Optimism and supernatural literature

I came across an interesting “debate” over at the American Spectator centered around Russell Kirk’s “Anthology Of Ghostly Tales” Ancestral Shadows.

A couple of weeks ago Shawn Macomber reviewed Ancestral Shadows finding the stories disappointing:

. . . I find Michael Dirda’s bold declaration last year in the Washington Post that Kirk was “the greatest American author of ghostly tales in the classic style, at least of the post-World War II era,” hyperbolic praise of an almost unimaginable degree. While moral bearings may have suited the brilliant intellectual explorations of Kirk’s nonfiction, an over-abundance of good intentions rendered his forays into supernatural literature largely impotent.

Macomber blames this on Kirk’s basic optimism:

But in order to alarm readers convincingly, it is necessary that there be a distinct and believable possibility that everything might not turn out all right. When the element of surprise is removed, stories become predictable and terrors mundane. This is the primary problem with Kirk’s work: Good always triumphs over evil. Divine intervention always strikes on time. That might not be much of an issue in a novel laden with suspenseful twists and turns. But in the context of a series of 10 to 20 page stories, inevitable moral victories can numb readers against the intended effect.


To the Spectator’s credit last week they allowed John Robson to offer another perspective. He politely disagrees with Macomber:

But at bottom the value of Kirk’s prose is that he is trying to tell you something he considers vitally important and optimistic, and does it well.

It may seem more than a bit didactic for Eddie Cain to tell himself, “Yes, ‘hereafter’ was everything: without that prospect, all life would have been a nasty joke…” But the story does not tell us this truth, it shows us. The fate of Ralph Bain tells us more about how there could be a heaven and how we can get there than any theological treatise. As for evil and Hell, in “The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost” the narrator has a positively Chestertonian thought about his sleazy slum neighborhood: “The hideousness of it hurts as much as the depravity.” (That story also features what I have elsewhere suggested is the perfect slogan for our troubled times: “Stark Naked or Your Money Back.”)

My own review of Ancestral Shadows is here, but I think Robson is more accurate. I think Macomber gets off track when he writes of trying to “alarm readers convincingly.” The primary purpose of these stories is not to frighten the reader but to entertain while at the same time communicate certain truths. Kirk’s Gothic style isn’t heavy on the suspense or fear, but rather has an eerie or creepy feel.

I also think he is over-theorizing when it comes to the optimism in Kirk’s work. What exactly is a “distinct and believable possibility that everything might not turn out all right?” Does the lead character have to die? Does evil have to win? There are plenty of aspects of Kirk’s stories that are tragic. Where the end result is less than ideal. It is true that in Kirk’s moral universe good ultimately triumphs against evil, but that doesn’t mean perfect results for all involved.

My sense is that Macomber was looking for a faster paced, more modern sense of horror. Nowadays, we look for gray not black and white. If the good guys win that is seen as unsophisticated and predictable. I am not an avid reader of the genre, and therefore don’t have much to judge Kirk against, but I certainly found the stories to be compelling and imminently readable; anything but impotent.

What do readers think? How much suspense is needed in a good scary story? Is there a difference between dark horror stories and creepy “ghostly tales?” If you have expertise or opinions in this area weigh in with your comments.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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