Saturday, September 15, 2012

All Writers Should Be Funny-Looking and All Stories Should Be Funny

'Mr. Lafferty says, "I'm the fellow who, for more than a quarter century, has faithfully maintained the thesis that all writers should be funny-looking and all stories should be funny.  Almost all of the evil in the world is brought about by handsome writers doing pompous pieces.  But sometimes readers tell me that such a story of mine is not funny at all.  'Wait, wait,' I tell them.  'You're holding it upside-down.  Now try it.'  And sure enough it is funny if they get ahold of it right.  This caution is especially applicable to the story 'Junkyard Thoughts.'  Be sure you're not holding it upside-down or it will be merely bewildering."'

Introduction to 'Junkyard Thoughts' by R. A. Lafferty in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, February 1986

Friday, August 17, 2012

French Lafferty!

Being reissued with a new introduction by Andrew Ferguson?

Here's the contents as listed at the website this came from:

Le livre d'or : Raphael A. Lafferty (1984) de LAFFERTY Raphael A., anthologiste DUVIC Patrice
Pocket, Le Livre d'Or n° 5187, 1984.
ISBN : 2-266-01444-7 
Genre : SF 
Indexation : non validée 
Sommaire :

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A few thoughts on The Flame Is Green - from Kevin Cheek (our 2nd ever guest post!)

"In the paintings of Fragonard, there are trees that are unreal. Sometimes they seem to be a curious heaping up of elements of oak and elm and yew trees, but not according to any rational botanical system. Sometimes they seem to be massive studio montages made out of clustered purple grapes and bird feathers. Yet one traveller wrote there really were groves of these impossible trees in Dauphine and Piedmont in the eighteenth century. One grove of them had, in fact, survived into the nineteenth century: and Dana Coscuin and Malandrino Brume had just come through it afoot.

In the novels and plays of Marivaux, there are men who are not real. They seem to be a curious heaping up of elements in Old Roman and Old French, with inconsistent modish attitudes and the dated smell called 'Moment of Time.' Sometimes these men seem to be studied mélanges of shepherds and princes and rogues and pedants. Yet one student of the period has written that there really were such impossible men in the eighteenth century. At least one of these unlikely men had, in truth, survived into the nineteenth century. Dana Coscuin and big rough Brume had just come to visit this unlikely man who lived on the fringe of the too-blended, too-arty grove".

from The Flame is Green, p. 93, the opening of Chapter Six.

Only Lafferty could have written those two paragraphs. I almost wrote “and get away with it” but the truth is that only Lafferty could have written them and the fact is that he did get away with it every time he did something like that. The first sentence tells you that you are reading Lafferty. Firstly there is the mention of Fragonard, a name with a glorious sound to it--an eighteenth century painter, once the darling of the aristocracy, now almost entirely forgotten. Then there is the statement that the trees are unreal. Trees in a painting unreal? Of course they seem unreal or appear unreal, they are just paint on canvas. However Lafferty doesn’t say they appear unreal, he says they are unreal. There is just enough of a difference there to make you pause and wonder what you just read. This recalls the statement in “Narrow Valley,” talking about the trees in the Cross Timbers: “Many of those trees appear twice, and many do not appear at all.”

Never one to let narrative convention drive his craft, he bent his description of the two men’s work into deliberately parallel paragraphs, drawing a parallel between the trees and the characters and implying that they are artificial constructs. All of this is set up to introduce a character who in some ways can be considered an artificial construct, someone who through affectation attempted to appear more than he actually was. Ashley, the character about to be introduced, was an artificer and thought too highly of his creations--though they were merely the webs of his spiders, an aping of the spiderishness of the conspiracies of the day.

It would not have surprised me at all if Lafferty had make up the names Fragonard and Marivaux for the sake of the narrative. It would not have been out of character. After all, he used a description of Atrox Fabulinius and his narrative of Raphaellus to interrupt and redirect a chapter in The Fall of Rome. However, I did a little bit of reading on Wikipedia and learned that both Fragonard and Marivaux were not only real, but lived through and were affected by the events half a century before The Flame is Green takes place.

Fragonard was a Rococo painter known for romantic excess in his paintings. He lived in Paris in the 19th century and painted primarily for the aristocracy. He was forced out of Paris by the French Revolution and did not come back until the beginning of the 19th century.

Marivaux was a novelist, playwright, and journalist in Paris in the 18th century. He was very influential on the development of French literature, especially in his portrayal of his characters' thoughts. Wikipedia says, “Marivaux's characters not only tell each other and the reader everything they have thought, but everything that they would like to persuade themselves that they have thought.” This has a parallel with an important point within The Flame is Green, in that Dana Coscuin frequently deludes himself into following the wrong path while attempting to convince himself that it is the right one, or at least that he couldn’t have been expected to know better.

Reading up a little on Fragonard and Marivaux adds to a general background understanding of the novel. And this raises another point about Lafferty. The man was so astoundingly erudite, that when you do know the history behind his small mentions and asides, it enriches your enjoyment of the narrative. It is actually very rewarding to read a Lafferty novel, especially one of his historical novels with the internet near at hand to look up every small character and side reference. Some writers use historical settings as a backdrop for the story they want to tell, but the more you know about the period, the more irritating you find the writing. Lafferty is the exact opposite. I find that reading (or more often re-reading) one of his novels with Wikipedia open in front of me leaves me jubilant at everything I have just learned.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

And Put Them to Her Mouth. They Flamed.

'She put her hands deeply into the human ashes, and these ashes were cold and grainy and dead.  She flicked her tongue.  She often did this before making a sparky statement.  She flicked her tongue again, and there was genuine, Holy Ghost fire playing about it.  She scooped up ashes with her tangled and tense and electric fingers and put them to her mouth.  They flamed.

Then she cascaded the handsful of flame over her head and face and arms, and seemed unburned by them.  They were garish, tumbling, orange flames.'

-R. A. Lafferty, From the Thunder Colt's Mouth (collected in In the Wake of Man: A Science Fiction Triad, 1975, along with the novellas Tracking Song by Gene Wolfe and The Search for Man by Walter Moudy)

Friday, May 4, 2012

'A monstrous noise like that could be bagged and sold to horror movies by the pound'

The house at 1313 East Hodges was large and empty.  The windows were broken out.  The doors sagged open.  Yet it once had been a glorious house.  Ancient nobility clung to it like old moss.  It was down in its luck, that house, but it maintained an attitude of grandeur.

"Oh, this is the old haunted house," Agata said.  "I remember it."

"In we go," cried the madam.  "This may be the new home of one or both of you.  Over the threshold with you, Conrad.  In, Agata, in!  Ah, you can hear old echoes in the air right now.  Come, come, friends in residence, greet us with the laugh."

The laugh came so powerfully that it knocked the three arrivals to their knees.  The scream (blood-thirsty and foully happy), the heart-freezing clatter, the gobbling laugh that curdled all the body juices - a laugh like that should not be allowed in hell.  That was the sound of a male Spokelspuk.  The tape had not done it justice.

"The element spuk in the name is spook, ghost, isn't it?" Agata asked.  She had to say something to disguise her shaking...

The other male Spokelspuk sounded.  His gobbling laugh was stronger than that of the first.

"No human nerves can stand much of that horror," Agata said...

A monstrous noise like that could be bagged and sold to horror movies by the pound.  The twin devil-ghost laughters were like ripsaws cutting the brain and meninges and every nerve.  They set up a screaming in each inch of the body.  Such two pillars of strident cacophony could not be topped.

Could they not?  The female sounded.  That cutting, killing, spirit-shriveling laughter set the very rats to tumbling fearfully out of the walls of the haunted house.  Sound could never be quite the same again, after it had included this.

"I wonder if I could do that?" Agata asked almost rationally.  Almost, but her eyes weren't rational now.  She bled copiously from the mouth from her self-bitten tongue and lips, and from the ears as they all did.  And there was white froth gathering in the mouth corners.

"Sure you could do it, Agata," Madam Hexe purred.  "And it is almost time that you do it now."

"And it is almost time that you do it now," Conrad echoed...

The horrible triple laughing of the Spokelspuks rose to a crest, then to a higher crest, then still higher.  Would it never break?

"Come here, mad Agata," Madam Hexe ordered in her own delight.  "You are ripe for it now.  Come here." The Madam was happy in her coming triumph.  She was one happy medium.

-R. A. Lafferty, 'Endangered Species' (first published in Galaxy science siction magazine, May 1974)

[The other day I was compiling a list of all the stories by Lafferty that were published in horror anthologies and magazines of the 1960s and 70s - there's a surprising lot - when my 'google alert' for Lafferty linked to a discussion about this very topic on the Vault of Evil: Brit Horror Pulp Plus! site.  We've been having a good discussion about it there and none other than the renowned Ramsey Campbell himself has weighed into the thread, reminiscing about when he chose Lafferty's 'The Funny Face Murders' to be included in his anthology New Terrors 2 (1980).  The excerpt above is from one of Lafferty's many stories that thematically could have been included in such horror anthologies also.  I'm hoping to do a series of posts on Lafferty and Horror in the near-ish future.]

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

But He Did Not Break the Window

'Disregarding the signs that are in all Light-Rail-Rapid-Transit cars, "Please Open Window Before Shooting Buffalo," Hiram shot his rifle through a window and killed a buffalo on a knoll two hundred meters from the speeding train-of-cars.  He killed the buffalo, but he did not break the window.

Hiram was a good mechanic.  Not everyone could have machined such an attachment for a rifle on the way to work in the morning.'

-R. A. Lafferty, 'Inventions Bright and New' (first published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, May 1986)

(I've toyed for a while with calling a central strain of Lafferty's fiction 'buffalopunk'  - a la cyberpunk, steampunk, etc. - and the above passage is one more good reason why.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Illustration for Eurema's Dam!

How rare!  Stumbled across this illustration by Jori Bolton of the main character, Albert, from Lafferty's Hugo Award-winning short story 'Eurema's Dam' (1973).  In the typically weird logic of Lafferty's story, Albert 'was about the last dumb kid ever born', which is what made him a brilliant genius inventor.  One of the main things he invented was intelligent robots of various sorts.  (Hence, presumably, his daydream of a mechanical butterfly or moth here.)  He was too 'dumb' to write and do maths in school, so he 'cheated' by inventing machines that would do those things for him!  The story just gets weirder, funnier, and darker from there.  Even though I sympathise with the fact that apparently Lafferty was a bit miffed that out of all his stories they finally chose this one for the Award (he was nominated many times), it's still a Lafferty classic in my opinion.

An illustration for R. A. Lafferty’s short story, Eurema’s Dam.

Here's one of my favourite passages from early in the story (indeed, one of my fave passages in all of Lafferty) - hilarious, beautiful, wonderfully odd and erudite:

'When, about the middle of his ninth year, Albert made a breakthrough at telling his right hand from his left he did it by the most ridiculous set of mnemonics ever put together.  It had to do with the way dogs turn around before lying down, the direction of whirlpools and whirlwinds, the side a cow is milked from and a horse is mounted from, the direction of twist of oak and sycamore leaves, the maze patterns of rock moss and tree moss, the cleavage of limestone, the direction of a hawk's wheeling, a shrike's hunting, and a snake's coiling (remembering that the Mountain Boomer is an exception), the lay of cedar fronds and balsam fronds, the twist of a hole dug by a skunk and by a badger (remembering pungently that skunks sometimes use old badger holes).  Well, Albert finally learned to remember which was right and which was left, but an observant boy would have learned his right hand from his left without all that nonsense.'

Daydreaming of Ancient Terrors

"What are you thinking about, dear?" Bridie asked Cris one sunny day during their engagement.

"Oh, of all the ancient terrors," Cris said, "of the Sea Monster that is the most primordial of the terrors, of the loathsome and murderous disease that will be diverted from its victim only by another victim, of ghosts that return with the sea-wrack of their deaths still on them.  And most of all I was thinking of the terror of falling, though in the sunny little daydream reverie I've just been having the fall is only a piddling thousand feet.  But the terror of falling is the most over-riding terror of them all.  Did you know that even bright Lucifer, a winged creature, was so terrified of the depths before him that he forgot to use his wings and so fell like lightning?"

"Cris, Cris, maybe you are just terrified of marrying me."

"Fear of marriage is one of the ancient terrors, yes, but it's a minor one of them.  But strangely enough, in my afternoon daydream, I do not marry you."

"Then throw that daydream away.  It's flawed.  Forget it."

-R. A. Lafferty, 'Square and Above Board' (first appeared The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1982; also collected in The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 9, Daw Books, 1983).

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

'Would that we all could employ our own imperfections so superbly' - Wrestling with Lafferty's biography

It was really exciting to see a full-scale article on Lafferty pop up on the web this past week.  Click on the following link to read it:

Bud Webster, who wrote the piece, states that his method is not really as a critic.  Rather, he says, 'I'm a biographer and historian—a biorian?—and my purview is above all the individual who created the work, and the significant personal characteristics that infused their work.'  Accordingly, his article tries to look more into Lafferty as a person than into Lafferty's work.  For us mad Lafferty fans this is very welcome as biographical detail is fairly scarce to date.  Overall I think Mr. Webster did a very fine job and I'm certainly grateful to him for bringing Lafferty to light at all.  This is only a good thing.  I do, however, have just a few, perhaps ultimately fairly minor, qualms.  (But regardless of any critical comments that follow, I am delighted he wrote this piece and found it a very enjoyable read that I am more than happy to pass on to others.)

Webster describes Lafferty as a 'complex and complicated man' - very true, seen in Lafferty's writings as much as anywhere else.  Whatever aspects of Webster's 'biory' I may take slight issue with, I can't fault him for his cautious summary of Lafferty as a person:  'There are no easy conclusions to be made (or at least none with any validity), and few opportunities to be glib at his expense, so I won't even try.  Lafferty made it impossible for anyone to pigeonhole him as either a stylist or a human being... Like his work, Lafferty was multi-layered.'  

The first of these layers Webster mentions is that Lafferty 'had a self-deprecating sense of humor that served as a buffer for many of the people with whom he worked and interacted'.  Webster then proceeds to tell his own amusing little reminiscence of Lafferty displaying this quality when he met him at a convention in 1976.  (We fans can't get enough of these anecdotes, so that alone makes Webster's article worthwhile.  And he records a few others - new ones, I believe.  I'm beginning to think that eventually we'll be able to make a nice little chap book that compiles these now mounting Lafferty-at-a-convention anecdotes in one place.)

I'm not sure whether Webster considers himself to be unravelling another layer of Lafferty when he makes a few initial remarks about his fiction, but I think his perceptive comments about Lafferty's writing help fill out the picture he's sketching of the man.  He notes what so many others have noted, but in a fresh aphorism:  'Nobody ever wrote—or will ever write—quite like Lafferty.  I'm not at all certain that the literature could hold two such, in fact.'  He then takes a decisive stand about Laff's writing, rather than just affirming what's been said with a unique turn of slogan.  He says what he thinks Lafferty is not as a writer.  'Lafferty wasn't a science fiction writer, regardless of the section of the bookstore in which his titles may have appeared; rather, he was a mad fantasist, a maker of mythologies, a Wizard of Oddities.'  I think I and Andrew Ferguson (see his more succinct comments here), at least, would take issue with removing Lafferty from the s.f. category altogether.  He certainly transcends it, but I think he contains and/or straddles it too.  Indeed, Lafferty himself wrote a fair bit of non-fiction on the subject, in which he considers himself an s.f. writer (among other things) and has very definite views about what the writerly strategy of an s.f. author can and ought to be.  Aside from this quibble, I very much enjoyed Webster's fresh coinage of monikers for Lafferty as a writer - and he's certainly right to emphasise that Lafferty was a fantasist and mythologist.  I guess I would have just said Lafferty's not merely an s.f. writer, but also these.  It's an important point, I think, but we're still very much in minor league as to what I want to wrestle with Webster about a bit here.

He gets to the meat of what might be controversial matter about Lafferty this way:  'Three primary things made Lafferty the brilliant writer he was, inevitably and indubitably.'  He lists these as:

1) 'The first, and foremost, was his unfaltering and dogmatic Catholicism.'
2) 'Second, and not far behind, were his staunchly conservative political views'.
3) 'The third facet, however, is where the difficulty really lies.  In his off-hours at conventions, Ray Lafferty drank heavily.'

As to 1) Webster notes:  'Nothing odd about sf/fantasy writers being religious, of course.  C. S. Lewis made an entire career out of it, as you probably already know.  Tenets of the Church of Latter-Day Saints infuse the work of Orson Scott Card, and we won't even mention L. Ron Hubbard.'  The only unfortunate thing here is that this list, and the way it is presented, might be heard as sounding rather patronising and/or dismissive.  To say Lewis's Christianity in his writing was a 'career' move sounds, well, you know exactly how it sounds.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if Webster really didn't intend this offhand way of putting it to sound snide or cynical.  Then again, I wouldn't be surprised if he did intend it to sound that way, or didn't really care if it came across that way to some.  People writing from that perspective are legion (to borrow Webster's joke in the article).  But I'm going with the generous interpretation and simply pointing out how this (probably unintentionally) sounds.  Even his choice of the word 'dogmatic' to describe Lafferty's Catholicism (rather than, say, 'committed', 'devout', etc.) could give off the wrong idea.  Lafferty's passionate commitment to his church's 'dogma' resulted in a truly wild form of creativity and outside-the-box thinking.  That can't be ignored.  Like Chesterton, Lafferty was on the wild 'adventure' of orthodoxy, not warming a church pew to be spoon fed sentimentality and platitudes.  As I say, I assume all this is unintentional and I only mention it to help clarify what Webster is after:  a true portrait of the man based on facts as we know them (and good interpretation of those facts to the best of our ability).

Unfortunately, with regard to 2) Webster is in danger of becoming outright derogatory and inflammatory.  I am not a very political creature myself, so I'm ill-equipped to make much comment.  But I think I might rightly discern a thing or two here.  Here's Webster's zinger about Laff's politics:  'It's not inconceivable that he and the Tea Party could have been friendly, although I suspect he valued intellect far more than most of those who considered Sarah Palin a viable candidate for high office.'  His qualification about intellect in the second half of this statement comes as a blessed relief; however, the damage is already done in the first half of the statement and it's very hard if not impossible to revoke it.  I suppose both Webster and I are being very unfair to Tea Party folks:  he by implying they're un- or anti-intellectual; me by tacitly agreeing with this and even more so by intimating that it is a damning libel for Laff to be associated with them.  Well, sincere apologies to those offended by this.  Please do interact with me and I hope I'll be a good listener.  But, for the moment, let's assume Webster and I are somewhere in the ballpark of correct in our shared view of (what is to us) the rather embarrassing existence of such a party.  To me it does indeed seem precisely inconceivable that Lafferty would have been friendly with the Tea Party due to exactly the qualification Webster put on his claim.  This is where Webster's lack of emphasis on or engagement with Lafferty's actual writing as he conducts his 'biory' really shows up and lets him down.  Lafferty's fiction is chock full of wry and lively protest about the masses of people being 'fed' and 'led' by slogans and catchphrases - various forms of groupthink and anti-cognitive manipulation, oversimplifications that make simpletons out of us if we let them.  (Practices not at all limited to the Tea Party, by the bye, nor to only the 'right' or 'left'.)  Sure, maybe Lafferty would have completely sold out if some party with a lot of his political convictions were to make a grab for power by means of the very methods he despised.  But that's pure speculation and I'm guessing we just don't have the evidence to back it up.  I, at least, would like to think Laff's fiction shows some pretty stout integrity on his part and therefore and unlikeliness to say 'how high?' when the 'right' people seem to say jump.

After going on to make Lafferty's politics sound very controversial indeed among s.f. readers, something 'whispered about at dead-dog parties', Webster again tries to balance out his comments by quoting a long-time Lafferty advocate in the small press, Guy Lillian, who said of Lafferty's fiction:  'I had found a writer who—though a rock-ribbed conservative—spoke to a scrawny Berkeley hippie used to being generously tear-gassed every spring.  I'd found a poetic spirit who invested science fiction with madness and tragedy and laughter.'  Again, I wonder if this comes too late to have force, and, indeed, Webster leaves it without his own comment or elaboration.  To be true to his programme of showing Lafferty as the complex man he was, I think Webster needed to draw out the implications of Lillian's statement more (at least to the degree he'd drawn out implications of Lafferty's conservatism).  Lafferty's fiction was (and is) not just amenable but downright inspiring to people of various politics - people who want to wake up from social catatonia and think and feel and live and play and work for what they take to be good.  Honestly, that's a bit of a rare gift in a writer and it only adds to the complexity of this man full of intriguing tensions.

Now, with regard to 3) I find this one the most, ah, kind of hilarious.  Basically:  what's the big fuss?  I mean, it's actually quite well known amongst even more casual Lafferty readers that he was a heavy drinker.  Lafferty wrote or spoke of it many, many times.  It was something he actually tried to overcome by means of his writing and I think that shows!  There is an inebriation to his work, both in the text and in the effect it has on the reader - indeed, many have confessed to contracting a literal addiction (the same word used again and again by people in the s.f. field who fell under his sway) to Lafferty's tall tales.  It's potent, highly alcoholic stuff!  The fact that this literary exorcism of his drinking demons didn't fully come off is no affront to his (for all we know, valiant) struggles against his problem.  Heck, I think he deserves our respect and sympathy for his frankness alone about his weakness.  Furthermore, like Lafferty is the first genius-level artist to struggle with addictions and substance abuse, especially alcoholism?  One reads of this kind of thing all the time.  I'm not sure why Webster finds it to be such a 'difficulty'.  It's a sad truth that many like Lafferty have had to live with and you'd think we'd be pretty used to hearing about it.  Indeed, Webster acknowledges just this about writers in particular (further making me wonder why he finds it so remarkable in Lafferty): 'In this, of course, he was far from alone; as a species, writers are notorious sots, and the literary world is crowded with fables of overindulgence and subsequent debauchery.'  One must point out that Lafferty is not himself actually ever noted for 'debauchery'.  He seems to have been fairly private about his drinking, 'caught' only on occasion in an inebriated state, and then in just a fairly quiet and 'harmless' drunkenness, maybe even passed out according to some.

Don't get me wrong, it is here most fully that Webster exercises generosity:  'I do not raise this issue to demean the man, or to denigrate him or his skills with pen and paper, but a key fact of heavy alcohol use is that it unavoidably permeates every facet of the drinker's life' (emphasis his).  But Webster goes on to speculate (rather wildly I'm tempted to think) that Lafferty's heavy drinking affected his writing in a particular way.  He garners a quote from s.f. author and editor, Mike Resnick, saying that, while many thought  Lafferty 'was the most brilliant short story writer in the field', yet 'his novelettes weren't as good, and except for "Space Chanty [sic]" his novellas were unexceptional, and his novels were for the most part mediocre.  I blame his drinking for this.  If he could grind out a story in one or two sittings, he could be brilliant.  But if a novel took him 50 writing sessions, you get the feeling that each day he had to refresh his memory of what the hell he wanted to do, how he wanted to say it, etc.'

Again, this is where hearing from Lafferty himself would have helped to enrich the assessment of his life and work.  In a 1983 interview with Lafferty conducted by Darrell Schweitzer for Amazing Stories (collected in Schweitzer's Speaking of the Fantastic II, Wildside Press, 2004), Laff discusses very engrossingly at some length his use of the methods of tall tales and oral storytelling in his short stories.  The interviewer then asks:

Q: Can you use any of this method when writing a longer work, like a novel?
Lafferty:  I can try it, and I do it for short periods, but I can't sustain it, which is the main reason my novels are choppy, I guess.  They're really just short stories strung together.  I never learned the sustained novel very well, and what I do write in it isn't very good.  So I was meant to write choppy novels or none at all.

Again, the disarming frankness about his own limitations.  But note that he sees his less successful execution of writing at the novel length due to a technical issue:  he has neither the giftings nor has acquired the skills for it.  His strengths are elsewhere.  But he had novels in him to write so he wrote them anyway - as bad tall tales if you like.  I for one am extremely happy he did!  They are certainly an acquired taste and are not, as a rule, as immediately brilliant as the best of his short stories, but they can be rich fare indeed!  (Pace Resnick's claim of 'mediocrity'.)  Many of his fans, including editors and fellow authors, find at least a few of his novels to be among his very best output right alongside the legendary short stories.  Frankly, I find Lafferty's own account of his seeming ineptitude as a novelist to be a far more plausible explanation than attributing it to (strictly or largely) his heavy drinking.

(Strangely, Webster comes back to this later in his article and seems to have forgotten all about this theory and states one much more believable and more in keeping with the author's own assessment of his work.  Says Webster later:  'In tune with Mike Resnick's words above, I find that Lafferty's longer works don't read quite as well.  That's me, not him, and it's just as much a commentary on my own flaws as it is on anything of his.  I think he was more comfortable at shorter lengths, and I certainly understand that.  The kind of elliptical worldview in which he worked would have been terribly difficult to sustain for 50 thousand words or more, and readers could have found the effort of keeping up with it daunting.'  Where's the 'due to heavy drinking' theory gone?  Mercifully, it's vanished.)

In keeping with this almost bizarre turn in his 'biory' of Lafferty, Webster's comments become more and more gloomy and baffled (not to say baffling).  He states categorically that 'extensive reading of his writings shows an arch bitterness'.  Some of us here in the small Laffertian community that comments on this blog have been wrestling on and off with this very notion (often propounded most sweepingly - and, paradoxically, bitterly - by the well-known editor Gardner Dozois, who was a huge fan of Lafferty apparently, until his later work) for some time.  We find the evidence very, very mixed.  At the most one could say that Lafferty wrestled back and forth between a truly incredible and joyous generosity and big-heartedness and a darker, more frustrated lament and woe - and sometimes perhaps even rather poisoned denouncement.  (And one must remember that at least sometimes his anger and/or bitterness could be directed at, for example, 'white' conquerors for what they did to American Indians - it wasn't like it was some despicable white supremacy or something, come on.)  At any rate, Webster's take is that 'Lafferty seems to have internalized his bitterness, perhaps as an inevitable product of his alcohol use in conflict with his doctrinaire Catholicism.' Hum.  From here he almost seems to want to paint Laff as a pretty pathetic case.  He quotes acclaimed s.f. author Robert Silverberg to this end:  Lafferty 'was clearly a very troubled man, and he clearly drank much too much at conventions, and no doubt was extremely lonely.  But he could be a charming guy . . . and anyone who knew his work— brilliant, of course—would instantly be aware of the disconnect between the work and the unhappy figure we saw at conventions and know that something very sad was involved.'  Look, I'm not going to deny that part of Lafferty's complexity was that at times he could be a sad case and maybe for some of the reasons here speculated about.  I love and laud the valuable original research he's done here, but Webster's portrait at this point seems too close to losing the complexity he's aiming to be true to by over-emphasising Lafferty's bouts of alcoholism and bitterness.

From here Webster tries to bring things back to some positive aspects, yet even here I'm bound to note the implicit negativity toward a writer like Laff even being religious and conservative at all.  Webster states:  'If I'm duty-bound to mention his politics, religion and alcohol use, I'm equally bound to shine a light on other, more positive factors of his character.'  Laff's particular brand of politics and religion are in the same negative category as alcoholism without even a trial?  Religion is a negative factor of someone's character?  Well, enough of this!  I've raked poor Webster over the coals too long already.  I still trust he means well.  He goes on to acknowledge something very important about Lafferty, especially considering what might be his 'darker' tendencies:  'Lafferty was capable of great warmth and generosity, and many people I spoke to, both fan and pro, were forthcoming about their positive encounters.'  This definitely needs to go into the balance and I gladly acknowledge Webster's fairness in placing it there.  To this end he quotes again the passionate Guy Lillian:

'If, in the pursuit of accurate reporting, you insist on dwelling on Ray's flaws, mention also the love and loyalty he engendered in fans who knew him, who took care of him when he was incapacitated, because they appreciated that they were dealing with a genius with great depths of humor and sadness . . . and the strongest Catholicism of anyone in the field.  He expressed these things exquisitely through his incredible gift, with humility and verve, and was loved for it.  After St. LouisCon [the 27th WorldCon in 1969], where he first appeared to fandom . . . a 20-year-old boy I know—myself—wrote him a fan letter.  He sent me back a page of gratitude, affection and wisdom I still cherish.  I have never known a finer soul.'

I think that testimony really bears meditating upon.  As a mere reader, having never met or corresponded with the man, this is very much in tune with the sense I've gotten from his works.

Moving on from this whole issue, Webster returns to biographical information - standard stuff about Lafferty's Oklahoma upbringing and occupation as electrician.  But he remarks neatly:  'Little of this would seem to have led him to a life as a fictioneer, let alone one who would turn the stfnal [sic] world on its literary ear, but that's what he did.'  He then goes on to relate warmly and engagingly his own first encounter with Lafferty's fiction (the short story 'Boomer Flats').  In sum, says Webster:  'It's magic.  Not "magic realism," whatever that may mean, but just full-on, bull-goose magic.  I read it with my eyes wide and my mouth agape.  It was not the last time Lafferty would have that effect on me.'  Thinking, as many understandably have done and continue to do, that Lafferty's literary wildness must surely have come from doing mind-altering drugs, Webster comments:  'Acid was the last thing R. A. Lafferty would have downed, considering his religious and political views.  No, all that dream-like stuff came straight out of his own unenhanced imagination, and that's almost scary.'  Yep.

The rest of Webster's comments on Laff's fiction are worth quoting in full:

'Not all of it was as brilliant as that first mind-blowing tale, but it was all just as unEarthly.  This wasn't science fiction as we usually think of it.  No fancy hardware, high-concept technology or plot-points turning on an astrophysical dime here.  Nor was it what Bradbury and Nelson Bond used to call "science fantasy," although it comes close in some ways.  Lafferty's work stands apart—not necessarily above, but undeniably apart—from his colleagues'.  You can't even hold it in the same (metaphorical) hand without your fingers wanting to bend in strange directions they weren't designed for.  He was sui generis, was Lafferty, and there were plenty of readers who scratched their heads and called his stories unfathomable, but oh, the mythological impact of those stories!'

Amen, brother.  Preach it.

Webster then talks about Lafferty's novel Past Master for a bit and then Lafferty's paradoxical relationship to the New Wave in s.f. during the 60s and 70s and even how this eventually affected his sales and readership when that Wave dispersed.  On the topic of his diminishing sales and the recent acquisition of his literary estate, we get another fresh anecdote, from a visit Mike Resnick paid Lafferty in the eighties:

'When I visited his house down in Oklahoma, I opened the guest closet to hang up my coat—and saw a 3-foot-high pile of manuscripts.  He told me they were his unsold books, he had just turned 70, and he wasn't writing another word until Virginia (Kidd, his agent) sold all of these.  She found a little press up in Minnesota, but she never did sell them all.  She used to cry on my shoulder that she and I and four dozen others thought he was one of the greatest short story writers alive . . . but she couldn't find 10,000 people to buy his paperbacks or even 500 to buy his signed, numbered hardcovers.'

After a brief comparison of Laff to Cordwainer Smith and James Triptree, Webster concludes with these very poignant and powerful words:

'R. A. Lafferty left us a magnificent body of work, stories that cry and wail and laugh and bray.  They come from, and take their readers to, places few others could even conceive of, let alone limn with the skill and richness that he wielded.  Already middle-aged when he sold his first, he laid down a road paved with bright, deadpan madness for us to walk, mouths agape and eyes wide with wonder and trepidation; after all, he's taking us to worlds never seen before, and we can't know what's around that corner until the page is turned.
He was a writer of shining, bedazzling stories made all the richer by his flaws.  Would that we all could employ our own imperfections so superbly.'

Those last two lines show that all this talk of Lafferty's admitted flaws is really only going to enrich the reading of him in the long run and inspire us more richly than without them.

In closing myself, I want to again emphasise what a delight it was to read this article and how grateful to Mr. Webster I am for doing it.  I think the man is a pioneer, being Laff's very first biographer.  Congratulations to him!  If I took exception at points, it was only because his article was so good and engaging and I too share his passion for accuracy.   (Also, I neglected to mention Webster actually concluded his article with a gargantuanly extensive bibiliography of Lafferty, including foreign editions!  Bravo all round.)

Friday, March 30, 2012

"Good increase to you!" (On finishing an unhurried re-read of Nine Hundred Grandmothers)

"We have enjoyed every minute of our short visit.  Do not despair!  We will not abandon you to your emptiness.  Our token force will return home and report.  In another week we will visit you in substantial numbers.  We will teach you the full happiness of human proximity, the glory of fruitfulness, the blessing of adequate population.  We will teach you to fill up the horrible empty places of your planet."

The Skandia were thinning out.  The last of them were taking cheering farewells of disconsolate Earth friends.

"We will be back," they said as they passed their last fertility charms into avid hands.  "We'll be back and teach you everything so you can be as happy as we are.  Good increase to you!"

"Good increase to you!" cried the Earth people to the disappearing Skandia.  Oh, it would be a lonesome world without all those nice people!  With them you had the feeling that they were really close to you.

"We'll be back!" said the Skandia leader, and disappeared from the monument.  "We'll be back next week and a lot more of us," and then they were gone.

"--And next time we'll bring the kids!" came the last fading Skandia voice from the sky.

-R. A. Lafferty, 'Guesting Time' (1965)

These are the very last words of the very last short story in Lafferty's seminal and celebrated collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers (1970).  I have just finished a slow and intermittent re-reading of this collection and am left feeling 'mellow' (to use one of Lafferty's terms for someone 'in his cups' and feeling 'high' from the buzz).  I'm left feeling mellow, and also open-ended, quite thoughtful, and frankly rather preternatural, as if some gateway onto another world (a woolly and wily one, not a misty and ephemeral one) had winked open and shut before my vision and left my mind wondering if it had glimpsed what it had seemed to glimpse:  were those titanic yet easy-earthy characters real?  Did those burly and burlesque feats of time and space and personage occur?  One chuckles.  And one shudders.  (And one wonders.)

This closing scene seems so fitting somehow, with its emphasis on fruitful increase and promised return.  It provides a wryly jokey and poignantly hopeful ending to a book full of tensions dark and bright, hilarious and horrific.  The endpiece of the collection, fittingly, does not provide closure, but rather prophecy and invitation.  (It also evokes for me the very last words of the last book of Gene Wolfe's monumental, twelve-volume Solar Cycle and a similar feeling they left me with at the end of that epic journey:  'Good fishing!  Good fishing!  Good fishing!  Good fishing!')

Though I have read a handful of favourites from this collection over and over again, many of the stories had remained at a first-read level for me from the time of my initial obtaining of this volume some eight years ago.  My memories of the stories had become vague, even for the ones I thought were quite good.  Not a single one failed to surprise and delight me afresh on this re-read.  I admit I was actually surprised by that.  This collection really holds up.  

There had been no stories I outright disliked on my first read years ago, but there were a number of them I mistook for lesser specimens.  There is at least one story that has gone from my 'pretty good' to 'very best' category:  the much-anthologised 'Narrow Valley'.  But every single story opened up totally fresh to me:  there was tons more depth of theme than I had realised, loads more complexity, lots more wonder and humour and a whole lot more downright writerly mastery of skill and craft than I had really taken in on the first go.  (That's a common reaction - aside from a few clear favourites, first-time readers of a collection of Laff's yarns are usually left with an indescribable feeling that something very deep, dark, and delightful just swam past them, leaving them in a strange wake, strangely wakeful.)

Well, I hope to write a brief description and reflection on each of the twenty-one tales in the near future.  Until then, 'Good increase to you!'

(There are no triple-breasted women in this collection, but it's still a nice cover.)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ah, for the Halcyon Days...

Hey Lafferty friends, I was just re-reading the long comment thread on my post about Fourth Mansions and I gotta say - I miss the chat and community over this great man's works!  It's been a while.  That thread honestly made an incredibly powerful and coherent symposium on Lafferty and his themes (and I know we had a few more just as ripe after that).  'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it' (The Devil Is Dead).

'Wha' happened?'  Is the Fellowship (of the, what, about half dozen of us?) breaking up?  Heh.  I'm joking.  I know we've all been super busy with all our responsibilities (me as much as anyone).  We just simply, honestly don't have time for it right now.  BUT...

Let's meet up here again this summer and get back to the Lafferty POW WOW!  What say you, friends, earthlings, Laffertians?

As Epiktistes, our patron sentient computer, said:

'Oh, come along, reader of the High Journal; if you do not love words, how will you love the communication?  How will you, forgive me my tropes, communicate the love?' (Arrive At Easterwine)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

"Hang in there, Gaea guys! Some of us are on your side.'

'The glob came upon them and swallowed them in its fetid breath.  It was sharp with teeth in it, and these were quickly identified as belonging to aerial snakes.  The glob brought with it a saturating mental and emotional depression, a stark consternation, an unbearable fearfulness and unpleasantness.  It brought dread.  It brought hallucination and contradiction and fear of falling, and fear of ultimate fire.  It brought flying foxes that fastened onto throats with hollow and life-draining teeth.  It brought violent small creatures who sometimes seemed to be human children and sometimes tearing monsters.
'But a voice came from one of the small and possibly human monsters.  It was a boy's voice speaking in Demotic or Low Galactic:
'"Hang in there, Gaea guys!  Some of us are on your side.  Don't let this whip you.  It's only a little psychic storm."
'What sort of stuff was that?'

-R. A. Lafferty, 'Quiz Ship Loose' (1978)

Friday, March 2, 2012

Broken Bench Lane - A Dream Street of Tulsa

'Broken Bench Lane, that bright ribbon in a sea of green, was particularly verdant because of the great quantities of Great Heart Discovery grass that grew so thickly in the whole region that the Lane traversed.  The grass was the discovery of Great Heart Harkte who had been an inventive Indian man of several generations earlier.  He had invented a sod buster plough superior to every other one.  He had invented a poke-weed harvester and a coon skinner.  He had grown the first puffed wheat and the first Golden Day sand plums.  And he invented Great Heart Discovery grass that did not thrive well until after Great Heart Harkte himself was dead and buried.  Then it grew richly, with every primordial root of it coming out of Harkte's buried heart, and it covered a region of several miles.  Wherever it grew, there was inventiveness supreme; and Broken Bench Lane had the lushest Discovery grass of the whole region.

'Where else but on the lane was there such a merry, early morning chirping going on at every hour of the day and night?  The barkers and cardinals and meadow larks all seemed to sing together:

'"Lookie, lookie, lookie!  Invent now!  Be a millionaire by noon!"

'Broken Bench Lane was the gaudiest-appearing of all those little streets and ways that tumbled and twisted down the green slopes all the way from Standpipe Hill to the south edge of town till they disappeared in the verdant haze beyond which, in the misty distance, rose Beautiful Downtown Broken Arrow.  There were not streets and arteries like these everywhere, not like this bunch:  Jenks Road, Clown Alley, Harrow Street, Five Shill Road, Lollywaggers' Left-Hand Lane, Speckled Fish Road, Leptophlebo Street, Trotting Snake road, Broken Bench Lane!  And the brightest jewel of them all was Broken Bench...

'These streets are not necessarily located in the order here given.  There are many other streets, better kept and broader, that intrude between these.  Half of these arteries are not even proper streets in the sense of accepting vehicular traffic; they are mere pedestrian walks or paths or alleys. (Broken Bench was in between the categories in that it accepted vehicles, but for only one hour a day.)

'Quentan Whitebird, in his monumental work Forgotten Lanes and Byways of Tulsa, refers to this cluster of little streets (plus four others, and with Lollygaggers' unaccountably left out) as "dream streets".  Well, there is a green haze over all of them that is very like a summer afternoon sleep.  Even in the brightness and hustle of some of them, there is always this noddiness or nappiness.  And there is the frightening snapping-out of it also, and the raffish terror at realizing that one hasn't quite snapped out of the spell after all...

'Broken Branch was the brightest and most hustling of all those little roads.  What factories and shops there were there!  What venture-houses!  What money coining enterprises!  What dreams that had taken flesh in solid crab-orchard stone with tomorrow-glass facades!  There were bustling manufactories and tall financial empires and inventories (well, what do you call the studios where inventors work?).  There was all the flowing lifeblood of newness.  The Lane was so crammed with newness that those who visited it only once a day were always dumbfounded by the changes in it.  Here were the waves of the future sold by the gallon or barrel or oceanful.'

-R. A. Lafferty, 'The Funny Face Murders' (1980)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

'The whole thing was a churning soup-bowl of death-dealing monsters.'

'The firm land "island" that they were on was hardly big enough for the five of them to stand on even with extreme crowding; and the snouts and serrate mouths that broke the surface of the quicksand were murderous. The whole thing was a churning soup-bowl of death-dealing monsters.'

-R. A. Lafferty, 'Quiz Ship Loose' (1978)

Monday, February 27, 2012

'One of his eyes is a laser and the other an x-ray'

'R. A. Lafferty is the result of the ecstatic union of a power shovel and a moonbeam.  One of his eyes is a laser and the other an x-ray, and he has a little silver anvil on which, warmed by laughter, he shapes logic to his own ends.  For breakfast he eats pomposity, for lunch he nibbles on the improbable, and he dines on fixed ideas (yours and mine) which he finds about him in great abundance.  He disjoints and broils them.  He has educated every school he ever attended and left when they wouldn't learn.  He got his outside, by talking to people like you.  Nobody knows where he really came from.

'As for his stories:  some time ago I wrote in The New York Times that some day the taxonomists, those tireless obsessives who put labels on everything, will have to categorize literature as Westerns, fantasies, romances, lafferties, science fiction, mysteries...'

-Theodore Sturgeon, introducing Lafferty's story 'Quiz Ship Loose' in Chrysalis Volume 2 (1978)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

'seeing the other nine-tenths of the world'

'The new experience or discovery was a wider range of seeing and sensing.  It was the quick cognition of animations and people and off-people and pantograms and joyous beasts and monsters that had heretofore been invisible.  It was seeing the other nine-tenths of the world in its racing brightness, and the realizing that the one-tenth of the world that had always been visible was comparatively a little bit sub-par.  It was - well, it was the sensual pleroma the fulfillment, the actualization, all this laced with the excited "Hey, where have you guys been!" motif.'

-R. A. Lafferty, 'Make Sure the Eyes Are Big Enough' (1982)

Friday, February 24, 2012

IRON TEARS and Magnesium Joy!

Just finished a couple weeks of hard work on a few university essays today.

(One for English Literature on narration in Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights; the other for Philosophy on sense-data and physical objects in Bertrand Russell's philosophy of perception - but that's by the bye.  No, no, in fact it's utterly pertinent as Narration and Perception are HUGE themes in Lafferty's writing!  Not to mention that Spark is a fellow Catholic hybrid-fiction writer that will someday make some Lafferty academic a very fine comparative study and Russell provides a perfect secular humanist foil for much of what Lafferty had to say.)

After handing the second essay in today, I came home to find a greatly anticipated parcel awaiting me.  The perfect reward!  You guessed it, Iron Tears, a now rare collection of Lafferty's short stories.  I found this for under £40 the other day at random online (I haven't seen it for under £100 for a few years I think).  I begged my wife and promised to skip coffees and sandwiches in town and put some of our children into factory work or whatever it takes to afford it!  I just couldn't pass it up at that price.  To be honest, I've been fully expecting to get an email telling me it wasn't for sale after all (it's happened to me more than once with Lafferty books - and one time several years ago with Iron Tears!).

And it's the original version from Edgewood Press with the introduction by Michael Swanwick and what I think is a really cool cover!  (Mr. Swanwick's intro is a very poignant little essay entitled 'Despair and the Duck Lady' that I will interact with another time.)

Here it is in all its second-hand glory (photo by my lovely wife, Andrea)

Three incredible blurbs about Lafferty by fellow writers grace the back cover:

'In these wonderful stories Lafferty unfailingly puts us, in his own words, "into a different juxtaposition with all things else in the world."  Nobody else does it better.  In fact, nobody else does it at all -- not like this.  Lafferty is one of a kind, a magician of strange images made fleetingly recognizable, of familiar emotions made strange and new and haunting.  A delight.'
                                                   Nancy Kress

'The stories in Iron Tears are alive with the strange combination of beauty and inexplicable terror and wonder usually found only in dreams.'
                                                   James P. Blaylock

'I love this book... Lafferty is our unheralded American Garcia Marquez... a word-slinger totally out of synch with today's slim-fast reductive rhetoric; a sly old buzzard who conjures up fables as lurid as Bible stories and tells them in a tornado of words wild enough to drive wood splinters through a windshield.'
                                                   Terry Bisson


Introduction: Despair and the Duck Lady
by Michael Swanwick

You Can't Go Back
Lord Torpedo, Lord Gyroscope
Thieving Bear Planet
The World as Will and Wallpaper
Horns on Their Heads
By the Sea Shore
Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies
Magazine Section
Or Little Ducks Each Day
Le Hot Sport
Gray Ghost: A Reminiscence

A good half dozen of these I've already collected in multi-author anthologies, but some are very rare indeed, only collected in very limited chapbooks that are now unavailable or very expensive (just for a story or two).  Plus, the prospect of an overflowing handful of stories I've never read by Laff, well, you can't beat it.  The ones I have read are some of Lafferty's VERY best in my opinion and I'll no doubt discover at least a few more to put in that category.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Question: Where should I start with reading Lafferty? Answer: Er, well...

I keep getting asked where to start with reading Lafferty, so an 'official' post suggesting starter points is long overdue.  This is pretty much the best I can do just now and is based in part on what appears to me to be fairly readily obtainable.  (If you can't be bothered to read through all this, I'd recommend scrolling down to the last section entitled:  'THE GIFT BASKET APPROACH'.)

Some stories available online:
I suppose we ought to start here.  At the very bottom of the the Lafferty wikipedia page are listed 'Works available online' with links to each of the six stories.  Most Lafferty fans are uncertain whether these particular stories are the best place to start.  'Nine Hundred Grandmothers' and 'Narrow Valley' have often been anthologised.  'Slow Tuesday Night' is fairly well celebrated.  The other three are not so well known, but have their charms.  (I particularly love 'The Six Fingers of Time' and I quite like 'The Transcendent Tigers'.  Also, 'Nine Hundred Grandmothers' is something of a classic for me - but other fans will sharply differ I'm afraid.)  But, to be honest, no matter how you slice it, perhaps none of these six stories really show just how wild and wonderful, nor how hilarious, nor how literary and language-rich (nor even how philosophical and theological)  Lafferty can get.  Some of them will probably become some of your favourites, but they're really best appreciated when read among a wider-ranging collection of Lafferty's stories.  Still, these are available to the person that just needs to taste Lafferty right away with no delay.  If that's you, I guess I'd recommend 'The Transcendent Tigers' as it's fairly lively (probably not in a way you'd expect from the title - his story titles are delightful but often enjoyably misleading) and it's short.  Just promise me you won't stop there.  You promise?

          ADDENDUM:  In his excellent comments below, Andrew Ferguson (the world’s first academic Lafferty scholar – see his dissertation ‘Lafferty and His World’), regards ‘Narrow Valley’ as a fairly ideal starting point for reading Lafferty.  Having myself just re-read the story, I’m now more inclined to agree than I was before.  It is rich in American storytelling.  And it is a TALL yarn indeed, demonstrating repletely Lafferty’s preternatural ability to narrate the impossible.  It reads something like Swift, Twain, and Carroll together spinning a contemporary Native American myth.  As Andrew aptly put it, it is ‘a defining example of Lafferty's ability to stack the lies higher and higher’.  There are grins and chuckles to be had too as well as some sly political commentary about the white man (with a tinge of poignant sorrow about the plight of modern American Indians) and a slam-bang horror-jokey ending also – so I guess Andrew is fairly on the mark to say this Lafferty story ‘has it all, pretty much’.  (He also says he often recommends 'Slow Tuesday Night' as a starting point too.)

Not much left in print that's affordable, but, here goes:
Rumour has it that Locus Magazine has bought the rights to Lafferty's complete works and are in discussions about what the heck to do with such a priceless but hard-to-market prize.  [Andrew, in the comments below, assures me this is no mere rumour, but a done deal.]  In the meantime, most of his books seem to have gone well above the fifty dollar price and often into the hundreds or even thousands!  But it looks like old copies of the following are still available on for under twenty dollars (and I'm sure you can find a few better prices if you do a more extensive search through other dealers and book-search engines).  You can click on the titles to go to where I found them on the Amazon page (but they are, of course, subject to disappear):

Short story collections (it's definitely best to start with his short stories if you can)
* Strange Doings
* Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?

For just a little over twenty dollars
* Ringing Changes

It looks like there are still a few copies left for around 25 and 30 dollars of his celebrated collection
* Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Each one of these collections has some of Lafferty's very, very best short stories, but to the beginning reader of Lafferty the collections can feel rather uneven in quality.  Even fans notoriously disagree over what are the best (and worst) stories (and collections).  Usually, you find that stories you weren't that impressed by first time round can years later, when Lafferty has been marinating in your soul for a while, become some of your favourites.  But a lot of the favourable first impressions will be very lasting and certain stories will always remain favourites.

Nine Hundred Grandmothers is certainly the 'seminal' collection - the first published and still probably most referred to - and it definitely has some of his best and most memorable stories.  But it's not clearly superior overall to the other collections for me.

Ringing Changes has some of Lafferty's very, very best stories but it might also have too many less impressive ones (that feels so wrong to say about such a master).  It's a collection that gave me, at least, a lot of pleasure when I first read it.

Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add? gave me less pleasure on a first read, though it has some of my favourite stories.  But a number of its stories have also proved to be total gems that I just blockheadedly under-appreciated the first time round.

Strange Doings is one of the better collections, I think.  Maybe it and Nine Hundred Grandmothers are the most solid, with the latter being perhaps the place to start if you can afford it.

Phew!  You have no idea what agony it is to try to recommend starting places or say what's 'best'!  (At any rate, see below about short stories not found in these collections, which are maybe even better places to start.)

          ADDENDUM:  In the comment thread Andrew also mentions that 900 Grans 'will almost certainly be reprinted in the next couple years' and also 'there is most assuredly a "Best Of" compilation in the works'.  So look out for those!  (You can count on those being announced here, so feel free to use the 'Follow by Email' box at the top right of the blog to stay informed.)

The seminal three that all came out in 1968 and took the sf publishing world by storm:
Past Master
* Space Chantey (it's printed as an 'Ace Double' with another author's novel called Pity About Earth)
* The Reefs of Earth

Three more classics that quickly followed and are still considered seminal classics also:
Fourth Mansions
Arrive At Easterwine
The Devil Is Dead

Lesser known masterpieces:
Annals of Klepsis
Not To Mention Camels
Apocalypses (containing two short novels: Where Have You Been, Sandaliotis? and The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney)

Warning:  Lafferty's novels, though utterly delightful to the initiated, are not the place to start if you can get hold of the short stories first.

Of the first half-dozen listed here, Past Master and Arrive At Easterwine are probably my favourites at a gut level.  The former is especially good if you want to see Lafferty in full theological satire mode and in full science fiction mode too (future/another planet/space travel/technology/robots/time-travel/dystopia - though it's also fantastical with ghosts and primordial monsters and so on).  It's perhaps not as smoothly written as some of the others but still has some of his best prose moments (especially once it gets past the first choppy chapter) and some of his best imagery and ideas and incidents.  The historical Thomas More (the originator of the concept and word 'Utopia' is brought forward from the past to fix the novel's ailing utopia) is one of Lafferty's 'thickest', finest drawn characters in my opinion.

Easterwine is often thought of as becoming nearly incomprehensible about a third of the way in - that's an exaggeration, but it is one of his most tangled tales.  Still, most fans really love it.  It too is one of his best characterisations:  this time the sentient computer, 'Epiktistes', whose autobiography the novel is (he's also a fan favourite from a series of Lafferty's short stories).  This novel too says a lot of what Lafferty wants to say philosophically, culturally, and theologically - but in very layered and encoded form.  Though it too can be jangly and juddery in plot and style, it also has some of Lafferty's best prose moments, images, ideas and scenes.  Still, Easterwine is almost certainly not the place to start with Lafferty, while Past Master might be a decent option.

In some ways Space Chantey is more straightforward - certainly in terms of the flow of the prose and the plot - but it's still full of very potent Lafferty weirdness.  It's a rip-roaringly enjoyable read, an adventurous and rollicking retelling of Homer's Odyssey on a galactic space-faring level.

The Reefs of Earth I also found eminently readable in terms of prose-flow, but it's one of the very, very strangest of Lafferty's fictions in terms of just the scenario and unfolding of events.  Alien children that look just like human children (almost), who have lost their parents and have decided to murder all the humans.  It's really nothing like what that summary makes it sound like.  There's not really a Twilight Zone-like 'eerie suspense' or anything like that.  It's very earthy and rustic in a way, and very like a folk tale mixed with a Southern Gothic tale, but still in a way that those descriptions don't really signify.  It's genuinely baffling, and not entirely in a 'wow! that was so cool how weird it was!' kind of way. I'm still not sure what to make of it in Lafferty's canon, but it was nevertheless a very pleasurable read in its own strange way.  I wouldn't normally recommend it as an introduction to Lafferty, yet several people I know have read it as an intro to Laff recently by default, as nothing else was available.  And... their reaction was quite favourable.  So there ya go.

The Devil is Dead is a favourite of some fans, but though I enjoyed it (and, as always, it contains some of my favourite Lafferty moments), it has never been one of my favourites and I definitely wouldn't have recommended it as a starting point (plus it's a middle book that's part of a much larger series that was only barely published and is now unavailable - it may turn out to be his magnum opus when read all together).  But (again!) someone I know recently had to start there, again due to scarcity of available works from Lafferty, and they really enjoyed it.  (I didn't love it as much when I first read it because it didn't seem to as blatantly incorporate much of my favourite Lafferty tropes - fantastical, supernatural, paranormal, or multi-dimensional happenings and/or bizarre twists on science-fictional themes.  But really, it's full of good Lafferty strangeness and some fine prose.)

Fourth Mansions is usually one of the most beloved and lauded of Lafferty's novels by his fan base.  I was more uncertain on my first go with it, but in a recent re-read I loved it very much.  It has some of his best prose.  Its plot flows along pretty nicely (not necessarily comprehensibly, just readably).  It's kind of a magical realism and urban fantasy sort of scenario with some very memorable characters and a very interesting theological theme.  Again, it's not where I would probably recommend a neophyte begin their Laffertian journey.  This time I don't know of anyone personally who has done so and liked it, but I think I've read comments online that some people started there and loved it.

As to the lesser known three listed last:  Annals of Klepsis is actually one of my very, very favourite of Lafferty's novels, probably the one I read with the single most readerly pleasure.  It's VERY freakishly strange and weird and in some ways barely understandable (the prose is clear and the events are more or less 'see-able', but it's just... 'what... why... huh?').  A historian travels to a pirate planet that has no written history and he hopes to remedy that.  There's feasting and storytelling going on inside the belly of a beached whale whilst it is being shot up with bullets on the outside.  There's a dog with missiles for teeth guarding an underground treasure.  A group of characters go on a spectacular and bizarre boat journey through the canals of someone's brain... and so on.  Those snapshots don't necessarily give the right impression.  None of Lafferty's work is really what I'd call 'surreal' (though this occasionally is said of his fiction).  It's too earthy, folky, bloody, visceral, meaty, and musky for that.  It's 'insane', but not really in a 'hallucinatory' or 'trippy' way (though I don't blame readers for sometimes mistaking it for such - certain qualities of dream are admittedly present and pervasive).  It feels like something deeper and 'tougher', like myth and fable and legend, though definitely transmuted through carnival and through contemporary concerns and motifs.  So, would I recommend starting with Klepsis?  Ah, hm.  Sure.  Why not.  To sample at least.

I love Not To Mention Camels.  Very much.  Probably not the place to start.  It would probably be too brain-splitting to follow when you're not used to where Lafferty can go yet.  Multiple selves in multiple worlds (and even a [thrilling] chapter on multiple archetypal selves battling between worlds), lots of philosophical exposition.  You may think you're bad enough to start there, but don't kid yourself.  Earn your spurs.  Try it later.  (Though again, I recently read of someone being introduced to Lafferty through this one and being very much sold on it and Laff through it.)

The first novel of Apocalypses is often considered rather average fare, but I quite enjoyed it.  Definitely do not start there - you'll flag and give up.  The second novel, Three Armageddons, is acclaimed as one of Lafferty's very best by most fans, I think.  I loved it - but, like Not To Mention Camels, it will melt your brain if you're just getting started.  It's probably the best historical sort of work I've read by Lafferty, invoking early 20th century Chicago.  But it is fantasy also, full of intellectually demanding exposition and speculation, as well as full of mind-bending events and scenarios about what's real and what's not (a theme Lafferty continually explores - related, I suppose, to things like The Matrix and Inception, but totally without their 'slick' and 'hip' feel).  Don't start here either.  (But do go ahead and purchase this kitschily-covered little gem while it's cheap - you'll thank me later when your apprenticeship has progressed.  Indeed, I guess this pretty much applies to all of the above.)

          ADDENDUM:  Andrew also mentions in the comments below that Lafferty's Okla Hannali probably deserves a mention here as a possible starting point.  I only neglected to because I still haven't read it yet.  It is unanimously spoken well of and is still in print, read by a lot of folks who otherwise know little or nothing about Lafferty.  It is a historical fiction novel about the Choctaw nation and is very beloved of fans and others alike.  As Andrew points out, 'for most novel readers it provides a recognizable form that helps ease in the Lafferty weirdness. (Also: hilarious and shatteringly sad by turns.)'


Individual short stories in multi-author anthologies:
* 'The Configuration of the North Shore' in Modern Classics of Fantasy
* 'Smoe and the Implicit Clay' in Future Power
* 'Bright Flightways' & 'The Man Who Walked Through Cracks' (two-for-one!) in Chrysalis 3
* 'In Deepest Glass: An Informal History of Stained Glass Windows' in The Berkley Showcase Vol. 4
* 'Symposium' in Omega
* 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire' in And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire (or, alternately, in Sacred Visions)

It just so happens that some of my very favourite Lafferty is only collected just one story at a time in old multi-author anthologies and nowhere else.  This baker's half-dozen could easily be expanded to a score or more but most of these can be obtained for a few dollars plus postage.  Heck, if you're going to spend twenty or so bucks on getting acquainted with Lafferty, I'd almost recommend just snatching up this handful of books as a nice little Lafferty basket sampler.  (Go on,  throw in a basket and some ribbon and treat yourself!  Or someone you love VERY much!  [Dang, now I'm starting to wish I got commissions.])  But now I can at last more unequivocally enthuse about how great these stories are because I'm not having to consider how a whole collection of Lafferty's stories may hit you as a first-time reader.  If you get hold of any of these based on my recommendations and descriptions here, try to completely block out of your mind anything I've said about a particular story so you can approach it as freshly as possible with as little expectation as possible.  I only allude to what they're 'about' here to whet your fancy and tickle your appetite.

'Configuration' is easily in my top five favourite Lafferty stories.  It has yet to fail me as an intro for someone who has never even heard of Lafferty.   They are invariably hooked in by the wow-factor and humour of his unbounded imagination and oddness on full display in this folksy and freaky (and even mythopoeic!) tale of depth psychology and dream sequences.  (This is the one story in this list that is collected in a Lafferty-only collection - Lafferty In Orbit.  But this book costs over 50 dollars and, anyway, the presentation of this classic Lafferty tale is better encountered in the quality binding and printing of the Modern Classics of Fantasy anthology rather than the frankly shabby, type-o-infested Lafferty in Orbit.)

'Smoe' I only discovered recently and it instantly became a favourite.  It's one of Lafferty's many 'planet-fall' stories of usually farcically disastrous contact with alien cultures.  It very oddly and oddly effectively draws on the G.I. 'Killroy was here' myth woven with Native American traditions.  A gorgeous and grotesque cataract of prose and style comes bursting out at particular crucial moments in the story.  Very stirring, yet almost slapstick at the same time.

'Bright Flightways' and 'The Man Who Walked Through Cracks' make a disturbingly lovely diptych about reality cracking down the middle and which side we choose to find ourselves on.  Both stories seem almost unfinished, but both have amazing moments of language and at least a few very bizarre images that will resonate for a long time.

Lafferty often brings an idiosyncratic Neanderthal mythos into his whole web of story and 'In Deepest Glass' is in my opinion the very best of this motif that I've seen.  This one too taps into the mythopoeic for me, whilst also being wryly quirky and just really, really strange.  I remember first reading this one and just thinking:  'where does this man's imagination hang out? no one else comes up with this kind of stuff!'  It also taps into Lafferty's poignant theological evaluation of society if you're interested in that.

'Symposium' is another hidden gem:  children's toy blocks that are artificial intelligences having a discussion with one another about origins of the universe and cycles of history - told in some of Lafferty's fine, rhapsodic language.

'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire' is maybe Lafferty's most overtly 'Christian' story:  a 'cowpunk' sort of Oklahoma tale about those who resist the future's drugged out, demoniac, dehumanising dystopia by organising and building and constructing a Fire that will outlast the wobbly-eyed Age of Thinness.  It's kind of a Chestertonian Screwtape Letters filtered through Southwest regional fiction and s.f.

ADDENDUM:  In the comments below Andrew (world's first Lafferty scholar, in case you didn't read that above) recommends these titles be added to the gift basket:

'Bubbles When They Burst' in Galaxy Nov 71
'Quiz Ship Loose' in Chrysalis 2

Well, for what is was worth...

(Don't say I never at least tried to help make the world a better place.)

If you're an old hand at Lafferty Ranch, please don't hesitate to make your own recommendations (and argue with mine) in the comments.  If you're a noob, please don't hesitate to ask questions!
'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)