Thursday, 15 January 2015

Off the Sand Road ~ Russell Kirk

American writer and thinker Russell Amos Kirk (1918~1994) was the author of thirty-two books, hundreds of periodical essays, and numerous short stories. He is best known for his book The Conservative Mind, published in 1953. In addition to his scholarly historical and political works, Kirk had a relish for the uncanny and penned a number of ghost stories. Kirk grew up with the ghostly. He believed that there are 'thin places', through which we may glimpse the supernatural as though through a veil. His ancestors made regular attempts to peer through those thin places, and his great-grandmother was said to have conversed with the dead. Kirk himself was witness to an apparition at the age of eight or nine.

Off the Sand Road, published in 2002, was the first of two volumes of Russell Kirk's ghost stories issued by Ash-Tree Press; the second being What Shadows We Pursue, published the following year. The tales included are: 'The Surly Sullen Bell', 'Behind the Stumps', 'Sorworth Place', 'Balgrummo's Hell', 'There's a Long, Long Trail A-Winding', 'Saviourgate', 'Off the Sand Road', 'Fate's Purse', 'The Princess of All Lands', 'An Encounter by Mortstone Pond', and 'Lex Talionis'. There's also an afterword entitled 'A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale'. It should be noted that the final four paragraphs of 'Fate's Purse' were omitted from this book. In the second volume, What Shadows We Pursue, the full story appears as an appendix, with the ending restored.

There isn't a ghost in 'The Surly Sullen Bell', but it's sinister all the same. Frank Loring is surprised to be invited to visit the St Louis home of Godfrey and Nancy Schumacher. He hasn't seen the couple for a decade, not since Nancy chose to marry Godfrey instead of him, and it's obvious that he still carries a torch for his old sweetheart. So, why is Nancy's husband so eager to have her old flame over for coffee?

'Behind the Stumps' is a seriously creepy tale. Cribben is an intolerable, over-zelous census-taker, sent to a rural backwater called Bear City to gather information about its inhabitants, 'with the majesty of Government at his back' and 'the hauteur of a censor in his mien'. Having successfully interrogated the majority of the local population within a week, Cribben sets his sights on the Gholsons of Barrens Mill, despite being warned by the local postmaster to stay well away from the place. Nobody wants to fuss with the Gholsons. Of course, Cribben won't listen to local stories and superstitious nonsense... much to his own detriment.

In 'Sorworth Place', Ralph Bain draws his pension cheques wherever he may be and travels wherever the fancy takes him. One morning he spies the fair Ann Lurlin, a young Scottish widow, the owner of Sorworth Place, and falls for her. But Mrs Lurlin's husband, though dead a year, isn't about to let go of his living wife, or let some other man get in the way of his return.

In 'Balgrummo's Hell', Balgrummo Lodging, located near Edinburgh, is the home of Alexander Fillan Inchburn, the wicked and aged tenth Baron Balgrummo, confined for five decades under perpetual house-arrest - trapped in his own living hell - for the 'Trouble' that took place in 1913. Rafe Horgan, a professional thief, attempts to steal the paintings of decaying Balgrummo Lodge from under the old man's nose, with terrible consequences.

In 'There's a Long, Long Trail A-Winding', Frank Sarsfield, a vagrant prone to pilfering church collection boxes, is caught in a driving snowstorm in the middle of January and ends up in the derelict, uninhabited town of Anthonyville. There, he comes across Tamarack House, once the home of Jerome Anthony, architect of Anthonyville State Prison, who died in 1915. Looking for shelter for the night, Frank gains entry to the empty house via a slanting cellar door. But Frank Sarsfield is no stranger to Tamarack House or its long dead inhabitants, and as memories of his connection to both begin to surface he is forced to replay horrific events of a past long forgotten.

In 'Fate's Purse', we are back in the vicinity of Bear City. Fate Brownlee is a miserly old farmer who is found dead in a stream, trapped under his own tractor. His brother Virgil, who is equally miserly, inherits the old farmer's stump-country property, but becomes consumed with fear that old Fate, unwilling to part with his money even in death, will seek vengeance from beyond the grave.

Russell Kirk was a Catholic, and his religious beliefs do filter through into his supernatural tales. I am not a religious person, I never have been, but I do understand the workings of Christian religious belief, and I don't have any objection to mildly religious undertones in supernatural tales. I do, however, sometimes get a bit frustrated by overly religious stories, and I did find 'Saviourgate' a bit hard going. I didn't much take to 'The Princess of All Lands' either. Too much specific religious thought or doctrine can exclude (or bore) readers of a different faith, or readers, like me, who don't have any; it can also add too many boundaries. Supernatural tales shouldn't be flooded with religion, politics or sex. Of course, that's just the opinion of little ol' irreligious me.

That said, the tales that aren't in-your-face-religious are very good indeed, and very atmospheric. 'Behind the Stumps' is my favourite, with 'Balgrummo's Hell' coming second. 'Off the Sand Road' isn't a supernatural tale, but it has a creepy atmosphere all the same. This collection is a bit of a mixed bag for me, but it's well worth reading, even if only for my two favourites.

Off the Sand Road was issued as a limited edition hardback of five hundred copies. It's not the easiest book in the world to find, and a fine copy will set you back a hundred pounds or more (around $150 at the moment).

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