After prematurely claiming (over three years ago) that I was going to write a chapter on Lafferty as a Chestertonian theological storyteller for a book of Lafferty essays, it is gratifying to see that something along those lines is finally coming to fruition, even if only for degree work. Better late than never. (The editor of the proposed book of essays on Lafferty, our beloved Andrew Ferguson, has since been sidetracked by the noble and even more exciting task of writing Lafferty's biography - with which, I recently heard, he is nearly finished.)
I was not then really up to writing an essay on Lafferty, as I fairly quickly discovered. I'm still not, but at least I have some theoretical tools and preoccupations to throw at it now. Below is the dissertation proposal essentially as given to my department. Please don't be too distracted by technical jargon with which you may not be familiar. I had a word-limit that precluded much elucidation of the terminologies. I hope some reasonably clear conception of what I'm attempting will still come through.
As it reaches completion (in April), the paper will become both clearer and different. I'm not sure how it will change, but I know it will to one degree or another. Unfortunately, it's only a 10,000 word paper and I'm covering two authors, so it's not going to be able to cover as much ground as I'd like. But I think putting Lafferty in conversation with a recognised 'great writer' is worth it and will provide its own fascinating illuminations. Please let me know your questions and criticisms of the proposal and suggestions for further theoretical materials and for other elements or works of Lafferty's fiction to consider as regards the topic. (Please do tell me if you see any egregious errors based on any expert knowledge you have!)
The primary texts the dissertation will consider are Cormac McCarthy’s ‘anti-western’ novel Blood Meridian (1985) and R. A. Lafferty’s historical Choctaw novel Okla Hannali (1972) as well as Lafferty’s short stories ‘Narrow Valley’, ‘Smoe and the Implicit Clay’, and ‘Days of Grass, Days of Straw’. The question the dissertation asks is: can the iterations of eco-monstrosity exemplified in these two Southwestern American regional writers be grounded in and yet transmogrify theological readings of ‘nature’? I.e. do these texts show ‘dark ecology’ and theological ecology to be mutually exclusive or do they open the way for some sort of harmony or hybridity? I argue the latter. Evocations of monstrosity in these texts make room for comic rather than tragic (or nihilistic) ecologies, undergirded by ‘dark’ or ‘weird’ theologies.
Lafferty is well known as a ‘funny’ writer, though his ‘tall tales’ are often grotesque and even gory. It is also well known that Lafferty’s devout Roman Catholic beliefs infused all his work. So it is no surprise that his ecology is ultimately theological and comic. But it is not always appreciated that Lafferty’s fiction only achieves this ‘theo-comedy’ (to borrow a term from the theologian Thomas Oden) by way of much ambiguity and carnivalised horror. McCarthy’s harrowing and hyper-violent novels, on the other hand, are often thought to be eloquent tracts for an unflinchingly bleak nihilism. It is often argued that Blood Meridian in particular subverts theological readings of the world, but I will argue that it subverts only theologies that cannot embrace ‘dark’ ecology and thereby clears the way for more adequate theologies.
It is arguably rare that the disciplines of ecology, theology, and monster theory all three intersect in one study. Certainly the proposed texts of this dissertation do not appear to have received this triangulated critical reading. Both authors are, in any case, far from over-subscribed by academics and are thus ripe for more theoretical work. McCarthy studies are now numerous but by no means enormous. Lafferty studies are nearly non-existent and as this obscure author is being slowly rediscovered, critical work is needed. More generally, the worldwide growth in cultural awareness of both ecological and religious debates gives urgency to a cross-discipline study such as this.
The main critical tools the dissertation employs consist of Timothy Morton’s dark ecology, Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology (‘weird realism’), and Timothy Beal’s theology of monsters. The foci of the reading will be the emphases the primary texts place on monstrous (usually grotesque or gigantic) evocations of flora, fauna, and landscape, and the place of humans therein that religious worldviews purport to provide. With these tools I aim to show that the texts under consideration evince a theologically pertinent eco-monstrosity that serves to situate and orient readers within a dangerous but genuinely all-inclusive ontology. The monsters here are not ‘off the map’ – the monsters are the map. Further, the texts evince no easy disjunction between a so-called ‘post-human’ eco-centricity and the theo-comic ecology of, for example, Roman Catholic doctrine. Rather, the monstrous ecologies of the texts—in their strange grotesqueries and violences and in their characters’ lengthy theological declamations—tend to agitate for a ‘dark’ and ‘weird’ hybridisation of theological ecology and dark ecology: a conceptual space in which humans are decentralised in certain respects (radically contextualised by the non-human environment) even as they bear the divine image.
 Possibly also drawing from the stories ‘Snuffles’, ‘And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire’, and ‘All Pieces of a River Shore’.
 This can be considered a particular artistic iteration of eco-centric or post-human or post-equilibrium ecocritical theories.
 Andrew Ferguson’s master’s dissertation ‘Lafferty and His World’ is the only ‘official’ academic work I know of on Lafferty so far, but a handful of critical reviews and comments can also be dug up - e.g. brief but insightful critical comments on Lafferty’s writing can be found from the likes of Ursula Le Guin, Brian Aldiss, John Clute, and Neil Gaiman. Ferguson in his paper utilises Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas on carnival and grotesque and Walter J. Ong’s ideas on orality to read Lafferty’s body of work: http://www.academia.edu/329007/Lafferty_and_His_World. Ferguson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, is currently writing the first biography of Lafferty.
 The Locus Science Fiction Foundation has recently acquired the rights to Lafferty’s works and through them Centipede Press have published the first of what is projected to be twelve volumes collecting the complete short stories by Lafferty: The Man Who Made Models: The Collected Short Fiction Volume One (2013), Centipede Press, Lakewood.
 E.g. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (2007), Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
 E.g. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (2005), Open Court Publishing, Peru; Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (2012), John Hunt Publishing, Alresford.
 Religion and Its Monsters (2002), Routledge, London.
The Dissertation Reading Stack!