Monday, November 24, 2014

We Didn't Know It Was Impossible, So We Did It.

The impossible feast is served.

Once upon a time, a Lafferty fan named David Cruces created an R. A. Lafferty fan group on Facebook and named the group "East of Laughter." It is a great and active group of fans, with a growing and vocal membership.

One day, sometime in early October of this year the discussion in the group turned to Lafferty stories and essays reprinted in old fanzines. After much discussion of where to find these old 'zines, I piped up saying we should just create our own 'zine. I even offered a sonnet about Lafferty to serve as a first submission. A number of members leapt at the idea, promising new essays and proposing old essays to include.

We proceeded apace, placing a few essays, more poetry, and a half-draft of a story in a shared folder. I had visions of a PDF 'zine circulated among fans, maybe reaching to 50 or even 70 pages--we were getting some good content. We decided on a name, Feast of Laughter, because firstly, it mimics the name of the group. Second, it resonates with Dan Knight’s Introduction to his magazine, "The Boomer Flats Gazette:"
The table was prepared and the bar was stocked for as big a bash as ever was seen. There was something for everyone. A magical feast. Take as much as you want. Stuff your pockets and fill your purse. It would make no difference. There would be just as much when you were done as when you started. This is fish and loaves stuff. (Are not all good stories fish and loaves stuff by their very definition?)
And third, most importantly, laughter is a strong part of Lafferty’s storytelling. Can you read any of his stories without a deep belly-chuckle? Sometimes the more horrifying stories contain the strongest humor, and sometimes, like in “Hog Belly Honey”, every sentence is such a joy to read, you laugh yourself nearly comatose before half finishing the story.

We decided to try to finish our submissions by October 31st, so I would have time to edit, proofread, and format the final file by Lafferty's 100th birthday on November 7th. This left us only three and a half weeks to assemble the content, but a lot had already been written.

Then a couple of near miracles occurred: first, Michael Bishop joyfully, enthusiastically, jubilantly gave us permission to reprint his Lafferty-inspired story, "Of Crystalline Labyrinths and the New Creation" (a life long thanks to John Owen for contacting Michael Bishop and so eloquently requesting the story). Then Lissanne Lake, already famous among us Lafferty fans for her beautiful Lafferty book covers (especially Lafferty in Orbit) and famous to the world at large as a fantasy painter and illustrator, gave us her contribution, a stunning rendition in paint of Lafferty's story "Days of Grass, Days of Straw."

Days of Grass by Lissanne Lake
You can see a higher resolution scan of the painting at

Then the content really started rolling in. We figured out how to handle the copyright correctly to reprint "The Six fingers of Time," Andrew Ferguson agreed to give us his essay on "The Six Fingers of Time," more writers agreed to let us reprint seminal Lafferty essays they had published before, and David Morrow, a professional designer in Glasgow, Scotland agreed to design our cover from Lissanne's amazing painting. More essays and fiction were being written and submitted from a truly impressive cadre of fans.

John Owen (again John Owen--somebody give him a gold star (or a gold asteroid, "Golden Trabant" reference anyone?)) had some experience self-publishing with Amazon and agreed to take us through the process with CreateSpace.

Things were falling into place Very Quickly and in Large Volume. I found myself staying up until sunrise on Halloween weekend--hey, if everybody was willing to work that hard, I owed it to them to put in some grand effort assembling their work. Much back and forth, much discussion in the East of Laughter Facebook group--thousands and thousands of comments (I am not exaggerating), Amazing proofreading work from Rich Persaud and John Owen and Noah Wareness among a small army of others. On Lafferty's 100th birthday, November 7, 2014, we had a website up with a complete copy of Feast of Laughter, Issue 1: Within a few days and a bit more midnight oil, we had our first edition available in paperback via Amazon.

Feast of Laughter, Issue 1

To say I was floored by how beautiful the final book came out would be an extreme practice of the art of understatement. I have been unable to contain myself. I keep giggling over it. And the giggling has only increased: by Day 2, we had sold enough copies to be #4 on Amazon's list of the 100 best selling books in the category "Science Fiction History and Criticism," beating out books about Middle Earth and Harry Potter (beating everything but some companion volumes to George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books and a book about Hobbits). And then Andrew Ferguson posted a beautiful review on his Tumblr, "Continued on Next Rock." And then Neil Gaiman bought our book and blogged about it!

Feast of Laughter in Amazon's list of Best Sellers in Science Fiction History & Criticism

I am still over the moon over this experience. I could never have imagined such amazing things could have happened from an offhand mention in a Facebook group. It is impossible that it happened so quickly. We radically exceeded our own expectations. There is a small army of Lafferty fans to thank for building this. It was a truly collaborative effort at "Slow Tuesday Night" speed.

The Feast of Laughter is now a living periodical. We will publish two issues a year on November 7, Lafferty's birthday, and March 18, the day he died. Every issue will try to include:
  • Essays about his writing.
  • Reviews.
  • Original fiction and artwork inspired by Lafferty.
  • At least one Lafferty story.
Our mission is to help raise Lafferty's profile and establish his place in American Letters, to bring Lafferty to a wider readership, and to do all of this while being scrupulous about copyright and permissions. That way we can keep working with authors and copyright holders for many years to come. The next four issues are being prepared, and you are invited to contribute. Leave a comment or contact with your ideas. 
  • Feast of Laughter #2: March 18, 2015 - deadline for interest: Jan 31, 2015, deadline for content, February 20, 2015.
  • Feast of Laughter #3: November 7, 2015 - deadline for interest: September 19, 2015, deadline for content, October 11, 2015.
  • Feast of Laughter #4: March 18, 2016 - deadline for interest: Jan 31, 2016, deadline for content, February 20, 2016.
  • Feast of Laughter #5: November 7, 2016 - deadline for interest: September 19, 2016, deadline for content, October 11, 2016.

The next feast is being prepared, and you are invited. But it's a potluck affair. Take as much as you can consume, but bring something to share.

Bon appetit!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Searching around the web last night for references to "Pan-Ktistec" to perhaps get a gleam of where Lafferty came up with Epiktistes' name, I found quotes from Arrive at Easterwine and quotes from an August 2003 interview with Steely Dan for Sound on Sound magazine:

And I quote:

"I can do a pretty nice defibrillation with the Ktistec machine," adds Becker, helpfully...


Given that Fagen and Becker live in New York and Hawaii respectively, one might expect them to have taken advantage of digital and Web-based technologies in their songwriting collaboration. Have they? If so, they don't seem keen to talk about it...
"We don't usually write music over the phone, like sending files and stuff," says Becker. "When we work over the phone we do it to write lyrics, and that works very well. Writing on the phone is a little like being in analysis, because you're not reacting to the facial expressions of the other person."
"But we can surmount that with the Ktistec machine," insists Fagen.
"We choose not to use the Ktistec machine sometimes. Having a great piece of technology doesn't necessarily mean you use it all the time. Some things are better done..."
" secret."
"We like to write music in the same room. It's hard enough to get anything done when you're eyeball to eyeball, let alone when you're at a distance. But that may change now that we have the Ktistec machine. Make sure you get the spelling correctly."

It's a wonderful interview--almost entirely nonsensical and laced with references to the Ktistec machine.

Who'd a thought Steely Dan were Lafferty fans? But listening to their sardonic, erudite lyrics, I guess it shouldn't be surprising.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

In the Beginning

Western literature has a long tradition of riffing on the Bible, and Science Fiction with its constant exploration into the meaning of life and the future of our species has developed a strong tradition of riffing on the book of Genesis. Take for example the cycles of life in the Samuel R. Delany story, "The Star Pit." Take for example the opening of the Philip K. Dick novel Humpty Dumpty in Oakland: A mechanic walks in to open his shop in the morning:
Here it began. He squinted and spat out the first stale breath that
hung inside the garage. Bending, he clicked on the main power. The dead
things creaked back to life. He fixed the side door open, and a little
sunlight came in. He advanced on the night-light and destroyed it with
a jerk of his hand. He grabbed a pole and dragged back the skylight.
The radio, high up, began to hum and then to blare. He threw the fan
into wheezing excitement. He snapped on all lights, equipment, display
signs. He illuminated the luxurious Goodrich tire poster. He brought
color, shape, awareness to the void. Darkness flew; and after the first
moment of activity he subsided and rested, and took his seventh day--a
cup of coffee.
You can't help but smile and at the same time think "Man, I wish I could write that well"

All of this is by way of introducing one of Lafferty's riffs on Genesis. The opening of the first chapter of Archipelago:

All this begins in a southern city and at nine o'clock in the morning, the same hour at which the world was made. It was a Thursday, when originally man was not.

Indeed, in these latter days there were few people in the streets and not many in the pubs. But beer was available (barley and hops had been made on the third day), and the morning had a freshness as in the earliest weeks of the world, as the older people remember them. A fast wind was driving the clearing clouds, and the pavements were wet. (When the world was first made it was as though it had just rained. )

The first man in the world was drinking the first beer. He was Finnegan (not in name, but in self), and he looked at himself in the bar mirror. He saw for the first time that first face, and this was his appearance: he had a banana nose, long jumpy muscles along cheek and tempora, and a mouth in motion. He was dark and lean, like a yearling bull. His eyes had a redness that suggested a series of stormy days and nights, were not previous days and nights impossible. He was a little more than half Italian and a little more than half Irish, as was Adam his counterpart in a variant account. 

After which, all you can do is just sit and laugh and admire.

An Act of Great Kindness

About a year and a half ago, I noticed brand new copies of East of Laughter and Serpent's Egg for sale on the site of an English books store, Cold Tonnage Books (, for £5.00 GBP, so I ordered them.

I'm working in California now, and commuting home to Albuquerque on the weekends. The other day I brought Serpent's Egg with me to read on the flight. However, I left it in the airport or on the airplane! Arrrghh! I had only made it about 3 pages into the book.

I looked on Cold Tonnage's site and they still have copies for £5.00, so I ordered another. It arrived yesterday. The first thing I noticed when I opened the package was a note on top of the book:

In what I can only describe as an act of great kindness to a complete stranger (me), they had given me the signed limited edition!

The only way I know to respond to this (beyond sending them a very nice thank you note, which I am doing) is to pass on some form of Lafferty-related kindness.

I have an extra copy each of Past Master and Strange Doings. If any of you need a copy of either, I will be very happy to give it to you. Leave a comment, drop me a note on the East of Laughter Facebook group, or e-mail me. I'll get your address and send it to you. 

And check out Cold Tonnage's web site. They several more Lafferty books--some at very good prices. As they ship from England, shipping to those of you in the UK and EU ought to cost less than shipping from America.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Man Who Made Models 4: Square and Above Board

"Square and Above Board" is a fun story. It is a story about betrayal, greed, double crossing, and the question of weather the good guy can win in the end, or if he is doomed to lose to those more conniving--all of this mixed with Irish folk magic and some down-home, mid-western millionaires.

It is the story of two men, Midas Muldoon and Christopher Kearny who are vying over the affections of one woman, Bridie Caislean. One signature element of Lafferty style is in the introductions of the two main characters. He introduces them by describing their names, their inner and outer characters, and the games of strategy they excel at. Watch closely while reading these introductions. Every (carefully chosen) word foreshadows the final double-cross and denouement of the story.

The story has some typical Lafferty fun with names:
"Midas Muldoon had been given his curious name by his father Croesus Muldoon, a confidence man who always swore that he would finally live and die in a great stone castle. And he did die in a great stone castle of sorts, one on the outskirts of McAlester, Oklahoma."
However, in this case he is a little more explanatory than I am used to. I imagine this was an earlier story of his, because he qualifies and explains his statements, while in the stories contained in collections like Nine Hundred Grandmothers, Strange Doings, and Ringing Changes, he lists off his wildly appropriate names without preamble or postscript.

In fact, "Square and Above Board" didn't really grab me on first reading. Typical of Lafferty, it was better the second time through, but it still felt to me that after the careful set up in the first four pages, the rush to the conclusion was forced and hurried. The events all fall into place as they must from the foreshadowing in the beginning, but they seem too convenient, and not really enough of a struggle. Lafferty concludes the story in a fairly standard plot-arc--itself unusual for his oeuvre, but provides almost an outline of the plot only. I found myself wishing for more outrageousness and less explanation--less plot, even.

The castle on the outskirts of McAlester, OK - known as The Oklahoma State Prison

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Man Who Made Models 3: The Hole on the Corner

"Homer Hoose came home that evening to the golden cliche: the unnoble dog who was a personal friend of his; the perfect house where just to live was a happy riot; the loving and unpredictable wife; and the five children; the perfect number (four more would have been too many, four less would have been too few). " 
This may be a long, rambling response to a tight, compact story. The story has so many elements within it,  it is hard to keep any discussion of it as short as the story itself.

"The Hole on the Corner" is unarguably one of Lafferty's great works. It is one of my three favorite stories, along with "Narow Valley" and "Days of Grass, Days of Straw." This is a Lafferty in high form--a linguistic and situational tour-de-force comprised of equal parts deep philosophy, quantum physics, surreal elements, high humor of the laugh and fall out of your chair variety, and several other parts that I lack the vocabulary to describe or perhaps even the wisdom to recognize. It also introduces some of his stylistic tricks that became part of his stock in trade over the next decades.

Among the signature Lafferty elements in this story are:

  • Compressed story telling - he fits a tremendous amount of story and sub-story into sixteen fast-turning pages.
  • Using archetypes to save time on setting and character development. 
  • Lafferty children - a whole topic in and of themselves--unflappable and always right, reacting to the outrageous as if humdrum.
  • Unrealistic dialog. 
  • Side characters who know everything - two of them in this case: Dr. Corte knows more than the reader, and good old double-domed Diogenes Pontifex (who was refused membership in the Institute of Impure Science because of the "minimal decency rule"), who does indeed know everything relevant to the story. 
  • The question of perception and identity - we might really not be who we think we are, and are we really qualified to know if we aren't?
  • A touch of horror hidden under the humor.
And many, many more. 

First, consider the opening paragraph. Lafferty invokes a powerful sense of normality and even a whiff of nostalgia, along the lines of a Bradbury Green Town, Illinois story. I often accuse Lafferty of substituting archetypes in place of his characters to save time on character development. By telling us this was the golden cliche, he is telling us we already know this scene, just pull the particulars out of our own memories (or out of our collective unconscious--a concept he riffs on a little later in the story)

And of course, by adding the aside about why five children is the perfect number, he tells us that he will be narrating this story with a wink and a grin--watch for the rug being pulled out from under our feet.

Quick aside here, are the reactions of the dog upon Homer's returns home a deliberate play on The Odyssey and the old dog that recognizes Odysseus when he returns disguised by Athena as an old beggar? It is a powerfully evocative though overused cliche in literature now, but do all current iterations look back all the way to Homer? (The existence of Space Chantey would imply so in Lafferty's case).

Nat! of the Lafferty Devotional Page holds up "The Hole on the Corner" as an example of the surreal, and in some ways it is. However, by first having us identify so strongly with homer in the first paragraph by calling on all our memories an associations to populate and paint the story, Lafferty may be pointing to our daily lives as a bit surreal.
"Homer had a little trouble with the doorknob. They don't have them in all the recensions, you know; and he had that off-the-track feeling tonight. But he figured it out (you don't pull it, you turn it), and opened the door. " 
Admittedly he puts us on warning here that the story is about to take a turn into alternate realities, but who hasn't had that "off-the-track" feeling from time to time? Who hasn't experienced those odd moments--almost the reverse of deja-vu when the world seems suddenly strange and slightly unfamiliar?

The idea at the heart of the story seems to be that we as people don't really pay much attention to things--that we rely on familiar associations to fill in the details (as he relies on us to do in fleshing out his stories) and, as Diogenes informs us, "nobody goes by the visual index except momentarily." That is why no-one can tell the difference between the two Homers--they look exactly alike except for how they look--even though on has hooves, green skin (which is OK "as long as it's kept neat and oiled") and tentacles instead of hands ("Oh boy, I'll say!" according to Regina). Lafferty's implying we fail to notice details. If our loved ones were replaced by monsters, we might not notice if they somehow seemed the same.

It is also a resoundingly funny story. From son Robert's dialog with Regina:
"'Where'd you get the monster, Mama?' son Robert asked as he came in. 'What's he got your whole head in his mouth for? Can I have one of the apples in the kitchen? What's he going to do, kill you, Mama?'  
   'Shriek, shriek,' said Mama Regina. 'Just one apple, Robert, there's just enough to go around. Yes, I think he's going to kill me. Shriek!'  
   Son Robert got an apple and went outdoors." 
To Dr. Corte's description of the analyst who analyzes the analysts who analyze the analysts as "tops in his field." And just about everything about Diogenes Pontifex is both exaggerated and uproarious.

There are elements of horror hidden under the humor. The story opens with a monster coming home and appearing to devour his wife, and ends with the protagonist being eaten by a giant spider. Admittedly these are classically horrifying events, but as a reader I was laughing too hard to notice. That's one thing I've often noticed in Lafferty's stories, he writes with such ebullience and good humor, that the violent, gruesome, and grotesque elements slide by without my really noticing them. It took me several readings to cotton on to just how scary the ending really is, even though it is in plain sight.

In that way, this is a story that rewards repeated re-reading. No matter how often I look into "The Hole on the Corner" there's always more depth to be seen.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Man Who Made Models 2: The Six Fingers of Time

"He began by breaking things that morning." 
Bill Hader, in his much appreciated NYT article mentioned the first line of "The Six Fingers of Time" as an example of how engaging Lafferty Lunacy is. But in a way, what we have here is Lafferty in classic SF mode. This appears to be a simple story with a simple--almost Twilight-Zone-like twist at the end. Except that it isn't.

On one level, it is a very easy story, told in a prose style that is much more straightforward than some of Lafferty's more ebulliently effervescent efforts. The story proceeds and we keep guessing about 1/2 step ahead of the main character, but Lafferty still manages to surprise and delight us at the end. If that were all there is to this story, it would be a very good story.

But there is much more to the story. On another level, it is a story about ultimate temptation and choices. It asks if a man, Charles Vincent, the protagonist, is moral enough to choose faith and humanity when offered a chance to be a lord of time--to live a life as long as his mortal soul's and to therefore have power over time and fate--if only he'll chose to ally with certain powers that "smell of the pit". Ultimately Vincent chooses to reject the shadowy and perhaps demonic forces and to wrest that power from them for humanity. It is a valiant if doomed effort. On this level, it still uses the SF trope of the one clever man pitted against an organized army that holds all the cards in its hand. In the standard version of that story line, the one clever man succeeds, but in Lafferty's story, they continue to hold all the cards--beginning, middle, and end.

And on yet another level, it is the story of the forces that beset humanity. He hints at a conspiracy, far older than Humanity and far older than Humanity's current bargain with God in the Garden. This conspiracy lives on in vestigial form in modern Humanity--in this story taking the form of a mutation for six fingers on the hand. The members of this conspiracy claim that by right of prior occupation, they are exempt from such concepts as good and evil, salvation and damnation. The idea of a prehistoric, genetic conspiracy of an older race against mankind is the nexus of The Devil is Dead and Fourth Mansions. It seems to underlie a large portion of Lafferty's work, with the message that as humans we are beset, but we may just have the creativity, energy, and faith to overcome and eliminate these conspiracies.

"The Six Fingers of Time" was an early work of Lafferty's, finished in 1959, and first published in 1960. Consider the state of Science Fiction in 1960. Standard "Golden Age" storytelling was still dominant. Shows like The Twilight Zone were just getting started with admittedly very good writing and perhaps a sting in the tail. And here Lafferty gives us a story that is one on level a fun, easy story about a man learning a trick and being tricked in the end. On another level it is a battle within a human soul between temptation and ethics, and on another level, it is the introduction to an ongoing examination of the forces that metaphorically beset us , Mankind, in our journey toward spiritual evolution.

So the opening line of the story, I think applies very well to Lafferty's writing in general: "He began by breaking things."

By a combination of circumstances that Andrew Ferguson covers on Continued on Next Rock, "The Six Fingers of Time" is one of two Lafferty stories in the public domain. It is available on Gutenberg here: 

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Man Who Made Models 1: The Man Who Made Models

"The Man Who Made Models" is a very good story, but for some reason has never fallen into my personal grouping of Lafferty's great stories.

"The Man Who Made Models" is the story of Jon Skaber, a big Swede known for his big hands and the amazingly life-like models he makes. He is constantly criticized by the Harps, a couple who claim that whenever you miniaturize something fidelity is lost--that his models, no matter how amazing and lifelike everyone else says they are, are grotesque distortions of the originals. The Harps are somehow involved in University finance and are about to pull a major con on the university, while setting up Skaber's friends, the directors of the university, to take the fall for the con. Detective Wrackwolf is another big Swede, a detective who has been busted down from homicide to the bunko squad--largely because his murder suspects seem to disappear before trial--and they usually disappear after walking into Skaber's workshop. Wrackwolf is officially tracking the Harps, but cannot do anything about them until they actually commit the crime. However, he is really on the trail of Jon Skaber--and is willing to bring out ancient Swedish family magic to defeat him. The quote on the back of the book comes from Wrackwolf during his final confrontation with Skaber:
You stretch your jaws when you yawn, but mine will outstretch yours. Ah, which snake will swallow which, I or you?
A lot goes into the set up of this not-very-long story, and the parts hang together to make a nifty little horror tale, or perhaps twilight-zone-like fable. But in three readings, it still feels a bit disjointed to me. The parts never quite mesh smoothly, and none of the characters are really likable. We are supposed to dislike the Harps and we do. Wrackwolf is presented as unlikable--successfully. And Skaber starts out as a sympathetic character, but as we learn about his manipulation and greed, he becomes less and less sympathetic. So the ending of the story leaves us no-one to root for. While it has that small hint of horror (without any hint of the gruesome), the conclusion doesn't quite satisfy.

I enjoyed "The Man Who Made Models" for its many very clever turns of phrase, and the plot device itself is really very creative. But it somehow feels diminished--almost a scale model of a successful story.

"The Man Who Made Models" has been published twice, in a Chris Drumm chapbook for which it was was the title story, and in this beautiful new volume from the Centipede Press for which it is also the title story.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Man Who Made Models: Introduction

First, an open note of thanks to Michael Swanwick for his dedication to Lafferty's writing over the years and for writing this introduction.

"Eight Words from the Most Wonderful Writer in the World" is an excellent introduction to this, the first Lafferty publication to see the light of day in 15 years (since Sindbad: The 13th Voyage - 1999), the first short story collection in 22 years (Iron Tears - 1992). Michael Swanwick introduces his reaction to Lafferty's writing and gives us some insight into the man's character. In fact, he discusses Lafferty as a character at the conventions--one so soft-spoken that people almost never heard what he had to say.
Has there ever been a less likely literary hero than Raphael Aloysius Lafferty? In my memory I see him coming down the hallway of a convention hotel--he has an energetic, rolling gait, as if her were walking into the wind on the deck of a ship which nobody but he could see--a cheerful old man, blue collar to the bone, who spoke so softly that in my half dozen face to face encounters with him, I only managed to make out what he was saying only once.
Lafferty's fiction was embraced by the "New Wave" (quotes there to avoid a debate on just what was and wasn't new wave--suffice it to say that writers like Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delany, Damon Knight, and Roger Zelazny all loved his writing), but his character could not have been more squarely against everything the new wave was associated with. He was a middle-aged, socially and religiously conservative, jubilantly Catholic man from the middle of nowhere as fare as the publishing world was concerned (Tulsa, Oklahoma). Yet for a while, he turned the entire genre of Science Fiction on its head.

Swanwick brings up a very good point I'd never considered before. Part of what killed his mass-market publishing career was financial analysis and the kind of software that lets publishers track exactly what books are earning the big bucks. That led the investor-driven industry to stick with what is profitable--the predictable, forgettable bestsellers, and jettison everything that didn't instantly turn an obscene profit--the bold, original, and unexpected writing that moves the literary world forward. If any words can describe Lafferty's writing, bold, original, and unexpected do a pretty good job of it.

He describes Lafferty's drinking--always with a drink in his hand at conventions, stumbling from one beer to the next--and speculates about the effect that might have had on his output. Nevertheless, the luminaries of the SF world adored and revered him. Lafferty was for a while a prolific producer of prodigies. His stories arrived via cheap Mexican off-brand typewriters in a veritable torrent.

And in the end Swanwick clues us in on the eight words of wisdom he was finally able to glean from the old master. What were they? Far be it from me to ruin your surprise and delight: Borrow a copy of The Man Who Made Models and read it for yourself!

Thank you, Michael Swanwick for your heartfelt, illuminating, and downright fine introduction to the great man's great work!

PS: You should also read Michael Swanwick's other his other great introduction to Lafferty, "Despair and the Duck Lady."

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Man Who Made Models

WooHOOO!!! The Centipede Press edition, The Man Who Made Models - The Collected Short Fiction Volume 1 just arrived today! Man, what a beautifully published book. Of all the small-press editions of Lafferty, this trumps them all in terms of quality of materials, construction, and printing. The paper even smells good. I now have in my hand copy 136 of a limited edition of 300 copies, signed by Michael Swanwick, author of the introduction, John Pelan, editor and publisher, and Jacob McMurray, cover artist.


  • Introduction by Michael Swanwick
  • The Man Who Made Models
  • The Six Fingers of Time
  • The Hole on the Corner
  • Square and Above Board
  • Jack Bang's Eyes
  • All But the Words
  • The Ungodly Mice of Doctor Drakos
  • Frog on the Mountain
  • Narrow Valley
  • Condilac's Statue or Wrens in His Head
  • About a Secret Crocodile
  • Days of Grass, Days of Straw
  • The Ninety-Ninth Cubicle
  • Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne
  • Parthen
  • The Skinny People of Leptophlebo Sttreet
  • Rivers of Damascus
  • Afterword by John Pelan (the publisher)

Thanks to the Centipede Press for such a magnificent volume. I will wash my hands carefully and read extensively tonight!


Friday, January 24, 2014

Ringing Changes 1: Parthen

For some reason, Ringing Changes (1984) is an often overlooked collection of Lafferty stories. It is not as even in quality as Nine Hundred Grandmothers, but it contains some of his greatest stories. Any collection that contains “Parthen,” “Old Foot Forgot,” “Days of Grass, Days of Straw,” and “Been a Long, Long Time” is a major collection. The fact that this was a readily available paperback may have helped introduce vast numbers of readers to the strength and magic of Lafferty’s writing.


Ringing Changes starts off with a bang with “Parthen.” The aliens have arrived. Never has the spring been so beautiful, never has business been so grand, and never have the women been so beautiful! All this in spite of the fact that it is a brutal, cold, wet spring, business failures and bankruptcies are at record-breaking highs, and the women--never have the women been so beautiful. This is a perfect little Science Fiction piece about global takeover by hostile aliens told without ever showing what is actually happening, or even acknowledging that anything is going on. Yet he leaves no question in the reader’s mind about what is actually taking place.

Parthen also includes one of the best descriptions of a beautiful woman in all of SF (and also in a large part of literature in general). Consider for a moment, in Golden Age SF women were mainly damsels in distress that swooned and fell in love at first sight with their rescuers--what an author friend of mine referred to as “rescuable commodities.” Occasionally their moon-like pale faces were described, or their hair or eyes. Later, in New Wave SF, women were often described as tanned and glistening and then the narrator would jump to the sex scene (I think New Wave SF writers were often horny and frustrated).

Lafferty avoided outright sex in his stories--instead, he took his time describing his female characters with classical allusions and implied desire. Then he let the reader fill the rest in, the resulting narrative depending more on the quality and patience of the reader’s imagination. Lafferty only provided the framework. Thus only he could have described a beautiful woman with a passage like:

She was a golden girl with hair like honey. Her eyes were blue—or they were green—or they were violet or gold and they held a twinkle that melted a man. The legs of the creature were like Greek poetry and the motion of her hips was something that went out of the world with the old sail ships. Her breastwork had a Gothic upsweep—her neck was passion incarnate and her shoulders were of a glory past describing. In her whole person she was a study of celestial curvatures.

Should you never have heard her voice, the meaning of music has been denied you. Have you not enjoyed her laughter? Then your life remains unrealized.

Imagine the beauty he is describing--an image springs to mind quite easily, but he actually gave us very little actual physical description. To describe her legs as Greek poetry and the motion of her hips as reminiscent of the old sail ships doesn’t tell us exactly what they look like but what our reaction to seeing them would be like.

This description and the description of the other women as being at least as beautiful is pivotal to the plot. The conclusion to the story is never in doubt, and is not in itself a surprise. How he reaches the end and what he doesn’t tell us is where the surprises are.

Daniel Petersen has a characteristically brilliant blog post on the story here:

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Revisiting Reintroduction and Crowdsourcing Consensus

Revisiting Reintroduction: Several more thoughts about how to reintroduce Lafferty’s writing to the world and get his name well known among the reading public: NPR: In a reply to a comment on this blog from not Bridget the other day, I asked a question: 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. NYRB: Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow get the New York Review of Books to do a profile on Lafferty? Perhaps they could review the Centipede Press series on or around his centennial. How does one go about planting a seed among the editors and reviewers at the NYRB? Might John Pelan, as the publisher need to contact them? Is there a requirement for number of copies in print (If so, I’m sure a 300-copy edition would be woefully inadequate)? Do they ever review or profile the authors of out-of-print books? Would they ever condescend to look an an author labeled SF, and could they be persuaded to recognise Lafferty’s uniquely American voice regardless of genre? Academia: I believe in the power of a well-infected academia. Lafferty has often been described as a writer’s writer. How do we get literature professors to embrace Lafferty? Bradbury has made it onto “serious” academic syllabi, Philip K. Dick is frequently taught, and I have even seen William Gibson included as an optional author in a Modern Lit class. If Lafferty were more widely assigned, it would give him the patina of “old master” which would cause new editions of his books to be welcomed with accolades and applause. Google: Given the cross-cultural reach of Google, perhaps a Google Doodle on Lafferty’s 100th birthday would have more impact than all the other methods combined. How do we plant a seed, place a bug in the ear, put a bee in the bonnet of those who control and create such things? Crowdsourcing Consensus: Reading Lafferty is an individual experience. Stories that resonate strongly with one person can leave other readers nonplussed. Each reader’s absolute favorite Lafferty stories are uniquely that readers own favorites, and may say as much about the reader as about the stories. In a thread of comments under the post about the upcoming Centipede Press release of The Man Who Made Models over at The Ants of God are Queer Fish, Daniel Peterson admitted that he had been compiling his ideal list of stories for a Best of Lafferty volume in his head for years. This led me to wonder if we all do that, and what do our individual choices of stories, essays, poetry, etc. say about us as readers of Lafferty? Please use the comments section under this entry and post your choices for what should be included in a “Best of Lafferty” collection. Add as much or as little explanation as you like. My personal list can be found a few posts back on this blog here: Thank you!

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Back Door of History

There are times when I feel I should sing the praises of This is one of those times. A couple of months ago, I stumbled on a very, very inexpensive copy of The Back Door of History, a small, folded-paper and stapled collection of Lafferty stories published by the United Mythologies Press in 1988 (boastful, bragging blog post about the purchase here: Merry Christmas and an Apocryphal Last Chapter). The collection contains six stories I had never had a chance to read before. Here are some brief, off-the-top-of-my-head reactions:

Phoenic - The ancient Phoenician returns to his birthplace to renew his life and returns as a young man with a box full of ashes. According to the narrative, this is not the surprising part of the story. This is a short, and oddly powerful story. His asides in the beginning about the ancient Phoenician being a tailor and the state of the clothing industry become pivotal to the ending of hte story. The resurrection through fire is presented rather matter-of-factly, and he tells us to save our sense of wonder for other related renewals only hinted at.
Much has been made of the connection between “Phoenic” and Neil Gaiman’s wonderful attempt to write a Lafferty story, “Sunbird.” While both stories riff on the legend of the phoenix, I think Gaiman was drawing on a much wider range of Laffertian influences. He uses Lafferty’s technique of presenting a list of character names that are joyously unique and somehow utterly Laffertian. He plays with introducing the characters through name, aspects of personality, impact upon the group, and little vignettes. And he has a character who knows much more about what is really going on than he tells the reader--the protagonist in Gaiman’s story, usually a side character in a Lafferty story. “Phoenic” was too short and too focused a story to include any of those particular elements.

Six Leagues From Lop - This is a delightful travelogue of sorts. It purports to fill in the missing parts from one of three adventures of Marco Polo that he (the narrator) claims was truncated and obviously missing parts. It tells the story of Marco Polo’s adventure to a spaceport just six leagues from Lop (modern day Ruoqiang Town in China), and his trade and travels with three-eyed extraterrestrials. Lafferty uses the old technique of telling the story from the point of view of a narrator who seems insane at first, then tells a fantastical story so compellingly that the reader starts to suspend disbelief, and then concludes by mentioning things even more insane, as if to remind the reader not to trust the narrator. Lots of tales of adventures to fantastic lands have been told in this format over the centuries, and Lafferty follows directly along in that tradition. Therefore, this is one of very few first-person narratives in Lafferty’s oeuvre.

Rainy Day in Halicarnassus - Apparently Socrates never got around to dying. His reported death from Hemlock poisoning was just a story Plato told to throw people off. In comparatively recent times (early twentieth century), Socrates had settled himself down in the ancient Greek city of Halicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum in Turkey). Two American travelers get stranded there by weather on a particularly rainy day. A rainy day in Halicarnassus being the absolute epitome of boredom, Socrates (“Socky”, or even “Rocky) takes some pity on the two stranded Americans and shows them the few paltry entertainments of the town. They catch on quickly that he is Socrates himself who has avoided death for thousands of years, but are not overly curious about it.
This story is more about the setting and situation than it is a narration of events. There is not really a plot, but more a series circumstances. Not that much happens. Two American sailors come into Halicarnassus for a safe harbor in a storm. It is raining and there’s almost nothing to do, so Socrates takes them to three nearly identical breakfasts in the town’s three cafes, takes them to nearly identical western matinees in the town’s three movie theaters, takes them to drink in the town’s three nearly identical nightclubs (which are open in mid afternoon only), and then out of desperation for something to do takes them to the museum of living relics where he is the greatest exhibit. There they encounter a group of time travelers from the far future who have identified him as Socrates and want to know the secret of how he avoided death for so many millennia, which he tells them (but not us, the reader). OK, I guess a lot does happen, but it is narrated in such a tone of abject boredom that the events seem dull. In a way, that is an accomplishment--I suspect no other writer could present such a set of circumstances with anything but breathless enthusiasm and wonder. Part of the power of the story is disconnect between the fantastic situations and the dullness with which we are asked to view them.

Assault on Fat Mountain - This is another story that is more about setting than events. The state of Franklin was not reclaimed by North Carolina in 1789, but won the battle with the North Carolina militia and declared itself an independent nation. The Free Republic of Franklin became the nation of Appalachia, which became the wealthiest and most fertile nation in the Americas. The United States grew to become the impoverished ring around the rich center of the continent, encircling Appalachia, but possessing none of its agricultural and resource wealth. The Appalachians have pity on the poor United Statesers and continually send charity trains of food, trade goods, technology, and money to the States. The Statesers are bitter about this and wish to share in owning the wealth and thus plot ineffectual invasions of the nation of Appalachia.
For me, the real joy in this story is reading the fun Lafferty had with lists. It is also another story where the reading up on history in Wikipedia enriches the experience (for example: the Wikipedia article on The State of Franklin). Something about this story has a bit the feel that Daniel Peterson has referred to as Lafferty’s “Buffalopunk”--his stories where Native Americans (or people like) rule the continent. He has posted a wonderful representative paragraph from this story on his blog, The Ants of God Are Queer Fish.

Calamities of Last Pauper - The Bible tells us in many places that we will always have the poor with us, and we must forever look after and care for the poor. Society has progressed both technologically and economically to the point where poverty has been completely eliminated--almost completely. One man has stubbornly refused riches and has clung to his poverty. This last pauper is brought on television and killed--thus eliminating poverty in the world. No longer having the poor with us to look after and care for, God removes our protections and a new era of really extreme weather, flooding, global glaciation, and volcanism occurs immediately, reducing the world’s population to only a couple of hundred. This story contains some great advice on becoming a serious writer--however, that advice might not apply until the next major ice age.

Rogue Raft - Lafferty give us an equally compelling and absurd geological argument that the level of the seas was at its highest during the ice ages and lowest during the warmest periods. He says that if the land bridges linking Alaska to Siberia and Canada to Greenland appeared during warmer times, that would make it easier to explain the migrations from continent to continent of plants and animals that are not so resistant to cold. He compares the continents to rafts floating in a sea of magma--if you pile miles of ice on top of such a raft, it sinks down, not rises up, and the sea floors, being lighter because of the lack of water, float higher on the magma, raising the sea level. I don’t buy it, but he presents it so compellingly that I really want to see a paleogeologist refute it directly and restore my sense geologic history.