Russell Kirk’s fiction is unjustly ignored

Russell Kirk

The writings of Catholic convert Russell Kirk exert no more than a marginal influence outside of limited circles, which is a common cause for lament among the best contemporary American political thinkers and social critics. I share this view. But I would add that at least the accomplishments of the self-described “Bohemian Tory” as a philosopher, critic and historian are generally recognised. His influence is limited because the American right, dominated by classical liberalism, has an aversion to his traditionalist political principles.

In contrast to this, his talent as a writer of fiction is effectively unknown in the literary world and treated as mere addenda to his philosophising within the circle of Kirk enthusiasts.

His failure to receive his due as a novelist is, it must be admitted, partly his own fault, resulting from his tendency to treat writing literature as a hobby and non-fiction as a profession. The choice was, in its way, an odd one. While his magisterial The Conservative Mind (1953) brought him international recognition and assured a steady stream of work as an essayist, lecturer and visiting professor, none of his non-fiction sold particularly well, while his handful of works of fiction were enough to provide him with considerable supplemental income for decades. Only Eliot and His Age compares to The Conservative Mind as a work of definitive scholarship. (TS Eliot had been a friend and considered Kirk to be the best critic of his own writings.)

Most of Kirk’s non-fiction corpus, though often interesting and valuable, tends either to analyse figures of secondary importance or to constitute introductory (though at times comprehensive) overviews of their topics. A few of these works typify a public intellectual’s inevitable ephemera.

Had Kirk chosen to confine his political, historical and critical writing to the small number of his best works while otherwise concentrating on fiction, he could have become as prominent in the history of American literature as he did in the history of American political thought, and possibly have attracted a greater readership to his works of non-fiction. Instead, he gave us a mere three novels – Old House of Fear, A Creature of the Twilight and Lord of the Hollow Dark – and three collections of short stories. All manifest a talent for the grotesque that can be compared to that of Edgar Allen Poe and Flannery O’Connor. The short stories tend to be more artistically literary than the novels, which, though written with all the melodramatic skill of Agatha Christie, remain within the realm of popular genre fiction.

Old House of Fear (1961) was the best of the novels, a story in which American lawyer Hugh Logan travels to the Outer Hebrides to purchase the island of Carnglass for self-made millionaire Duncan MacAskival, an American descended from the clan which historically inhabited it. After the failure of attempts to establish communication with the island’s current owner, Lady MacAskival, Logan discovers that it is held in dread by those who live in its vicinity. They are unaware that Lady MacAskival and her daughter are being held prisoner by a cell of communists determined to advance their plots through control of the island. Political moralising is limited to a handful of paragraphs, the villains serving the same purpose as communist agents in a James Bond novel.

The same cannot be said for A Creature of the Twilight (1966), a politically heavy-handed, non-comic variant on the plot line of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1938), in which an attempted communist revolution in the fictitious African country of Hamnegri is thwarted by Scottish-born royal minister Manfred Arcane. To Kirk’s credit, and unlike in many novels written as vehicles for the expression of moral or political principles, his character development is first rate.

In Kirk’s third novel, Lord of the Hollow Dark (1979), Manfred Arcane attempts to foil the plans of the bizarre cult that is conducting a demonic parody of a retreat at a vacant Scottish estate which had belonged to Arcane’s recently deceased father. The recurrence of the preternatural and of Scottish settings is common in Kirk’s fiction. It came naturally: Kirk had Scottish ancestry, was exposed to spiritualism as a child and was the first American to receive a Doctor of Letters from St Andrew’s University.

The literary style of Kirk’s fiction is worthy of a final comment. His effort to revive the tradition of rhetorical prose in the writing of non-fiction tended to produce results which were sometimes pretentiously overblown. His fiction is not marred by such a flaw. Kirk’s prose style can be favourably compared to that of many highly regarded novelists.

James Baresel is a freelance writer based in Front Royal, Virginia