When I first started reading Lafferty’s short stories, I was collecting them ‘One At a Time’ in second-hand 1970s anthologies. I had been wowed by a few early on, and, without realising I was doing it, I from then on approached his stories with an all too flippant take-it-or-leave-it mentality. I wanted thrills and laughs and if the story didn’t seem to deliver right off, I was unduly disappointed and dismissive. Sometimes they would surprise me by meeting my expectations in a new way or by doing wholly new things to me, which subsequently created new contours in my expectations. Even so, I didn’t really want to work too hard for anything or be all that challenged. I skipped along the surface of my reading of his tales, lingering only over the ones that immediately took my fancy and largely forgetting the rest.
Now I know better. More than a decade on from the reading of my first Lafferty story (probably back in about 1998—it sounds so pathetic next to some of his extant readership that goes all the way back to the 70s or 80s!), having also read so many other authors in that time as well, I now know what an outrageously rare writer he is and what a distinct and priceless treasure each individual story is. Ok, yes, I’m speaking besottedly as a fanboy. There are no doubt some of his short stories that are only ‘OK’ no matter how you spin it. Still, there is huge truth to my initial exaggeration.
First of all, so many (indeed, most) stories I was less than bowled over by in the past, I have, on second or third readings, found to be either moved up the scale very considerably or, really, to be one of his best stories and I simply blockheadedly missed it the first time round. Secondly, I seriously doubt that there exists a story written by the man that does not contain a Laffertian gem the world would be significantly poorer not to own: an exquisite turn of phrase that only he could turn; a wonderfully descriptive sentence or paragraph in his utterly unique style; an inimitable scenario, setting, or character that only he could have madly concocted; a distinctively fresh philosophical musing from a mind so sharp it cut the crap like no other; a slice of life seen through the strangest eyes the world has known; or, as often as not, a tiny little micro-tall-tale (such an impossible-sounding term is perfectly—perhaps only—suited to Lafferty’s fiction) that we would definitely not want, upon discovery, to have missing from the overall Laffertian lore-trove.
Lafferty’s stories honestly deserve our loving time and attention, without distraction and with commitment. I am finally re-reading all my Lafferty short story collections (Nine Hundred Grandmothers, Strange Doings, Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?, Ringing Changes, and Lafferty In Orbit—as well as a handful of Drumm booklets—and oh! how I wish I could afford to own the collections Golden Gate, Iron Tears, and Through Elegant Eyes). These days, I am savouring each individual story for all its worth, getting every sliver and slaver of meat and juice, then cracking the bone to luxuriantly suck out the marrow, and, finally, worrying the shivered bones themselves as a pleasant desert. I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s Dr. Ransom eating the exotic fruits and nuts of the floating islands of the edenic planet Perelandra: of some he said they were a mystical experience that deserved a ritual benediction, while others were simply a hearty meal that called for a hearty ‘Amen!’, but every bite was a blessing like he’d rarely tasted back on Earth.
So it is with Lafferty’s short stories when they have become a vintage to the seasoned reader. In the early days of reading him we are soon drunk on how quick we quaff them, happily bloated and bleary-eyed from our binging. Sure, his glint-eyed and grinning stories, full of grotesquery and grandeur, certainly lend themselves to this brackish boyish racket. All the same, re-reading them in later days, our gaze a-sparkle, we tend to swirl and smell and sip and swish and swallow. Oh, it is still a heady and high time and the tales are as ruddy and rowdy and gladly mad as ever. But now we take our time with each story. Swirl and smell and sip and swish and swallow. Slowly. Each one. Each and every one.