Snapdragon: An Introduction to the Ghost Stories of Russell Kirk
Editor’s Note: In recognition of the centenary of Russell Kirk’s birth, we present Russell Kirk Week here at FORMA. All of this week’s content will be free. Up next: Kirk biographer, James E. Person Jr. on Kirk’s gothic fiction.
What is a ghost? As popularly understood, a ghost is the spirit or essence of a person who has died but hasn’t fully crossed to the afterlife because he or she has unfinished business here on earth. And so this being appears to the living from time to time in order to reassure, to remind, to guide, to frighten, and sometimes to punish.
Russell Kirk, renowned throughout the world for his wisdom and common sense, believed in ghosts, as did many of his most learned friends. As a writer of ghostly tales, he crafted two variations of the genre that occasionally blend together.
One is the type we’re all familiar with: the simple creepy supernatural story, the sort that you read alone at night before bed and begin wondering, “What if such things really happen? What if the unquiet dead really do exist and roam the earth?”
The other type of supernatural story Kirk wrote is pervaded by the thought of a poet who never wrote ghost stories (at least in prose form), T.S. Eliot. These are stories that owe much to Eliot’s Four Quartets in that they focus upon matters of time and the mystery of timelessness, the agony and consolation of faith, and the place of humankind in eternity. Strange as it might sound, these ghost stories are almost comforting—at least those that deal with the hope of purgatory and heaven. For the humble and the penitent there is hope for redemption. And that redemption frequently comes through purgation, through cleansing fire.
To illustrate, consider a real-life person who entered into Kirk’s life and fiction many years ago.
On a snowy Sunday morning late in 1966, Kirk’s wife, Annette, spotted a hobo begging for money outside the door of her parish church. This mendicant was Clinton Wallace, a man of approximately 50 years, who had been wandering the roads of America since his mid-teens.
Clinton was a tall, simple man with a long history of odd jobs, petty thefts from church poor-boxes, and short stretches in prison. From his many hours spent trying to stay out of the weather by sitting in town libraries and Christian Science reading rooms, he had memorized a great number of poems. Being a man of limited means, he would approach potential benefactors and recite lengthy passages of poetry from memory in exchange for meals and shelter.
Annette invited him to lunch at Piety Hill that winter Sunday, and thus began Clinton’s roughly ten-year association with the Kirks. He lived in their house with the family for six of those years, being paid out of Russell’s pocket for such minor tasks as setting the table, pouring wine at supper, and answering the front door. This was the first steady job Clinton had held in his life.
Clinton Wallace eventually qualified for Social Security benefits, at which point he moved into a small apartment of his own in Big Rapids, twenty miles down the road from Mecosta. He died not long afterward. He was one of the most intriguing—and, at times, exasperating—persons Russell Kirk ever met. Eventually the great writer worked some of the basic details of Clinton’s life into what became his best-known short story, “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding.” In outline, the story goes like this:
The time is today, or just last winter. A homeless wanderer is trudging along a highway during a snowstorm in rural upper Michigan. He is cold and hungry, he has a weak heart that hurts him, and he doesn’t know quite where he is. In the distance, off the main road, he sees the walls of a prison, and within a short distance from this there looms a village and a snug-looking house, the first he has seen in a long time. But the prison, house, and village seem abandoned. Still, the house might provide a night’s shelter from the winter cold. The man lets himself in through the coal cellar. Making his way to the uppermost story, he discovers several bedrooms, and on the door of one is a little brass plaque inscribed with the words “Frank’s Room.” Wondrous to relate, the hobo’s name is Frank, and he has never had a room of his own.
This is how Kirk introduces former convict and full-time hobo Frank Sarsfield and prepares the ground for the shocking events that unfold in “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding.” Therein, Frank discovers through firsthand experience the truth of Eliot’s words about the mysterious overlapping of time and the timeless during the two days he spends in the old house, which is called Tamarack House. For he finds increasingly hard-to-deny evidence that he has stepped into a wrinkle in time, to an earlier period in American history. During the two days he spends sheltered from the cold and snow, he sees that the house he thought abandoned is in fact inhabited by an old-fangled family, whose members accept him as if he had lived there all along. This family—a grandfather, a mother, a father, and three little girls—become very real to him as the story progresses. Their acceptance means much to Frank, who has a low opinion of himself as a ne’er-do-well, a petty thief, and a coward, beyond the reach of God’s mercy.
Tamarack House stands in the shadow of a maximum-security prison; and it is this place of punishment which provides the means of Frank’s ultimate deliverance from the prison-house of his own being. For in the end, peace-loving Frank must take decisive action after six murderous escaped convicts invade the house one dark morning and threaten his newfound friends. Frank is enraged and makes terrible use of a double-bladed axe to rescue the family, though he is mortally wounded by the armed convicts in the process.
Here at the climax of Kirk’s story, Frank Sarsfield, having run from responsibility for all his sixty years, commits a signal act of redemption through an act of violence, saving the lives of the family while losing his own, stumbling outside the house and dying in the snowy front yard. There, before his eyes close for the last time, Frank beholds the following words inscribed on a memorial stone which he has fallen against in the yard:
IN LOVING MEMORY OF
A SPIRIT IN PRISON, MADE FOR ETERNITY
WHO SAVED US AND DIED FOR US
January 14, 1915
Interestingly, the real “Frank Sarsfield,” Clinton Wallace, was born in 1915 and died in the snow in Big Rapids while walking to his apartment after watching a motion picture called (interestingly enough) Across the Great Divide. Strange to say, he died one year after Kirk wrote “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding.” Also, sometime after the story was written but before it was published, an antique store opened across from the Kirks' home. The signboard of the antique shop bore the legend Tamarack House. Life is a mystery.
Kirk certainly didn’t believe the writing of fiction and the telling of stories were mere froth, or that they pale in importance beside involvement in politics and business. He knew full well that stories awaken the listener's or reader’s imagination, helping him to become centered, and to dream, and to empathize with his fellow human beings, to reflect upon what is important (and what is not), and sometimes to have great fun along the way.
In one of Kirk’s short stories about the remarkable man of action Manfred Arcane, titled “The Peculiar Demesne of Archbishop Gerontion,” Arcane says at one point during an evening of festivity, “Now we join reverently in the ancient and honorable pastime of snapdragon.” Snapdragon: a game in which raisins are scattered on a shallow tray in a small pool of brandy. Then the brandy is set alight, and the tray is filled with blue flame. The room lights are dimmed or doused. The object of the game is for brave souls to step forward, reach into the flames, and grab and eat as many raisins as possible. It’s an old game, dating to the fifteenth century; it’s harmless fun, there’s a seeming danger, and it reveals a little something about all those who play it.
It has something in common with good storytelling: there’s the historical aspect, the excitement of controlled danger within one’s own home, there’s a joining of generations, there’s some degree of skill involved, and it is memorable. In other words, there’s more going on than meets the eye—like a work of fiction in which form and content are joined, the blending of theme, the proper style, the appropriate tone, the right choice and combination of words. When done properly it delights and informs. Only the writer knows the labor that went into it.
Kirk’s stories have all that and something more. For the Eliot-influenced stories of Russell Kirk have at their core a sense of the Joy that lies at the center of the universe. The joy of the Great Lion who is not a tame lion. There is terrible justice but there is also vast mercy and love.
What is a ghost? In a sense, said Kirk, we all are: essences temporarily beholden to the limitations of flesh with all its failings, but nevertheless beloved of God and made for eternity. Throughout his life, Kirk made clear the necessity and sources of order and the importance of imagination and making right and virtuous choices. It is hoped that many readers of Kirk’s fiction (and nonfiction) will be inspired to take a determined stand against the growing domination of boredom, materialism, and aimlessness in modern life. May they enter into the ancient and honorable pastime of snapdragon, the world of Russell Kirk’s fiction, and find in it the evidence of a mind and a conscience that endure.
James E. Person Jr. is author The Unbought Grace of Life: Essays in Honor of Russell Kirk (1994) and Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (1999). Most recently he edited Imaginative Conservatism: The Letters of Russell Kirk (2018). He is a Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.