There are many jokes that the roulette wheel of publishing can play on those who spend their lives at its table. But one of the finest is when a writer toils away at their magnum opus only for some tossed-off trifle or jeu d’esprit to go into multiple editions and risk overtaking their whole life’s work. It is at such moments that authors begin to develop gambler-like theories about luck and how to sit near the stuff.
Russell Kirk’s life’s work in conservative thought is unlikely ever to be superseded by the reputation of his fiction. But it is interesting to learn from James Panero’s introduction to this reissue of Old House of Fear that this thriller went into multiple paperback reprintings after its publication by a small house called Fleet in 1961. Indeed the “unblushing Gothick tale” went into so many editions that it ended up outselling all of Kirk’s other works combined, including his 1953 classic The Conservative Mind. So well did Old House of Fear sell that it apparently provided financial buoyancy to the Kirk household for many years after publication.
Now the book has been reissued by Criterion Books, an outcome of a 2018 New Criterion symposium on Russell Kirk’s centenary. As Panero says, Kirk had a lifelong fascination with the ghostly and spectral worlds. A result of his view that beneath the rationalist modern mind there were depths that we could sense, yet only poorly address.
Kirk saw himself as one of the last practitioners of the ghostly genre, a lineage whose practitioners he knew well and through which — in a 1962 essay published in The Critic (no relation) — he traced a clear line. That line went from Defoe, Scott and Maupassant through to Kipling and the Jameses (both Henry and MR). Some of these writers dabbled in the ghostly. The names of others, particularly M.R. James, only survive because of their fascination with it. But it was these writers and a few others who between them set the parameters of what the reader expected from the genre. The setting must be remote yet recognisable, the situation uncommon yet familiar and the horror ever-present yet never explicit. In this genre, more than any other, a pinch too much of the essence spoils the whole dish. Which is probably why the stories of James remain the model.
Old House of Fear is not quite in this tradition and does not really set out to be. There are ghostly elements, certainly, but these (not to give away the plot) have perfectly earthly explanations. The more accurate model for Kirk on this occasion appears to be John Buchan, which is as good a model for a page-turner as it is possible to find.
The clockwork of the action is set off in the classic way. An ageing American industrialist wants to live out his last days in the land of his forebears, specifically the fictional island of Carnglass in the non-fictional Outer Hebrides. He sends his attorney, Hugh Logan, to purchase the island complete with its ancient castle known as “Old House of Fear”. Kirk — who was the first American to earn a doctorate from the University of St Andrews — is good on the details. “Fir” means “men” in Gaelic so the name of the title-house means something different to the locals from what it might seem to mean to an outsider.
Kirk’s attention to his setting is equally detailed. After flying to Prestwick, Logan has to find his way though the rougher parts of Glasgow trying to find someone who can convey him to the remote island or give him any information on the elderly widow of the MacAskival clan who lives in the castle. Through a number of meetings with violent locals, he begins to realise that there must be something bigger afoot on the island than either he or his employer could have imagined.
From here the setting — and chase — becomes pure Buchan. At times, Kirk even ends up absorbing those Buchan flaws that make him so loved as well as so easy to parody. The evil mastermind who turns out to be keeping the old lady MacAskival and her young niece captive is a man called Jackman: a “deformed man” with a “commanding presence”. We learn that “Jackman’s lean face had about it just a suggestion of that look of suffering and humiliation which one sometimes sees on the faces of congenital hunchbacks.” Ah yes, that look, the reader is certain to nod.
Later, as Logan is beginning to unravel the mystery on the dangerous, manhunt-filled island, we read of one of Jackman’s accomplices — a man named Royall. “A cold fish, but a keen one,” Logan hazarded. He was well educated, surely; Logan suspected that he might once have been a fairly high-ranking civil servant; somehow there was the mark of Winchester school upon him.” How did Kirk’s 1960s American penny-dreadful readers take phrases like this? Most likely simply as evidence that the author knew what he was talking about, even if they did not.
Occasionally Kirk’s politics are discernible through the gloam. Although he does not get caught on the matter, the dastardly Jackman and Co turn out to hail from some Marxist sub-group. Young Mary MackAskival, on whom Jackman has designs, tells Logan (during their more successful whirlwind courtship) that Jackman had tried to indoctrinate her into his wicked creed.
“If I had known the least little bit about politics and economics and all that,” she said to Hugh, “Dr Jackman would have converted me. But I was utterly ignorant, so he could make no impression . . . He has been so eager to have me serve the Party . . . But the Party, so far as I could make out, meant to destroy a great many people to bring about peace everywhere, and meant to make everybody precisely alike so everyone could be perfectly happy, forever and ever. That’s nonsense. You’re a solicitor — or is it a barrister, Hugh? — and you know. I don’t at all want to be like Dr Jackman, or like Niven the tinker; and I don’t want them to be like me.”
In the end, the reader will be relieved to learn, all turns out right with the world. Though the narrative is slightly peremptorily cut (we never do get to see the industrialist enjoying the rewards of the shocker he has set in motion) everyone gets their comeuppance. Logan gets the girl. Jackman gets his deserts and the fine, noble locals of the Hebrides get to continue their ancient traditions and ways. I don’t see Old House of Fear making as much money for the Kirk estate as it did for the author during his lifetime. But anyone searching for a novel to read by a darkening, remote fireside will find it the perfect aide for keeping the modern world at bay for some hours at least.
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