Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Lafferty as writer of Mystical Slashers

They'd kill the Stutgards first, that very night, with axes.  They'd axe old man Stutgard, and all the blood would run out of his big red neck.  They'd cut off Mrs. Stutgard's head that was round as a pumpkin, and it would roll down to the bottom of the hill and look at you.  They'd kill the Stutgard kids.  It's most fun to kill kids who are just enough bigger than you to make it interesting.

-R. A. Lafferty, The Reefs of Earth (1968)

What has been a slow-dawning thought for a while now coalesced for me on a walk this morning:  Lafferty wrote slashers.  Once you say it plain and simple like that, you then, of course, have to qualify it to death. But let's leave the qualifications and nuances for another time.  I'm re-reading The Reefs of Earth right now, which is one of Lafferty's blatantly bloodiest tall tales, a backwoods murder-spree told through a loose-fisted science fiction trope (the killers are alien children who look a lot like human children).  But it's not just this famously murderous early novel.  It has occurred to me that almost every one of Lafferty's published novels (and a significant number of his short stories) involves attempted (and eventually successful) murder as a crucial element of the story arc (this is often in the form of politically motivated and often state-sanctioned assassinations).  Such killing all by itself, of course, only nudges these works into the murder mystery or crime story (a genre Lafferty assayed in a number of tales, including some yet-to-be-published novels).  But anyone who has read more than a few Lafferty stories will know full well that he goes way beyond mere depiction of a murder, even a grisly murder.  His tales are often soaked in buckets of blood and gore.

To throw out some of the more conspicuous specimens from his short fiction, there are  'Snuffles', 'Once On Aranea', 'Days of Grass, Days of Straw', 'Thieving Bear Planet', 'Jack Bang's Eyes', 'The Last Astronomer', and 'Happening in Chosky Bottoms'.  (Lesser specimens could include 'Camels and Dromedaries, Clem', 'Name of the Snake', 'The Hole On the Corner', 'The Man Who Never Was', 'Cliffs That Laughed', 'Frog On the Mountain', 'Ride a Tin Can', 'Sky', 'Groaning Hinges of the World', 'Ishmael Into the Barrens', 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire', 'And Mad Undancing Bears', 'Endangered Species', 'Fog in My Throat', 'Smoe and the Implicit Clay', 'The Hand With One Hundred Fingers', 'Thou Whited Wall', 'Splinters', 'The Funny Face Murders', and 'The Ninety-Ninth Cubicle' - each of which depicts grisly death or graphic violence, even if it's not as pervasive as in other stories.)

But it is probably mainly in his novels that one encounters the most gory, slashery stuff.  In fact, those of you who have read the novels can go back and re-read them with this theme in mind.  I think you'll be surprised how much of the bloodshed and killing you may have forgotten.  The quote above from Reefs is one of the tamest samples.  (Okay, I'll add in a nuance here:  a lot of the time it may be more accurate to say that Lafferty practiced a lot of literary gore rather than slasher stuff per se.  There are some really bloody scenes that don't have anything to do with persons murdering other persons - e.g. the wildly gory slaughter of the devil fish in Past Master, or the blood-spattering high-fall deaths from wrestling with God in 'Days of Grass, Days of Straw'.  But the depiction of gruesome bloodshed remains central.)

Now why call all this violence 'mystical'?  Lafferty seems to have had a sort of death-vision through which he saw the world in bloody-rosy hues.  I add 'rosy' to that characterisation on purpose.  How does such a bloody-minded author also fill us with so much joy and laughter, sometimes even as we cringe at horrific maiming and death scenes?  It's partly because Lafferty is almost always funny or wry.  He can't write anything it seems, no matter how dark, without at least a wink.  This often means that the more violent and grotesque the matter, the more hilarious (sometimes uncomfortably so) it comes across to us.  So Lafferty's work is grotesque in the comedic and carnival sense.  'I Think I Will Dismember the World With My Hands' is a chapter title in Lafferty's celebrated novel Fourth Mansions (1969) and it could be an artist's statement for Laff.  Andrew Ferguson has argued persuasively that Lafferty's practice of literary dismemberment is an artistic strategy of taking apart the science fiction genre in order to put it back together again 'renewed and revealed' in 'new potentiality' (Lafferty and His World, page 29 and following).

It is very much this and it is also very much more also.  Lafferty's comedic-grotesque slasher fiction is mystical because it exemplifies his deeply held convictions.  Comedy and laughter are huge central worldview categories for Lafferty.  He can't bring himself to flinch from writing bloody murderous horror, but nor can he bring himself to not laugh at it as well - and his laughter is ontological.  He's laughing because he thinks there's something more real than grisly horror and brutal death.  He has probably tricked you into laughing at that level too.

It seems that Lafferty just couldn't see death as termination, not finally.  Death was more of a waystation than a terminal for Lafferty.  Characters (even whole planets and the cosmos itself in Lafferty's stories) go through death on their way to something else.  Sometimes this is pretty jokey and immediate, such as when a just-severed head keeps talking and is placed at the prow of a boat in order to navigate raiders to other villages to pillage ('Groaning Hinges of the World'), or when a group of astronauts are slaughtered by their hosts on a planet only to regain life the next morning and be invited to enjoy the slaughter all over again as the day's entertainment (that's a rough remembrance of a long-ago reading of Lafferty's 1968 novel Space Chantey).

But often, neither narrator nor reader are privy to what-comes-next. Lafferty simply tells us that a resurrection, a new birth, a new creation is probably in the offing thanks to this bloody death we have witnessed--personal, communal, planetary, or cosmic.  He leaves the story open-ended on that score.  It's up to the reader whether she'll participate in the hushed anticipation that Lafferty enjoins, for example, at the end of Past Master (1968), when the narrator asks whether the destruction of the world will result in its rebirth and answers:  'Be quiet.  We hope.'

The carnival hope in Lafferty is not mere slapstick, however, as many of the deaths depicted are quite poignant and tragic ('Ride a Tin Can' is an obvious example; another for me is the intelligent talking elephant in Laff's 1987 novel Serpent's Egg).  Lafferty is aware of the big ask he is making of the reader:  to laugh even through the tears.  Indeed, to laugh in outright defiance of ultimate tragedy and sorrow (see his ending of 'I Don't Care Who Keeps the Cows' as one instance of a direct depiction of laughter as subversive resistance - a story that contains amusingly grotesque surgical body-horror as its main trope).

Well, this post is just a first stab (wink) at this theory about Lafferty.  I'll have to come back to it and more thoroughly evidence it for a start - a very fun task if you like totting up and citing deliciously gory scenes. Please let me know what you think.  Agree?  Disagree?  Have you noticed all the bloodshed and if so, what do you make of it?


Cosmic Horror vs. Cosmic Laughter (Lovecraft vs. Lafferty)


Harold said...

I've long felt that Lafferty's deaths are almost always a triumphant affair, a high point, something to celebrate.
This isn't always unambiguous though, take this from About a Secret Crocodile (the very bowels/belly/jaws of compassion) which I happened to reread this weekend: "There was no great amount of blood poured out, no persons were killed except several innocent bystanders."
Even this has a double meaning to me, on the one hand the people killed were nobodies, yet their death did connect them to the events in the story and that somehow uplifts the deaths. Or maybe I'm just morbid...

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yeah, well put, Harold. Lafferty's deaths feels somehow triumphant and celebratory but not always without ambiguity. There is offhanded tragedy and darkness too. But that's interesting what you're saying about him almost uplifting certain tragic deaths because they are at least connected to resistance to the Crocodile... good food for thought. Thanks.

Antonin Scriabin said...

Don't forget that "death is not the end" for so many Lafferty characters. Characters die multiple times, come back right away, die without realizing it, etc.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yeah, absolutely. Another onto-comic element to his treatment of death.

Anonymous said...

Dear Daniel, What you notice here about Lafferty’s delight for gore and bloody scenes is real & a very interesting characteristic of his work. I remember the first time I have realized how important is the violence – and even the cruelty - in his inspiration was when I was reading the wonderful ss « The World As Will & Wallpaper » - one his greatest success in my opinion. WW&W is a philosophical tale about repetition. But it ends like an horror movie : « Then, as she was a fair-minded girl and as she had not worked any stint that day, she turned to and worked an hour in the Chopper House. (What they chopped up in the Chopper House was the ancients.) Why, there was William's head coming down the line! Candy smiled at it. She chopped it up with loving care, much more care than she usually took. » This morbid ending really has nothing to do with the demonstration, based on parallel universes – nor with the general climate, playful & pittoresque, of the story - it seemed to me totally gratuitous. Same thing with the torture scenes in Astrobe that brings nothing new to the plot. So what ? First : horror is most of the times illustrated by divided bodies (« demembrement », in french, when the limbs and the head are separated and the body losts his unity – in Fouth Mansions « dismembered » is used for the world itself) – Freud noticed somewhere this is a recurrent fantasy of alcoolics . There are a lot of exemples that prouve this image of a divided body is for Ray a synonym of chaos (although we have no biographical consideration about this, are we authorized to presume it was a problem for himself too, when he considered his quite good head, fixed on such a disgracious body, like a thing apart). However that may be, I don’t think this passion for slaughter and hushers and bloody details has something to do with death – bizarely, nothing and nobody really dies in Lafferty’s novels – no tombs, no eternity – it has to do with the devil – witch I think is the only thing Ray believes in – the evil. Here is the nodal point. Laffety’s writing can’t be separated with his faith. I read somewhere a neighbour of him used to see him every morning going to attempt a mass at the catholic church. Can you imagine this ? Attempting a mass just before writing a chapter of « Groaning Hinges » ? I give you a risquy opinion here, but there must be something true in it : Lafferty’s devil his nothing but literature, writing is a his sin, his fault, his demon. And after he has failed, everyday, he goes and asks for God forgiveness… This is his own demembrement. (sorry for my hesitating english, I am better in translating… ☺)

Gregorio said...

There is a shockingly prolific amount of death in Lafferty, but I don’t think there is any need to psycho-analyze Lafferty in a narrowly Freudian sense (Lafferty was much more of Jungian, anyway), or reduce his use of dismemberment to the febrile fantasies of an alcoholic, let alone attributing some sort of overriding belief in the Devil as the source of his violent imagery. Frankly, there are much more probable sources for these thematic elements to be found in Lafferty’s Catholic faith. First of all, violent images of death, dismemberment, decapitation, disembowelment, defenestration, etc. are quite common in the Catholic iconography of the saints, many who were violently martyred for their belief in God. The Catholic saints are seen as Christ-like in their mortal sufferings, which makes them worthy not only of veneration but also of emulation. Perhaps one of Lafferty’s most extended meditations on the violence that attends the martyr is to be found in his novel Aurelia, who dies in a particularly agonizing manner, but such examples could be multiplied many times over from even a cursory look at Lafferty’s oeuvre, as Daniel has enumerated in his post…

Gregorio said...

Moreover, I wholeheartedly agree with Harold that many of the deaths that Lafferty portrays so viscerally are “triumphant affairs.” Part of that, as Antonin points out in his comments, is due to the fact that Lafferty’s view of time and space precludes any final end here in this particular place in the material world—time is elliptical rather than univocally linear. But I would like to bring one extremely important aspect that has been for the most missed so far. The center of the Catholic faith is the Eucharist--the one and eternal sacrifice of the Mass. Jean-Paul alludes to this near the end of his comments, but he seems to be shocked that Lafferty, who very often attended daily Mass, could possibly go to church and also write his extremely gruesome and sanguinary fiction. Rather than a shocking discrepancy, I would call this an astonishing congruence of faith and art, for the Eucharistic sacrifice is—to use Daniel’s felicitous phrase—a “mystical slasher” story, indeed the most cosmic, mystic, and sublimely beautiful “slasher” narrative of all time. Not only is that how Lafferty would have understood the sacrifice of the Mass, but I believe it profoundly informed all the bloody sacrifices in his fiction as well.

Anonymous said...

The more I think to it the more I feel Daniel put his finger on a key feature of Lafferty’ style in his last post. In any case, thanks to him for having highlighted what we should have seen ourselves for long : the almost permanent presence of horror, murder and bloody violence in his stories. I still think that death and the possibility of rebirth in other worlds belong to another type of question. Here, we speak of a certain delight in describing tortured bodies, a very special kind of sadism – or, at least, e gratuitous violence towards the reader. For my part, I know too little of Lafferty’s biography to get an opinion on the influence of his own life on this morbid appetence. I just call up two assumptions : his penchant for alcohol and his own physical deformity. However, I'm sure there is something to look for in his practice of the Catholic religion and his personal faith (which was nothing but sincere).
Of course, I do not ignore that Lafferty should have in mind all the iconography of the early Christians’ persecutions : this imagery - as well as Irish folk tales, Indian legends and descriptions of Charles Fort - fed his imagination. But again, I’d like to know what is really going on in his head, and what was his very intention when he sat at his desk. And I can not help thinking that beyond his delusional fantasy, Lafferty is a moralist writer. And also a man who has lived a largely dictated by its moral existence (much in common with Kierkegaard, another single) whose evil, the existence of evil in the world, is the key issue.
The hypothesis that I suggest in my last post is : from the moment we consider his Christian faith as a serious choice, and his need to write as an irrepressible need, then this man lives in a permanent contradiction. Writing compels to submit himself to - not always pure, and even often evilly flawed – flow of his imagination, and communion allows him to redeem himself for his sins.
Anyway, I do not know if anyone will ever find out more details about Lafferty’s bio, but for sure, he will have to explain the complex relationships and interferences that are played in between his desire to write (or the impossibility of not writing), the desire for intoxication (or the impossibility of not drinking) and the desire for a better life, he saw in Christ.
For me, this unstable balance is the engine of the creative work of Lafferty.

Gregorio said...

Jean-Paul: Andrew Ferguson is in the process of writing a deeply researched, full-length biography of Lafferty right now, which when it is published I think may very well go to answering some of the important questions that you raise. However, in the meantime, I must take exception with some of your claims that two of the main wellsprings of Lafferty’s creativity can be traced back to his addiction to alcohol and his purported physical “deformity,” as if creativity could be traced back to a disease, or a medical condition used to explain an author’s genius. I’m even more disturbed by your characterization of Lafferty’s appetites as “morbid” and his imagination as “evilly flawed.” If Lafferty is, as you claim, a “sadist” for depicting violent images of martyrdom, then most of the Christian artwork in the churches of Europe is sadistic; indeed, perhaps we should have to go so far as to claim that the Crucifixion, and maybe Christianity itself, is a “morbid” fantasy. And if, as you imply, the unvarnished depiction of the conflict between good and evil betrays a diseased mind, then we would have to conclude that almost all of Western literature is one long malady. I believe these are the sorts of dangers that this sort of armchair psychologizing can lead the unwary critic. You write that Lafferty’s life is a creative tension between his broken nature—what Christianity calls sin—and the desire for grace, or as you put it, a “better life” in Christ. But this is nothing unique to Lafferty’s experience as a man or as a writer. This is only basic Christian anthropology: Since the fall in the Garden human existence is fundamentally flawed. Lafferty’s genius as a writer is not to be found so much in his flaws, which particular sins he was prone to, but rather in the grace which he found in writing and, even more importantly, with which he filled his stories. I would dare say that readers of Lafferty are attracted by the beauty of his language and imagery, the power of the moral message—of evil resisted and overcome--that even you see in his works, rather than any fascination with what you describe as the “almost permanent presence of horror, murder and bloody violence in his stories.”

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

W-w-wow. This turned into a really, really rich discussion. Thank you so much for these most recent contributions, Jean-Paul and Gregorio.

Jean-Paul, I think your thoughts about Lafferty's physical stature and alcoholism could definitely be taken into account and may have some explanatory power for understanding his fiction. But I have to agree with Gregorio's interpretation as the more fulsome and likely. I think what you're getting at with *tensions* in Lafferty's life being a major source of his creativity is certainly true. It's just not the whole truth. Gregorio outlines the rest of the truth about what was inspiring his fiction, and which almost surely was the deeper wellspring.

I definitely don't understand your insistence that Lafferty's faith and the act of writing are somehow contradictory. I take it you must think that the many Catholic novelists that have tended to shine out in the canon of literature over the past century all were suffering this contradiction? Other 'religious' writers as well? But then most of the writers of imaginative stories in past six thousand (or however many) years were religious in one way or another. So all their creativity was coming out of a contradiction between faith and some sin involved in imagining a narrative which will inevitably involve various sinful actions and motivations? That seems like a slightly odd way to look at it to me. Or at least a reductive way to see it, since there's probably some useful insight in there. At any rate, you've certainly got me thinking about it! Good stuff.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

The one thing I had wanted to say in regard to your first comment, Jean-Paul, was that actual deaths do indeed occur in Lafferty's fiction. I just finished my re-read of The Reefs of Earth and (slight spoilers for those who haven't read it - but Laff's fiction isn't all that 'spoilable' in regard to giving away plot) the parents of the children just plain die and I found their deaths very poignant. Indeed, there are many poignant death bed sort of passages in Lafferty. His fiction seems to often be processing that reality of life. So yes, you might to some degree be able to separate out the 'slasher' stuff from the actual deaths (as I said in the main blog post here), but they also often relate and intertwine and I'm quite sure they have to do with one another thematically in Lafferty's fiction.

I definitely knew I'd have to nuance my thoughts about Lafferty as a writer of 'slashers'. You guys have helped me see some of the ways I'd have to do so. Thanks again.

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