When you engage in any kind of artistic “career” over a certain period of time, lots of preconceived notions are shed. Nowhere is that truer than in writing. It’s part of the gig. Over time, idealistic goals either vanish altogether, or, in the best case scenario, transform into more obtainable goals.
For me, it was the notion of writing full time. Writing as the day job. Spending my workday solely in my invented worlds. Many of my fellow writers have gone through the same transition. Realizing that for whatever reason, writing as a full-time career simply wasn’t in the cards.
When I began my exploration into the history of the horror genre, accepting this as a reality became a lot easier. It amazed me how many wonderful writers I encountered who never broke into a “full time” writing career. In some cases, they wrote one or two stories, and never wrote again.
Take the case of David Clayton Carrad, whose story “Competition” originally appeared in Running Times (of all places), and was eventually chosen by Karl Edward Wagner for his Year’s Best Horror series. It’s a great story, and apparently the only one he ever wrote. Or take Robert Marasco, who wrote the marvelous Burnt Offerings, and who wrote only one other novel, Parlor Games.
As I read more deeply, I realize how everyone has their own career path, and this has helped me become more content with my own career, whatever path it might take.
Another joy of reading deeper into the horror genre is when I encounter short stories for the first time and they lead me on rabbit trails (as “way leads unto way”) to discovering writers who did indeed go on to write other things, whether a voluminous output which would be almost impossible to cover completely (such as Manley Wade Wellman), or writers like Robert Marasco and T. E. D. Klein, who certainly wrote other things, though I wish they’d written more.
In this fashion, I discovered the work of Russell Kirk, when I encountered his short story “Lex Talionis” in one of Stuart David Schiff’s editions of Whispers. This led me to seek out his short story collection Ancestral Shadows, and two of his three novels, Old House of Fear and Lord of the Hollow Dark.
In many ways, his fiction-writing career seems like a side-gig to his political career. He didn’t write fiction full-time, but what fiction he did write ended up standing the test of time (which, in its own way, gives me hope that my writing “side gig” is much more than a hobby, also).
In many ways, Kirk is the American answer to M. R. James, though his conservative ideals and Roman Catholic faith impact his fiction a bit more, though not to an intrusive degree. Like James, Kirk’s stories deal with the enduring power of times gone by, the survival of the ancient world, and the shadowy realm in which the land of the dead intersects with the land of the living.
As stated, Kirk’s Catholicism is present in many of his stories, though they don’t come off preachy or proselytizing. Kirk’s worldview is certainly Catholic, but within that worldview swirls the mists of mystery and legend, so his stories don’t read as regurgitated “Bible stories,” though they are moralistic in nature, very much like the work of early Dean Koontz.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Koontz has read Kirk’s work, especially Kirk’s supernatural novel, Lord of the Hollow Dark. It reads very much like early Koontz, though with a richer style.
Hollow Dark isn’t a horror novel, really. It’s more like a supernatural Gothic fantasy ruminating on the nature of Good and Evil, suffering, atonement, redemption, forgiveness, and punishment. Rich with myth, history, and allegory, Hollow Dark is perhaps more disturbing in its metaphysical implications regarding a life lived hollowly and selfishly. It’s also a work in which Kirk’s conservative sensibilities are most on display.
There’s a lot to be said for stories (especially horror) trafficking in gray areas, because life is most often gray. It makes for better reading when a story’s morality is complex, because that’s most often how life is. We’ve all got good and evil inside of us, and when a horror story can tap into that complexity, it often hits a lot closer to home, and is all the more powerful for it.
However, there’s something comforting in reading tales with strong moral backbones, if only because these stories remind us how important it is to strive for the light over the dark. This is where Russell’s work finds its strength, especially his short stories.
In fact, that’s what drew me to seeking out his work when I first read “Lex Talionis” — which, of course, means criminals should receive punishment equal to the injuries they visited upon their victims. In many ways, it’s a classic ghost story which does just that: a reformed “sinner” becomes the tool of God to repay evil men for the evil they’ve done.
I would definitely stop short of calling Kirk’s work “Christian” or “religious,” however. It certainly does preoccupy itself with the ideas of forgiveness, redemption and atonement, making it very moral. However — again, mostly in his short stories — he’s very happy to deal with the mysteries of the supernatural and unknown world. The short stories in Ancestral Shadows are classic ghost stories with rich but never overburdened prose, and they hum with an antiquarian feel.
His novels — the two I’ve read — do display a bit more of his conservative Catholic ideals. His touch is lightest in Old House of Fear, which is a very enjoyable and engrossing natural Gothic tale which is also spiced with intrigue and suspense. Kirk is very adept at painting lush, atmospheric, Gothic environments. Old House revels in this, taking place on an isolated island in an old ancestral house which might as well be a castle from one of Anne Radcliffe’s novels. The only hint of Kirk’s political ideas rests in the villain, who is of course a sadistic communist bent on chaos and anarchy. That’s the extent of it, however, and Kirk does a marvelous job mixing the disparate genres of Gothic fiction and political intrigue into a compelling tale.
Kirk’s Catholicism is most present in Lord of the Hollow Dark. In it, a charismatic cult leader gathers a group of degenerate men and women of influence, power, and vice to a retreat at an isolated manorial home, Balgrummo’s Lodging. His hope is to re-enact occult practices which legends claim the Balgrummo men trafficked in for generations.
Deep beneath the house are caverns rumored to have been used by ancient monks and the Knights Templar alike. A cavern filled with a maze worthy of the mythical Labyrinth. In an obscene and profane ritual, this cult leader — Apollinax, who has taken his name from a T. S. Eliot character — wishes to trap he and his followers in what he calls the Timeless Moment, in which they can revel in degradation for all eternity.
Kirk’s Catholic ideals certainly present themselves strongly in this novel, but they don’t get in the way of the story, which becomes a very basic conflict between Good and Evil. Also, the use (and overuse ) of symbolism in fiction has been debated for decades, and will continue to be debated. Some claim authors should never utilize them; others claim symbols are central to a story’s meaning. In any case, the symbolism in Lord of the Hollow Dark is clear, central, and used to powerful effect — especially because the caverns below the lodging bear the name of Purgatory, and that it has a Labyrinth supposedly leading to purification, sanctification, or, literally, the surface, and freedom. If one is brave and strong enough to survive the darkness of the caverns.
Hollow Dark very much reads like a Gothic tale which could’ve been written by Dean Koontz, though the prose is more robust. Our protagonists are flawed and weak people, working out their own “salvation” in their own personal purgatories. Again, it’s really less of a horror novel, and more of a dark, fantastical and metaphysical treatise on the forces of good and evil, and the need for everyone to walk through their own kind of purgatory to reach the “salvation” on the other side.
Most of it’s Kirk’s work is out of print, and several of his books — take Lord of the Hollow Dark, for example — are a bit pricey on the secondary market, though Old House of Fear is in print, and well worth the money. Even so, you never know what you’re going to find at second-hand stores, used book stores, or flea markets, so I highly recommend keeping an eye open for the ghostly fiction of Russell Kirk. If you find an inexpensive copy of one of his books, you’ll be that much richer for picking it up.
Kevin Lucia’s short fiction has appeared in several anthologies, most recently with Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Bentley Little, Peter Straub and Robert McCammon. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, followed by Devourer of Souls in June 2014, Through A Mirror, Darkly, June 2015, and and his second short story collection, Things You Need, September 2018. His novella Mystery Road was published by Cemetery Dance Publications in May 2020. For three free ebooks, sign up for his monthly newsletter at www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com.