Friday, July 8, 2011

Some Initial Thoughts on R. A. Lafferty's Fourth Mansions

It's usually agreed that Lafferty is stronger at his short stories than his novels. The wonderful weirdness that is usually a strength at the short story length can sometimes threaten to become overwhelming, or even unreadable incoherence, at novel length. Nevertheless, besotted fans of Lafferty's short stories are impelled by sheer addiction to his prose--the sweaty, shaky need for more Laffertian lore, from any source whatever--to wade into the novels and grapple with Lafferty's uber potent strangeness in depth, for one long sustained narrative. And though Lafferty fanatics are often not a little baffled by the novels, we tend to go back for more!

Besides Fourth Mansions, I've read the following novels by Lafferty: Past Master, Reefs of Earth, Space Chantey, Arrive At Easterwine, The Devil Is Dead, Annals of Klepsis, Where Have You Been Sandaliotis, and The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney. That's nine novels in total (over a period of about as many years), so it's not as if they're unreadable. Indeed, you get the hang of them. You start to love some of them, or parts of them, as much as the short stories. In fact, I've read the afforementioned Past Master, Annals of Klepsis, and Space Chantey at least twice-over each (the latter two I even read out loud to my children!) for sheer pleasure--just delighting to savour again the prose and the narrated events.

The bottom line is that I've found, basically, however Lafferty's novels may compare to the short stories, however much they may or may not 'succeed' as cohesive versions of that particular art form - they usually ALL contain some amount (usually quite a lot) of solid Laffertian gold.

Interestingly, despite the sometimes overwhelming concentration (or diffusion) of weirdness in Lafferty's novels, I have usually found them quite 'easy' reads. I can usually get through them in fairly short order. Despite the wonkiness, they still manage, oddly, to have a fairly page-turning flow. The novels sometimes reel, roil, and riot, but they seem to be eminently finishable.

But this is where Fourth Mansions was the exception to the rule for me. When I first tried to read it some 8 or 9 years ago, I just couldn't finish it. I had finished all the ones I had read before that and have subsequently finished all the ones I've read after abandoning it. I knew that a number of fans and critics considered Fourth Mansions Lafferty's best (and some even said it was possibly his most coherent plot), but this just baffled me as I found that its story just didn't pull me in beyond a few chapters and the strangeness wasn't cohering into anything inviting for me. I gave up half way through. I knew also that some fans found Fourth Mansions to be one of Lafferty's 'worst' novels. (The R. A. Lafferty Devotional Page categorises it as 'lame'--below even 'OK'--then again, how LAME is it that a site 'devoted' to Lafferty even has the category 'lame' for his works! Honestly, I admit I've read what comes close to 'average' from Lafferty, but 'lame'? Never.)

Anyway, I assumed that since I had more or less easily downed all the other novels I'd tried, this one was just truly flawed. Still, I had always intended to go back and get through it. I recently read a 1975 paper by Sheryl Smith on Arrive At Easterwine that mentioned Lafferty had written three 'end-of-the-world comedies'--Past Master (1968), Fourth Mansions (1969), and Easterwine (1971)--which she recommended reading in that order if possible. I found this to be a fresh way of labelling and grouping some of his works. Having recently re-read Past Master and planning to re-read Easterwine soon, I decided now was the time to finally muscle through to the end of Mansions.

Basic result? I totally missed it on my first reading. This is an amazing book. Definitely one of Lafferty's very best and most important. It is packed with tons of the finest of Lafferty's prose on a lot of levels. It is also packed with fantastic marvels and action-adventure (of an utterly bizarre variety, of course) as well as Lafferty's usual long and creative portions of exposition - ranging from various types of conversations to college lecture Q&A sessions to prophets preaching on the streets. It is bristling with a wonderful cast of weird and well-sketched characters of various ethnicities and powers and beings. The pedestrian protagonist, newspaper reporter Freddy Foley, is a bumbling favourite for me alongside Past Master's Thomas More.

The novel is still very, very strange and hard to follow and even hard to finish toward the latter half (though all the later chapters are as good as the early chapters - it's just that mere mortals flag in trying to quaff one of Lafferty's most potent brews). Yet it is full of joys and thrills and pleasures.

In one sense it is a sustained meditation on a theology of monsters (which is very exciting for one of my lifelong study projects). But even more centrally, it is another crucial piece in the puzzle that Lafferty's body of work constructs: a profound, pungent, tenacious argument that we need to wake up and rebuild intellectual and spiritual DIMENSION in an intellectually and spiritually FLAT modern/postmodern world.

‎'Somehow there is the belief that people in the Dark Ages believed that the world was flat. They didn't. But it is the contemptuous ones of today who have made a really flat world that is the sad answer to everything. What is wrong with the world and why is it not worth living in? It's flat, that's what.' (Fourth Mansions, p. 59)

This novel, as all of Lafferty's work, joyously and rambunctiously attempts to diagnose this problem and proffers a beautiful and scary cure: unleash all the metaphorical, metaphysical, and material monsters inside us and outside us, reintegrated under the good rule of God again, freed to gleefully destroy a fake world that has been foisted on us and gruesomely rebirth a real one again.

That diagnosis and cure is no doubt unpalatable to many, but Lafferty is cooking and seasoning a musky rump roast according to his own recipe (yet one he claims is not at all his own) and he has a disarming and seductive way of wafting wonderfully inviting aromas our way, inciting our salivating mouths and rumbling bellies.


Kevin Cheek said...

I am re-reading Fourth Mansions right now. It has always been my favorite Lafferty novel. Among other things, I enjoy being able to foist a copy of Fourth Mansions into the hands of fans of the Illuminati trilogy and associated conspiracy paranoia, explaining to them that Lafferty covered the subject in greater depth, on a vaster scale of consequence, with much better prose, in far fewer pages, and with much more fun.

I have always identified strongly with Freddy Foley--the foolish everyman, the "malodorous worm" in the center of humanity. I find the book immensely hopeful--history may not be doomed to repeat. We foolish, bumbling everymen may be able to frustrate the toads and continue to the next higher level of human spiritual evolution.

In my opinion there are two lines in the book that are key to understanding it (I set down my copy somewhere intelligent and forget where, so I can't check my quotes or give pages): One is where he describes the residents of Washington DC as "Those who did not have the faith, and would not have the fun." For Lafferty, human transcendence or elevation was about faith, but not a calm, constrained faith. He required a bold, raucous faith that embraced challenges and was willing to leap to the next level. Remember that in "Days of Grass, Days of Straw" he reinterpreted "in fear and trembling" as "in fear shaking and laughter shaking."

The second one is (hoping I quote correctly) "One misses so much who uses only one pair of eyes." I'm hoping some of Foley's intuition is available to all of us, without having to be touched by a brain-weave first.

Oh, and of course: "Goof gloriously." It is our only available course of action and our only hope.

Kevin Cheek said...

What prompted me to re-read it now is my son re-reading The Da-Vinci Code. I want to show him a far superior precursor, explaining that in terms of conspiracy and Catholic references, Dan Brown is an amateur compared to R. A. Lafferty.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Some really apt thoughts there, Kevin. Thanks.

I've always wondered how literally Lafferty takes the whole conspiracy theory theme the keeps recurring in his works. He often brings up the idea of small groups of 'corporate' people in power over media and so forth, who devise all the 'catchwords' that determine how the average man and woman will feel about various aspects of the world ('About a Secret Crocodile' comes to mind; and some comments in The Devil is Dead about the people grazing on catchwords like sheep). As a tall-tale sort of metaphor about these aspects of group knee-jerk phenomena in society, I think he's highly (and funnily) insightful.

When he sees spiritual networks of 'principalities and powers' behind the scenes of our dark turns in history, I think he's insightful also. But if I thought he literally thought there were 'illuminati' sorts of groups trying to control the world, I might be a bit disappointed at that kind of (what strikes me as) credulous paranoia. (Then again, some might feel that way about my embrace of the idea of spiritual powers behind the scenes.)

I know, I love Freddy Foley too - the 'everylout' as he calls him at the end. That's brilliant. You said: 'I find the book immensely hopeful--history may not be doomed to repeat. We foolish, bumbling everymen may be able to frustrate the toads and continue to the next higher level of human spiritual evolution.' Yes!

I think Lafferty's everyman bumbling characters who tend to go through a process of seeing things from quite a few perspectives and thus give them each a hearing, but still in the end make a stand with what they perceive as the 'forces of good', is part of what makes his fiction so inviting to people of all worldviews.

Yes, I have all the same lines underlined in my copy! (And many more!)

Dan Brown mentioned in the same sentence as Lafferty just sends me into a dark and protracted fit of nausea and bitterness. I suppose The Da-Vinci Code at least highlights EXACTLY everything Lafferty is NOT - from the 'prose' to the 'theory' (nothing printed in that book can really make claim to either). Sorry, I can be a real lit. snob and stuff like Brown's being a bestseller makes me foam and gnash.

Kevin Cheek said...

Take heart, I finished the Dan Brown novel and hurled it across the room in a theatrical display of disgust. However, as I said I want to show my oldest how it can be done well.

Conspiracies in Lafferty: I think the individual conspiracies are metaphor. Various systems within society may conspire and individuals may occasionally conspire against the greater good for their own preservation and profit. However the underlying vast conspiracies are merely metaphor for those elements within human nature that block us. We fight sometimes for our own aggrandizement and enrichment over our fellows because human nature includes power-lust and greed. We fall feebly and willingly, like the bishop, for the ever-so-smooth line of the James Bauers of the world, because human nature contains a tendency to be timid sheep, wanting to be told what to do, to feel, to think ("ditto"). All four exterior creatures in Fourth Mansions are metaphors for elements within the human mind, being, psyche, or soul. Perhaps those creatures are really the fruit of the tree of Eden. Ultimately, then, we conspire against ourselves--hardly news to anyone, but Fourth Mansions shows it in sharp relief in stark, original light.

Kevin Cheek said...

And thinking of the fruit of the tree, I have also been reading (rather slowly, I'll admit) Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, the sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz, and I stumbled upon this baffling but enjoyable quote:

"The fruit of the tree, Eminent Lords, was rumination. Out of rumination came good and evil. The devil is a cud-chewing animal with cloven hooves. The serpent Satan ate souls and chewed the cud, and he taught rumination to the female, who taught it to the male. Whatever you do, do not ruminate."
- Pope Amen Specklebird addressing the papal conclave of 3334AD in "Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman" by Walter M. Miller Jr. (p. 124)

Doesn't that sound exactly like the kind of thing one of Lafferty's fire-eyed prophets would say?

Just ruminating,


Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Ha ha, Kevin, glad I'm not the only one who hurled a Brown novel.

Excellent paragraph on the metaphor of conspiracies in Lafferty's works.

Interesting quote from Miller. I've read Canticle and have Wild Horse Woman on my shelf. I don't know if I'd agree that 'ruminating' is a thing of the fall (not without qualification) - somehow I think it was done gloriously in the garden before the fall.

Not sure if Laff would endorse the idea or not. But yes, the language of the quote does sound Laffertian indeed.

Jay said...

So glad you came back to this one and thought differently on second read! As I've said before, it's my favorite of his novels.

Spiritual dimension is obviously a big theme, and you both have picked up on something with the lack of faith amounting to a flat world. This is not entirely different, I think, from the world of all height and no depth in "From the Thunder Colt's Mouth." At any rate, it's definitely a Lafferty theme.

One thing I really latched onto upon second reading (and forgive me for not quoting directly, as I'm visiting family and don't have the book with me), is his comment somewhere in the middle that our monsters must be sanctified, not excised. Obviously, that theme plays very strongly into the ending. Even the toad and the snake, which are portrayed almost entirely negatively, must play a vital role if humanity is to reach the next step, the fifth mansions. To me, this resonates with a concept of sin as not a creative thing (or even, as in Augustine, an absence of good) but rather a perversion of good. Entirely avoiding things in nature, in culture, or in one's own life that have turned bad causes the loss of the good thing underneath it. It is rather sanctification of those things that causes spiritual growth.

The cultural/political aspect of this comes through strongly in the discussion (I think in Michael Fountain's bungled lecture) on what each of the four monsters represents, conservatism in the badgers, liberalism in the serpents, communism in the toads, facism in the unfledged flacons. There's bad in all of these (though Lafferty appears to shade towards conservatism or fascism in his own views, he admits to all four being flawed), but if we sanctify each instead of fleeing from them, we can take the good from each and build something new, something with depth.

Anyway, that's just something that struck me. I thought it was interesting.

Kevin Cheek said...

I've noticed a couple of reviews of Fourth Mansions have said that the book seems more relevant today than when it was written. I don't know when those reviews were written, so I don't know what "today" they were referring to. There is something in the novel that always applies to the immediate political/economic/spiritual situation in the world. I think this is in part because his political allusions are vague while being sufficiently dire that we think, "this is our situation RIGHT NOW!" whenever right now is. For that reason the book should remain somewhat timeless.

There is an element of the human condition that constantly feels like we are on the verge of something huge about to happen in the world, no matter when we are living and no matter what our situation. Looking at the last 150 years or so, this really has been true--every year. I think a key element to most of Lafferty's writing (fiction and non) is the observation that the pace of change over the last period (50, 150, 500, 2000 years) is faster than the human spirit can comfortably keep up with (resisting mightily the urge to quote the Grateful Dead song "The Wheel" right here). That is part of why Lafferty appeals so much to us. He is writing to that part within us which is saying, "Hold on, let me catch my breath. I know I could be great if y'all would just SLOW DOWN for a bit!"

Kevin Cheek said...

Thinking on Jay's comments, by taking into himself all four creatures--being recruited and changed by the Toads, being made Emperor of the Patricks, Having the Snake weave permanently thrown to him, and being given control of the Falcon--Freddy Foley became a full human being, perhaps the first on in many long years. That sound like what you were driving at?

Kevin Cheek said...

Jay, I think I found the quote you were referring to:
"There is a holiness in a whole person or a whole world," the patrick Croll said. "The veriest monsters inside us may be sanctified. They were put there by Him who is 'Father of Monsters' also. What right have we to cut them out of us? Who are we to edit God? We cut strong things out of ourselves and suppress them, and the rocks and clouds will give birth to them again. We dry up our interior fountains and they gush out again, exteriorly and menacingly. We cannot live without monsters' blood coursing though us. Only to the whole person is life worth living and death worth dying. Here in Fourth Mansions we must be whole or we must be nothing."
- p 208. The first paragraph of Chapter XII: "Fourth Mansions"

A good quote. It sums up a lot of Lafferty's philosophy, where he constantly derides us for having cut out all those parts that are difficult or strong and made ourselves a flat, effete, easy world. A fun contrast would be Michael Fountain in Fourth Mansions and Garamask in the story "Frog on the Mountain." I got the feeling that Lafferty was rooting for Garamask all the way, because he was wise, quick-witted, strong, randy, and unhesitating--someone who the above quote would describe as a whole person with plenty of monster's blood coursing through him.

Jay said...

Yes, that's it. That's what I was going for, and I do think that's a common theme through Lafferty. I think he likes people who excise their monsters and flatten their world much less than people who are overrun by their monsters. But the ideal is holding on to the strong things within yourself but not relinquishing control.

Kevin Cheek said...

Better to exercise your monsters than exorcise them.

Kevin Cheek said...

I finished re-reading Fourth Mansions the other day--this would be my 5th or 6th time through the book. As always, I am left open-mouthed, gasping, and groping for words at the conclusion. I immediately forced the book into the hands of my 17-year-old son, made a few inarticulate noises, and told him I want his opinion.

Among other things, my son is an incipient filmmaker and has tried his hand at a couple of story adaptations over the last couple of years at school. I am curious at his impression of its filmability. Several short comments I have read online about the book suggest it would make a great movie. I'm not convinced. I think part of the impact relies on Lafferty telling us what things are on different levels. I'm not sure how that would work in a movie. Thoughts, anyone?

Jay said...

I can't think of any Lafferty novels that would make good films, and very few short stories (all of which would require an unusual director). There's too much happening in his novels, and a lot of what's happening can't be conveyed in a visual-heavy style.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yes, guys, that 'monster' passage in Fourth Mansions is one of my new favourite quotes from Laff. For ages I've been quoting from Past Master when Rimrock the Ansel says: 'Regular people have sealed off the interior ocean that used to be in every man... They closed the ocean and ground up its monsters for fertilizer. That is why we so often enter into peoples' dreams. We take the place of the monsters they have lost.' Now I have an even better quote about the un-suppressible need of our inward monsters, and it's directly related to Christian theism - in terms of sanctification of those monsters as you say, Jay. Such a crucial theological point you make that sin is not a creative force at all, but quite the reverse. Lafferty artistically demonstrates this in spades all throughout his work. (I think it's an idea well-represented in C. S. Lewis's Perelandra as well.) In terms of spiritual dimension: sin is reductive, holiness is expansive and fulsome. This seems to be a major burden of Lafferty's work. And it is a notion that is utterly countercultural right now. So Lafferty is hugely relevant today, as you say, Kevin.

And yes, integration of these otherwise disparate monsters (under God's good rule) is human flourishing. Chesterton's quote from Orthodoxy is ever relevant to Lafferty's whole enterprise: 'And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.'

As Kevin says: 'Better to exercise your monsters than exorcise them.' (Nice!)

All this chat is why I mentioned that Lafferty is a solid gold resource for considering a 'theology of monsters'.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

As to Lafferty made into film: did you guys ever hear that supposedly someone tried to make his short story 'Seven Day Terror' into a TV episode in the 80s? In my web-trawling I came across this claim years ago.

Anyway, it's such a fascinating question. Unquestionably so much would be lost (or 'transposed' into visual if we want to be optimistic) because Lafferty is so language-rich and also because his stories are so symphonic in what they present to the mind's eye (and the mind's ear, nose, skin, and tongue!).

I would love to see characters and scenes from Past Master represented on the silver screen. A film could get a lot of Lafferty's true feel in if it kept a large portion of his lecture-heavy dialogue, well-rendered by gripping acting and directing. And perhaps if some effective narrated overdub could be pulled off (as No Country for Old Men achieves).

If we could get a directorial mix of Coen brothers, Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton, and Guillermo Del Toro we might be well on our way.

I still say 'The Six Fingers of Time' MUST make it to film. I would love to see 'The Transcendent Tigers' made cinematic (with awesome child actors and a huge budget for the catastrophic cities punctured with miles-wide holes scenes). Some of my favourite stories like 'The Configuration of the North Shore' and 'Snuffles' just wouldn't work.

Other interesting possibilities from the novels: Space Chantey, Reefs of Earth, The Devil Is Dead. (Arrive At Easterwine, the Apocalypses novels, and Fourth Mansions are examples of books I think just wouldn't work.)

Kevin Cheek said...

On your first comment of today, I keep thinking back to the story "Frog on the Mountain." The protagonist, Garamask, goes to battle the four monsters of the triple mountain. First the panther, then the bear, then the raptor, then the fourth monster turns out to be himself (or his oafish Oganta guide). To successfully battle each monster, he has to out-do it at its own game, essentially to partially become the monster. Then the Oganta can only evolve into their next level when they have partaken of the brains of "certain fully charged humans" who have mastered all four monsters. I see this as a parallel to Fourth Mansions, in that Foley (and by extension, humanity) can only progress to the fifth mansion when he has taken into himself all four monsters. A fully integrated person is both more capable and more dangerous. A truly good person is all of that and instinctively moral.

Interesting aside here: I think we all agree that Fourth Mansions is inherently a very religious book. However, have you noticed that it only mentions God 3 or 4 times, and only refers to Jesus once as "the Galilean thing" that briefly stole a march on the toads. Most often Lafferty mentions God in the dialog of people who are openly mocking religion and serving as anti-examples. Yet there is no doubt in the reader's mind of Lafferty's opinion of such speeches.

Kevin Cheek said...

Thinking about translating Lafferty to film: My three favorite stories are "Narrow Valley," "Days of Grass, Days of Straw," and "Hole on the Corner." Narrow Valley is my candidate for Great American Short Story; it has everything, Indians, homesteaders, precocious children, pickup trucks, sheriffs, unexplainable scientific phenomena, and eminent scientists. I think it would translate very easily and directly to film--I could see a Coen Brother's approach to this one.

"Days of Grass, Days of Straw" could also translate into a visual media pretty well. I imagine it with a Peter Jackson, Lord of the Rings style for the grass day but with just a touch of Peter Weir weirdness showing the main character's disconnectedness and confusion. The day of straw I imagine more like Michael Radford's Nineteen Eighty Four. It would have to be a joyously gory movie at moments, however.

"Hole on the Corner" I suspect would be unfilmable.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Kevin, about 'Frog On the Mountain' - I've always loved that story and for years I just let Lafferty's tales wash over me with total pleasure but not much expectancy for most of them that I'd ever understand what the heck they were 'about'. Now I see what a rich harvest field they will likely prove to be. Can't wait to re-read 'Frog'.

You're absolutely right about the way Lafferty only rarely mentions 'God' or anything 'Christian' in an overtly 'positive' sense, yet in many books we're left with no doubt of the Christian theological depth that weights, roots, and infuses the whole work. I recently tried a close reading of 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire' - now having re-read Past Master and Fourth Mansions after that close reading, I'm seeing the Christian themes richly woven through and crucial to the essence of what these books 'say'. It's a lot like reading Flannery O'Connor stories: at first they can be fairly dark and baffling, though beautiful and enjoyable - then you read an article or two detailing how her Catholic faith is really the substance of all these Southern Gothic comedies and suddenly the key is in and the gates open and the truth becomes clearer and clearer.

I hope it only adds to the richness of the experience for all readers from whatever background.

Jay said...

I could see several stories translating to something like Twilight Zone episodes ("Land of the Great Horses" and "What's the Name of That Town," both among my favorites, come to mind), but not so much as feature films. "Narrow Valley" is another. It'd translate to screen (as Kevin says, it's the Great American Short Story), but I don't know that it has enough for a full length film. Longer than a Twilight Zone episode, surely, but shorter than a film. My initial guess is that it'd take 45-60 minutes, but maybe my guess is off. Actually, come to think of it, those all might be more 45 minute deals. The best Twilight Zone episode story I can think of is "In Our Block".

I do think one that could be feature length, and is often overlooked, is "Thieving Bear Planet." The trick is getting the horror to translate to the screen without undercutting it with farce. But I think it can be done, although certainly not by any mainstream sci-fi/horror folks. I also think "Snuffles" could be done, but it'd also be tricky, and for similar reasons. But there's more there in "Thieving Bear Planet" than just chasing, which is why it might be a tad easier. There are others (and I agree that "Configuration of the North Shore" and "The Hole on the Corner" are among them) that just wouldn't work at all.

And agreed wholeheartedly about Lafferty being overt without being explicit and having fair strong ideas about a theology of monsters.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yeah, I'd love to see a multi-story film, like Creepshow the Movie or Twilight Zone the movie - that features 4 or 5 Lafferty stories, 20 minutes to 45 minutes each. (Then it could be a HUGE box office hit and spawn endless multi-story films in the never ending golden goose series!)

Kevin Cheek said...

Sadly, I'm afraid a Lafferty movie would sell as well as Lafferty books--highly sought after by the educated and ignored by the vast majority. For example, if it weren't on your bookshelf already, how easily could you have found a copy of Fourth Mansions?

Jay said...

Well, if you know what it is, Fourth Mansions would be relatively easy to find. There are five copies on AbeBooks for under $5. Although the easiest to find is without a doubt Apocalypses. The difficult ones are the short story collections. The cheapest copy of Nine Hundred Grandmothers is $35, Golden Gate is $70, and Through Elegant Eyes (which I don't have) is $82.

But I agree with the general point that it'd be met with the same reception as the books, unless it was marketed very, very well.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

The words 'golden goose' were, of course, the cue that I was being sardonic. I think his books will have to have at least a slight revival before there's any hope of a decent film with decent reception. But cinema might really be a way into Lafferty for a lot of people eventually. It's just possible. I hope someone takes it on with some measure of success at some point regardless.

I'm so bummed I'm not going to be able to afford some Lafferty books like Golden Gate and Elegant Eyes now. I finally managed to order some more for around $30 each: Okla Hannali, Not to Mention Camels, Fall of Rome, Serpent's Egg, and Aurelia. Really excited about reading them - they look like good potent vintage.

Jay said...

You spent $30 for Okla Hannali? That's still in print! No reason to pay that much for it. That's actually a pretty good price for The Fall of Rome though. And both are excellent books. The beginning of chapter eight ("As Good a Graveyard as Any") actually sums up what I find as the thinking behind the Protestant Reformation (although that's obviously not what it's meant to reference). Serpent's Egg and Not to Mention Camels aren't at the top of my Lafferty list, but they're still Lafferty. Have not found a reasonably cheap copy of Aurelia and thus have not read it.

Kevin Cheek said...

We should set up an international Lafferty swap meet and lending library, where we can sell extra (as if that could happen) copies, lend them to each other, and help each other find books needed to fill out our collections.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Great idea, Kevin!

Jay, yeah, I sprung for a mass market paper back of Okla with a kind of hilarious/cool cover. (I know that probably doesn't make aesthetic sense to anyone but me.) Unfortunately, it doesn't have Lafferty's intro where he talks about growing up (which is at least available to view on Google books).

Andrew Ferguson deals extensively with Serpent's Egg in his MA dissertation and it sounds amazing. He thinks it and Camels are underrated because they're a bit hard to crack in terms of what Laff's on about in those stories. I read the first chapter of each and skipped and dipped ahead and thought they looked super yummy. Same with Rome and Aurelia and East of Laughter (the latter, whilst boasting the worst cover ever in the history of publishing, has a bonus short story and a bonus chapter by Gene Wolfe in appreciation of Lafferty).

I just think Laff's later stuff wasn't marketed like Mansions, Chantey, Reefs, and Past Master, thus most readers aren't prepared to wade through the weirdness the way they feel prepared to with the earlier published works. That's my working hunch. I'm not at all convinced the quality of his work is actually diminished at all in those later books.

Kevin Cheek said...

I suspect that in his later novels he had a more definite idea of what he wanted to say. Therefore, they are perhaps deeper but also more inaccessible. That being said, my two favorite Lafferty novels are still Fourth Mansions and Okla Hannali.

Jay said...

My top five are Fourth Mansions, Fall of Rome, The Reefs of Earth, Okla Hannali, and Three Armageddons. Which is to say, you should love Rome and Hannali.

While I did enjoy both Serpent's Egg and Not to Mention Camels, they aren't quite as accessible as his other stuff. But you're well enough read in his stuff that you're not going to have a problem with that. And I will say that "Not to Mention Camels," as it not uncommon for Lafferty, has a wonderful closing line. And I have East of Laughter on my shelf but haven't read it. Had no idea about the bonus story.

Also, Not to Mention Camels did spawn my favorite story about my own Lafferty fandom. My favorite biblical story by far is Jonah. It's delightfully satirical and a bit off the norm. For a couple years, I've been telling people that Jonah is the kind of story that R.A. Lafferty would've written, except he would've called it "And Also Much Cattle" (see Jonah 4:11). Then, a few months ago, I'm reading Not to Mention Camels, and when I get to the beginning of chapter three, what do I see? A translation of Jonah 4:11, but with the phrase "and also much cattle" replaced by "not to mention many camels." Not only do I consider this definitive proof of my earlier assertion, I'm extremely proud of my handle on Lafferty, at least in this one aspect

Jay said...

Eh, looked through my copy of East of Laughter. I have the horrific cover, but no bonus short story or Gene Wolfe bit.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yeah, I'll have to see what I think when I read Serpent's Egg and Camels - whether I think the storytelling is as good as the earlier well-marketed stuff.

Nice story, Jay. I'd agree: Jonah is definitely the Bible's Lafferty-esque story. (Too bad about your copy of East of Laughter.)

I think a consistent difference in your lists of fave short stories and novels with my lists are that I really relish the 's.f. adventure' stuff (e.g. Past Master, Space Chantey, Annals of Klepsis) and you don't necessarily (your faves tending to be more historical or contemporary). I also love the outre s.f. (e.g. Arrive At Easterwine, Sandaliotis). With the exception of Sandaliotis, those novels would definitely make my top 5 list. Camels and Serpent's Egg and Aurelia and East of Laughter all look like more of that 'weird adventure' sort, so that's why I suspect I'll like them as much (or nearly as much) as earlier stuff.

Tim Kyger said...

I was never able to read Lafferty when I was younger. But I recently just read "About A Secret Crocodile" for the first time, and I loved it. I did own a copy of *Past Master,* so I thought I'd give it a try again.

Great googily moogily, I could kick myself for missing all this great prose (if prose it is).

I got a copy of *Fourth Mansions* this past Saturday, and I finished it Monday night. Keee-rist, it's better than *Past Master.* I could just, um, kick myself (again).

Which means I have a lot of *new* reading to do -- Lafferty's short stories and the remaining novels.

Does this signify an ascension into fifth mansions? ;-)

Kevin Cheek said...

Tim, I envy you the discoveries you are about to make. There is a great joy in having your mind blown by Lafferty for the first time. One wonderful part of the Lafferty experience is that his stories are so varied, that each new one you encounter will blow your mind all over again--no two in quite the same way. I could give you a list of my favorites and suggest some must-reads, but better to let you have the joy of discovery without my meddling. Just tell us about it when you do!

I commented earlier that I find Fourth Mansions an immensely hopeful book. Did you feel the same? I come away from it feeling empowered as one of the foolish bumbling everymen that Freddy Foley stands for--feeling that the path may be difficult, dangerous, and unexpectedly joyous, but we have what it will take to make it to the fifth mansions.

Jay said...

Haha, just might. The best combination of awesome and easy to find dictates that you read Okla Hannali (novel), The Reefs of Earth (novel), Apocalypses (two novels), Space Chantey (novel), and Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add (short story collection). After that, you should be hooked enough to get into the more expensive and less accessible stuff. Others, of course, may have different recommendations on where to start. But all of those are fairly accessible, and I think they're all available online for under $15 or so.

But first things first, there are three short stories available online (two great, one okay). Google "The Transcendent Tigers," "The Six Fingers of Time," and "Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas."

That's a lot, but. . . there's a lot. Personally, I've read 15 of his novels and 6 short story collections, and I still don't feel like I've even gotten halfway through his stuff.

Also, I love the first couple pages of "About a Secret Crocodile." Lafferty has some memorable beginnings, but that and "Through Other Eyes" really stick in my mind.

Jay said...

Heh, I guess I'm meddling. But talking about pricing is a different sort of meddling, and I think useful.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Tim, thanks for stopping by and dropping a line about your fresh (re)discovery of Lafferty! So very, very good to hear. I manage to get one or two people a year at least intrigued by Laff through a recommended short story or two ('The Configuration of the North Shore' and 'The Six Fingers of Time' have not yet failed to wow the newcomer).

I would only add the novel Annals of Klepsis to Jay's list (if it's affordable and available) and the short story collections Nine Hundred Grandmothers, Ringing Changes, and Strange Doings (if they're affordable and available).

Also available online to read are the short stories 'Slow Tuesday Night', 'Narrow Valley', and 'Nine Hundred Grandmothers'. (Lafferty fandom seems to be divided on the story 'Nine Hundred Grandmothers' as to whether it's 'okay' or 'one of his best'. I'm in the latter category and I think Jay is in the former. Weighing in in my corner, though, is Andrew Ferguson, who recently wrote his MA dissertation on Lafferty and in that paper said 900 Grans was Lafferty at his sublime best. Couldn't resist adding that, Jay, ha!)

So, Tim, tell me: do you feel you're being drawn into an inner circle of initiates all too eager to induct you into our Laffertian ways? Heh heh.

Kevin Cheek said...

Is it OK to post links in these comments? I have stumbled across free audiobooks of three Lafferty stories, "Sodom and Gomorrah Texas," "The Hands of the Man," and "Eurema's Dam." Just search archive(dot)org for "R. A. Lafferty." There is a link to the first story, the second two stories are part of the Mindwebs archive at #47 and #124 respectively.

Jay said...

If I recall correctly, Nine Hundred Grandmothers (the collection) is not available cheaply, or else it would've moved to the front of my list. Strange Doings and Ringing Changes might be, but I prefer Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add (although all are good).

Also, you must tell me where to find Narrow Valley, Slow Tuesday Night, and Nine Hundred Grandmothers. The other three can be found with a simple google search, but I don't know about those. Never mind, found Slow Tuesday Night. Still don't know about the other two.

My go-to story for the newcomer is "The Transcendent Tigers" because it's been available online the longest and puts the whole "morbid and hilarious and unlike anything else" much better than I can describe.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Link away, Kevin. Just be aware that some of these things are bogus. I'm very sceptical about there being real Lafferty audio out there. Here's hoping my scepticism is blown out of the water.

Jay, all the online stories are linked to at the bottom of Laff's wikipedia page. Personally, I wish they'd put better stories online - I don't find any of these to be terribly great intros to his work, though a number of them are very fine stories.

Kevin Cheek said...

My go to stories are "Narrow Valley" and "Slow Tuesday Night." "Narrow Valley" because I believe it is The Great American Short Story. It has everything: wild Indians, homesteaders, a sheriff, precocious children, eminent scientists and scientific babble, and a camper. And it is a great introduction to Willy McGilly. "Slow Tuesday Night" gives a great introduction to Laffertian time. It also is a great example of how Lafferty immerses the reader in the absurd, not slowly, but all at once. "Days of Grass, Days of Straw" is another great, but harder to find online. "Ride a Tin Can" is a story I have used to reduce sociology and anthropology professors to tears. It also serves as a good short subject to go with Okla Hannali. I use Fourth Mansions as an anti-venom for people I find inflicted with Dan Brown.

Jay said...

I find "The Transcendent Tigers" and "Narrow Valley" both to be excellent introductions, although my personal favorite (which unfortunately is not available online) is "Seven Day Terror." I do think that "The Six Fingers of Time," while a great story, is not a great introduction.

Also, while I have never read "Hands of the Man" and greatly enjoyed the story, I do not like the voice used for Willy McGilly. Thanks for the link though, Kevin!

Tim Kyger said...

Folks ---

"The first one's free, little boy...." Do I feel like I am being invited into/inveigled into a semi-secret circle? Hmmmm. ;-)

I'm 55, FWIW, and began to read SF in 1962. So the advent at the time of Lafferty into the SF world is actually something remembered from late childhood/early teenagerhood in my case. To now look around and realise that he's not well known anymore...well, that gives me enormous amounts of pause actually. Wha' happen? (I know: time passed. I hate that.)

I used to have at one time back then a copy of 4th Mansions. The copy of Past Master I read was one from my youth as it happened. And I have a curious thing to report.

I could have *sworn* that "And Walk Now Gently Through The Fire" was a story written by James Tiptree.

I haven't read the story, and frankly, I've never been able to read much Tiptree either. Call it a failing of personality. ;-)

I actually have a few Lafferty stories. I was the chairman of the 36th worldcon (1978; you can, as they say, look it up) and he wrote us a letter beforehand. There's a story there. And throughout the early 1980s, I still was attending worldcons, and I'd see him here and there, sitting in a chair, with no one talking to him or around him or anyone actually knowing who he might be. Quite sad actually. It struck me as such then, and it sure still does now.

OK, enough for now; I've got to go to work (alas) tomorrow.

Kevin Cheek said...

I am officially jealous, now. I am searching in vain for copies of Lafferty books I can afford. You have actually met the man.

It is sad how much he is overlooked. I suspect draughts of his linguistic brew are a bit too strong for most folks, until they develop a taste for it. I think the more you read in general and really work to understand what you read, the more Lafferty will astound and delight you.

James said...

I was thinking of Slow Tuesday Night the other night… it was a slow Tuesday. And it was night… and this was just a trickle for Lafferty.

The more I thought about him the more I tried to remember. Past Master. Fourth Mansions. The Grandys…

He had such an unusual voice. The way he put words together was not like anybody I have read before or since.

And I remember standing next to him at some convention… he wasn’t tall… I remember that. Just a foot away… I had no idea what to say... who was Lafferty? He was no ordinary man. And the words he left behind betray that extraordinariness that he was…

I was trying to find Fourth Mansions online… haven’t yet succeeded. I downloaded Sky-Seller… and then trying to remember what indeed Slow Tuesday Night had been about… I found that. They are both haunting… in that Lafferty way… and not unlike the way a ghosts haunts.

I have never been able to forget him or his writing. I have read Past Master more than once. And that collection of short stories I would often dip into at one time and read and re-read them. If anybody had a secret and knew something more than well anybody I know… he had one.

Of course in his case it wasn’t much of a secret because he often sought to reveal it in his works…

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Thanks so much for commenting, James. And thanks for sharing your reminiscence of seeing Lafferty in person - a good handful of folks have shared things like that on this blog over the years. I need to get them all together in one place. Your thoughts on the haunting quality to Lafferty's stuff is very insightful too. It's amazing that such a funny and energetic writer could also be so haunting (and I'd add, often, poignant).

As regards the secret he seemed to know and to share, it's interesting to note that the word *mysterion* in the Greek New Testament (translated 'mystery') is said by scholars and theologians to convey the idea of a 'secret that has been revealed'. That sounds like what you described Lafferty doing: having a secret and revealing it in his works - and, in both Lafferty and the New Testament, the revelation is of the sort that produces yet more mystery, much searching, wonder, and contemplation. I.e. it's not the kind of secret that you reveal and then hey-presto! everything's all cleared up. Rather, it kind of blows your mind with joy, awe, and not a little perturbation.

James said...

I didn’t expect a comment about my comment… and not only an interesting but profound one as well. I made these comments about Lafferty not thinking much about them but realized that wasn’t quite true… I had thought about them off and on. His stuff has … gotten inside me… that is the easiest way to put it without making judgments. That is what poets do…and really that is what Lafferty is isn’t he… I am in the midst of the ‘choir’ as in ‘preaching to’ so all of us I know have some profound admiration of his stuff.

That by itself is a lot to say… but your comment provoked more thought and I wondered to myself why hadn't I said anything… it was a missed opportunity but maybe being that it has made somehow a more profound impression on me. Back then I was- I am thinking now- not as awed by his words as the years in between have made me and now I see his work as a very unique accomplishment… and though I saw it as unique back then I see it now… well as unique and profound I guess…I want a different word but it doesn't seem to want to come to me.

I have a great fondness for Past Master… grabbing the figure of Thomas More- and he comes off in the book with ‘aplomb'- it’s a stroke of genius. I think Lafferty’s stature will grow… and saying he is unique- I am reminded of him when I read The Man Who was Thursday for instance but gee the Bible- the King James version- reminds me of Lafferty too- and Leaves of Grass and Whitman- a few others… even P.K. Dick…still they aren’t Lafferty. He had his own quite idiosyncratic- I didn’t want idiosyncratic either but will make do- voice.

Thanks to your blog I discovered Lafferty and His World…by Andrew Ferguson… wow. And the statement Lafferty had made- let me quote- “I am speaking literally about a real happening, the end of the world in which we lived till fairly recent years” – hmmm… I wouldn’t say it like that…but I have thought it… The old world ended some time ago… all the old bets are off we have, well not quite taken off, but the signs are all around us and multiplying as we speak. Nothing is what it used to be… we are walking the plank! Speaking of Lafferty allows you to talk about all that stuff… old hat so to speak…still most of us are in for the rude awakening. Make no mistake about it it’s gonna be very rude indeed.

James said...

Previous comment continued...

All that said I wanted to come back to a couple things before I let you go… Fourth Mansions is in its entirety on Google Books… and Nine Hundred Grannies I think is mostly there too… I had forgotten about the Camiroi…

The Camiroi system of education is inferior to our own in organization, in buildings, in facilities, in playgrounds, in teacher conferences, in funding, in parental involvement, in supervision, in in-group out-group accommodation adjustment motifs. Some of the school buildings are grotesque. We asked about one particular building which seemed to us to be flamboyant and in bad taste. “What do you expect from second-grade children?” they said. “It is well built even if of peculiar appearance. Second-grade children are not yet complete artists of design.”

The expectations of the Camiroi are so far beyond our own… and our comments about their education filled with a peculiar arrogance that indeed say much more about us than if Lafferty had treated it otherwise. Instead of being totally aghast, benumbed, and awe-inspired by their accomplishments we, in some strange way, take their education and what they do… in stride… for granted…Until the end where they suggest kidnapping a few children to make up for our own ‘inferior’ education…

Last but not least in a very long winded comment… I am dragging in John Keel. He had made a comment once upon a time about never being there for Mothman; he was on the scene just after the sighting but never saw the thing himself! I feel like that about Lafferty, that I missed something extraordinary.

Here, years later, still ‘taken’ with this ‘extraordinary’ quality he had I ‘see’ more in hindsight now…he was trying to open a door. I think he must have succeeded because all of us wouldn't be talking about him like he was still around otherwise… and your comment about his secret is to me deep and profound.

...It’s not the kind of secret that you reveal and then hey-presto! everything's all cleared up. Rather, it kind of blows your mind with joy, awe, and not a little perturbation.

James said...

Previous comment continued again... sorry...

The secret he had is just that… it would be like, as a comparison, finding out there are aliens in our midst. The world would be quite different and still the very same one we are in right now. A door would swing open and the old assumptions having been swept away we would be standing there in total disbelief… sometimes that thought comes to me that faith is like that. It is in some way total disbelief. You can’t believe it happened; it has happened or will ever happen… strangely the only important thing is the totality of it… human beings most often are not like that about anything. We don’t give … or take like that… always something in between. The Camiroi didn’t leave that kind of room for something else. The secret is nothing like we imagined but something very different, somehow beyond even our imagining...

Polite conversation does not involve us in stuff like aliens, or UFO’s, ghosts, or angels, or God, or Jesus or the Bible or the Book of Mormon for that matter… or the end of the world… and considering Lafferty as a ‘post post-modern’ writer is the right way to go. He had accepted the end of the world… his writing is infused- and I mean infused- with a sort of mystical quality, with definitely Christian overtones, an ever present millennial commitment that seems to promise we are not simply on the brink of a new world, but have been there for some time and where have you been..? And one step beyond that: join us!

His recasting all of his work into … a Ghost Story… reminds me of imagining my dreams are all of one piece… of Dick’s VALIS… of a conversation I had with Red Pill Junkie re UFO’s… and a friend’s recounting of the antics of a ghost… among other things… like the world is a simulation… I haven’t finished Andrew’s His World yet… and your blog is equally fantastic..!

Lafferty and Mothman may have more in common than I think…

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

ha ha, wonderful stream of comments there, James! My very first commenter back in oh, 2009, was a chap called Jay (interestingly, short for James - he hasn't commented here for a very long time) and he and I would leave three-comment long salvos like this back and forth for weeks - we were the only two people online having an ongoing conversation about Lafferty that we knew of and it was crazy intoxicating! All good thoughts you have here and I'll let them stand in their own strength. Please keep commenting here and/or on other posts as you are inspired...

'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)