Thursday, January 15, 2015

Again, Buffalopunk - Lafferty and Weird West

Okay, I'm going to try to keep more 'notes' here on my long-term project of interpreting Lafferty through the nexus-lens of:

* Monster Theory,
* Southwest Regional Writing,
* Environmental Writing,
* Ecocriticism (especially Dark Ecology),
* Theology (especially Ecotheology, Theology of Monsters, and Thomism),
* Metaphysics (especially Object-Oriented Ontology, Speculative Realism, Weird Realism, et. al.),
* and my own emerging (puling to be precise) theory of an 'Ecomonstrous' aesthetic.

Today I just want to scratch a few thoughts about Lafferty's fiction in relation to the Weird West subgenre.  Roughly, a 'weird west' tale tends to mix classic western genre motifs with the monsters and horror of Weird Fiction (ala Lovecraft if you're Old School and Vandermeer if you're New School [and Miss Jackson if you're Nasty]). 

It's kind of like Cowboys & Cthulhu.

Or Lovecraft meets L'Amour. 

(art by Jim Rugg)

To me, it's a plenty stretchy genre that can also include things like Space Westerns and Future Westerns (e.g. android gunslingers) and other such genre-blending permutations (in the far reaches there are comic books series such as Cowboy Ninja Viking and Six-Gun Gorilla).  And it can draw not only on roots of classic westerns but also American Indian lore and Weird Mexicana (e.g. Día de los Muertos).  It overlaps a little with Spaghetti Westerns and Gonzo Westerns and Anti-Westerns (Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian being the quintessential specimen of this last type) and even the Southern Gothic literature of the likes of Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor.  For me, it's a loose and suggestive conglomeration of tangentially related imagery and concepts.

Enter Lafferty.  He's never going to truly fit any genre.  He mutates everything he touches.  Such is the case here.  He overlaps with some of the territory of westerns because his settings are frequently those of his own lifelong Southwestern environs, mainly his native Oklahoma.  Though many of his Oklohaman settings, in both novels and short stories, are urban, many also feature the wider non-urban landscape.  (And even the tales set in a city - frequently Tulsa - tend to have an eye for regional features.)  Since Lafferty's fiction tends to have a hefty dose of American Indian influence as well as stylistic innovations that made him at home in 1960s/70s New Wave science fiction for a while, I call his excursions into western-y territory 'buffalopunk' (think 'cyberpunk', 'steampunk', etc.).

Indeed, buffalos themselves sometimes feature in his yarns (e.g. 'Days of Grass, Days of Straw', 'Inventions Bright and New') as well as their 'byproducts' (hides, horns, meat, etc.).  And just think of all the instances where some character, instead of crying bullshit, cries 'Oh, Buffalo Hokey!'    And so it is with all the other fauna, flora, landscape, and general ephemera of the Southwestern region, which show up in equal doses of focused attention, background assumption, offhanded asides, and enmeshed textural detail.  You may not have even noticed it, but once you're paying attention, you'll see it often:  mesquite, coyotes, mesas, cattle, mountains, mountain lions, plains, 'bottoms', 'flats', crayfish, kit foxes, bears, and much, much more.

Of course, all these regional elements are either themselves 'weirded' in some way or are attendant upon the joyfully bizarre Laffertian carnival we've all come to expect from his tales:  the weirdness may be in the form of magic, horror (both visceral and ghostly), mad science, aliens, monsters, extreme violence or gore, dystopia, and general metaphysical antics (doubled people, landscapes that won't behave properly, skies raining everything but cats and dogs, talking fauna, persons filled with sawdust or confetti, etc.).  Hence the '-punk' suffix. 

You can think of your own list of stories that feature strains of Lafferty's buffalopunk, but some that spring to my mind are (in addition to the few named above) 'Boomer Flats', 'Happening at Chosky Bottoms', 'Narrow Valley', 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire', 'Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas' and 'Oh Tell Me Will It Freeze Tonight'.  These all take place in the Southwest, but even in Lafferty's offworld stories there is often a noticeable element of buffalopunk:  e.g. 'Pig in a Pokey', 'Snuffles', 'Golden Trabant', 'Smoe and the Implicit Clay', etc.  (Also, a number of his earliest stories, which are only recently beginning to come to light to a wider audience, are quite regional, though some are perhaps a little lighter on overtly freakish 'punk' elements:  e.g. 'The Wagons', 'Rain Mountain', 'Ghost in the Corn Crib', etc.)

His novel most relevant to this theme is obviously his historical epic of the Choctaws Okla Hannali (1972), but The Reefs of Earth (1968) comes a close second as a science fiction novel in full Southwestern Gothic-Weird mode, with its backwoods setting, murderous alien children, lively Indian mounds and so on. 

But what provoked this whole meditation for me was that I ran smack into a whole chapter of buffalopunk (IV: 'Liar on the Mountain') in my now third re-reading of Fourth Mansions (1969).  I'd remembered that the landscape behaved strangely in this passage, but I didn't remember how repletely Weird West this chapter was, complete with a Texas-Mexico setting (the same territory as McCarthy's Blood Meridian).  There is a very western 'mesquite and sagebrush' landscape described, which is rolling like the sea (an image of western plains I've seen in sources as diverse as McCarthy and Zane Grey, but here rather more literalised) and taking on impossible dimensions the further into it they go.  There's a preternatural guardian, a short bloody boar hunt, a cave-cooked meal, and even a many-tentacled black monster in a fountain in this chapter.  A delightful excursion into weird western!

The rest of the novel is very Tulsa urban, and still evinces not a little of buffalopunk, but that Lafferty just went full western in this chapter kind of freshly hit me and reminded me how frequently recurring is his element of buffalopunk.  Now I'm going to be trying to catalogue all its appearances and allusions.  (What, me obsessive? Pshh.)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Lafferty News (Issue 3!)

Okay, it’s unfortunate I haven’t been able to keep up with this more regularly because there have been regular, sometimes weekly, developments.  Here’s what I can remember, starting with the newsworthy item most recent and biggest:

  • Centipede Press have announced the release of Volume 2 of their Lafferty Library:  The Man with the Aura (introduction by Harlan Ellison).

(I gotta say, I like this cover for the second volume a LOT better than the cover for the first.)

Interestingly, they've also announced a second limited run of Volume 1: The Man Who Made Models.  So if you're kicking yourself for not getting it the first time round, you've been granted a second chance:

Says Kevin:
  • Expression of Interest: Saturday, January 31, 2015
  • Content complete: Friday, February 20, 2015
  • Publication: Saturday, March 18, 2015
Email with all your ideas, submissions, stories, daydreams of things you'd love to write about R. A. Lafferty, and even requests.

  • If you didn’t see Andrew’s photos of the Lafferty piece in This Land, you’ll wanna check those out.  I would love to see Lafferty more and more often in contemporary journalistic print like this.

  • Lafferty’s short story ‘What’s the Name of That Town?’ (1964) was mentioned last week on a WNPR news radio program summary:  ‘It's a brilliant story on a number of levels and one of those levels has to do with the impossibility of suppressing historical records.’  (The radio program was about ‘historical deletion’, a theme indeed dear to Lafferty.)

  • It was pretty exciting to see Lafferty’s lesser known story ‘Thieving Bear Planet’ included on the Electric Literature website in an article entitled ‘31 Fairly Obscure Literary Monsters’. (It was a Halloween piece, but I didn’t see it until after I’d posted Issue 2 of Lafferty News in November.)  It was also amusing to see that they used a picture of the ‘Ro-Bear Berbils’ from the Thundercats cartoon.  When I saw the Berbils on an episode of the new Thundercats series a few years ago, I was immediately put in mind of the creatures in Lafferty’s ‘Thieving Bear Planet’.  Seems I’m not the only one!

  • Andrew Ferguson also announced that his article for the scholarly journal Science Fiction Studies went live in November.  This is only the second ever peer-reviewed academic essay on Lafferty, the last one from 1983.  Andrew’s fascinating article is entitled ‘R.A. Lafferty's Escape from Flatland; or, How to Build a World in Three Easy Steps’ and draws on the work of Paul Ricoeur.  I’ll do a full review of it at a later point.

  • Andrew himself made Lafferty news by being included in the ‘Bright Young Collectors’ series in Fine Books Magazine for his extensive Lafferty collection, one to make the rest of us drool and contemplate burglary.  Mr. Ferguson even came out from behind the scholarly curtain to allow a fine photo portrait of his person to go public.

andrew ferguson photo.jpg

  • It’s worth noting that the indefatigible and skilled Rich Persaud is always updating and innovating the website in a number of ways.  My favourite and most-used aspect of late is that now the title of every single published Lafferty story is listed in chronology of first publication, with the ability for anyone to comment on each story - a function I have availed myself of several times now and urge the rest of you to go and do likewise.  This is a very easy and permanent way for the Lafferty community to really get busy with the joy of discussing his works.  Every type of comment is welcome and appropriate, from simple exclamations of ‘this is one of my faves!’ or ‘I never liked this one’ to more in-depth commentary and analysis.

There is also a page that lists Lafferty’s own favourite stories, at least the ones he mentioned were personal favourites in interviews - with a few quotes from the man himself about this.  Very intriguing.  There’s a page devoted to listing out the books that Lafferty was known to have possessed in his personal library, usually with a comment or two from Lafferty about each book.  This is updated at intervals when new information on the matter is obtained.  And there’s a page with a working timeline of Lafferty’s life.  And there’s more, but you must explore!

  • In my own personal Lafferty-related news, I’m happy to report that I’ve received an offer from the University of Glasgow to start a PhD on Lafferty this October.  It will develop the topic of the Honours Dissertation that I’m writing this semester on the ‘ecomonstrous’ aesthetic in Lafferty and Cormac McCarthy.  Now to find some funding!  If any of you know of some Lafferty Studies scholarship that I’ve somehow overlooked, please let me know!  I’m sure they’d be happy to fund the first-ever doctoral thesis on Lafferty, right?

There have also been a number of Lafferty book and story reviews on various blogs in the past few months as well, but I’m going to do a separate blog post on those.  Please let me know of any news I missed!  (I’ll try to do these more frequently so they won’t end up as long and involved as this one.)
'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)