Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Excerpt from 'Boomer Flats'

I'm studying Lafferty's short story 'Boomer Flats' right now for my forthcoming essay for Feast of Laughter volume 3.  Just had to share the following excerpt.  Up to this point in the story, the style has been fairly plain (but Lafferty's prose at its plainest still tends to be graceful, taut, and often lyrical - even if the difficult concepts and narrative experimentations sometimes obscure his generally mellifluous style).  I suspect the sudden change in style here reflects the new and strange and heightened setting the characters have suddenly found themselves within, for they have entered a sort of 'shadow' town not shown on maps, in search of monsters. 

Dr. Velikof Vonk twinkled his deep eyes in their orbital caves: perhaps he cogitated his massive brain behind his massive orbital ridges: and he arrived, by sheer mentality, at the next step. 
“Have you a menu, young lady?” he asked. 
“No,” she answered simply, but it wasn't simple at all. Her voice didn't go with her prettiness. It was much more intricate than her appearance, even in that one syllable. It was powerful, not really harsh, deep and resonant as caverns, full and timeless. The girl was big-boned beneath her prettiness, with heavy brindled hair and complex eyes. 

“We would like something to eat,” Arpad Arkabaranan ventured. “What do you have?” 

“They're fixing it for you now,” the girl said. “I'll bring it after a while.” 

There was a rich river smell about the whole place, and the room was badly lit. 

“Her voice is an odd one,” Arpad whispered in curious admiration. “Like rocks rolled around by water, but it also has a touch of springtime in it, springtime of a very peculiar quality.” 

“Not just a springtime; it's an interstadial time,” Willy McGilly stated accurately. “I've noticed that about them in other places. It's old green season in their voices, green season between the ice.” 

The room was lit only by hanging lamps. They had a flicker to them. They were not electric. 

“There's a lot of the gas-light era in this place,” Arpad gave the opinion, “but the lights aren't gas lights either.” 

“No, they're hanging oil lamps,” Velikof said. “An amusing fancy just went through my head that they might be old whale-oil lamps.”

“Girl, what do you burn in the hanging lamps?” Willy McGilly asked her. 

“Catfish oil,” she said in the resonant voice that had a touch of the green interstadial time in it. And catfish oil burns with a clay-colored flame. 

“Can you bring us drinks while we wait?” Velikof of the massive head asked. 

“They're fixing them for you now,” the girl said. “I'll bring them after a while.” 

Meanwhile on the old pool table the Comet was beating the hairy man at rotation. Nobody could beat the Comet at rotation. 

“We came here looking for strange creatures,” Arpad said in the direction of the girl. “Do you know anything about strange creatures or people, or where they can be found?” 

“You are the only strange people who have come here lately,” she told them. Then she brought their drinks to them, three great sloshing clay cups or bulbous stems that smelled strongly of river, perhaps of interstadial river. She set them in front of the eminents with something like a twinkle in her eyes; something like, but much more. It was laughing lightning flashing from under the ridges of that pretty head. She was awaiting their reaction.

Velikof cocked a big deep eye at his drink. This itself was a feat. Other men hadn't such eyes, or such brows above them, as had Velikof Vonk. They took a bit of cocking, and it wasn't done lightly. And Velikof grinned out of deep folk memory as he began to drink.
~R. A. Lafferty, 'Boomer Flats' (1971) 

I think it's a pretty good example of Lafferty's odd yet robust prose when he really lets it out of its cage (though he can wax even richer and wilder than this).  The dialogue sparkles, humour abounds, yet the language becomes injected with imagery of the huge and redolent, hinting at a dark, green, muddy, deep vitality beneath the effervescent chatter.

This exchange between the 'eminent scientists' and Crayola Catfish (the waitress) is followed by plenty more fearful wonders and laughing horrors in 'Boomer Flats', but the high-ish prose style here starts to crack and recede, probably to reflect one of the characters' stubborn unbelief in the redemptively monstrous nature of the place and people they've encountered (and which they discover is in themselves as well).

The description of Velikof's eyes here also reminds me of some passages in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian where men's eyes are described similarly, as caves and the like, but I'm not going to go hunt up the exact references right now.  Here too the woman's voice is said to call forth deep geological time, green spring times between ice ages - deep geology being another theme dear to McCarthy also, especially in Blood Meridian.  Both McCarthy and Lafferty share a tendency to describe human features - soulish as well as bodily - in the imagery of landscapes (as well as other aspects of ecology).  Another example from Lafferty that springs to mind is the enthralling description of a man's large and contoured hand at the opening of his short story 'Hands of the Man' (1970).  

Here in 'Boomer Flats' you can see the clear connection Lafferty is making between ecology and people, between the non-human and human, troubling a complete disjunction, re-enfolding subjects into objects. Notably in this story, outside of the excerpt above, Lafferty folds regional fauna and humanity together as well, especially catfish and bears.  These kinds of anthropo-eco boundary blurrings and hybridities are part of what I mean by the  'ecomonstrous' and what I'm researching in Lafferty's writing.  (The PhD is now 100% funded by the way, thanks to the generosity of a lot of kind and supportive folks out there.)

('Boomer Flats' was first published in IF magazine, then the collection Does Anyone Else Have Something Further To Add?; but I'm obviously not the first to see the story's eco implications as it was also later included in this 1994 anthology)

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Prelude to Lafferty's Weirder Tales

I want to review Lafferty's short story 'For All Poor Folks At Picketwire' (1975) next, but I feel compelled to try to get this off my chest first.  It's probably completely unnecessary for a lot of readers, but it's something that puzzles and intrigues me.  Feel free to demur from or expand on the view expressed below.

Since I first started publicly writing about Lafferty in 2009, I've claimed that Lafferty is weird, odd, strange, experimental, and bizarre in a way that the first-time reader is just not going to expect. Nothing will have prepared you for how Lafferty goes about being offbeat, even 'crazy'.  I know that people often hear about 'the Lafferty madness' (as the likes of Harlan Ellison and Samuel Delany called it when Lafferty's fiction emerged on the scene in the 1960s) and they understandably think of the experimentations of the likes of Captain Beefheart perhaps, or the paranoid but fascinating open and subversive universe of the likes of Philip K. Dick perhaps.  Or you name it.  Whatever your background makes you think of when you hear the claim that someone is utterly original and 'insane' and the like, that thing you're thinking of, it's almost guaranteed to not be an apt comparison or preparation for Lafferty.

Even as I say all this - that no one is like Lafferty, nothing can prepare you for his brand of weirdness - you're getting the wrong idea!  Why?  Because when we hear such encomiums we generally think of one of two things (or both).  We think either of something crazy in a really cool and 'hip' sort of way, something experimentally-minded college students might get into maybe, or something a well-(if-defiantly-)dressed 'alternative' crowd of one variety or another might champion. I get that.  I was a teenage punk rocker and never grew out of it.  When I think of crazy and original, I think of bands like The Birthday Party or The Fall (or in an alterna-metal direction, Mike Patton and his projects Mr. Bungle and Fantomas).  If you're thinking speculative literature, you might think Neil Gaiman or China Mieville.  If film, maybe David Lynch or the wackier and wilder aspects of the Coen brothers or Tarantino.  But Lafferty's work is not (or not immediately) like all this, not soaked in these kinds of aesthetic assumptions and expressions.

On the other hand, the 'crazy-original' claims might make us think of really 'out there' bizarro examples like maybe Daniel Johnston or the aforementioned Captain Beefheart.  If film, then maybe the likes of Terry Gilliam or John Waters.  This impression is closer to the mark.  But in most of these cases there can still be an aura of (usually countercultural) 'coolness' about the weirdness.

Now don't get me wrong.  I often exclaim 'Cool!' in response to what I read in Lafferty.  But I mean it the way I meant it as a kid in the 80s - an expression of sheer enthusiasm for something that strikes me as in some way excellent.  Not as a confirmation of something's 'hipness', something's trendy now-ness, even by 'alternative' or 'indie' standards.  Nor do I mean to deny that Lafferty is deeply countercultural in his own way (indeed, he's probably better called counter-ontological so reality-bending is his work and perspective).  Lafferty was indeed what he called a 'queer fish', swimming crankily but joyously against the mainstream.

I also don't want my denial that Lafferty is 'cool' to give the impression that his weirdness is 'geeky'. Lafferty isn't comic-con weird either.  Lafferty can, in certain respects, fit in both worlds - the geeks and the hipsters.  Yet he is a misfit in both as well.  That was seen to be the case when the 1960s/70s New Wavers of U.S. science fiction - Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delany, and the like - championed Lafferty.  They never lost their love of Lafferty's work, but they eventually didn't know how to categorise him as he was clearly not of or in the fold.  All in all, Lafferty is by turns too literary, too genre, too experimental, too dark, too comic, or too difficult for various groups.  That's why his work has tended to generate its own category of literature (what Theodore Sturgeon called 'lafferties') and its own following of Laffertyans or Laffertians, a diverse fan base comprised of all schools and allegiances, the unifying commonality being that they are struck and captured by Lafferty's unique genius.

So what should you think of when you hear that Lafferty is 'a genius, an oddball, a madman' and 'a genre in himself' (Neil Gaiman) or that 'Lafferty has the power which sets fires behind your eyeballs' (Zelazny) or that Lafferty 'bends or breaks normal story restrictions apparently at will' and has 'the most unfettered imagination' (Terry Carr) or that 'Lafferty is fun, sophisticated, and utterly insane', 'a madman, a wild talent' (Reader's Guide to SF)?

Well, maybe start by thinking of the likes of Amos Tutuola or Black Elk.  Like them, Lafferty is a native primal force, an individual that grows out of the fecund soil of an ancient communal worldview and speaks the cosmic magical vision of a people, stamped with his own idiosyncrasy, sure, but overflowing with more than what one individual could ever imagine or convey.  Yet Lafferty had more than one soil to grow out of - not only his family's Irish-Catholic soil, but also the Southwestern American Frontier and the lives and lore of his Native American neighbours.  If you cut Lafferty, he bleeds all three.

Further complicating this possible resonance, Lafferty was classically educated in Augustinian and Thomist traditions, well-read in history and theology and philosophy, knowledgable of the hard and soft sciences, abreast of some major 20th-century developments in thought such as Jungian psychology and Teilhardian cosmology. Lafferty was a largely self-taught but impressive polymath. So his weirdness is going to be not only primally visionary like Tutuola and Black Elk, but also inevitably book-learned (albeit inclusive of some cranks and conspiracy theorists).  So maybe when you hear about Lafferty's mad experimentation you should be thinking also of Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.  Or in a slightly different register, the wildnesses of Chesterton's buoyant dialectics and carnivalisations.   (The weirdest parts of Kafka might be appropriate here too, but minus the unmitigated bleakness.)

Yet Lafferty is even more than the above hybridity of Mystic and Man-of-Letters (+ a pinch of crackpot) suggests, for he also embodies regional and class (Oklahoma and blue-collar) dialects, dictions, and perspectives that liberally salt his visions and sophistications with homespun wit and wisdom.  And these perspectives puncture a whole helluva lot of pomposity and intelligentsia-speak along the way (though they don't foreclose Lafferty's own arcane and sesquipedalian theorisings, which are frequently embedded into his stories).  I suppose Lafferty might be a bit of a Mark Twain in his knowing and humorous use of colloquialism, except that he comes across as more thoroughly from these classes, child of an extended frontier family as he was.  This sincere rusticism is one crucial way in which Lafferty will surprise many a reader expecting The Cool Weird from him.

Now, all that said, once you've encountered and immersed yourself in Lafferty a while, it's not altogether unlikely that you will indeed end up thinking of him as a literary-yet-rustic Beefheart or Lynch, an 'outsider artist' and auteur in one.  And dammit, Lafferty's weirdness is cool!  So utterly cool, what would've made us 80s kids exclaim with approbation:  'Bad!'  And it does get crazy weird and beautifully bizarre and sometimes disturbing.  And its weirdness is deep, because Lafferty, like Lovecraft, is playing for keeps.  This is a cosmic view of things that gets beneath the surface into the ontic architecture of existence.

All right, let's get back to reading these stories one by one.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Short Story Review # 8: Heart Of Stone, Dear (1983)


This is a rare one, existing only the Chris Drumm booklet of the same name (and now in a nicely made electronic 'pirated' collection).  To me, this is one of Lafferty's tales full of singular and memorable elements that nevertheless doesn't quite hold together as an all round solid story.  It is definitely of interest in that it is woven of many fibres that overlap with the rest of Lafferty's fiction. For example, it features a central and likeable Syrian character as do a number of Lafferty's other stories and novels (e.g. 'Funnyfingers' and Fourth Mansions). (The relevance of this Syrian character for current news is not lost on me.  See my comments about this at the end of this review.)  It features a heist as do many Lafferty stories in one form or another (again 'Hands of the Man' comes to mind). It includes a giant livestock-eating bird as does the, to me, superior story 'Oh Tell Me Will It Freeze Tonight'. And it mentions the failure to reach the Second Age of Benevolent Magic, a phrase which ties it to 'In Deepest Glass' and perhaps other stories.  It deals with a magical Islamic relic and is also a Philosopher's Stone story (I'm not sure how much these overlap with similar elements elsewhere in Lafferty's fiction).  And it's another of Lafferty's stories of youthful unrequited love, again connecting it to 'Funnyfingers' as well as 'Eurema's Dam' and others.  Makes you wonder what Laff's own youthful experience was with the amorous.

The other central character introduced in the second half of the story, Alfred Freck, a 'thin little boy with red hair' and 'colorless gray eyes', is interesting as well.  Alfred embodies the general geologophilia permeating all of Lafferty's fiction, but also more specifically the ideas of living and 'remembering' stones that Lafferty broaches in various stories such as 'From The Thunder Colt's Mouth', 'Love Affair With Ten Thousand Springs', and 'Bank and Shoal of Time'.  This gives Lafferty and opportunity to make one of his many, many rhapsodic lists of erudition:
He was very lucky in his collecting. He said that the special stones called to him to come and get them. He had hundreds of garnets, red and orange (his red hair was the exact color of orange garnet) and black and green and almost colorless gray. This latter is the gray that sometimes clarifies; it is mostly found in spherical or ‘onion’ crystal. It is the ‘Crystal Ball rock’, and is also the exact color of Alfred Freck's gray eyes. 
Alfred had garnets that were more than a foot in diameter. He had emeralds and rubies, jade-stones and opal-stones. He understood the stones and could recognize all of them when they were still imbedded in their clay. Some of them were remembering stones and some of them were whispering stones. They told him about the big stone that is the Emperor of all the stones on the Earth.
There's a lot of other delightful and magical imagery.  It's a work of fantasy proper by Laff, I'd say, which is slightly rare in his body of work it seems to me.  Most things he writes can either very roughly fit into some kind of broadly science-fictional scheme or are more historical fiction in nature, with elements of folklore and magical realism (not quite the same thing as fantasy in my opinion). But this 20th century Arabian-American wonder story is solidly fantasy.  (It goes nicely with 'Phoenic' in that regard I'd say.)

One last thing I want to say.  With this week's news about refugees ringing in my ears, I can't help but be struck that I'm reading a story by an Oklahoma Catholic Irishman, which features a sympathetic Syrian character - as I've said, it's a recurring phenomenon in Lafferty's fiction.  It is just such curious and generous portraits of our racial others that can widen our empathies, preparing us for just and compassionate attitudes and actions toward our global neighbours.  May this kind of racially empathetic imagination increase and may our hearts of stone be replaced with hearts of flesh (a biblical allusion of which I doubt Lafferty was unaware).

* 'Heart of Stone, Dear' discussion on Facebook

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Offering a few of my extra copies of Lafferty as perks...

Well, I'm offering a few of my extra copies of Lafferty books as perks for contributors to my Indiegogo PhD campaign: www.indiegogo.com/projects/ecomonstrous-phd. I was writing up a wee piece about it to put on that site, but found it didn't really fit there. So I'm putting it here! It's always fun for a rabid Lafferty fan to have an excuse to sum up the genius of Lafferty and his works. Here it is:

I’ve suggested that what makes this PhD unique is not only the idea of the ‘ecomonstrous’ itself, but also that one of the main authors being researched is the largely unknown R. A. Lafferty (1914-2002).  Despite his obscurity, Lafferty has some famous and influential fans among his cult following. Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Gene Wolfe, and even the actor Bill Hader have all gushed about how Lafferty was a literary ‘mad genius’.  

Take Gaiman’s obituary for Lafferty in the Washington Post:  

R.A. Lafferty [...] was undoubtedly the finest writer of whatever it was that he did that ever there was. He was a genius, an oddball, a madman. His stories [...] are without precedent [...] comparisons are pointless. The world only got one Lafferty. [...] Funny, wise and odd, his tales are unique. [...] He was a genre in himself, and a Lafferty story is unlike any story by anybody else: tall tales from the Irish by way of Heaven, the far stars and Tulsa, Okla.’

Or take Bill Hader’s characteristically funny comments about Lafferty’s fiction in the New York Times in 2008:

It’s hilarious, incredibly funny and at the same time it’s insanely dark. [...] You get such a sense of joy and boundless imagination in every sentence – even if the story doesn’t totally cohere, you feel like it’s about something. It’s so incredibly Tulsa. You get that feeling when you see a Flaming Lips show. It’s not like we’re dark and hurt and twisted. It’s like, “I’ve got blood on my face – come on, y’all, this is awesome.”’

Alas, Lafferty is almost totally out of print these days, except for expensive limited edition print runs. Used copies of his books from the 60s to the 80s can be very expensive. Lafferty’s odd genius is probably most easily encountered in the hundreds of short stories he wrote, but the only extra copies I have available are of a few of his novels.  They’ll throw you in the deep end with Lafferty, but I’ve heard of quite a number of fans first encountering him through his novels and becoming hooked.  So for the more daring among you, here’s your chance to give it a go!  (Or for the Lafferty fans already out there, a chance to pick up a title or two you may not’ve managed to obtain yet.)

(click on photo for larger, clearer image)

  • Past Master (1968) - x 2 - Utopia in the future, on another planet:  time travel, monsters, androids, aliens, spaceships - but in a way only Lafferty could do!  Bizarre journeys, sardonic homilies, gory battles, and weird wonders!  Philosophies and grotesqueries galore!  And more! (Plus, you gotta love the pulpy cover of this 1970s mass-market paperback edition.)

  • Not To Mention Camels (1976) - This is truly one of Lafferty’s WEIRDEST works.  It makes Past Master look like a conventional novel.  It’s about multiple worlds, written in a highly analytical and yet bloody way as only Lafferty would write it. A bit of a brain-melter to be honest. Its anti-hero is a particularly unlikable politician jumping from one version of himself to another in different versions of the worlds - and sometimes the utterly freakish places between worlds.  It gets pretty gruesome and dark at moments, but its biting satire of personality cults and media lords can be kind of wickedly funny, and its wilder passages provide their own grotesque pleasures.  If you read it, you definitely have to round it out with some of Lafferty’s more redemptive works.  (This copy’s a print-on-demand paperback from 2000 by Wildside Press, but I actually kind of like this cover art.)

  • Okla Hannali (1972) - This novel is a different kettle of fish from the previous two.  It may well someday find its place in the canon of 20th century American Literature alongside other classics of the American frontier.  It’s the only book of Lafferty’s that has actually never gone out of print.  It’s a work of historical fiction about the 19th century Choctaw tribe, especially one Paul Bunyan-esque leader and his family, but it mixes in elements of ‘tall tales’ and folklore in such a way that makes it something of a rare example of ‘magical realism’ from the USA.  It is tragic, poignant, comic, thrilling, consciousness-raising, and historically astute by turns. I found that its cumulative effect stirred me with both melancholy and wonder. It genuinely deserves to be more widely known.  (This is a fairly sturdy print-on-demand paperback from the University of Oklahoma Press.)

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