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

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