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!