Monday, October 31, 2011

HAPPY HALLOWEEN from R. A. Lafferty

The seven (or eight) evil counts are sometimes conventional counts in evening clothes and monocles. And sometimes they are huge bat-winged creatures flitting ponderously down the lightning-lit corridors of Castle Beden. The castle, in fact, is the main character in the drama. It does not have formal lighting, as it is lit by lightning all twenty-four hours of every night (there is no daylight at Castle Beden). The floors and walls howl and chains rattle constantly. The counts have sometimes conventional six-inch-long eyeteeth, and then as suddenly they will have hollow fangs eighteen inches long and deadly. And there is a constant lot of howling and screaming for what is supposed to be a silent television drama.

A flying count will suddenly fold his bat wings and land on the broad bosom of one of the three maidens and have into her throat with his terrible blood-sucking fangs. And every time it happens, there is a horrible flopping and screeching.

The voice of Clarinda Calliope is heard loud and clear and real in a slow angry sound.

“Dammit, Aurelian, that’s real blood they’re taking out of my throat.”

And came the suave voice of the master dramatist Aurelian Bentley (but the voices shouldn’t be breaking in like this):

“Right, Clarie. It is on such verisimilitude that I have built my reputation as a master.”

Clarinda, in her three roles, seemed to lose quite a bit of blood as the drama went on, and she fell down more and more often. And the drama was a howling and bloody success, no matter that the story line was shattered in a thousand pieces—for each piece of it was like a writhing blood snake that gluts and gloats.

-R. A. Lafferty, ‘Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies’ (1978)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

'It's great to be young and in danger' - Gene Wolfe introduces R. A. Lafferty

'No true reader who has read as much as a single story by Raphael Aloysius Lafferty needs to be told that he is our most original writer. In fact, he may be not just ours, but the most original in the history of literature.

'Not least in this: that while the rest of us strive (often unsuccessfully) for originality, Lafferty struggles to suppress it. To a commercial publisher, a desirable - which is to say, a highly profitable - writer is one who sees exactly what the mass of book-buyers see, and not a whit more clearly than they, but is able to enunciate his vision (if it may be called that) in a way that they cannot... These books and many other kinds by writers of the same sort, may be said in both senses to constitute the base of popular literature for adults.

'Over them are the books of writers who see the same things that others do, but see them more clearly; these are the books for which true readers search, for the most part...

'Lafferty is not like that.

'Lafferty sees what we do not see, and because we do not see it, we frequently think that it does not exist. The words every writer dreads most are "I didn't understand." And every writer of any merit at all must hear them often. It is impossible to write intelligently about anything even marginally worth writing about, without writing too obscurely for a great many readers, and particularly for those who refuse as a matter of principle to read with care and to consider what they have read...

'Think then of the wall of incomprehension a writer such as Lafferty faces, a wall as blank, as ugly, and as unyielding as concrete. Small wonder that he labors at times to shut an eye. Less wonder, even, that too often only small presses like this one will publish him when he has refused.

'For he has refused in writing "Episodes of the Argo," the novella you're about to read. It's fun, to be sure. Just about everything Lafferty writes is fun, is witty, is entertaining and playful. But it is not easy, for it is a mingling of allegory with myth, and of both with something more. Furthermore, it was intended as the final chapter of a book, More Than Melchisedech, and that book was intended as the final volume of a trilogy, of which the first two parts are The Devil Is Dead and Archipelago. "We all wake up on a battlefield," said G. K. Chesterton, talking of life, "but it often takes us a long time to realize what the fight is about or even who is fighting whom." Lafferty's books are always good practice for life, but never more so than here.

'Life is hard enough already. Why should we practice?

'That is the question (or so it seems to me) at the heart of "Episodes of the Argo." It is sketched for us in brief in the episode of the Neanderthal Eve and treated in more detail in the story of Melchisedech Duffey. And doubtless it is dealt with in greater detail still in the book called More Than Melchisedech, which I haven't read - and which no one, perhaps, will ever read. But it is encapsulated neatly in Melchisedech's song, which you will hear at the very beginning of the story: "It's great to be young and in danger."

'Lafferty, who is old as human life is mundanely measured, would be the very first to tell you that it is better - far, far better - to be twenty-three than seventy-three. But that is not what is meant in Melchisedech's song; and Lafferty himself is young in Melchisedech's sense. Nor, I should add, does Lafferty (or Melchisedech) really think it grand to fall off a glacier. Even our youthful friend Kim Stanley Robinson, who climbs such things for the comfort of it, is not eager to fall off them.

'But Lafferty is young in the unusual sense, the sense that matters far more; which is to say that he finds joy and wonder in what are called ordinary things, because he is young enough still to see that they are extraordinary things. Have you ever watched a baby discovering its feet? It is pleased and amused, delighted and astonished, all at once. Years ago I knew a man who had "earned his wings" - that is to say he had just completed the Air Force training that made him a pilot. And he was not prouder or happier with those wings (which he glanced down at when he thought I wasn't looking and admired in every mirror we passed) than a baby is with its feet when it has found them new. To be young as Lafferty is young is to realize that the baby is correct, as babies nearly always are. If my friend the pilot's wings had been a part of him (like the wings of angels), and if he had been able to fly with them with no need of a plane, they would not have been more wonderful than the baby's feet.

'Nor would they have been any less inclined to take him into danger, along the edges of cliffs and glaciers, reefs and shoals of all kinds, metaphorical as well as littoral. That, you see, is their business - the business of feet as it is the business of the fighter pilot's wings, and of the sails of every ship, very much including the Argo, whether it is Jason's or Melchisedech Duffey's. "I wish to have no Connection with any Ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way." So said John Paul Jones. It is not the business of ships to be wrecked; but it is not their business, either, to remain safe in harbor. No sane sailor wishes to dare the hurricane; but every sane sailor knows that his business will take him where it blows, again and again, voyage after voyage.

'We need to practice, then, because we may be hurt and hurt badly if we slip, if we fail to weather the gale or run aground. And because we will ultimately be hurt as badly if we will not climb or sail at all.

'Physical dangers, I should add, are only the most obvious of those we face. There are moral dangers as well. We will do things that we'll regret for the remainder of our lives, and it is best to do as few as possible, and to counter them with such positive good as we can contrive. We may be damned at last, by God or our consciences; and though I've met a good many people who profess to credit no God, I've never met one who believed he had no conscience - this though he could no more produce it for my inspection than I could point out the God he demanded to see.

'Most subtle and most dangerous are the storms and shoals of the intellect, of which the very first is believing that we must be Presidents or professors before the mistakes we make can harm others. Hitler was a paperhanger once, and Marx a newspaperman. No one who reads their works objectively can fail to find good in Hitler's quite genuine patriotism and Marx's real concern for the downtrodden; but their mistakes have dyed most of the twentieth century with innocent blood.

'There's a good old Irish song whose chorus goes: "So it's good-bye, Mick, an' good-bye, Pat / An' good-bye, Kate an' Mary! / The anchor's weighed 'n the gangway's up, / I'm leavin' Tipperary! / An' now the steam is risin' up, I've got no more to say. / I'm bound fer New York City, boys, three thousand miles away!" That time arrives for you and I, reader. We are about to embark in Lafferty's paper boat, both of us young and at risk, thank God!

'For we, too, have business upon the sea. If you can bear just one quotation more, let it be from that great sailor Joseph Conrad. "The ship, a fragment detached from the earth, went on lonely and swift like a small planet."'

-Gene Wolfe, Introduction for Episodes of the Argo (1990); collected in Castle of Days (1992)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Daily Lafferty # 10

"These are bitter grits that we eat from the trains of Appalachia: their own hogs eat finer than we do. Consider the wealths in High Appalachia: the red grapes of Roane and the white grapes of Smokey Mountain Vineyards; the sweet corn centers of fertile Shelby, and the popcorn plantations of Cumberland; the flax, the wool, the cotton, the Jim-pie-weed cloth; the peat and the coal and the pine-knots for fuel; the rock oil from the hills and the catfish oil from the streams; the pumpkin bread, the hickory nut bread, the bean bread every day of the week; fat beef, fat pork, fat mutton; ducks and geese and woodcock and savanna hen; turkey and guinea; the plump rabbits of Ozarkia and the meaty woodchucks of Doniphan; light wheat, dark rye, barley, and rolling fields of oats; sunflower seeds, pecans and peanuts. Would it be robbery if we took our fair share of these things, nor waited for their niggardly food trains?"

-R. A. Lafferty, 'Assault On Fat Mountain' (1975)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Laffertian Transmogrification

"The hardest thing, when a man turns into a wolf, is right at the ankle bone," Corbey said. Corbey was a crafty old swindler and he was about to wrap his tongue around something rich. "It hurts there at the ankle. You see, what appears to be a wolf's knee has its bend opposite to a man's, but that is really the same as a man's ankle bone, not his knee bone. The wolf's real knee is hidden up in the haunch. When a man turns into a wolf his ankle bone has to expand about eight inches. You find a man who turns a lot and you'll find a fellow who always has sore ankles.

"The rest is easy. Watch one change sometime and see how slick he does it. He kind of softens his skull, and part of it flows forward and part of it flows back. Then he lets his eyes roll around to the sides of his head. He sharpens his muzzle and does all the other little things. Then he goes down on all fours just like he was unhinging himself. He begins to shiver: that's one way he brings the hair out of his hide. After that he lacks just one thing for him to be a total wolf."

Well, someone had to ask it.

"What's the one thing he needs to make himself into a total wolf," Pidgeon asked, "after he has gone down on all fours and shivered his hair to the outside of his hide?"

"The tail," said Corbey, and licked his lips. "It sounds like a cork popping when he brings it out. The tail's the last thing to go back in too. And after he changes quite a few times, man to wolf and wolf to man, why his tail gets where it won't go all the ways back in anymore. I maintain, Sheriff, that there's a way to put this knowledge to test."

What was Corbey getting at? There was dark lightning bouncing around that store. There was musky excitement beginning to rise, and the feeling got riper by the minute. Something was brewing, and it was these fellows' kind of thing.

"Men, this becomes a community effort," Corbey was crowing. "Sheriff, we got to get every man-jack in the neighborhood together and make them strip. Sheriff, one of those men is going to have a tail!"

-R. A. Lafferty, 'Three Shadows of the Wolf' (1975)
'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)