The best stories by a living American in what is commonly called the supernatural are by Russell Kirk; notably in his collection The Princess of All Lands, which, despite differences in approach, meets on level terms Edith Wharton, Ambrose Bierce, and even the founding father, Mr. Poe.
What is the supernatural in literature? It is easier to define what it is not. In particular, it is neither the scream of horror to its right (excellently denounced of late by Mr. Jack Sullivan in the Washington Post), nor the science-fiction entanglement to its left. In several places, I myself have suggested that the true ghost story is akin to poetry (is not a shiver the authentic test of a true poem?); and of poetry it is acknowledged that the better it is, the more difficult it is to define or even describe in other than its own words. Freud categorically excluded the Unheimlich from all analysis. In the true ghost story, of course, no dependable apparition may even once submit itself to sight, hearing, or the judgment of any other sense. The area remains visionary, though not hallucinatory. Quite possibly, the area of poetry and Unheimlich is the most important area there is; and not least in the present abject state of the human race.
In Lord of the Hollow Dark, as in other recent works, Russell Kirk attempts, and on a very large scale, to direct an occult theme to moral and even social ends. The scale of the operation deserves all possible credit, especially as the workings are still kept under control and within bounds. This book is not one of those loose extravaganzas, yawning as yawned over. Furthermore, it happens that I, the present reviewer (a certain orotundity seems appropriate here), agree with most, even though not quite all, of Russell Kirk’s political and politico-ethical beliefs and propositions. Dr. Kirk is a political philosopher to be compared with Bertrand de Jouvenel, who is the most distinguished of this century. These circumstances make the book difficult to review.
A thoroughly nasty fellow, who even fancies himself as Antichrist, recruits a dozen renegades and mugs, and names them after T. S. Eliot characters, forbidding all other designation: a cunning procedure, in view of Eliot’s neat hand at nomenclature, and a subtle testimony to Eliot’s moral ambiguity. The man then leases a castle in Scotland more labyrinthine than most (Piranesi might have had a hand in elaborating it), and sets up a Black Supermass, with, naturally, a pure girl at the center of it. She is named Marina. The dark climax of the book is a better description of such an event than any other known to me; a detailed tour de force which makes no attempt to stir and enlist the reader’s sadism and sympathy, but very much the contrary. Indeed, at no point in this extremely lurid and livid book does the author aim to work up horror for its own sake; a most honorable and most unusual abnegation, also most advantageous to any artist. In the end, the evil is routed mainly at the hands of a soldier-saint, who has seen like service in the past, and now re-embodies for the fray. Much of the action takes place well below ground level. Dr. Kirk’s interest in architectural design and construction is intense, and his knowledge close. The book would, in fact, gain considerably from the provision of a plan, or perhaps an axonometric projection. Rider Haggard’s publishers would have seen to it.
For much of the writing, Russell Kirk adopts a morally sardonic style, slightly after the idiom of C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape; and one feels that it is the allegory of a fallen world, especially of a fallen twentieth-century world, that concerns him (as well it might and should) more than the complex surface narrative, often minutely detailed, and fascinatingly too. Twentieth-century demons and demonesses pop up, or are lined up like the Chamber of Horrors (as it used to be); with their attendant black sprites, right down to our own (British) National Coal Board—a menace certifiably, alike to the economy and to the environment. I myself have long believed that our world is doomed beyond all hope of rescue, and possibly in the full eschatological sense. I therefore take austere note that the quittance in Russell Kirk’s book is hardly as convincing as the onslaught. On the other hand, Kirk does make one see that the central drive within his evil characters is self-destruction. So often in life one perceives this to be true. Moral ultimates are not for man to decipher.
The literary dilemma remains. Like poetry, the true ghost story is dictated by a muse, so that the seeming author has little volition as to what happens next. In the interests of a high morality, and of an inconceivably urgent mission, Russell Kirk has overruled his muse at critical points both of narrative and of character. To Marina, the pure girl, her rescuers hold out as reward that she might be married off to the commander of a force upholding civilization against “freedom fighters,” i.e., barbarians. Arranged marriages may be the happiest, but this particular proposition reflects an unduly male view of woman and of the world. One seldom meets such a girl as Marina at the ordinary cocktail party. She tends to dwell in books for men. In the present work, Russell Kirk’s characters, mostly human trash, are understandably kept at such distance that often we see only their silhouettes. Perhaps the book is not really a study of the supernatural at all, whatever the publicity may say. A black mass is a reasonably mechanistic happening: do this and that follows dependably mucky. The true supernatural is as the wind listeth; as is poetry.
Still, the book is a high-minded, difficult, considerable undertaking, and, above all, we should recollect Rochefoucauld. “Les grandes âmes ne sont pas celles qui ont moins de passions et plus de vertus que les âmes communes, mais celles seulement qui ont de plus grands desseins.”
This one is of the truest and deepest things ever written, and Dr. Kirk is an example of it.
Robert Aickman (1914–1981), English conservationist and author, was an award-winning author of uncanny tales. At the time of writing, his most recent book published in America was Painted Devils (Scribners).
Posted: July 22, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.
The Critic as Catalyst