultural statement is indulging in self-delusion). In horror, the pragmatic uniformity of modern life is seen as lacking elements essential to existence. And perhaps most important, horror is at its heart an imaginative exploration of morality. The more “real” the negative force in a horror story, the more powerful the work.
The disgust the Lovecraft school of horror feels for the world is self-deceptive. Materialist and psychological horror has convinced itself that the world is all there is, but its strength derives from its desire to be wrong about the nature of reality. It wants a coherent transcendent order to illuminate reality with meaning, and this brand of horror is really a plaintive longing for something like Kirk’s vision of eternity. In the horror of artists like Lovecraft and John Carpenter, the disgust we experience is akin to Augustine’s restless heart, longing for God. They tremble at a world denuded of meaning but fail to read their fear as a sign suggesting the possibility of transcendence.
The secret to the strength of Kirk’s horror can be found etched into his own tombstone in the back of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Remus, Michigan. A quotation from T. S. Eliot reads, “The communication of the dead / is tongued with fire / Beyond the language of the living.” Kirk’s horror, expressed in perfections of form and craft, is suffused with this spirit. It frightens by bringing us out of ourselves and humbling us with revelation. It challenges us by piercing our day-to-day sense of the temporal with bright flashes of eternal order. And it lays upon us the heavy but joyous responsibility of harmonizing ourselves with that order.
Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer 2018).
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The featured image is “The Ghost Story,” engraving by R. Graves after R.W. Buss, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been enhanced for clarity.