Ghostly Light

on Russell Kirk’s “Ex Tenebris” & the Moral Imagination

Once upon a time, nothing engaged a Christmas audience quite like a ghost story. In Washington Irving’s “The Christmas Dinner,” it is the parson who tells some of the best uncanny stories during the winter season. Russell Kirk, fond of this tradition though it had gone out of fashion in the twentieth century, wrote a defense of the practice. It is not mere didacticism nor an unhealthy obsession with the grotesque that makes the uncanny appropriate at Yuletide gatherings, he averred; ghost stories “can be an instrument for the recovery of the moral order” (Essential Russell Kirk, 182). The practice might actually be more valuable at Christmas than during the closing week of October, when the typical neighborhood is festooned with ghouls and goblins.

Kirk understood this so well that he expended quite a bit of energy writing such stories. He makes his interest in the genre plain in his book, Enemies of the Permanent Things, where he writes, “Imagination, given time, does rule the world” (132). This may surprise those who more readily associate Kirk’s name with National Review or the books he published about America and conservatism. Yet he does not say that public policy, political influence, or social causes rule the world, but that imagination does. Even so, what does that have to do with ghost stories?

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Sean C. Hadley teaches humane letters at Trinitas Christian School and the Baptist College of Florida. He has published works in FORMA Journal, The Imaginative Conservative, and The Hemingway Review. He and his wife have four children and attend Providence Church (CREC).

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