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Sword of the Romantic Imagination: Kirk and Bradbury

Things that go bump in the night arouse our fearful curiosity. Ray Bradbury played on our susceptibilities with great skill, and his horror, fantasy, and science fiction novels and stories appear in new editions fairly regularly. For example, Simon and Schuster has just republished Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962). It includes commentary on Bradbury by other writers, among them Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Ted Gioia, and Russell Kirk.

The last on that list may surprise some. Although Celia Kirk Nelson recently noted the Bradbury-Kirk connection, not many remember that the author of The Conservative Mind and The Roots of American Order was a storyteller whose fiction appeared in publications like The London Mystery Magazine and Fantasy and Science Fiction. Kirk had several novels to his credit, starting with Old House of Fear, which came out in 1961. It was around that time that he befriended Bradbury, one of the 20th century’s star performers in those categories of genre fiction. The two corresponded; they admired each other’s gothic tales. Not all of Bradbury’s fiction is great—and a lot of Kirk’s is, frankly, tough sledding—but looking at them side by side tells us notable things about Kirk and the stamp that he put on American conservatism.

Ray Bradbury was not a conservative in any thoroughgoing sense. His wacky creativity was aimed at recovering the past, true enough; but it was his own past. His haunted houses, and the demonic carnival of Something Wicked This Way Comes, tap into the joys and fears of a childhood spent in the industrial port city of Waukegan, Illinois in the 1920s. His best writing, even in his futuristic mode, rests on that foundation.

A middlebrow nostalgia for an idyllic Midwestern past is tucked into The Martian Chronicles, for example. In “The Third Expedition,” a highlight of that book, the Martians use hypnosis against the invaders from Planet Earth. They paralyze the astronauts by trapping them inside their own memories of the tree-lined streets, the creaky front porches, and the beloved family members they left behind in time and space. In making his rocket men pine for what has been lost, Bradbury plays on our emotions shamelessly but effectively.

Russell Kirk also resurrects the past. But according to Kirk, literature (whether his or his friend Bradbury’s) is an arm of a wider crusade against the forces of modernity. This can be seen in the 1969 essay that appears, in excerpted form, in the new Bradbury volume. Kirk admits in “The World of Ray Bradbury” that Bradbury isn’t really political. Nonetheless, since America’s cultural arbiters considered Bradbury a “romantic reactionary,” he must be doing something right. “The champions of decadence and deliquescence, the enemies of the permanent things, accurately discerned in Ray Bradbury a man of moral imagination, who must be put down promptly,” writes Kirk.

The statement has that Kirkian lilt, a blend of charm and indignation. It overstates the case. The “poet of the pulps,” as Bradbury was nicknamed, had been publishing his work not only in the pulps but in the New Yorker, Mademoiselle, and many other national magazines of mass circulation from 1945 onward. No truly countercultural writer achieves that.

Norms and the Paranormal

Now, Kirk was countercultural—if not in exactly the same way as the leftwing writers and artists of his day (one can find fault with capitalism from different angles). Both men were romantics, no question about it; still, Kirk strains in the essay to liken Bradbury to himself. He writes that “Bradbury has drawn the sword against the dreary and corrupting materialism of this century; against society as producer-and-consumer equation.” But of whom could this not be said? Few of our favorite authors, in any age, have gone to bat for consumerism. Kirk’s embrace of Bradbury as a brother in arms is more telling for its spirit than anything else. It shows the pugnacity of a self-described Bohemian Tory—an intellectual who got up each and every morning swinging “the sword of imagination” (the title of his memoir) against the pet notions of the secular liberals who set the intellectual tone in America.

The Left, Kirk said in the more well-known parts of his oeuvre, was undermining the norms of Western civilization. That the upholding of these norms should involve the paranormal is only remarkable if one doesn’t know the background from which Kirk sprang. The son of a railroad engineman, he was raised in rural Michigan among “deracinated Puritans, Spiritualists, and Swedenborgians” and witnessed “visitations from the dead (sometimes in spectral form), and séances as a normal part of his upbringing,” according to Bradley Birzer, one of his biographers.

Modernity, and specifically capitalist modernity, was soulless. So the countercultural man of letters went the other way, spinning tales of the occult like “Saviourgate,” “There’s a Long, Long Trail a-Winding,” and “Balgrummo’s Hell,” which he referred to as “my Dantesque trilogy.” His penchant for the gothic is part and parcel of his declinism. Birzer quotes from Kirk’s diary: “I am anxious to believe in ghosts, and there is no reason to suppose that they have not existed, or have ceased to exist; we see them in our time seldom only because we have so altered the physical and moral atmosphere of man that he seldom sees his own soul, let alone someone else’s.”

Ray Bradbury was raised vaguely Baptist, not Swedenborgian, but for him, too, observable and quantifiable reality is only a jumping-off point. We see this in Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is about two boys and the carnival that has come to Green Town, Illinois, where they live. The carnival has brought with it a Dust Witch. When the boys look up in the night sky, they see her flying over their neighborhood: “They knew that she was blind, but special blind. She could dip down her hands to feel the bumps of the world, touch house roofs, probe attic bins, reap dust, examine draughts that blew through halls and souls that blew through people.”

Kirk admires the expressions of wonder that pervade Bradbury’s work, a sure sign that Bradbury is not a materialist or utopian like H.G. Wells. Wells, writes Kirk, “would have had man usurp the throne of God,” whereas Bradbury displays a healthy foreboding about runaway technology and a sense of moral limits.

This is quite true (I have elsewhere noted this about Bradbury) but the case is more subtle with the “poet of the pulps” than it is with Kirk. Bradbury eschewed what Kirk called “the hard, false ‘realism’ of science fiction” typified by Wells. But on the other hand, Bradburian wonder at the world included a wonder at man’s invention. He was fascinated, as a toddler on his grandfather’s knee, to “tickle a crystal with a feathery needle and hear music from thousands of miles a way.” What a thrill it was to work a primitive radio set. Compare that to Russell Kirk, who said: “Even if radio is good I don’t like it, detesting the invention of Signor Marconi as an enemy of conservation, a centralizer and standardizer of custom and thought.”

Not everything industrial was soulless for Bradbury, especially not if you were talking about his boyhood corner of industrial America. Waukegan’s grimy port was simply more grist for his artistic mill. It was once put to him: How could you not have noticed the uglier parts of your hometown? He said: “But, of course, I had noticed them and, genetic enchanter that I was, was fascinated by their beauty. Trains and boxcars and the smell of coal and fire are not ugly to children.”

A Warlock in the Old Manse

Kirk’s aesthetic has more of the Bohemian Tory touch to it. His deft scenic descriptions—landscapes of neglected woods, brick ruins, polluted streams, abandoned railway depots—all ring with protest against the damage that man has inflicted on the natural world. He first began to write fiction when, after wartime service in the U.S. Army, he went to Scotland in the late 1940s to study moral philosophy. He became a world traveler at that time, often leaving Piety Hill, his family home in Mecosta, Michigan (which he said was haunted), for walking tours in the United Kingdom, Eastern and Southern Europe, and northern Africa. Many of his tales are set in or make reference to these foreign places.

“As a graduate student in Scotland,” writes Birzer, “Kirk saw fairies, goblins, and several ghosts.” His best use of those experiences is to be found in the story called “Balgrummo’s Hell.” If there were a movie version, David Niven would play Rafe Horgan, a handsome and cultured art thief who cons his way into a crumbling behemoth of 17th century architecture somewhere between Edinburgh and Midlothian. It is Balgrummo’s Lodging, the estate of a dissipated nobleman who lies unattended on his deathbed. Horgan thinks it will be easy to strip the place of its priceless oil paintings.

Old Alexander Fillan Inchburn, tenth Baron Balgrummo, is rumored to have dabbled in hocus-pocus. It’s worse than that: The man the burglar encounters is an out-and-out warlock, if a (seemingly) feeble one. In mid-heist, Horgan reveals himself to be not only a criminal but a disrespecter of the moribund of this world and the spirits of the next. It’s a deliciously atmospheric tale that handles well a staple of horror fiction, the midnight confrontation at the top of the creaky stair.

Kirk, the master of many bodies of thought, often lets his fiction get bogged down by his wider intellectual concerns. In “Balgrummo’s Hell,” however, his touch is relatively light, and the same is true of the best of the tales set in his native land: “There’s a Long, Long Trail a-Winding,” and “Behind the Stumps.” This last, the most accomplished Kirk story of all, in my view, begins with an epigraph that sets a dire tone. The quotation from the first chapter of Chronicles aligns the main character, a census-taker named Cribben, with biblical abomination.

Cribben has been sent by the “Regional Office of the Special Census” to get the irascible farmers of Pottawatomie County to fill out their disclosure forms. The reason he is in this post is that he wasn’t able to hack it in the private sector, “so down to that sink of broken men, petty governmental service, spun Cribben in the vortex of failure.” The author’s Burkean philosophy informs this story, for Cribben, the agent of the oppressive administrative state, is contrasted with a kindly representative of local government, old Mr. Heddle the postmaster. Mr. Heddle tries to warn the arrogant census-taker to skip the household of the county’s most reclusive farmer. Of course his advice is ignored, and the comeuppance that greets the intruder is most satisfying.

In Kirk’s often allegorically structured stories, standing up for the traditional order tracks closely with being one of the good guys, and being an enemy of the permanent things tracks closely with villainy. There’s the fellow who had a progressive education, for instance, who murders his wife in “The Surly Sullen Bell.” A young woman in thrall to Women’s Lib zealotry is a menacing, glue-sniffing hitchhiker from hell in “The Princess of All Lands.” The heavy of Old House of Fear is a Marxist evil genius.

The “Kirk-alikes”

According to Kirk, “It is quite possible to abide by the norms of civilized existence and yet to set at defiance the soft securities and shameful conventionalities of 20th-century sociability.” He tried to personify this defiance in his throne-and-altar-defending, damsel-rescuing heroes—foremost among them his alter ego, Manfred Arcane. Sad to say, all of the works (two stories, two novels) featuring this “minister without portfolio” and international man of mystery fall flat. The reason, to my mind, is that Manfred Arcane seems to bring out extra pretension in an author who already tends toward the pretentious.

Kirk’s heroic self-conception has its opera bouffe side.

The novels are colorful messes, with endless streams of dialogue among the characters that make it hard to follow exactly what it is they are doing. Well-defined characters with believable emotions are few and far between in these works. While Kirk’s fiction as a whole is bursting with imagination and shrewd observations, it must be said that emotional complexity is not its strong suit. (A prominent exception is the protagonist of “There’s a Long, Long Trail a-Winding.” Based on a homeless man who was taken in by Kirk and his family, that depiction reflects the author’s attachment to the real person.)

It is easier for a story than for a novel to succeed with only a modest amount of emotional depth, so it’s no surprise that Kirk’s more compelling work is to be found among his stories rather than his novels. Also pertinent is what biographer James E. Person, Jr. has highlighted about Kirk’s fiction-writing method: by Kirk’s own admission it was a piecing together of arresting fragments, and never began with “a well-concerted formal plot.” (Ray Bradbury, too, mostly reaches his artistic heights with his short stories. His verbal intensity can become exhausting for the reader over the course of a novel, even so beloved a one as Something Wicked This Way Comes.)

For all that, the Kirkian combination of high-heartedness, archaism, pomposity, and zest for Western culture runs through his best literary works as through his famous works of philosophy, politics, and culture. There’s something irresistible about that combination. Which is why, in America—and Canada, for that matter—there have been Kirk-alikes, so to say, among the conservative academics and journalists through the years. The pomposity of our tweedy cheroot-smokers (one would call them “young fogies” except that at this point, many have hit middle age) is nowhere near as charming as his. Nor do the Kirk-alikes reach his level of wit or erudition. Some of them, in theoretical terms, are not as firmly and safely grounded in the Anglo-American tradition as he was. It is this grounding that renders Kirk’s declinism more classy and comforting than the alarming and depressing variety emerging in the Age of Trump.

Bradbury and Kirk on the Transcendent

Most every human being would stay on this earth as long as possible, and the biggest difference between the storytelling of Russell Kirk and that of Ray Bradbury is what each writer does with that fact. One of the “conventionalities” Kirk wanted to rise above was the belief that any meaningful barrier exists between our lives and our deaths. We survive as spirits and need not be angry at death or fear it. Bradbury’s fiction, ebullient though it is, springs from a sadness that our experiences evanesce, and a desire, born of an almost childish bravado, to contend with “an ogre called Death” by ringing its doorbell and running away. Bradbury, lamenting that the past recedes from us, would trap sensory experience in words. For Kirk, whose main literary bulwarks are Christian cosmology and the Stoicism of the ancients, and whose characters expatiate on T.S. Eliot’s “timeless-moment metaphysic,” the past is never past.

Both writers considered faith compatible with reason. Bradbury left it at that. The more philosophical Kirk contended with the intellectuals of his time for a better understanding of what both faith and reason are.

Kirk sent his fictional characters into the lists, too, to try to make old truths attractive. With his knights-errant riding into battle to die for the church and its moral order, he was too ambitious. The crusaders couldn’t move swiftly through narrative landscapes cluttered with medieval history, theological digressions, and touristy notes on architecture and art. The gloom, the gloaming, and the goblins were prevented from fully casting their spell over us by Kirk’s overwriting. Still we can say that his effort to create enduring literature was not entirely a lost cause. “Behind the Stumps,” the “Dantesque trilogy” of stories, and “The Surly Sullen Bell” would be more than honorable exploits for any teller of stories.

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