Not among Kirk’s very best writings, Old House of Fear is still interesting for at least two reasons:
1 – the book is an interesting story with a good end. He knows how to keep up the pace, how to describe, has a wealth of images which he works up into interesting situations. It is a gothic novel: there are desperate villains (occultist communists, interestingly enough, among them), there’s a lady in distress, and there’s a resolute chap thrust into unexpected circumstances, which he is able to overcome. There is even a great, genial idiot with a ghastly and effective sense of humor. The plot twists and turns enough to be unpredictable, at least for me, but I’m no world-weary reader who has seen it all. At times, near the end, the events almost seem to fish-tail: he jerks things around without really having a reason (as if the last of it was written in haste and ill-revised). But on the whole what happens is interesting and the story is successful. The setting is marvelous–you want to go there, to live and see it, and the characters and situations draw one in and exert the necessary fascination.
2 – he used his imagination to comment on the criminality of people who believe their ends justify their means. Against this attitude he sets decency, courage and love. The romance will bear no close scrutiny, but if the thing is understood as a symbol, and the decency and courage his real focus, then the story will hold up. What he does not have are cardboard villains, and that’s instructive. You learn that men who are not decent in their behavior are criminals in their hearts and only require the circumstances to show it, but they require different circumstances. Not all criminals are of the same sort. There are at least three different kinds of criminals our hero runs into in this book, and each one is dealt with in his own way. Kirk, like Evelyn Waugh, seems to have taken a certain interest in the criminal classes.
Anyway, it is a swift good book to read if you’re looking for an adventure with an island worth going to and the sea and peril and a red-headed heroine that isn’t just fluff and cliché.