Russell Kirk is well-known as an important conservative political theorist and essayist, publishing, in 1953, his influential The Conservative Mind, and authoring biographies of Edmund Burke and John Randolph. He helped William F. Buckley, Jr. found the National Review, and was a founder and editor of Modern Age.
What is perhaps less well-known are Kirk’s achievements as a writer of fantasy and ghost stories. I have only had the opportunity to read one volume of his ghost stories, but it is a superb specimen of the genre, focusing on the idea of evil forces or spirits that survive the cutting of their physical bonds to the natural world and the extinction of the mortal human vessels that nurtured them in life, to work their diabolical will in the realm of the living, reveling in the destructiveness that is the hallmark of evil.
In the title story of The Princess of All Lands, a young woman – Yolande - is driving home, her mind preoccupied with thoughts of the combination Halloween/birthday party that her family is having that evening. She spies a hitchhiker at an intersection - a woman somewhat younger than herself, but with a rough and hard-used appearance. Motivated by her natural kindness, she offers the girl a ride. The hitchhiker’s conversation is crude and occasionally obscene, and filled with the bitterness of a difficult and completely joyless life. Yolande has to go a considerable distance out of her way to take the hitchhiker where she wants to go, and as she becomes increasingly fearful of the girl, she talks about her own life, including her Indian heritage and the strange power of her “virtue” – in this sense, a power that presents itself almost as a distinct, other-worldly spirit in times of danger. Finally, feeling some vague menace in her passenger’s behavior and motives, Yolande decides to pull over and let her out not far from her destination, explaining that she has to get home. At this point, the passenger pulls out a pistol and compels Yolande to drive to a cabin in the woods, where a couple of male kinfolk are waiting. To her horror, Yolande finds that the girl has brought her to her father as a “birthday present.” Yolande is naturally horrified by this turn of events (foreshadowed, strangely, by a nightmarish recollection that she had passed on to the passenger during their ride together, of an evil relative who turned up several times in her life, apparently with designs against Yolande - always frustrated, but with disastrous results, nonetheless).
Yolande, however, frightened though she is, discerns the true nature of her would-be tormenters, and possessed by that protective spirit that has guarded her on previous dangerous occasions, confronts them with the truth that forces them to keep their long-delayed appointment with damnation.
There are nine stories in this volume, all enthralling, one of which – “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding” – won the 1977 World Fantasy Award. At the conclusion of a delightful short prologue, Kirk explains his purpose thusly:
Have I ever seen a ghost? Why, I am one, and so are you – a geist, a spirit, in a mortal envelope. Why did I write these sepulchral fantasies? Why, partly to remind you and myself that we are spirits in prison; and mainly in the hope of discomforting an old man on a winter’s night, or a girl in the bloom of her youth. I have dwelt in haunted houses, and I have prepared a chamber for you. If I conjure up in you a dreadful joy, like that of a small boy on a secret stair, my malice will be satisfied.”