Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sizeable Excerpt from The Devil Is Dead

A song I wrote called 'Close Encounters of the Ominous Ape-Cat' was inspired by a chapter from Lafferty's novel The Devil Is Dead. On my theology of monsters blog I quote a sizeable excerpt from the novel, from the chapter called '36,000 Pieces of Paper', which I reproduce here:

'It was nighttime, and Finnegan had gone feral.

'He did not, as Papa Devil had done briefly, regrow his lost stripes and become a tiger. Finnegan was a smaller and other breed of cat; or ape, perhaps; or climbing grotesquerie.

'There was in that city a small hotel of curious gothic style. It ran up to parapets and to those stone knobs that are called merlons. At this moment there was a living gargoyle sitting on one of those merlons and it seemed perfectly natural there. Such places are their dens, their nests.

'The gargoyle was carved of dark brown stone that seemed blue in the dark and the ambient half-light. It had climbed up the outside of the building for six stories to come to roost there. Those things can climb; and the little hotel of gothic style was covered with ornamentation that made the climbing easier...

'For two or three days and nights now, there had been a legend in that city (they love legends there) of an ape or monstrous man that climbed up the outsides of the buildings at night and roosted on the pinnacles. It was even said that this was one of the stone gargoyles from an ornamental building come to life. It wasn't, though. It was Finnegan.

'On an ornamentation of stone six stories up, he perched above the dark street. Through a blade-thin slit between drapes of a sixth floor window, Finnegan looked inside at a coven or meeting of gargoyles. "You have to admit that we are funny looking," Finnegan said to himself.

There were the four senior gargoyles from the Brunehilde... With these four were seven Devils more evil than themselves. Eleven of them, all of them men or whatever of some age and authority.

'Finnegan was pleased... The old monsters would not be expecting an attack from a sixth floor window, not from an opponent they had not heard from in several years and who was not likely to be in that part of the world. Or would they? ...

'It was quite cold; and the mist was beginning to ice on the stones, making them dangerous, even for an ape-cat of a man...

'Finnegan had opened one window noiselessly and easily. He was a cat that could climb, he was an ape that could open anything. He left the opened window and moved dangerously and swiftly to the window the length of the room away. Both of these windows were sheer above the street.

'There was, however, in the side of the building (in the back of the room) a third window. Finnegan would not enter this, but he hoped to come out of it. Below this third window, and some nine feet out, was the roof of a four-story building.

'An animal on the surge does not consider. It strikes. Finnegan smashed the window in front of him with the lead weight, letting it fall heavily inside...

'Then one of them turned out the lights, and not with the wall switch. Look out! Someone was well-aware inside.

'Finnegan... came noiselessly into the room whose darkness was modified only by a slight neon ambient from outside.

'Two foci, neither of them to be seen in the dark, both of them to be remembered from observations of seconds before. Finnegan grappled the man where the man should have been , found him, and drove the knife into his throat, leaving it there. There was a death groan and a fall. And yet there was something the matter with that death groan...

'He leapt to the sill... and surged. He shattered that third window, crashing spread-eagled through it, leaping twenty feet down and nine feet outward. It would have killed a man to hit the way he hit on the edge of that roof.

'And there had been a wrong laugh in the dark room behind him just as he leaped.

'The man Finnegan was on a fourth floor roof, and there was gunshot behind him. So Finnegan was a man again; but a swift and sudden man who went quickly down the iron fire-ladders into an alley, and thought as swiftly as he could with his man's brain. But what he had just done he could not have done as a man. Only as the ape-cat that he had become when he climbed and invaded could have done it.

'Finnegan moved quickly, angling from alley into street and into another alley, abruptly into a cluttered space between buildings, through another alley, into another street. He was elated about one thing, disconsolate about another.

' "Got it! he exulted to himself. "But I killed the wrong man. Ah, well, I'll kill him yet. I'm a trick ahead of him now, even though it's his pursuit."'...

'Finnegan had little cuts about his face and hands. It was odd that one could go through a sheet of glass and receive only small cuts like that. The freezing rain had turned to a noisy sleet... it was necessary that he get off the street at once. A siren sounded, and it shook him, though he knew it could not be for him yet. A dog pursued him, noisily and relentlessly, and that could be more serious. A bum fastened onto him, and Finnegan gave him all his pocket change to be rid of him. A policeman bore down dourly on him, and Finnegan just as dourly continued past.'

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A New Introduction to R. A. Lafferty

R. A. Lafferty (1914-2002) is truly my all-time favourite author of fiction, a huge inspiration on my own writing and thinking. Here is a fresh attempt at introducing him to my small world:

Dostoevsky meets Chesterton
Let’s start with a hefty dose of a few Old World masters of moral-spiritual fiction: Dostoevsky and Chesterton. Think of the deep, dark, and tenacious quest for God in a post-theistic world in the former mixed with the biting, satirical, joyous exuberance, wit, whimsy, farce, fancy, and wildness of the latter. (And, in terms of being predecessors to Lafferty, it is no coincidence that both of these great authors were creative adherents to Christian Orthodoxy.)

American Tall Tale meets Native American Folklore
Does this sound a bit serious and weighty? Well, Lafferty was such. But he is also constantly called ‘mad’, ‘insane’, ‘zany’, and the like. And he has the reputation of making the reader laugh aloud. So much so that the weightiness of his art has not often been appreciated. Chesterton’s influence can certainly account for some of the ‘lunacy’ and laughter. But for his unconventional qualities we must now also mix in the ingredients of American tall tales and Native American myth and folklore: Paul Bunyan meets Coyote the Trickster as it were. Think of the larger than life, hilarious, and gigantesque frontier exaggeration of the former mixed with the sly, wry, tribal, traditional, spiritual, ancient magic and mystery of the latter.

With these two major streams of Old World authors and New World folklore (you might call them ‘high’ and ‘low’ respectively, in terms of ‘register’) you can already see how Lafferty’s is going to be fiction that doesn’t easily fit moulds and that needs very large, wide-open spaces of thought and imagination to breathe and move and play and preach and fight and astound. But we’re far from through concocting this utterly strange brew.

Vaudeville meets Carnival
Keeping in the register of ‘Cowboys and Indians’, bring in the Vaudeville variety show and the Carnival barker. It’s the comedic, popular fun and 'burlesque' (as in absurd parody and exaggeration: there's no striptease in Lafferty's stories) of the former mixed with the freakish grotesquery and weird wonder of the latter—and the call for the audience to participate in both. There's song and dance and feasting and drinking and brawling and bragging a plenty in Lafferty's tales.
Irish meets Greco-Roman
Now let’s reach back to the much older Old World for influences before we finally charge into the latter 20th century context of when Lafferty was actually writing. Lafferty the Oklahoman was of Irish Catholic descent and it shows. The Irish storyteller is in him and he’s often been compared to both Flan O’Brien and James Joyce. You can also hear resonances in the contemporary playwright, Martin McDonagh. There is often even an Irish lilt or brogue to Lafferty’s cadence, syntax, and word choice.

In terms of wording and style and content we must also look back to ancient Greco-Roman sources of all varieties—plays, myths, philosophers, church fathers, politicians, treatises, epics, satires, ‘histories’ and so on. Thoughts and ideas from these ancient sources abound in Lafferty as well as everything else we’ve mentioned up to this point. The Bible and Medieval literature also make their influences felt, adding both a Hebrew and European flavour. And it’s worth mentioning here that there is some Arabic influence to be found also, perhaps mainly from the Thousand and One Arabian Nights and from Muslim culture of the Charlemagne era. From these Old World sources too I think comes Lafferty’s great interest in languages (partly by a working knowledge of which he re-invented the language and syntax of English Literature fiction to suit his own purposes).

American New Wave Science Fiction meets Southwest Regional Fiction
Lastly, we mention not so much influences as context—but a context that very much shaped the contours of Lafferty’s fiction. Lafferty’s fiction emerged mostly in the science fiction magazines of the 1960s among a constellation of ‘New Wave’ writers who were experimenting with new directions in the genre, focusing more on the ‘soft sciences’ of language, psychology, and anthropology rather than the traditional ground of science fiction in the ‘hard sciences’ of physics, technology, and so on. Harlan Ellison and the authors that populated his Dangerous Visions anthologies such as Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany warmly welcomed Lafferty into their midst and praised him almost without qualification and with some genuine awe at the raw potency of his imagination and originality.

Many of these New Wave s.f. authors have a strong feel of the Beat Generation stylisings of the likes of William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac—and you often hear echoes of beatnik and jazz talk in Lafferty, but it is mostly just played with; his real roots are in the aforementioned, which arguably enabled him to out-jazz the ‘cool’ set at their own game.

But ‘cool’ Lafferty was not. He might be mistaken for such at a glance, but he was actually quite a bit older than most of his fellow writers of the time and really was doing something that was strange in a truly bizarre and pungent mode, not just a bit zany in a ‘hip’ sort of way. His experimentation, frankly, went far deeper and was more truly radical and structural, not least by being rooted in and nourished by potent traditions rather than attempting any kind of clean break with the past into a ‘new age’ or ‘summer of love’ or what have you. He was searching for bigger, muskier, shaggier, bloodier, spookier, gladder, subtler game.

One way he wasn’t as ‘hip’ as his contemporaries was by being far more of a ‘regional’ writer, particularly of his native Oklahoma and Southwest region. The open feel of the plains and prairies, of cattle and horses and horns and hooves, of fishing and hunting and living under the open sky, of saloons and ropes and saddles, of bucks and buffalos and bears, of Native Americans and ranch hands and cowpokes and so on, all permeate his fiction. Indeed, I felt so many tactile resonances with Lafferty’s fiction when recently reading Cormac McCarthy’s anti-western novel Blood Meridian. That was really when my eyes were fully opened to Lafferty as a regional writer of the Southwest. This places him, with all his other associations, loosely alongside some of his fellow Catholics who were Southern regional writers like Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.

A Ferocious, Generous, Joyous Storyteller
Does all this sound like perhaps a little too much broiling and roiling inside one man, too much for one artistic output? Well, frankly, sometimes it is! Lafferty at his very best (usually in his short stories) has a gemlike quality of concentrated power that swiftly and furiously, but smoothly, weaves and blends and infuses all or most of these streams of influence into an exquisitely coherent piece of art. It is truly awe-inspiring when it comes off. Really. But often his fiction is over-full, bristling, and careening with this background and all his feral genius firing and flailing.

Lafferty's world is one that feels like absolutely anything can happen, and yet it has an underlying coherence and solidity – it’s not a drugged up, tripped out psychedelic fantasia. It’s meaty, earthy, punchy, mythic, transcendent, wry, jokey, gruesome, funny, wily, ornery, amiable, farcical, grave, gritty, grotesque, delightful, magical, realistic, wild, noble, uncanny and canny all rolled into one. Indeed, this makes it something of a minor miracle that he can write an almost-mediocre story now and again (though there’s almost always a memorable wonder in there somewhere). His short story collections are the best place to start before moving on to the usually less cohesive, but equally wonder-filled, novels.

Lafferty can make you laugh harder and think harder than you’re used to, and also amaze your imagination and sense of wonder like few ever will. He called himself ‘the cranky old man from Tulsa’ and yet he fought hard to imbue the world with highly creative and inventive hope for a spiritually renewed present and future, calling all who would hear to join in world-up-building with all their powers and faculties on full throttle. He was a ferocious and generous and exuberantly joyous storyteller who spun out whopping tales at breakneck speed in a tumbling torrent of wild and glad and angry urgency and ecstasy. We are truly blessed to have had him. We must make the most of what we can get hold of.

‘Come on, y’all, this is awesome’
In closing, I want to mention that contemporary giants of ‘alternative’ dark fantasy such as Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman have cited Lafferty as a hero and influence. Both Wolfe and Gaiman have attempted to write stories in the ‘Lafferty genre’ (he really did essentially invent his own genre – in many ways he is the Captain Beefheart of American literature).

A few years ago, the New York Times asked the Saturday Night Live comedy actor, Bill Hader (a fellow Oklahoman), what books he recommended and he started his list with R. A. Lafferty’s collection of short stories entitle 900 Grandmothers. I’ll leave you with his apropos words trying to describe the experience of reading Lafferty:

‘It’s hilarious, incredibly funny and at the same time it’s insanely dark… You get such a sense of joy and boundless imagination in every sentence – even if the story doesn’t totally cohere, you feel like it’s about something. It’s so incredibly Tulsa. You get that feeling when you see a Flaming Lips show. It’s not like we’re dark and hurt and twisted. It’s like, “I’ve got blood on my face – come on, y’all, this is awesome.”’

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Tall Tale Pro Wrestling and an Interview With A Genie In A Bottle

Today I discovered Lafferty's short story 'Ifrit' online HERE.

It's from the collection Iron Tears, which I ordered a few years ago and never received. (I've since heard this has happened to others.)

This is one of my favourite short stories by Lafferty I've ever read. It's full of laughter and wonder. No one can tell a tall tale as well as Lafferty. He starts with outrageous 'pro wrestling' scenarios (in which the common notion that 'it's all fake' is used to hilarious effect) and ends up with a lightly but movingly mythopoeic interview with a Genie, conducted within his bottle. The story then finishes on a really weird but characteristically dark and exuberant note with 'lions in the sky'.

I've always strongly suspected that there are more truly astounding gems out there by Lafferty in the remaining collections I still don't own (Golden Gate and Through Elegant Eyes are two more major ones I still need to obtain), not to mention many more in s.f. magazines and anthologies that have never been collected in a Lafferty volume. (E.g. 'In Deepest Glass' and 'Symposium' are two of his best stories and I've never seen them but in the obscure 1970s multi-author anthologies I found them in.) This story proves to me afresh that searching out every last Lafferty story I can find is so totally worth it.

I highly recommend 'Ifrit' - go read it! (It's a fairly short read at only ten pages.) As the story itself says:

'If you are of brave heart as well as honest heart, try it. You have nothing to lose except your own orientation and perhaps your life. And you stand to gain a whole new way of looking at things.'

Indeed, this aptly describes what lays before us in reading any and all of Lafferty's fiction.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The First-Ever Book of Essays On Lafferty (for which I will contribute a chapter)?!?!

Ok, after about a year's silence on this blog, I'm picking it up again. I'm delighted to report that I've been asked to write a chapter for an upcoming book of essays about the fiction of R. A. Lafferty (the first ever!). This is being pulled together from various sources by Andrew Ferguson (who recently wrote his MA dissertation on Lafferty's carnivalesque world-building narrative strategy - a very lengthy in-depth, technical, and thrilling read!). It may be sometime before the proposed book sees publication and, of course, my chapter will only be included if it 'makes the grade'. But I'm honoured and thrilled to be asked to contribute and to have this opportunity.

The contributors to the book will be looking at Lafferty and his large, diverse, and brilliantly/notoriously unconventional body of fiction from various angles. I've been asked to cover Lafferty as a Catholic/Christian storyteller, sort of an Irish American G. K. Chesterton. He was one of the very best of the 2oth century and puts so much 'Christian art' to shame. I will probably begin by looking at the praise heaped on him by the New Wave s.f. movement from which he emerged and how 'new weird'/'urban fantasy' writers like Neil Gaiman still praise and emulate him, none of whom share his Catholic faith, yet all of whom find a companion, mentor, and inspiration in him.

Then the main body of the chapter will look at how Lafferty's fiction evinces his Christian worldview inventively, invitingly, feistily, and generously, mainly in the short story 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire'. But probably also with reference to some elements in the novels Past Master, Arrive At Easterwine, and Fourth Mansions, as well as other short stories like 'In Deepest Glass', 'Symposium', and 'Days of Grass, Days of Straw'.

I'm toward the end of doing a close reading of 'Walk Now' (that I've written previously about on this blog here). This story is about the Queer Fish, who are also called the Ants of God 'for their building proclivities' that are troublesome in an 'unstructured, destructed, destroyed society' (and now you can see where the title of the blog derives from). It is a story full of laughing irony and biting satire that paints a bleak picture of the possibility of 'post-humanity' only to incite a very rowdy hope for redemption, toward which we are urged to build, to reconstruct, to renew. I'll be quoting some passages from it in upcoming posts.

Please feel free to make suggestions of how I ought to tackle this subject!
'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)