Thursday, August 15, 2013

Reintroducing the World to Lafferty - Ideas on a Mass-Market Collection

If I were involved in the republication of Lafferty’s work, here are some thoughts I have about a first collection of short stories to reintroduce his work to the world. I have no say in the matter, but I don’t see why that should stop me from saying.

First an analogy. There are two great collections of Cordwainer Smith’s short stories that share the same name: The Rediscovery of Man published by Gollancz as part of their SF Masterworks series and The Rediscovery of Man published by NESFA Press. The Gollancz book is a greatest hits kind of collection. It contains 12 very strong stories in chronological order (by the order of events in the stories, not by writing date). The NESFA Press book contains the complete short fiction of Cordwainer Smith.

In my opinion, the Gollancz book is the much stronger book. It is the one I force into the hands of friends and co-workers when I want to get them hooked on Cordwainer Smith or at least to understand what I am talking about. The NESFA book is not as good an introduction to his work. It is far better for a new reader to start with “Scanners Live in Vain” than “No, No, Not Rogov!” or “War no. 81-Q.” Not that those aren’t good stories, they are, but they do not introduce readers to the power and strangeness of Smith’s world of the Instrumentality of Mankind as forcefully. The NESFA book is a book for hardcore fans and Cordwainer Smith Completists.

The same analogy could apply to republishing R. A. Lafferty. Not everything he wrote possesses the same power to grab you and make you look at the world in entirely new ways. To grab new readers--to introduce them to a deep appreciation of Lafferty’s work, we need not to hit them with everything at once, but to dazzle them with those stories that simultaneously soar high and reach deep. This is how I developed my Lafferty habit and I assume this is how most of us discovered his writing--a great story here, an amazing story there, hey there’s a pattern, time to start seeking him out, Orbit anthologies (those were almost all great stories, and showed them balanced with other well done, progressive work), Nine Hundred Grandmothers, jackpot and addiction.

So I think the first thing that needs to be published is a collection of the most masterful of his most approachable stories. For me, this list is similar to but not identical to my list of favorite stories. Several of the ones I love are pieces of virtuoso writing, but perhaps better for the second course rather than the appetizer. Here is my proposed first course of Lafferty:
  1. “Narrow Valley” - The Great American Short Story. This has it all: homesteaders, a sheriff, Indians, eminent scientists complete with scientific babble, precocious children, and a joyous hopeful ending.
  2. “Slow Tuesday Night” - Somehow more relevant today than when he wrote it.
  3. “Eurema’s Dam” - Perhaps the greatest example of Lafferty’s madness and tight storytelling.
  4. “Through Other Eyes” - His perfectly structured pure science fiction story--Lafferty style.
  5. “Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne” - Pure tour-de-force SF. Pure fun.
  6. “Ride a Tin Can” - Beautiful, sad, devastating, cautionary.
  7. “Hog Belly Honey” - The most joyous of romps after the sadness of the previous story.
  8. “Funnyfingers” - Beautiful, sad, devastating, and proof that Lafferty can write about love.
  9. “In Our Block” - Provide a sense of how fantastical the everyday world can be.
  10. “Snuffles” - About the right place in the collection for a novella. It’s a hard one to read, but shows his immense power. This story is hard, not because of the prose, but because the characters grab you and their deaths devastate you--because they represent parts of you.
  11. “Marsillia V.” - Keeping up the sustained horror theme here.
  12. “Days of Grass, Days of Straw” - Transmuting the horror into a sense of wonder.
  13. “Frog on the Mountain” - Lafferty does Hemingway, much in the same way that Zelazny did with “The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth.”
  14. “Hole on the Corner” - Essential Lafferty reading--pure madness and pure fun!
  15. “Continued on Next Rock” - A great mix of personalities and science and myth.
  16. “The Tongues of Matagorda” - Remind the reader that storytelling and mythmaking are essential elements of Lafferty’s work.
  17. “One at a Time” - The essential Laffertian Irish brawler and essential Laffertian wordplay.
  18. “Encased in Ancient Rind” - Topical today! Climate Change with a different vengeance.
  19. “Golden Gate” - Has the greatest opening paragraph in short fiction.
  20. “Been a Long, Long Time” - Go out with a (big) bang.
There are about a dozen more I’d love to include--there are no stories here about Austro and the men who know everything and Laf, I’d love to include both the Phosphor McCabe stories, and more of Epict and the Institute. I’d love to add “The Ugly Sea,” “Sky,” “Land of the Great Horses,” etc, etc, etc! However this collection seemed intuitively right to me. It is what I’d put on the menu if I wanted to hook people with a sample, and make them crave to come back for more.

Please chime in with how you would like to reintroduce the world to Lafferty. I have no say in the matter, but the conversation is fun, and who knows, it might just help.




  1. Great post and list.

    I'd think there would be room made somewhere for an out and out dystopia, like "World as Will and Wallpaper", and an explicitly Christian one like "And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire". There's also, by my reckoning, not a straightforward apocalypse: "What's the Name of That Town?" would provide another Epikt tale (and might even be subbed for Charlemagne); "The Transcendent Tigers" would give another terror-kid tale.

    A representative Austro story is tricky, but the volume does seem lacking without one. "And Read the Flesh Between the Lines" perhaps, or "Old Halloweens on the Guna Slopes"? "Rivers of Damascus" is my single favorite but maybe too far out there. There's also "Brain Fever Season" which is hilarious and gives a different Lafferty than almost any other of the published works.

    The main separation between this sort of volume and a "best of," I think, is leaving out the ones that really complicate story form (like "Selenium Ghosts" or maybe even "Nor Limestone Islands").

  2. Great post! This is really well thought our as an introduction to Lafferty, although I do have a couple disagreements.

    My main disagreement is that you're missing the story which I see as the quintessential introduction to Lafferty: "Seven-Day Terror." It has Lafferty children (which are a pretty unique Lafferty hallmark), eminent scientists, and Lafferty's standard brand of. . . something. Anyways, it's great, it's short, and I think it has the absolute best combination of accessibility, quality, and ability to represent Lafferty as a writer.

    I also think "The Transcendent Tigers" would make a good choice, but if it's between that and "Seven Day Terror" for having Lafferty children, I'd choose SDT every time.

    There are a couple you've listed here that I don't remember that well ("Tongues of the Matagoria" for whatever reason hasn't stuck with me), and you're missing a couple of my favorites ("What's the Name of that Town?" and "Land of the Great Horses" come to mind), but this isn't a best of, it's an intro, so that's okay. Although I'd certainly put those two under consideration for either kind of collection.

    The only choice I really don't like is "Continued on Next Rock." I know a lot of people love this story, but I just couldn't get into it, and it's always struck me as one of the least accessible of Lafferty's stories. Maybe it benefits from a re-read, but it didn't strike me as the sort of thing you'd give the uninitiated. But I love the choices of "Hog-Belly Honey," "Narrow Valley," and "One at a Time." All three would definitely go on my list of essential stories for a Lafferty introduction.

    Others that I'd consider:

    *"The Only Tune He Could Play"
    *"Once on Aranea" (alternatively, "Thieving Bear Planet"), although this category may be covered by "Snuffles"
    *"Royal Licorice" or "All Pieces of a River Shore," although this category may be well-covered by "Narrow Valley" and "One at a Time"
    *"About a Secret Crocodile" (this has one of my favorite introductions of any Lafferty story, along with "Through Other Eyes" and "The Ugly Sea")

    But "Seven Day Terror" is my only big complaint.

    Aside: my Lafferty introduction was not actually by a Lafferty story but by Neil Gaiman's "Sunbird." He does a pretty good job at getting the gist of Lafferty with that one. After reading it, I bought Nine Hundred Grandmothers, and after feeling that the title story was a bit lackluster, I was completely and totally hooked by "Land of the Great Horses."

  3. Jay, Thanks for stopping by!

    I agree with you on "Seven Day Terror" and with Andrew on "What's the Name of That Town"

    I set out with a couple of artificial requirements for this list, to force me to really think about a good introduction. First I wanted it to be about 20 stories long--not too slim yet not unwieldy. I didn't want to include more than two stories of any one set of characters to avoid giving the impression that Lafferty is primarily a writer of that kind of interconnected story series.

    That being said, I think Charlemagne is absolutely necessary for the collection--it's a near perfect melding of the time-travel/ paradox story with the circular three-wishes story that arrives back at its starting point. It shows a hint of Lafferty's amazing erudition. And it has that great closing line, "that way lies rump of skunk and madness," which could be a tag line for so much in modern society! So I wrestled with the choice between "What's the Name of That Town" and "Through Other Eyes." I went with Eyes, because I thought it slightly more accessible, and perfectly constructed as a classical SF tale. That and the fact that it plays with a philosophical trope that nearly everyone has wondered about at some point.

    Lafferty Children--aye, that's almost a separate collection all to itself, except that it'd be a bit intense and would probably spook readers permanently away from schools and playgrounds. I think "Seven Day Terror" belongs in this list at around position 3 or 4. It does provide one of the less terrifying introductions to Lafferty children, it includes the eminent scientists, and again, it is just plain FUN! I could sub out "Tongues of Matagorda" if I really felt it necessary to keep it at 20 stories (which is really just an arbitrary limit).

    Science and myth--I am really undecided between "Continued on Next Rock" and "Fall of Pebble Stones." There's not a lot of similarity between the two stories, but I think the collection needs at least one of them. Which do you think is a better introduction for the new Lafferty reader?

    Apocalypse--you're right, Andrew, that this lacks a good disaster and end of the world. I think "Transcendent Tigers" is a great one, and introduces the reader to the mix of horror and hilarity that is one of Lafferty's (many) trademarks. Also, I love the little exchange about the Chinese wire-puzzle. The one character going on about how it is unsolvable and completely ignoring the fact that Carnadine had just solved it. Haven't you ever felt like that in conversation with a professor or expert?

    This brings me to a key element, the statement after discussing a story, "Haven't you ever felt like that?" One of the unifying elements to me in all these stories is that each one resonated with some common feeling within myself. "Days of Grass, Days of Straw" beautifully captures that off-track, slightly mystified, almost anti-deja-vu feeling I (and I expect everyone) sometimes feels when dealing with the world. "Snuffles" kills the explorers for failing to acknowledge the beauty of his world, something I feel secretly guilty of at times. "Funnyfingers" just breaks my heart. All of these stories get at feelings that are closely held. There is an empathy in his work that even in the outré settings and wild tall-tale narratives, each of his stories resonates with some private inner core of each reader.

  4. Oh, and to add another fantasy element to the collection, imagine that we could get introductions written by none other than Neil Gaiman, Michael Swanwick, and our very own Andrew Ferguson.

  5. OK, I just re-read "Fall of Pebble Stones." That story absolutely MUST be in any introductory collection of Lafferty stories. The science of the curve ball and the sound of thunder are deliberately a bit off, and I know that has thrown some people, but the low-key, joyous celebration of the everyday, ordinary miraculous is unparalleled!

    I have to look for pebbles under my eves drops tonight.

  6. So thoughtful and well articulated and reasoned, Kevin! I would very gladly give such a collection to people I wanted to get into Lafferty. Lots of overlap with one's I'd pick. You definitely hit some of my non-negotiables like Snuffles and Days of Grass. Trying to think off the top of my head of what musts of mine that you didn't include. Oh, I know: 'The Configuration of the North Shore'. I'm sure there must be a few others I can't recall right now. Anyway, well done!

  7. Oh and I'd probably choose Pebble Stones over Next Rock, but it'd depend on whether you wanted whimsy or depth respectively. I think, like Jay, I wasn't totally grabbed by Next Rock like so many are - but I need another read. Especially considering I was grabbed by Pebble Stones first time and on second read I loved it.

    1. Rather, I was *not* grabbed by Pebble Stones first time...

  8. Alas, the editions announced by the Centipede Press are absolutely the wrong way to introduce Lafferty to the world. Slender, limited edition collections of his short stories will be published--at more than $50 per book. Introductions to each story, written by famous writers, will be included. I'm quite sure these will be lovely books.

    But they will be collected by prosperous, devoted fans. How will new readers be seduced? The Amazon page for each has a blank entry for a "paperback" edition. So there may be some hope. But what about Lafferty's novels?

    Avram Davidson, another distinctive, neglected writer was better served by his literary executors. A few fine anthologies were published--for reasonable prices. And paperback editions of each book came out. Finally, Kindle editions followed.

    I may be able to invest in the Lafferty hardback editions. But I want other readers to have a chance to discover him. And I also would also like a good collection of his work for my Kindle....

    1. Amen, not Bridget, amen! The Centipede Press volumes will are aimed at rabid Lafferty fans, and the 300 copy limit is probably a good estimate of how many of us will actually buy the books. You are right that these will not win new fans, nor wake up the (SF) literary world to Lafferty's importance as a unique American voice and influence on future writers.

      So the question remains; how do we ensure that Lafferty is widely recognized as an influential and uniquely creative writer? How do we make him a household name, mentioned with other creators within the genre like Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester, and Philip K. Dick? Lafferty was a far better and actually more careful (or at least more intentional with his wild creativity) writer than any of them (and they're the greats).

      Sturgeon was very well served by the North Atlantic Books series of The Complete Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon. While these were never cheap, they were massively produced and marketed--getting long articles and commentary on NPR for example.

      Hey, that's an idea, perhaps Andrew Ferguson and/or the LOCUS people could get NPR to do a Profile on Lafferty as an almost forgotten American Literary Giant. They could talk about his uniquely American voice, blending Irish, Western, and Native tall tale within SF. They could talk about his histories and historical novels, especially Okla Hannali, which is so important to understanding American history. They could have highly successful current authors (Gaiman, Swanwick, Waldrop, etc.) talk about his influence. And they could show how his (far too few) rabid fans launched a whole industry of small press publishers, producing chapbooks and hand-sewn small editions of 30 or 50 pages in limited numbers that are now selling for hundreds of dollars. Most importantly, they could bemoan how the publishing policies of printing only that which resembles current and previous best sellers may well rob us of such an important voice.

      All that being said, I am glad the Centipede Press books are being put together for several reasons:
      1. (selfish): I want one--preferably at a lower price, but I still want one--I AM a rabid Lafferty fan--and therefore already converted.
      2. (thoughtful): They show that a cross-section approach to collecting his stories results in a better collection than a strictly chronological approach.
      3. (most importantly): If these sell quickly (which I believe they are), they may show the publishing world that there is an audience for his work--which may bring us one step closer to the mass-market (re)intro collection we have all been salivating for.

      Thank you for dropping by and commenting!

  9. I would second Brain Fever Season and would add Primary Education of the Camiroi. It's simply hilarious.

  10. Gary Bearman here - of the short stories I've read (most of them, though not all), here would be what I consider to be the best of the best of the best essential stories, not in order of preference:

    Nine Hundred Grandmothers
    Seven-Day Terror
    Hole on the Corner
    Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies
    Days of Grass, Days of Straw
    Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne
    What's the Name of That Town?
    All the People
    The Six Fingers of Time
    You Can't Go Back
    Or Little Ducks Each Day
    Hog-Belly Honey
    Eurema's Dam
    Guesting Time
    One Day At A Time
    Slow Tuesday Night
    Frog on the Mountain
    The World As Will And Wallpaper
    Old Foot Forgot
    Narrow Valley
    By the Seashore
    All Pieces of a River Shore
    The Skinny People of Leptophlebo Street

  11. Can't argue with any of those. I'd love a way to squeeze in "Through Other Eyes" as I see it as an example of a perfectly structured SF story.

    And what is a hybrid gorgon, half snakes and half USB cables?