Monday, January 8, 2024

Introduction to Fourth Mansions

About six years ago, some of the good folks at the Locus Science Fiction Foundation approached me to write an introduction to a new edition of Fourth Mansions. It being almost six years since we finished the back and fourth editing and cleaning up of my draft, I begin to worry that the proposed edition might not be forthcoming. 

So without further ado, here is my draft:

Introduction to Fourth Mansions by R. A. Lafferty

Introduction (c) 2018, Kevin Cheek
Fourth Mansions (c) 1969, R. A. Lafferty 

This is an immensely hopeful book. In the decades since I first encountered Fourth Mansions, I have returned to it time and time again to renew my sense of hope for humanity’s future. At its core, it offers the hope that any common everyman may be able to rise up and lead us through our current travails (no matter when you are reading this) and bring us to the next level of spiritual, intellectual, and cultural evolution. 

First, a little about R. A. Lafferty, the self-proclaimed “cranky old man from Tulsa.” He was born in 1914 and lived most of his life in Oklahoma. He didn’t start publishing stories until his mid 40s, and was in his mid 50s when he published Fourth Mansions. He was a devout Roman Catholic, and his Catholicism informed everything he wrote. However, this might not be Catholicism as many of us would recognize it. He was deeply educated in the history of Catholic theology, and many of his references are based on the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine. His faith may have often caused him to look with dismay on our cultural failings, but it also filled him with hope about our potential. 

Fourth Mansions is directly based on Interior Castle, a book on spiritual meditation by Teresa of Avila written in 1577. She used the idea of a journey through a large castle as a metaphor for the evolution of the human spirit. Each dwelling or “mansion” within the castle represents a different state of spiritual progress. As a person progresses through stages of spiritual evolution, he or she moves from mansion to mansion within the castle. In the first through third mansions, the soul is driven to perfect itself through prayer and desire to know God. In the fourth mansion, the soul has reached a plateau, and the forces of sin and evil try hardest at this level to distract the soul and knock it back to the beginning of its journey. In the fifth through seventh mansions, having successfully survived the perils of the fourth, the soul progresses through increasing stages of grace and perfection, ultimately to achieve union with God in the seventh. 

Lafferty bases Fourth Mansions on the idea that human civilization is developing through a similar journey of evolution to the spiritual seeker in Teresa of Avila’s book. Humanity is in the fourth mansion--we have achieved so much over the past decades and centuries that we are on the verge of greatness. With humanity becoming a fine apple to pluck, external forces start pushing in to control us. 

Fourth Mansions tells the story of a young cub reporter, Freddy Foley, as he discovers four distinct conspiracies that assail mankind. Lafferty creates a bestiary--a set of animals to represent each conspiracy: 

  • The Toads, who sleep hidden underground for years or centuries, only to return and frustrate mankind’s development whenever we are at risk of achieving greatness. They are influential people who reappear again and again over history.

  • The Pythons, or Hydras, which lash out and try to remake the world. They are dilettantes and intellectuals with extraordinary psychic powers of projection and communication. They want to make a better world, but have no morality, and try only to aggrandize themselves. 

  • The Unfledged Falcons, which represent the militant over-reaction to change. These are bloody revolutionary movements and sudden militias.

  • The Badgers, who love mankind and watch the gates of the castle. They guard against the other conspiracies, and are against any change at all.

Lafferty uses a lot of tricks to move Freddy’s story along. Enough happens in this slim volume for a door-stopper-thick trilogy by other authors. He invents an instantaneous psychic mode of communication called a brain weave, by which he is able to switch the narrative back and forth across thousands of miles without leaving the close point of view of Freddy Foley. For example, at one point Freddy is sitting in an institution in Washington, DC, and because he has been brushed by the brain weave, he is able to watch a friend back in Oklahoma compose a lecture. 

Lafferty often makes seemingly offhand remarks that later become repeated memes or handles, and help the reader keep track of the story and characters. At one point he describes a character as having twisted passion. “Not twisted,” the character comments, “it’s helical--that sounds better.” From then on every time he mentions "helical passion," you know he is talking about that character. 

He often describes things in metaphor. For example, he introduces several characters by describing what kind of paintings they are. The paintings don’t have anything to do with their appearance, but the personality of the paintings match the personality of the characters. Look at this introduction: 

“Wing Manion reminded one of a fish done by Paul Klee: not in her actual appearance, of course, but in her style. Yet she was good-looking, and Klee never painted a good-looking fish in his life. Those Klee fishes, though, they have passion.”

And to top it all off, Lafferty gleefully mixes levels of metaphor and reality. Many of the events he describes may only be happening on a subconscious level. Often the characters are not even aware in their waking minds that such things are taking place. In one scene, Freddy needs to contact his girlfriend a thousand miles away: 

“Freddy called her up, not by phone. Other forms of communication had come onto him lately almost without his noticing them. He got her but could not get her attention. She was lounging on subterranean beaches and wild dogs were tearing her apart. “You’re missing pieces, you’re missing the best pieces,” she kept calling at the tearing dogs. “All you’re tearing off is the legs. Don’t any of you like the white meat?”

Freddy couldn’t get her attention that way. Finally he called her on the telephone and she answered on the fourth ring…”

Did I mention that this book can be very funny at times? 

Ultimately, as Freddy starts to unravel the mysteries of the four conspiracies, we begin to see that he may have the strength of will and simple clarity of vision to lead humanity through to the next mansion. 

I said this is an immensely hopeful book. Freddy stands in as a representative of assailed humanity. Any one of us may have the fortitude and clarity of vision to help us all succeed. I say “any” one of us, not some select person. Unlike fantasies where a single person, living in common squalor, is unknowingly the heir of great power and possibility--like young Wart in The Once and Future King becoming King Arthur, or like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker. In Freddy Foley, we have a person who represents every one of us common humans. If he can stay true to his compass and lead us through, then each of us can do the same. Of course, with that ability comes the responsibility to try. 

In many ways, Fourth Mansions feels more timely today than in 1969 when it was first published. Over the last two centuries, the world has been advancing at an ever-increasing rate. It feels like we can’t quite keep up--if we could only get a finger-hold in the present, we could become truly great. The conspiracies that Lafferty imagines are really metaphors for our own tendencies and proclivities. The world is not assailed by four discreet conspiracies, but by millions of individuals who want to steer it to their own profit. Yet, following Freddy Foley’s model, each of us--even you, even I--can become the leader that takes us all to greatness. The scariest part of this book is the duty it thrusts into our hands to lead us to the next mansion. Will it be the first again, or the fifth? It’s up to you, really!

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Waking to Mountains

"Frog on the Mountain" is one of the Great Stories. 

Last weekend, we went up to the town of Dillon for a chamber music festival (mindblowingly great concert, by the way, check 'em out: We stayed overnight, and the view from our hotel window in the morning reminded me of the opening phrase of "Frog on the Mountain":

He woke to mountains.

Re-reading it, I was struck again by how beautifully crafted the opening is, from the first "He woke to mountains" to the second utterance of the same phrase. 

Go back and re-read those first few pages. I'll wait.

Garamask's assertion that he hates space, but loves worlds brings to mind the Bradbury story, "No Particular Night or Morning," which is a dialogue between two extremes, embodied in the characters of two passengers of a spaceship far between planets in deep space. Hitchcock cannot believe in anything he cannot see and touch, so he no longer believes in Earth. He then begins to doubt even his immediate memories and deteriorates into disbelief of everything. Clemens has enough imagination to bolster his memories and experience Earth in his mind, allowing him to believe in it.

Garamask expresses with great vitality the need to experience worlds directly, and accuses the distance of space of destroying that experience: 

"I have, let us say, a passion for a certain unkempt and mountainous world, but space comes near to destroying that passion in me; for I have seen that world appear on the scope like a microbe, and I will watch it disappear like a microbe again. I have studied epic and towering things under the microscope. And when I put away the microscope, I know that the towering things are really too small to see. From the aspect of space, all the towering and wild worlds that I love are things too small to see or to believe in. I love a big world, and I hate space for spoiling that bigness."

While he is vital and direct, he is also lacking a fundamental imagination that allows the rest of us to conceive of worlds we cannot experience. The captain calls him on this:  

"Mr. Garamask, weren't you ever young?” the Captain asked him.   
"I am young yet, Captain. I am physically the fittest man on this ship. And this is a very young and aspiring idea that I am effecting now." 
"Ah, were you never something else, Mr. Garamask, not quite so young, and much more awkward?"

This awkwardness is a huge part of what makes us human. The Oganta have it in abundance. It is funny that Garamask is undeniably the hero of the story, but he cannot partake of the awkwardness. 

"Frog on the Mountain" is very much in the vein of Fourth Mansions in that Garamask has to incorporate the strengths of all four monsters to be a "fully charged human." He has to fight each monster in its element and style, to essentially become the monster to defeat it, so he must incorporate the characteristics of "Sinek the cat-lion, Riksino the bear, Shasos the eagle-condor, and Bater-Jeno the crag-ape or the frog-man (depending on the translation)." He handily defeats the first three monsters (though Riksino only with help).  

The story leaves us in the middle of the last battle. Garamask is clearly a Hemmingway-esque adventurer-hero. In a mid-century American story in the standard mold, the adventurer-hero wins a clever and decisive victory--usually one that emphasizes his values and worth as a man. However, with that opening exchange between the Captain and Garamask, Lafferty shows gives us some uncertainty. The primary characteristic of Bater-Jeno is the awkwardness of the Oganta. Can Garamask overcome his own nature to beat Chavo the Oganta at his own oafish and awkward game? We cannot be sure of the outcome.

Back to the opening: Those first few perfectly crafted pages change our understanding of the story. By giving us that exchange, Lafferty does two things that he revels and excels in. Firstly, He sets up the story we are about to read--the rugged spacefarer taking on the challenges of a new world with only his wits and vitality--while deliberately subverting the storyline. Secondly, he leads us to imagine experiencing directly a powerful and beautiful action, waking to mountains.

The view from my hotel room window in Dillon, CO in the morning.
Buffalo Mountain 12,772 ft. and Red Peak 13,182 ft.

Text and photo (c) 2021, Kevin Cheek

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

More Thoughts on The Fall of Rome

I've been reading Martin Crookall's weekly blog posts on Lafferty in his blog Author for Sale. He recently posted his entry on The Fall of Rome. I responded to his blog, and thought I should also repost my comments here.

Darrell Schweitzer wrote a wonderful introduction to The Fall of Rome for an edition that never saw print. He talked about the way history was written during the Roman Empire and immediately thereafter. The job of the historians then was to create something beautiful that also recounted the history. From that point of view, The Fall of Rome succeeds beautifully, it is deeply fun to read and also shows us a perspective on the Goths that most of us would ever have considered.

It is a fabulistic history. It gives us the accurate bones, but with flesh that must be somewhat fictional. Darrell Schweitzer points out the example of the conversation between Alaric and the ghost of his father. No-one was there to report the dialog, and no transcript has survived. Yet the story becomes part of the background for Alaric’s dual loyalties between the Goths and the Empire.

Did the Gulf of Corinth freeze at Alaric’s command to let his army escape Stilicho? Most likely not, but this story tells us he did make an unlikely escape. Alaric and/or his supporters may have also used the story of this improbable escape to help build up his own mythos in his time.

Lafferty tells us as much, I think, by including the little bit about Atrox Fabulinius (which could be english-ized as “Atrocious Liar”). Essentially, the truth is in there, but in this case history serves story, rather than the other way around.

And what a story it serves! This is a book you can read for the great overarching story of the collapse of the Res Romana, for the narration of strategies and battles and shifting loyalties, or just for the sheer joy of Lafferty’s word-craft. I frequently would have to stop and revel in individual sentences or paragraphs. For example, the paragraph early in the book where he is discussing what remnants and artifacts survive to tell us about the culture of the Goths in the early 5th century AD.

"The dance is something with no survival, lacking verbal or pictoral record. The Goths may have had it. If they painted, it was not in a medium or on a material that has survived. Their history was unwritten. Their scientific speculation may not have gone beyond mead-table discussions and arguments. There is no record of their early philosophy. Since they were Germans, they must have constructed philosophical systems; and also, since they were Germans, these would have been erroneous."

And that’s not even the best line in the book, merely the one that was on the top of my mind from recent conversation.

Darrell Schweitzer’s introduction is included in his book The Fantastic Horizon: Essays and Reviews, and reprinted with his kind permission in Feast of Laughter, Volume 3.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Deeper We Go, or Oh What a Tangled WWW we Read, or More Links than a Sausage Factory

This is the double edged sword of reading Lafferty with a Web browser handy. Martin Crookall, in his Author For Sale blog, recently posted his thoughts on Archipelago

Reading this reflection led me to reflect on my experience reading Archipelago and discussions various Lafferty fans and I have had about it. I especially loved the interlude where Hans is sitting in a cafe in a drunken reverie thinking about talking to Marie Monaghan and then transitioning into actually talking with her, with no real transition in the narrative between the two states. You can read the passage on DOJP's wonderful blog here: (and of course, I blogged about it here:

Reading this, I paused over the passage where Hans is trying to figure out how to describe Marie's eyes. She had green eyes, and he didn't know how the classics would have described them. He reflects on a verse:

"Nicolette had eyes of vair,

Something, something, yellow hair—" 

But vair had become vert with the disintegration of the French soul, and it was no longer the green of the Troubadors: ignorant wise men even said that vair was a shade of gray. 

So, I highlighted the line "Nicolette had eyes of vair", right clicked, and chose Search Google. This led me to someone having a very similar rumination about the meaning of "vair" to describe eyes in Aucassin and Nicolette: a Love Story by Francis William Bourdillion published in 1867, an examination of the medieval romance of the same name: 

Looking for a bit of background led me to the Wikipedia article. Wikipedia is my constant friend when reading Lafferty's novels. Aucassin et Nicolette is a late 12th C or early 13th C novel. It is a love story across class lines and of the Love-wins-over-Duty genre. It is a chantefable, a combination of prose and verse, so every few paragraphs, at least one of the characters bursts into song.  Here's the article:

So I went back to my Google search window and searched for "Nicolette had eyes of vair yellow hair". This brought me to one of those specific instances of song in a 1910 translation of Aucassin and Nicolette.:

Here one singeth: 

There were gathered shepherds all.
Martin, Esmeric, and Hal,
Aubrey, Robin, great and small.
Saith one, "Good fellows all,
God keep Aucassin the fair,
And the maid with yellow hair,
Bright of brow and eyes of vair.
She that gave us gold to ware.
Cakes therewith to buy ye know,
Goodly knives and sheaths also.
Flutes to play and pipes to blow,
May God him heal!  

And the link to that search is here:

As has become my usual experience falling down the rabbit holes of Lafferty's classical allusions, there is substance at the bottom of even the most throwaway-seeming remark. It's just that Lafferty, and his characters, are far more well-read than I!

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Why Fourth Mansions?

I have commented often that Fourth Mansions is my favorite book by any author in any genre. Why do I feel so strongly about it? 

  1. The sheer joy and exuberance of the writing. Lafferty's way of introducing characters with seemingly unrelated bits of information that as the book progresses become repeated and increasingly important. 
  2. The sense that there is more going on than is apparent on this side of the curtain. This is a perhaps a tired trope, but somehow Lafferty telegraphs the idea that these are not specific actual conspiracies, but allegory for our own conflicting inner forces. 
  3. The wonderful play he has with metaphor and different levels of reality. When Biddy Bencher is lying on subterranean beaches being torn apart by wild dogs, and she is complaining that they are only taking her legs. At the same time she is in her room listening to the stereo. Both are true, but one is true to her character while the other events are occurring in a more mundane reality. 
  4. Perhaps most importantly, Fourth Mansions is an immensely hopeful book. Freddy Foley is not a hereditary chosen one, he stands in fore each and every one of us malodorous worms in the middle, for every everylout. That he can integrate the strengths of the four monsters and lead humanity through to the fifth mansion, means that each one of us has that potential!

Saturday, September 29, 2018

How I Discovered Fourth Mansions

Some decades ago, I believe it was the summer I was 18--so 1984-ish, I would head on Fridays after work at my summer construction job  to a local independent Santa Fe bookstore. Someone would always bring a six-pack of Tecate, and the owner would have limes to cut for the beer bottles. A group of us would sit around drinking beer and talking about Science Fiction. There was a young lady among the Friday afternoon regulars who was married to an exiled Czechoslovakian poet and political activist. Her husband lived in hiding in Los Alamos, NM unable to leave the confines of their compound out of fear of extradition. She would often read us her translations of her husband's poetry. One day, we were talking about Science Fiction's ability to explore the inner workings of government while being too outrĂ© to attract censorship. She thrust a copy of Fourth Mansions into my hands and told me it would help me understand what is really going on.

I read Fourth Mansions that summer, and it rapidly became my favorite book, by any author in any genre. A number of things in the book resonated with me immediately. I loved the idea of the brain weave because I had a close group of friends I had gone to high school with. We played Dungeons and Dragons together pretty much every weekend from the ages of 14, camped together, ran track together, and sat and blew off and read science fiction together. We had a close group dynamic that felt almost telepathic. It was a very little stretch to imagine that the group the Harvesters could literally move the world with a more intense science-fictional version of that same group dynamic.

In high school, we had a very strong art history curriculum, and over Christmas break a year and a half earlier, my group of friends and I had traveled to California and seen the Holbein exhibit at the Getty museum in Malibu (this was long before the new Getty Museum had been built in downtown LA). When Lafferty introduced each of the Harvesters by comparing them to paintings, I could see the paintings in my mind’s eye and have a sense of the personality he was describing.

I really loved the idea that many events in the story could have been happening only on a metaphorical level,  from the confusion that Miguel Fuentes might have been a part of Michael Fountain’s under-mind rather than a distinct person, to Biddy lounging on subterranean beaches with wild dogs tearing her apart, to the final battle of Jim Bauer and Arouet Manion as giant snakes or bulls on a crumbling cliff edge.

And especially I resonated with the idea that there is more going on in the world than met the eye. I was going into my sophomore year of college, and I had a sense of evolving possibly into something great, and that there innumerable stumbling blocks in my way that could prevent me from reaching that greatness. More than anything, I responded to the sense of hope in the book that each of us can achieve evolution.

I do not believe that the Badgers, the Pythons, the Toads, and the Unfledged Falcons in any way reflects real conspiracies against the Human world. I believe they stand as a metaphor for the millions or billions of individual plots hatched by every person who wants a piece of the world pie. Plots that are no more than daydreams and minor greed, but that show the conflicted nature of each individual human. At least that's my interpretation.

Since that summer, I have read Fourth Mansions at least 7 times, and I get more out of it every time. To this day it remains my favorite book by any author in any genre. However, I still don't know how the wife of the Czechoslovakian poet interpreted it (and I still haven’t returned her book).

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

When Should We Read Fourth Mansions? Now More Than Ever

I was chatting about a sequence for republishing Lafferty novels. The obvious first choice is Past Master, because it is a rollicking, action-packed, and often deeply funny novel that is perhaps his most approachable book. But after Past Master, what next?

One obvious selection would be Okla Hannali. After the DAPL protests, a lot of focus has been placed on Native American issues. Okla Hannali is one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century. I firmly believe the U of O Press are among the genuinely good guys of the world, and I love the edition they publish. What I'd like to see is full-court press to get their edition advertised better, placed on the bookshelves of major chain bookstores under American Lit or Native American stories, and first and foremost urged into American Studies curriculums across the country. I really think this country could become a better place if more people read that book.

That being said, I have a different recommendation for the next Lafferty novel. Fourth Mansions feels more relevant today than it did when it was written. There is a feeling in today's world that things are not what they seem. That we are on the verge of greatness or breakthrough and being prevented by forces beyond both our control and our understanding. Ultimately, Fourth Mansions is a very hopeful book--full of the promise that we common everymen, we everylouts can master the monsters that beset us and bring about the next step in our collective development. It is a variation of the hope that The Once and Future King and the Harry Potter books offered--the hope the each of us could secretly be the chosen one, the one capable of leading humanity to success. However in Fourth Mansions though the gifts fall to Freddy Foley, he stands in for every one of us. The power is available to all people, not restricted to a single chosen one.

It'd have been great if Fourth Mansions could have been re-released when the fever over the Dan Brown book was at its peak, because the world could have seen how the conspiracy story could have been told in far greater depth with far greater economy, skill, and joy. Still, in today's political and media climate with bogus conspiracy theories du jour cropping up left, right, and far right, Fourth Mansions might feel spot on.

I'd love to hear everyone else's suggestions.