Russell Kirk as an Inkling Without the Inklings
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 Inklings—if 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 sessions—if 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 berserker—these 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 formed—no one who has read him will be surprised—by 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 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 tales—or, 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?
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-fashioned—or 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.