Avoiding Hell in
Russell Kirk’s Uncanny Tales
R. Andrew Newman
R. Andrew Newman is a writer whose work has appeared in Modern Age, Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and National Review.
A founding father of America’s post-war conservative movement, Russell Kirk is remembered for his works of history, political thought, and literary and social criticism. Kirk’s talents, however, didn’t stop there. The Wizard of Mecosta, Michigan, also spun ghostly tales.
Originally appearing in weird fiction journals, the tales were collected in three editions, The Surly Sullen Bell (1962), The Princess of All Lands (1979), and Watchers at the Strait Gate (1984). Unfortunately these collections fell out of print. Today, however, it seems we’re in the midst of a Kirkian revival. A Canadian publisher that specializes in classic supernatural fiction, Ash-Tree Press, has brought out a collection of his stories in two volumes, Off the Sand Road (2002) and The Shadows We Pursue (2003). Most recently, in 2004, William Eerdmans collected 19 of his best tales in Ancestral Shadows.
With his supernatural fiction, Kirk refrained from dumping more blood and gore on the table of horror fiction that already groaned beneath their weight. Nor was terror without purpose his aim. Instead, this defender of the Permanent Things sought to reawaken a sense of mystery, remind his fellow wayfarers in this world of timeless truths--and to have some eerie fun.
What might one of these timeless truths be? Why, the reality of hell. For denizens of the 21st century, hell seems somewhat embarrassing, too medieval, too much of the stuff of sweaty tent revivals. Or too serious. What if there is more to the faith than a meek and mild God? Kirk answers that question in this sampling of his uncanny tales.
In “The Surly Sullen Bell,” the title of which is taken from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, readers meet a sinner who, at first glance, doesn’t seem too much of a sinner. Frank Loring is a traveling salesman for a publishing company and a bachelor who, with Eliot’s Alfred J. Prufrock, has “seen the moment of my greatness flicker . . . .” He too never had the courage
[t]o have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question . . .
What is Loring’s overwhelming question? Back in his college days, he never fought for the hand of a young woman, Nancy Birrell, and so she ended up the bride of a self-assured fraternity president. Such is life, one may be tempted to say, but there is more. “You never truly fought for me,” Nancy reminds him after they meet again, some ten years removed from college. Granted, Loring doesn’t seem as pathetic a creature as Prufrock, but in Kirk’s story, he is in his thirties: The slow but steady terror of growing older (“I grow old . . . I grow old”) may not have surfaced yet the way it has for Prufrock. At least as far as the reader can tell, Loring isn’t so worried about what others think--or maybe he is, and that is why he couldn’t harness his will. Kirk wrote in Eliot and His Age:
Our every decision, lifelong, is irrevocable for good or evil, Eliot was to say often in his later years. . . . But Prufrock can hold to no decision for so much as a minute . . . [H]e lacks the strength “to force the moment to its crisis.” He is a Hollow Man.
So, it would seem, is Frank Loring.
Loring’s job brings him to a city he would just as soon avoid, St. Louis, the home of Nancy and her husband. Not only painful memories, but the ugliness of the city makes him want to stay away from St. Louis: “a progressive town, in which the air stank from the breweries and the government stank from other fermentation.” In St. Louis, while selling books, he happens across Nancy’s husband, Godfrey Schumacher, now a professor of Spanish. Schumacher says Nancy would like him to stop by the house.
Schumacher has changed. The past fraternity president is now a frustrated man, Nancy tells Loring on his second trip to the house while Schumacher is out of the room. He thought he would go far in life, but he is only a professor of Spanish. In fact, he cannot manage to become a dean, a feat, she reminds Loring, which is hardly impressive these days. Schumacher
. . . stopped trying in everyday life, Frank--“in this plane,” he’d say--and he’s seeing what will can do. He never loved anyone but himself, and now he detests the whole world because people won’t permit him to own them.
Like Satan, he cannot accept his position in the scheme or hierarchy of things. Schumacher believes he can be a master on the spiritual plane, the world of dreams, where will is all powerful. Dreams, he contends, are manifestations of a person’s will, and he warns,
You ought to exercise what will is in you, Frank, for you never can tell when it may have to put up a fight.
husband, Schumacher refuses to accept the authority and responsibility that God
has granted him. Instead of sacrificing himself for his wife in imitation of
Christ, as St. Paul instructs, he wants to sacrifice his wife to the insatiable
demands of his ego. On the surface, he appears caring, much like the
anti-Christ who Scripture and tradition has it will talk of peace, love, and
harmony, all the while enslaving people. With his wife ill (from the small
doses of poison he puts in her nightly cups of coffee), he reads to her and
cooks for her. But in reality, Nancy says, he “wants to possess me,
absorb me, lose me in himself.” In effect, a type or an icon of Satan, he
wants her soul. Bending his intellect in an unnatural, evil fashion, he
studies, among other occult tracts, Satan’s Wonderful World Unveiled and decorates the room in which his sickly wife
spends most of her days with paintings of hell, four on each of the four walls,
prints by Breughel, Bosch, Teniers, and Botticelli. Like the demons pictured,
ignoring the sovereignty of God, he wants to rule. He invites Loring because he
desires to know--to own--everything about his wife’s life, and Loring is
a part of her past. Nancy tells Loring that her will is too strong to be
possessed, but she knows her mortal envelope is weaker than her will and asks
him to look out for her young son in the future.
Nancy may be strong enough, but is Loring? Soon this Prufrock will be tested on the spiritual plane. Prufrock, Kirk observed, failed to make the great, even painful leap to love and the possibility of a meaningful life; and
. . . [f]or love to endure, there must exist a community of souls. But Prufrock has rejected his part in the moral conversation of mankind; his song is a monologue without auditors; he ends in an infernal isolation.
Will Loring? His life too has become a monologue.
Walking back to his hotel from the Schumachers’, Loring makes his way through the Old Town, that part of St. Louis which after the urban renewers got done with it amounts to a collection of dilapidated and abandoned buildings, a “bulldozed wilderness that once was a historic community.” The wasteland of Old Town makes a fitting material backdrop for the spiritual battle between Schumacher and Loring. A face appears before Loring: Schumacher’s. Loring scrambles into an alley through the snowdrifts. He thinks he is safe and then through a window in a house wall he again sees Schumacher’s face. Schumacher has ambushed Loring on the shadowy plane. No longer is Loring aware of the world around him. Instead
. . .visions of torment unceasing, ecstasies of revulsion, went round and round and round. And out of the chinks and corners of these arabesques peered the eyes of Schumacher.
Loring tries to hide in the blackness, away from the menacing eyes, but there are other eyes--Nancy’s. He can hear her voice, “You never really fought, you never really fought.” He wants to hide in the blackness, to allow himself to be consumed. But “something held him.” And to his mind comes a picture of Nancy on her couch, saying, “My little boy . . . .” Then
. . . [some wild struggle of will, or wills, was fought out then, lasting only seconds, perhaps, but seeming aeons. And abruptly Frank Loring sat up in the snow.
The face of Schumacher is still in the broken window, and Loring “wailed shrilly.” The face “seemed to dissolve into its constituent atoms, and Loring was looking into an empty ruin.”
Loring makes his way to the police station, falling into the arms of a sergeant, to report that he has been poisoned. He lives, perhaps for the first time, because he dared to love. For once, Loring fought and he managed to save himself from one of Satan’s own and hell; but he couldn’t save Nancy from death. He avoided hell because he finally blew hot or cold, no longer only lukewarm. Now he must care for Nancy’s son--Schumacher, he learns, has shot himself--and always be reminded of his past sins of omission. Sin is not always in the action, but in the inaction.
Kirks shows another vision of that infernal place souls must avoid in “The Peculiar Demesne of Archvicar Gerontion.” The story features a regular of Kirk’s fiction: Manfred Arcane, adventurer, soldier, raconteur, and minister without portfolio to the sultan of the African state of Hamnegri. In this tale, Tom Whiston, an official with an American oil company, is in Hamnegri to talk business with the sultan and Arcane. He is invited to Arcane’s residence to celebrate Christmas Eve with the diplomat-soldier’s family, household, and close associates. The evening’s festivities--starting with an old English custom, snapdragon, in which the guests attempt to consume flaming raisins that have been set ablaze in a tray of brandy--come as a surprise to the Texan. Afterwards they retire to a small whitewashed room, with no decoration but “one of those terrible agonized Spanish Christ figures, hung high upon a wall.” There, Arcane commences to tell a Christmas ghost story, another venerable English tradition, one, incidentally, beloved by another master teller of uncanny tales, M. R. James. But Arcane’s--or Kirk’s, for that matter--contain more theological import than the Cambridge don’s.
Arcane’s Christmas story features no ghosts but rather a frightening glimpse of hell and a heretical cleric, Archvicar Gerontion of the Church of the Divine Mystery. Gerontion, the reader learns, turned up in Hamnegri as a pharmacist, but, dabbling in drugs far removed from the average chemist’s trade, he was arrested for the death of five beggars. They served as test cases for a powerful hallucinatory drug he concocted called Kalanzi. After looking into the case, Arcane became fascinated--he discovered that Gerontion had several aliases and a long criminal record that included charges of necromancy--so he took the matter under his jurisdiction and brought the old man, who had been physically but not psychologically bent in Hamnegri’s jails, to his house. Gerontion wouldn’t tell his jailers anything about his foreign connections, and Arcane thought that his own methods, far less brutal and more civilized, might work.
Man is a fallen creature, and Arcane’s sin would have to be the pride that he could handle himself in such close proximity to one who worshiped the darkness. For, as Arcane discovered, the self-styled parson may have used his religious affiliations as a means to separate little old ladies from their money, but he had theological convictions, if not powers. A follower of a “debauched Manichaeism,” Gerontion bent the knee before the enemies of the light. As Arcane tells his guests
. . . I was an unworthy servant of the light, and he was a worthy servant of the darkness.
On his fortnight stay with Arcane, the disciple of the darkness, now bound to a wheelchair from his interrogations at the hands of Hamnegri’s authorities, spent many an evening conversing with Arcane over fine cognac and raisins. Gerontion told him
. . . You have entertained me well in this demesne of yours, and when opportunity offers I hope to be privileged to entertain Your Excellency in my demesne.
Arcane wondered what he could mean, but took it as nothing but irony. Gerontion requested a brandy, Arcane complied, and they returned to their conversation, sipping brandy and eating raisins. The talk turned to death, and Gerontion said he didn’t fear the ghosts of the five beggars he had killed. They, he told Arcane
. . . are gone to my demesne. Having done with a thing, I dispose of it--even of Your Excellency. Welcome to my demesne. . . . I shall take your body . . .
he whispered. The Archvicar, Arcane learned too late, had poisoned the raisins with Kalanzi.
When Arcane came to he found himself in a town that appeared to have been thoroughly sacked and upon which the sun had long since set:
Was this ruined town a “real place” I cannot tell you. I am certain that I was not then experiencing a dream or vision, as we ordinarily employ those words.
Arcane realized he was being hunted by “an immense corpse-candle.” It was Gerontion: he wanted to possess Arcane’s body, since his own body was feeble and now crippled, and leave the soul behind in this broken wasteland of a hell. Hunted, Arcane knew he must find somewhere to hide. He ran into the side chapel of a derelict, broken-down church:
Over its battered altar, an icon of Christ the King still was fixed, though lance thrusts had mutilated the face.
Arcane “clambered upon the altar and clasped the picture.” The corpse candle followed him, but then, as Arcane hung to the icon of Christus Rex, the candle extinguished and the icon and Arcane fell to the ground. At Arcane’s residence, the servants wondered where he had gone to and later found him, unconscious, having grasped the Spanish crucifix and pulled it down upon himself.
After telling the story and before the guests file
out of the room, Arcane, pausing from the revelry of the evening, genuflects
before the crucifix. His wife earlier had said only such a man as Arcane could
have had the strength to have made it back from the Archvicar’s City of
Dis. Arcane knows better; sin brought him too close to the flame. Grace and his
willingness to cooperate with grace saved him from being consumed. In the
wasteland hell seemed triumphant. The city lay in ruin. Even the church was in
a state of disarray, but the gates of hell had not prevailed, for over the
altar still hung the icon of Christ the King. Though besmirched and mutilated
by human hands, the icon testified to God’s everlasting sovereignty. By
clinging to Christ and His Church, Arcane saved his soul and body, for
Christianity is concerned with both. He was found at home with the crucified
Christ because without Good Friday there can be no Easter.
Loring and Arcane, in their respective stories, come face-to-face with hell or at least a vision of hell and are able to escape. But what is hell? One night over dinner with Kirk and his wife Annette, Father Martin D’Arcy speculated on the nature of hell as an inversion of heaven. Just as heaven may sparkle with the timeless moments of the saved’s earthly life, so too hell may have its own ever-present moments. The Jesuit theologian thought that, in hell, the damned’s every vile act is present with him forever.
That may be the case in “Balgrummo’s Hell.” This tale serves as a prelude to Kirk’s only supernatural book-length fiction, Lord of the Hollow Dark (1979). (Kirk’s other novels include the Gothic but not supernatural Old House of Fear (1961) and a political thriller, A Creature of the Twilight (1966).) The story takes place near the end of Lord Balgrummo’s life. Some fifty years earlier, he became embroiled in the occult, and a diabolical ritual, performed in the chapel of Balgrummo’s Lodging, turned unpleasant, not to mention bloody. Readers are not told the gruesome details, but they do discover that Balgrummo avoids the scaffold by agreeing to be confined to his house for the rest of his life. Outwardly, Balgrummo seems distant, but his solicitor says,
The Trouble is his lordship’s obsessive reality. . . . Balgrummo is not merely remembering the events of what you and I call 1913, or even “reliving” those events. No, I suspect it’s this: he’s embedded in those events, like a beetle in amber.
For Balgrummo, one certain night in Balgrummo Lodging continues forever. It has become his hell, and the solicitor will not spend too much time alone with Balgrummo, lest, he fears, he will be “drawn into Balgrummo’s head” or Balgrummo’s hell.
Rafe Horgan, an accomplished thief, however, has no such qualms, and he is able to elicit information about valuable paintings in the house from the solicitor and an heir. Making sure the elderly Balgrummo is fast asleep in his chamber, Horgan pockets the keys to the chapel and makes his way there, for the chapel houses the most valuable paintings. There, at the site of the trouble, Horgan realizes he is not alone:
Tall, arrogant, implacable, mindless, it drifted toward him. The face was
Balgrummo’s, or what Balgrummo’s must have been fifty years before, but possessed: eager, eager, eager; all appetite, passion, yearning after the abyss. In one hand glittered a long knife.
The thief’s sins are real, but he stumbled upon a much more malicious evil and in its own self-created lair, a vile but timeless moment. Horgan could not say he wasn’t warned about the dangers; similarly, over the centuries, the Church has warned people about the dangers and reality of hell. At times, the warnings have fallen on deaf ears, and yet hell can be avoided as Kirk’s tales demonstrate. Frank Loring showed the courage to love and to fight, while Manfred Arcane clung to the Lord in his time of danger. Both escaped the clutches of hell, but in Balgrummo’s Lodging, an evil discovered a greater evil in its own hell and paid the price for it. The wages of sin, after all, are death. *
“Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many.” --Eric Hoffer
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