Saturday, April 9, 2011

Old House of Fear - Russell Kirk

On the dedication page Kirk says that this "Gothick tale [is] in unblushing line of direct descent from The Castle of Otranto." Well. Authors are allowed their hyperbolic dedications, aren't they? The novel owes more to Edgar Wallace, Sax Rohmer, and even Guy Boothby but the only thing "in direct descent" from Walpole's masterful Gothic thriller is the creepy castle of the title. Nothing else.

The story starts off very much like a Gothic and there is a lot of legend and lore filling the pages, but after a rather protracted exposition (in which our hero attempts to get to the remote and unfriendly island of Carnglass at least four times) the hero does indeed arrive only to discover that the island has been taken over by a gang of thugs and criminals under the leadership of Dr. Edmund Jackman. The novel ceases to be a Gothic at this point and transforms into an adventure/crime novel.

Jackman is of the sinister master criminal type "in direct descent" from Dr. Nikola and the oddball occultists in Sax Rohmer's supernatural novels. Although all the gunplay and violence seemed to me very much like it was "in direct descent" from Edgar Wallace or Dennis Wheatley. Hugh Logan is our hero; Mary MacAskival, the heroine; and Dr. Jackman, the truly evil villain. It's all melodrama and heavy handed stylized prose. There is the usual business of who will inherit the castle; our poor hero trying to figure out who is telling the truth and with whom he should ally himself; death traps; narrow escapes; and a crazed bloody shoot out in the finale with the MacAskivals coming to rescue our hero and heroine. Dr. Jackman gets a fitting violent death of which I'll say no more.

It's entertaining and often gripping, but in the end all very familiar. Even the supernatural elements are rationalized. I was disappointed by that since at one point they seemed very other worldly. Not at all in line with Walpole, Radcliffe or any other genuine Gothic writer.


  1. I've read Kirk's academic writings - "The Conservative Mind" and "Academic Freedom." The first a paean to the traditionalism of great writers and thinkers from Britain and the U.S. The second is a screed against the exclusion of education based on the classics from our universities, and the inclusion of "Media Studies on the Representations of UFO's on Incan Pottery." Knowing this background, I'm really curious as to how his political views are represented in the book, if at all. I'll have to give this one a read.

  2. My husband actually went to Kirk's house once, almost forty years ago, I bet. He did a intro to a book my husband did. It took him a while to figure out my husband was not a fellow traveler to turn the phrase around.


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