The ghost story was the perfect vehicle for Russell Kirk to extend his own sense of awe-filled wonder to a wider audience. He was keenly aware of the need for romance and mystery in everyday life—and how hard it was to achieve it in America. He created for his readers one of those places in the world where the cooperation of natural beauty, human art, and a deep sense of the past have created an environment specially conducive to wonder and contemplation.

Russell Amos Augustine Kirk is chiefly remembered today as a towering member of the postwar conservative movement: as the advisor to Goldwater and Reagan, the author of The Conservative Mind and The Roots of American Order, and the man who—in the words of the liberal British politician Hugh Gaitskell, “set socialism back a generation.”[1] Kirk’s wholly deserved fame as a conservative theorist has, regrettably, overshadowed another side of his literary personality: Kirk was also an accomplished and reasonably prolific writer of fiction, responsible for three full-length novels and a couple dozen short stories. These fictions attracted significant attention in their own day: his stories were praised by readers as diverse as T.S. Eliot, Madeleine L’Engle, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King; “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding” won a World Fantasy Award in 1977; and—according to Kirk—The Old House of Fear outsold all his other books combined. Kirk’s literary experiments also pose an enduring puzzle for readers. As Kirk himself put it in The Sword of the Imagination, the American public struggled to decide what to make of his stories: “readers began to fancy that there were two scribbling Russell Kirks: one who wrote grave historical and political works and essays for the literary and scholarly journals, and another who wrote Old House of Fear and published uncanny tales.”[2]

Closer examination can collapse the supposed paradox: the gap between the sober conservative critic and the literary master of shadows is not nearly so great as it might at first seem To begin with, and as all careful readers of Kirk know, his conservative mind was always colored by a vibrantly Gothic imagination. As he famously put it in his 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 would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle.[3]

It is only natural that such an imagination should find inspiration in the ghostly tale. And indeed, the ghost story is in many ways an inherently conservative form of tale-telling: it requires that readers deny—or at least suspend belief in—the materialistic positivism of the modern world, and presupposes the right of the past to guide the present. As Kirk wrote in Bohemian Tory, “the past is a ghost, to some people. But . . . the dead alone give us life.”[4]

The ghost story, then, was the perfect vehicle for Kirk to extend his own sense of awe-filled wonder to a wider audience. He was keenly aware of the need for a sense of romance and mystery in everyday life—and how hard it was to achieve it in America. In his examination of Hawthorne, Kirk noted “[Hawthorne] learned how hard was the task of a romancer in a land without the mystery and awe of antiquity.”[5] Hawthorne succeeded, Kirk argued, in his efforts, haunting the American imagination with “the ghost of old New England.”[6] It seems fitting to read Kirk’s fiction as a continuation and imitation of Hawthorne’s great task—and nowhere is this more clear than in the numerous stories (nearly half of the total corpus) set in Kirk’s native Michigan.

The region had fascinated Kirk since childhood: Mecosta County appeared to the young Kirk “like the empty land that peers out of the pages of the Mabinogion.”[7] The comparison here is telling: the Mabinogion is a collection of early Welsh folklore, providing us with (amongst other things) our earliest Arthurian legends. Rooted in the culture of early medieval Wales, the landscape of the Mabinogion is no very cheering prospect: tales like Culhwch and Olwen show us little islands of civilization surrounded by a vast, hostile wilderness. This empty land is wild, untamed, and savage—a land for giants and witches, and possibly heroes—but not ordinary men. And this, in Kirk’s imagination, is Michigan. Take, for instance, the opening to Kirk’s first ghost story, “Behind the Stumps”:

Pottawattomie [sic] County, shorn of its protecting forest seventy years ago, ever since has sprawled like Samson undone by Delilah, naked, impotent, grudgingly servile. Amid the fields of rotted stumps, potatoes and beans grow, and half the inhabited houses still are log cabins thrown up by the lumbermen who followed the trappers into this land. In Pottawattomie there has been no money worth mentioning since the timber was cut: but here and there people cling to the straggling farms, or make shift in crumbling villages.

This decaying waste is, transparently, Kirk’s own Mecosta (Mecosta County having been named for a Potawatomi chief). We learn, as the protagonist learns, what lurks behind the rotted stumps: a clan of half-savages, ruled by the enduring terror of an undying witch. A quasi-medieval glamour hangs over the whole story: in the protagonist’s last articulate thought before his death of terror, he compares himself to Launcelot in the chapel of the dead wizard. Similarly bleak prospects are offered in “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding.” Here, the hobo-hero Frank Sarsfield finds himself in a ghost town, cut off and ruined by the construction of a freeway. As Kirk has it, “This was depopulated country, its forests gone to the sawmills long ago, its mines worked out. The freeway ran through the abomination of desolation.”[8] The same desolate features—rotting stumps, cedar swamps, scrub brush, decayed farmsteads—tend to dominate and define the Michigan tales. In “Lost Lake,” Kirk compares the Michigan swamps to Macbeth’s blasted heath, and observes that the genius loci seems to be a malevolent spirit.

Perhaps the grimmest view of the Michigan backcountry, however, comes in “The Princess of All Lands”—one of Kirk’s more curious stories. The bulk of the tale is a very lightly fictionalized account of the real-life kidnapping of Kirk’s wife in 1975. Some of the imagery is familiar: “On they drove, bumping across the vestige of a forty-acre field, young poplars overgrowing most of it. Beyond the far boundary marked by a ragged stump fence, commenced a northern swamp-jungle, seemingly impenetrable. This must be some hardscrabble homestead abandoned decades ago, never truly fit for cultivation, now the lair of squatter predators.”[9] The land is waste, as it is in all of Kirk’s Michigan tales—but here, more clearly than in any other tale, we see its proper inhabitants. These “squatter predators” are compared elsewhere in the tale to Grendel’ s mother; in the end, they are revealed to be—appropriately enough—damned spirits. Kirk’s non-fictionalized version of the story, provided in his autobiography, strikes a similar note, identifying Annette’s kidnapper as “one of Tolkien’s trolls, masters of the desolation that hemmed in Rivendell.”[10] Kirk’s words here were chosen deliberately. His home at Piety Hill had been christened “Rivendell” by a friend, a last homely house; the surrounding Michigan wilderness is the reign of chaos and old night.

We see, then, that the comparison to the Mabinogion was not idle: the Mabinogion had Arthur’s fortress surrounded by witches from the uplands of hell and god-cursed savages; so too Michigan. Or, to take the other allusion, Piety Hill is Heorot—a refuge of light and learning; just beyond its borders are the fens and moors of the devil and his dam. Scholars like Vigen Guroian have argued that these Michigan vignettes are indebted to Eliot’s Wasteland—and on one level, they certainly are. Kirk was an admirer, friend, and critic of Eliot’s—and he was not shy about making use of Eliot in his fiction (indeed, all the character names in Kirk’s Lord of the Hollow Dark are drawn from Eliot’s poems). But there is a crucial difference between Eliot’s wasteland and Kirk’s. In Kirk’s stories, the Michigan waste tends to remain stubbornly unhealed: no healing rain comes, whatever the protagonist may do or dare.

Why is this? In the end, I would suggest it is because, crucially, Kirk does not want it to be healed. He loves it too much for that. This may seem paradoxical, but can be cleared up by a few key passages from the writings of Kirk and his circle. In a letter to a friend, Kirk described his stories as “fictionalized Michigan folklore.”[11] This is a noble goal: folklore is, after all, a vehicle for the wisdom of a people in narrative form, containing its traditions and folkways, past and identities, its connection to the land from which it sprung. Folklore shapes the reality in which we live; as the folklorist Frank Kramer has it in his Voices in the Valley, “The same landscape is framed by folk symbols and folklore into very different realities; and it is these separate little worlds that people really live in.”[12] To write folklore is nothing less than to shape the audience’s perception of the landscape they inhabit, effectively transforming their world. A man who once read Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel could never again view the ruins of Melrose Abbey as he did before; autumnal New York could never be the same after Irving’s “Sleepy Hollow.”

The tributes Kirk received during his lifetime give some indication of his success as a creator of folklore. One admirer called Kirk “the Washington Irving of Michigan.”[13] Others drew explicit comparisons to Scott: where Scott had been “the Wizard of the North,” Kirk was widely known as “the Wizard of Mecosta.” In some sense, this lofty praise is wholly justified: like those other literary alchemists, Kirk transformed his homeland, enchanting the depopulated and deforested Mecosta backcountry with a sense of terror and awe. There is, however, some reason for caution here: even if his friends’ praise rings true, Kirk’s description of his own project does not—not entirely, at least. Kirk’s stories do not, in plain point of fact, preserve fictionalized Michigan folklore; indeed, they bear precious little resemblance to any of the layers of folklore of the northern Midwest. Instead, they present events in Kirk’s life and in his family’s history as folklore. Nearly all the major characters (and many of the plots) in Kirk’s Michigan tales are drawn from his own personal experience: his ancestors, his wife, his daughters, his hobo-butler, and (repeatedly) Kirk himself all appear. Nor do stories preserve the folk-wisdom of Michigan—they represent the imposition of Kirk’s wisdom and experience onto Michigan. To put the matter simply, Kirk’s Michigan ghost stories do not record fictionalized Michigan folklore. They are an attempt to create it—and, in so doing, re-create the haunted Michigan landscape in the minds of his readers, and gnaw at their imaginations with the uncomfortable and uncanny. He wrote, as he asserted in “The Princess of All Lands,” “mainly in the hope of discomforting an old man on a winter’s night, or a girl in the bloom of her youth . . . If I conjure up in you a dreadful joy, like that of a small boy on a secret stair, my malice will be satisfied.”[14]

If his malice was satisfied, his readers are the beneficiaries. We would all, I trust, want to live in an enchanted landscape—one of those places in the world where the cooperation of natural beauty, human art, and a deep sense of the past have created an environment specially conducive to wonder and contemplation: Guardini’s Lake Como, for instance, or old Edinburg or the Oxford countryside. Most of us, however, do not: we live in comparative wastelands like Mecosta, Michigan, or Front Royal, Virginia—or, really, anywhere in the vast stretches of American suburbia. But landscapes resistant to romance can still be Gothicized, and if we are not to have an enchanted world, a haunted world may very well be the next best thing. To borrow a line from “Sleepy Hollow,” the ghost story enables the reader to “imbibe the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative and to dream dreams, and see apparitions”—checking our pride, governing our actions, and inspiring a healthy terror. The ghost story has the power to enchant (albeit through terror) even those who have lost all other sense of the supernatural. “All things begin and end in mystery,” Kirk noted in his Enemies of the Permanent Things.[15] By confronting this mystery, Kirk’s ghostly tales—and especially those set in his own homeland—draw the reader to the wonder that is the beginning of philosophy, and the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Quoted in Bradley Birzer, Russell Kirk: American Conservative (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2018), p. 359.

[2] Russell Kirk, The Sword of the Imagination (Wilmington, DE: ISI Conservative Classics, 2002), p. 251.

[3] Russell Kirk, Confessions of a Bohemian Tory: Episodes and Reflections of a Vagrant Career (Hachette, U.K.: Fleet, 1963), p. 23.

[4] Ibid., p. 106.

[5] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Washington, DC: Gateway Editions, 2001), p. 219.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Confessions, p. 9.

[8] Russell Kirk, “There’s A Long, Long Trail A-Winding,” in Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales, ed. Vigen Guroian (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publiching Co., 2004), p. 277.

[9] “The Princess of All Lands,” in Ancestral Shadows, p. 172.

[10] The Sword of Imagination, p. 364.

[11] Quoted in Birzer, Russell Kirk, p. 298.

[12] Frank Kramer, Voices in the Valley (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1962), p. xv.

[13] Quoted in Birzer, Russell Kirk, p. 298.

[14] “The Princess of All Lands,” in Ancestral Shadows, p. viii.

[15] Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things (Peru, IL: Sherwood Sugden & Company, 1984), p. 49.

The featured image is “Study for Marion and His Men in the Swamp” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email