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.)