Russell Kirk: Inkling Without the Inklings

Russell Kirk as an Inkling Without the Inklings
by Dale Nelson

Russell Kirk, 1985. Photo by Dale Nelson

The celebrated Oxford Inklings included C. S. Lewis and his brother Warren, Charles Williams, J. R. R. Tolkien and his son Christopher, and others. People who were kindred spirits and personal friends of an Inkling, but never attended their meetings, could be called the penumbra of the all-male group. Here belong poet Martyn Skinner and women such as Dorothy L. Sayers and the wonderful poet Ruth Pitter. Inklings fans might amuse themselves by drawing up lists of people who weren’t even in the penumbra and yet could have been, could even have become outright Inklingsif only…

Among these is Russell Kirk (1918-1994), a few years older than John Wain, who attended meetings but didn’t consider himself an Inkling. Kirk was an American who attended the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and received its D. Litt. Chronology and affinity of interests could have permitted Kirk to attend later Inklings sessionsif only! (Would his being an American have kept him out?) By 1950-1951, his compelling tales of the supernatural, their themes imbued with conservative values, had begun to appear in the London Mystery Magazine. Lewis read The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; did he see in a 1953 issue Kirk’s “What Shadows We Pursue”?

The canon of Kirk’s eerie fiction runs to around two dozen stories, most of them collected in the 2004 Eerdmans book Ancestral Shadows.

The Surly Sullen Bell,” from the London Mystery Magazine and supplying the title of the first collection of Kirk’s stories, is set in St. Louis, but its plot and characters are likely to remind readers of Inkling Charles Williams’s novels—say, War in Heaven. If someone asked me for something to read in half an hour that would give him or her something of a sense of Williams’s type of fiction, I could suggest Kirk’s “Bell.” Its villain reminds me of Williams’s Gregory Persimmons, and the romantic feelings persisting between Nancy and the protagonist, Loring, would have interested Williams.

Other stories too were dramatic. A young woman gives a rider to a hitchhiker, who then forces her to drive to the remote site of a shootout still shadowed by destructive entities; a decorated veteran, now a sorrowful drifter, defends a lonely woman against the undead; the gun-packing priest of an inner-city church comes under the power of a lustful spirit; an aging hobo finds himself in a strangely familiar house in which he will be transformed into a berserkerthese are a few of the encounters in Kirk’s stories.

For many years he was best known for writing books including a classic tome, The Conservative Mind, which went through multiple editions, for newspaper columns, and for co-founding National Review. His long study, Eliot and His Age, is subtitled T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century. I wonder if today it’s his fiction that most readers remember.

I got to talk with him about his storytelling in May 1985, after requesting an interview by mail. My wife and I received a phone call from his wife, who said he would be in our area, the next week, and we could meet him in person and give him a ride from the Urbana airport. Dorothea, my wife, estimated Kirk was about five feet seven inches tall. He had blue eyes, pink cheeks, and grey hair. So it came about that we sat down in an ordinary family restaurant in nearby Rantoul, and Kirk talked about the ghostly. I wrote up my notes for Illini Review, the conservative alternative to the official University of Illinois campus newspaper. My article there also drew on several letters from Dr. Kirk.

He looked like an incorruptible country judge in some good old movie, and he had, in fact, been a justice of the peace in his home county of Mecosta, Michigan. (For that locale, see one of his creepiest stories, “Behind the Stumps.”)

He told me that he began writing fiction to earn money while he was a research student at St. Andrews. He kept writing them because he enjoyed it. Eventually, two of the most notable publishers of weird fiction, Arkham House and then Ash-Tree Press, each issued his stories in two-volume limited hardcover editions.

Long before his Christian conversion, Kirk, writing in the third person, said in his autobiography, “His was no Enlightenment mind….it was a Gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure. He did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what he sought was a complex of variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. He despised sophisters and calculators; he was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. He would have given any number of classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle.”

His taste for ghostly literature was formedno one who has read him will be surprisedby classic fiction by Hawthorne, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Then there were M. R. James and Henry James, and, much later, Charles Williams, but by the time he read Williams he was established as a ghost story author in his own right. There are not many surprises in Kirk’s weird tales. They exhibit justice rather than, as in many modern weird stories, the irrational and a tiresome mean-spiritedness. He told me that his stories are “similar in their assumptions” to those of Williams, but he was not directly influenced by the Inkling.

Among recent storytellers in the field of the strange, Kirk admired Robert Aickman. I quoted to Kirk this passage from Aickman: “I believe that at the time of the Industrial and French Revolutions….mankind took a wrong turning.  The beliefs that one day, by application of reason and the scientific method, everything will be known, and every problem and unhappiness solved, seem to me to have led to a situation where, first, we are in imminent danger of destroying the whole world and where, second, everyone suffers from an existential angst, previously confined to the very few” (from “An Essay,” in Gahan Wilson, ed., The First World Fantasy Awards, 1977). Kirk said that what Aickman wrote was “very close” to his own belief, and that, in fact, he and Aickman had corresponded. They were both intrigued by George Orwell’s 1931 ghost sighting.

In contrast to his appreciation of the classic literary ghost story tradition and of Aickman, Kirk was not a fan of Lovecraft and his imitators, with their plentiful tentacles and abundant grimoires. Perhaps these stories, Kirk surmised, “keep you from confronting the real terrors of the soul.”

Kirk 31 May 1985 photo by Dale Nelson
Photo by Dale Nelson

Kirk warmly approved of Gerald Heard’s novella “The Chapel of Ease,” published in The Lost Cavern and Other Tales of the Fantastic. Kirk was personally acquainted with Heard. Heard, Kirk related, “told me that every good ghostly tale must have a theological premise or end.” Kirk spent “a week in his company at a conference,” talked with him at his home for an hour or two, and listened to him address his “congregation” in a Los Angeles theater“a story in itself.” I’m sorry that I didn’t draw Kirk out about that experience. Regrettably, Kirk noted, “so far as I know Gerald Heard published no uncanny stories after 1950; he was in poor shape physically, for one thing, perhaps because of experiments on himself with drugs.”

Still, it was Heard, Kirk said, who “did indeed turn me toward the pursuit of mystical and symbolic purpose in ghostly talesor, at least, helped me understand what I had already been groping for.” To me, this sounds much like C. S. Lewis’s experience of reading David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, which Lewis said gave him the idea of using the science fiction form for stories with spiritual themes; hence his “planet books.” Neither Lewis nor Kirk intended simply to write didactic narratives; Kirk said imaginary “episodes” in his mind would “combine” until a story emerged (compare Lewis’s essay “It All Started with a Picture”).

Kirk won the World Fantasy Award for “‘There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding.’” He distinguished between the literary ghost story and “true narrations” that are too “inconclusive and fragmentary” for publication. But he had a “whole great volume of ghost stories which are not in print and are perfectly true, collected in Scotland, Italy, and the United States,” which he liked to recite to visitors to his home.

He had Swedenborgians and Spiritualists in his ancestry, believed his boyhood home was haunted, and, to the present writer most disturbingly, practiced fortune-telling even after his conversion to Roman Catholicism, though divination is severely forbidden in Holy Scripture (Deuteronomy 18, Leviticus 19, Jeremiah 27, 1 Samuel 15, Ezekiel 13, Micah 5, Acts 19, etc.). Using third person, he wrote, “Kirk was an old hand at telling fortunes by the Tarot, long before the art was taken up by hippies.” He also wrote, “My fortunes invariably are melancholy, and as invariably come to pass.” (See Bradley Birzer’s Acton Institute essay, “Russell Kirk’s Path to Christ.”) Kirk’s decision to convert to the Roman church was bound up with his desire to marry a Catholic woman; what, I wonder, did she think about all that?*

[* Publisher’s note: On this particular topic, please refer to the comment made by Cecilia Nelson, Kirk’s daughter, in the comment section below]

Readers of his fiction, however, will likely respond to their presentation of good and evil. “My uncanny tales are intended to wake the moral imagination,” he remarked. For some readers, this quality as well as their diction will make the stories seem old-fashionedor impress them as an encouraging departure from the pulp magazine-type exploitation of cheap thrills. Kirk said his favorites of his stories were “The Princess of All Lands,” “Watchers at the Strait Gate,” “Uncle Isaiah,” Balgrummo’s Hell,” and “‘Long, Long Trail.”

When you have read Kirk’s stories, you may be interested to know a little about their backgrounds. Kirk wrote that “The Princess of All Lands” was “founded upon the actual kidnaping” of his wife, which he relates in The Sword of Imagination. The chief character in “‘Long, Long Trail’” was “our late burglar butler.” In “The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost,” the edifice is “the Cathedral of St. Vibiena, Los Angeles,” while York is the basis of the setting of “Saviourgate.” “Several of the other stories have Mecosta settings.” “What Shadows We Pursue” is set in the “most handsome house in Lansing,” which Kirk sarcastically says was “thoughtfully demolished by improvers.”

Kirk and his wife were hospitable, giving shelter to Cambodian and Ethiopian refugees as well as their home being a place for seminars for young conservatives. One thinks of the Lewis household and its wartime child-evacuees. Lewis gave away his royalties, and Birzer reports that the Kirks were likewise charitable. As Lewis ushered Charles Williams’s unfinished Arthurian monograph into print, Kirk arranged publication of his York friend Canon Basil Smith’s ghost stories by Whispers Press in 1978.

Smith had died in 1969, but Kirk remembered staying with him and his wife in their “strange, big, ancient, charming house within the cathedral precincts, where there was plenty of room for all of the canon’s good books.” In a newspaper column about Smith, Kirk added, “In considerable part, it was he who converted me by example, rather than by exhortation”; Kirk had been “a mere unbaptized heathen” when they first met.

It seems that Kirk would have fit in with the Inklings rather well. I think he would’ve thought so too. During the time he and a friend ran the Red Cedar Bookshop in East Lansing, Michigan, Kirk also participated in meetings of the George Ade Society (“named in honor of the Indiana humorist,” Kirk explains in his autobiography, The Sword of Imagination). One of the other members was Richard Dorson, who became the general editor of that fine University of Chicago series, Folktales of the World. A local radical called it “the Death Group”! However, Kirk later mused, “It would have been more reasonable to style [us] the East Lansing Inklings.”


Some of the material in this essay was first published in contributions to Ghosts and Scholars, the small press magazine edited by Rosemary Pardoe, and to the amateur press association The Everlasting Club.


Dale Nelson is associate professor of English emeritus from Mayville (North Dakota) State University. He is a regular contributor to Beyond Bree, the monthly Tolkien newsletter; CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society; and Portable Storage, William Breiding’s general interest fanzine. His work has appeared in Tolkien Studies, Mythlore, Touchstone, and other periodicals, and in the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia edited by Michael Drout. His collection Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript and Other Stories was published by Nodens Books. He is a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.


Article and photos – Copyright 2022 by Dale Nelson. All rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “Russell Kirk: Inkling Without the Inklings

  1. This was a fascinating introduction to a writer I had never before encountered. I agree that he would likely have felt at home with the Oxford Inklings. I doubt his heterodoxy would not have barred him, since Owen Barfield’s Anthroposophy did not exclude him.

    I found the following, interesting reference to C.S. Lewis in Kirk’s volume: America’s British Culture.

    “The language and the literature transmitted to America from Britain carried with them certain assumptions about liberty and order, as expressed through law; also certain assumptions about the human condition, ‘of moral evil and of good.’ Highly ethical in significance from the days of Sir Walter Ralegh [sic]… down to such twentieth-century champions of culture as C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot, the body of English literature produced on either shore of the Atlantic still instructs us in what it is to be fully human, the reason restraining will and appetite.”

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  2. “I wonder if today it’s his fiction that most readers remember.” I think of him first in ‘conservative mind’ and Eliot context, and have not read enough of his work, there – but this is quite an encouragement to getting acquainted with his fiction (and autobiography), and with that of three other unfamiliar authors, Gerald Heard, Robert Aickman, and Basil Smith! A lot of interesting trans-Atlantic activity and contact, there – with (I see from Wikipedia) Heard ending up moving from England to America, as well. With Aickman’s L.T.C. Rolt and inland waterways connection (as I read in his Wikipedia article) I wonder if there might also be a Williams-OUP-circle connection with Charles Hadfield.

    Americans at Inklings meetings – and in the ‘Inklings penumbra’ – are interesting questions, about which no immediate details come to mind. One of Tolkien’s undergraduate friends was an American Rhodes scholar, and they certainly had various professional contacts (I think, for example, of Lewis corresponding with Douglas Bush – and Joy Davidman!, and Williams’s work with the New York branch of the OUP and the British (re-)publication of US academic works). And ‘fan contacts’ like Dr. Warfield Firor… So, I can imagine Kirk being received warmly as well as courteously!

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  3. The case for the likelihood of C. S. Lewis having read Kirk is stronger than I realized till this morning.

    Checking a Kirk bibliography, I see that two more of Kirk’s stories as well as “What Shadows We Pursue” appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which Lewis is known to have read. (That’s not to say that I know just when he began to read it, or if he received all of its issues up to the time of his death. Moreover, at some point at least there was a British edition whose contents might differ from the American. I think it fairly likely that Lewis subscribed to the American edition from early on, but I’m not sure.

    In any event, F & SF also published these ghostly tales by Kirk:

    “Behind the Stumps” Dec. 1962
    “Old Place of Sorworth” Nov. 1962; this is printed in books as “Sorworth Place,” and (incidentally) was adapted for TV’s Night Gallery series.

    After Lewis’s death, F&SF published

    “Balgrummo’s Hell” July 1967
    “Saviourgate” Nov. 1976
    “Fate’s Purse” May 1979

    Some readers might not know that Lewis himself contributed to F&SF several times. In his lifetime, the stories “Ministering Angels” (Jan. 1958) and “The Shoddy Lands” (Feb. 1956) appeared there, and also a poem, “An Expostulation (Against Too Many Writers of Science Fiction),” (June 1959). After his death, “The End of the Wine” appeared in the July 1964 issue.

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    1. Interesting – thanks! (And I have probably met with at least one Kirk story, without realizing it – in The Night Gallery!)

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  4. Kirk’s having “a ‘whole great volume of ghost stories which are not in print and are perfectly true, collected in Scotland, Italy, and the United States,’ which he liked to recite to visitors to his home” reminded me of St. John D. Seymour’s True Irish Ghost Stories published jointly by Hodges, Figgis & Co. of Dublin and “Humphrey Milford | Amen Corner” (1914) which Charles Williams is – what? not unlikely to have encountered at work, and which may have interested him and perhaps contributed to his writings – it’s scanned in the Internet Archive, but I have not yet got better acquainted with it (or with its (shall we say) companion volumes, also scanned there: Irish Witchcraft and Demonology (1913) and Tales of King Solomon published by OUP in 1924).

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  5. Thanks for the essay on Kirk. While I disagree with certain points, nevertheless there is much which I either agree with or at least feel a certain sympathy toward.

    As for Kirk’s view and his works: While I often disagree quite strongly with his views, I do think they are among the major factors which give his work such power and memorability; combined with a fine craftsmanship in his use of the language, and a wise choice of what light and shadow to emphasize, I doubt his work is ever going to truly fade from its well-deserved position as among the finest supernatural tales of the 20th century. I also think his choice for the best of his work is quite just — though it’s been long enough since I read most of his work, I’d have to revisit it to be absolutely certain of my opinion on that.

    As with Williams and Lewis (and, to a lesser degree, Tolkien) and a handful of other writers, part of my attraction to them may indeed be that we come from such different philosophical perspectives in many respects. Of course, this is, as noted, certainly enhanced by each of them having a high regard for the language (even when using dialect or a more informal voice, as in Heinlein, Keyes, Ellison, etc.). It “clears the palate”, as it were; allowing for avoidance of staleness of thought; and I find that quite refreshing.

    At any rate, it was very interesting and informative to hear Kirk’s (and Nelson’s) own views in such a format, as well as giving a more personal view of the man himself — an aspect of things which, though not absolutely necessary (e.g., “Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight”, whose author we know very little about), has been given at least a fair degree of support as far back as the first of the “Spectator” essays; making it a venerable view indeed.

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  6. I’m delighted to see this wonderful piece and read of Dale Nelson’s excellent recollections of his conversation with Russell Kirk, my father. There is one line that I believe to be inaccurate: that he “practiced fortune-telling even after his conversion to Roman Catholicism.” I remember my father saying that the last time he told fortunes was for my mother before they were married (and thus before his baptism/communion with the Church). I know that one of my dad’s biographers has mistakenly circulated this tarot-reading continuation, and while I cannot prove it, my sisters and I find it highly unlikely. Also, the reference that “Kirk was an old hand at telling fortunes,” was from a publicity brochure (we have it here in the archive) to generate controversy and does not indicate when that was discontinued. I’m sorry to bring up this matter in such a fine essay, but I seek to be as forthright as possible in my role as steward of my dad’s literary legacy.

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    1. That’s reassuring news about Russell Kirk, your father, Mrs. Nelson.

      If anything further about Dr. Kirk’s mature understanding of the occult emerges, please share it with us.

      In the meantime — it reminds me a little of C. S. Lewis’s apparent change. He had admired the fiction of Algernon Blackwood (e.g. the stories of the occult physician John SIlence). But Lewis witnessed at close hand the horrifying breakdown and death of a man who had been fascinated by such things. After that, Lewis seems to have stopped reading supernatural horror fiction as a rule, aside from the novels of Charles Williams, whose books, especially the later ones, radiated explicitly Christian themes. (Unfortunately, Williams apparently was not able to bring himself entirely to renounce the occult, as his biographer, Grevel Lindop, revealed. But that’s another story.)

      DN

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