His fiction was in the classic tradition of M. R. James, Oliver Onions and J. Sheridan Le Fanu; in other words, he wrote classic ghost stories. In the afterword to his first collection of short fiction, The Surly Sullen Bell, Kirk says:
To most modern men having ceased to recognize their own souls, the spectral tale is out of fashion, especially in America. As Manning said, all differences of opinion at bottom are theological; and this fact has its bearing upon literary tastes. Because -- even though they may be church-goers -- the majority of Americans do not really hunger after personal immortality; they cannot shiver at someone else's fictitious spirit.
Again, I don't know about how this applies to his day, but I would say that now that statement is pretty much completely untrue. People enjoy, for whatever reason, being scared, whether or not they believe in an afterlife. Kirk is doing what a lot of fiction writers do, which is to express why they write what they write in terms that imply that this is the only reason why aynone would not only write, but read such fiction.
A bit indirectly, this quote also puts me in mind of a claim made by Stanley Kubrick about his film version of The Shining. Kubrick said that his film -- one of the bleakest and coldest horror films ever made -- was essentially optimistic, because anything that hinted at an afterlife must be considered hopeful. Well, okay. I'm not an atheist myself, but I don't want to exist in an afterlife populated by Kubrick's ghosts. Still, I take his point (sort of). I also (sort of) take Kirk's point, in the sense that supernatural horror fiction -- specifically ghost stories, but vampires, among other creatures, fit into this point as well -- if done seriously and well must grapple with theological questions. If you're serious about the genre, but you have no particular interest in spiritual questions, then why the hell did you put a ghost in your story? How serious can you be about what you write if you don't at least have an ongoing, internal discussion with yourself about it?
The title story from The Surly Sullen Bell concerns itself with a man namd Loring, a former university professor whose current job takes him back to his old stomping grounds of St. Louis every year, for a few days. You get the sense, reading this, that Loring could do without these trips:
As a traveller for a publishing firm, he could not keep away altogether from dingy St. Louis, with its vast stupid "civic center" and its decaying heart; but until this evening he had held the Gomorrah of a city at arm's length, sticking chifly to his hotel room in the gradiose late-Victorian railway station. Tonight, though, the past had claimed him.
That past comes in the form of Godfrey Schumacher, a professor of Spanish and former colleague of Loring's. More to the point, Schumacher is also married to Nancy, Loring's former lover. She would be his current lover, as well, if he'd had his way, but as Nancy says when they meet again, he never fought for her. Their break-up is referred to throughout the story as "the Great Fact".
These two are reunited through the ministrations of Schumacher, who initially indicates to Loring, when they run into each other at a coffee shop, that Nancy has been pushing him to find Loring and invite him to dinner. When Loring unhappily accepts the invitation and at one point in the evening fins himself alone with Nancy, he finds that this isn't true. They eventually decide there must have been some sort of misunderstanding, and since they're both happy to see each other, they decide to let it go. It should be noted, however, that Loring hates Schumacher, and soon the reader will most likely hate him, as well.
It's important that I tell you that Nancy is very sick. She spends all day either sleeping or reading in her sickroom, surrounded by her husband's collection of paintings depicting Hell, done by the likes of Breughel and Bosch. Schumacher says that none of the doctors they've consulted know what's wrong with her, but he doesn't think much of that, as he doesn't trust MDs. Schumacher believes her problems run deeper and are more mysterious than their weak science can understand. This distrust of medical science is just part of Schumacher's unusual and quite unappealing belief system. Schumacher does believe in the soul, but not an afterlife. So what is Schumacher's End?
"Spiritual triumph...I don't subscribe in the least to the Hebrew-Christian myth, you understand: I mean actuality, the exultation of battles won in the most dangerous of fields, the spirit plane. In the spirit realm there's no time; the fight goes on forever; you must be always on guard; and you trample down the beaten. That what all this" -- sweeping a hand toward St. Louis, outside in the dark -- "is for, and all that," motioning toward the Breughels and Bosches. "They're both veils for the real plane of being. And in that hard reality you survive and progress by conquest. Oh, you can't comprehend my meaning till you've reached that plane. You need to dominate, to crush..."
This is a particularly odd story. It is extremely bleak, intelligent and subtle, its supernatural elements, if such they are, remain mysterious to the end. Needless to say, Nancy's health worsens, and Schumacher is given a lot of space to explain his philosophy, and all the while Loring is being driven almost mad with desire for the love of his life, who seems to be dying...
And Kirk, as I think I've indicated, really means it. What "it" is, specifically, may remain elusive to you, after finishing the story, as was the case with my reading of it, but that's fine by me. Kirk's erudition and poetic, blackly funny prose are both rare and welcome in this genre.
The other, much shorter story I read from this collection is called "Off the Sand Road". Maybe even more mysterious than "The Surly Sullen Bell", it involves a doctor from the city picking berries with two country children. The doctor is visiting their family, though his relation to them is never made clear. Again, as in Kirk's descriptions of St. Louis in the previous story, the landscape is described in words that evoke waste and rot. Eventually, the come across a small house, which the doctor notes is in better shape, even though it's deserted, than many of that inhabited homes he's seen on his trip.
This house, the children inform him, used to belong to Mr. Clatry, who rented it from a rich landowner. Clatry, now deceased, lived their with his wife and her several children -- none of them Mr. Clatry's -- whom she abused. She abused her husband, as well. Exploring the house, the children find a pile of letters written by and to Mrs. Clatry, and through them we get a picture of a woman beset by religious mania and sloth. Despite this, the voice in the letters seems far friendlier than the woman the children describe, who terrorized her family with violence and frightened her neighbors. By the end, we know more about what happened in this house, but we certainly don't know the full story. We know, for instance, that Mrs. Clatry had an obsession with material goods, and would buy whatever she wanted regardless of her family's financial situation. But what does that knowledge really explain? What precisely was going on in this woman's mind?
Both of these stories revolve around moral horror, the kind of horror that can come with the most extreme kind of solipsism. Schumacher sees the world, and the people in it, as things that need to be defeated and driven down; Mrs. Clatry is a woman who practically demands charity, and will make her loved ones pay if she doesn't get it. Kirk carved out for himself in the horror genre an area where he could explore the havoc wrought by people who don't simply care too little, but rather not at all.