Halloween Reading: Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk was probably the greatest American conservative political thinker of the 20th century. He also wrote ghost stories and threw, by all accounts, one hell of a Halloween party (see here and here).

Kirk wrote several books of political history and philosophy, as well as the only auto-biography I’ve ever read that was written in the third person. But the books I keep coming back to are his collections of ghost stories (The Princess of All Lands and Watchers at the Strait Gate are the two I’m familiar with) and his three more or less Gothic novels: Old House of Fear, A Creature of the Twilight, and Lord of the Hollow Dark.

It’s a strange and unaccountable fact that these books have even fewer reviews on Amazon than mine do. Lord of the Hollow Dark is the hardest to find–I’m lucky enough to have a nice hardback copy.

Here are my recent reviews of the latter two.

A Creature of the Twilight blends Gothic romance and geopolitical thriller. Told in a mixture of voices, including diary entries, letters, newspaper articles and broadcast transcripts, there’s a nineteenth-century flavor to its style–something like Dracula, if Stoker’s vampire prince had still taken an active hand in the wars and political maneuverings of the day. Indeed, Kirk’s hero Manfred Arcane, collector of souls damned or nearly so, has been given the title ‘Father of Shadows’, which I suspect Vlad himself would have been proud to own.

The wars and political intrigues in the story wouldn’t seem too out of place in a modern newspaper (which is a bit sad when you consider the implications for American foreign policy in the last fifty years). There are satisfying revenges, narrow escapes, desperate battles, loves both doomed and destined, and hints of the occult. Kirk’s writing is erudite; you may have to look up a few words, some of which might join your list of favorites–how did I ever survive without knowing what ‘crepuscular’ means, for instance?

Then there’s the amazing scene where Arcane rallies his motley troops who are about to face the Russian-backed Communist forces, giving the mother of all speeches to inspire Christians, Muslims, and Pagan jinn worshipers to fight as one. Not to be missed!

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I’m on my fourth or fifth re-reading of Lord of the Hollow Dark. Each time, there is something new to appreciate. If you like mazes and labyrinths, archaeology, ghost stories, history, spelunking, metaphysics, Gothic atmosphere, or a combination of all of them, you will love this book.

In this story, Manfred Arcane, the central figure of A Creature Of The Twilight, returns to battle powers and principalities in a moldering Scottish mansion, trying to head off a diabolic ritual set in the underground caves of a medieval Purgatory. Along the way he finds allies among the dead and the not-quite-so-dead. He also adds to his collection of rescued souls, though that requires some very tough love (the best thing he can say to one of his proteges is ‘at least your vices are natural vices’.)

Note that there are two prequels to this book among Kirk’s short stories: ‘Balgrummo’s Hell’ and ‘The Peculiar Demesne of Archvicar Gerontion’. It isn’t required to read these before Lord of the Hollow Dark, but it would add to one’s enjoyment.

As other reviewers have noted, the story moves slowly, and there is no overt horror (though a few chills are delivered along the way). Actually, I appreciate that; my imagination is quite capable of filling in the blanks if I feel like it.

There’s a strong Christian element in the story, but the conflict boils down to good vs. evil, and all of us (I hope) have a dog in that fight. And the uplifting ending makes Lord of the Hollow Dark a book for all seasons: good reading for the Spring as well as the darkening Fall.

 

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