Tuesday, February 28, 2012

'The whole thing was a churning soup-bowl of death-dealing monsters.'

'The firm land "island" that they were on was hardly big enough for the five of them to stand on even with extreme crowding; and the snouts and serrate mouths that broke the surface of the quicksand were murderous. The whole thing was a churning soup-bowl of death-dealing monsters.'

-R. A. Lafferty, 'Quiz Ship Loose' (1978)

Monday, February 27, 2012

'One of his eyes is a laser and the other an x-ray'

'R. A. Lafferty is the result of the ecstatic union of a power shovel and a moonbeam.  One of his eyes is a laser and the other an x-ray, and he has a little silver anvil on which, warmed by laughter, he shapes logic to his own ends.  For breakfast he eats pomposity, for lunch he nibbles on the improbable, and he dines on fixed ideas (yours and mine) which he finds about him in great abundance.  He disjoints and broils them.  He has educated every school he ever attended and left when they wouldn't learn.  He got his outside, by talking to people like you.  Nobody knows where he really came from.

'As for his stories:  some time ago I wrote in The New York Times that some day the taxonomists, those tireless obsessives who put labels on everything, will have to categorize literature as Westerns, fantasies, romances, lafferties, science fiction, mysteries...'

-Theodore Sturgeon, introducing Lafferty's story 'Quiz Ship Loose' in Chrysalis Volume 2 (1978)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

'seeing the other nine-tenths of the world'

'The new experience or discovery was a wider range of seeing and sensing.  It was the quick cognition of animations and people and off-people and pantograms and joyous beasts and monsters that had heretofore been invisible.  It was seeing the other nine-tenths of the world in its racing brightness, and the realizing that the one-tenth of the world that had always been visible was comparatively a little bit sub-par.  It was - well, it was the sensual pleroma the fulfillment, the actualization, all this laced with the excited "Hey, where have you guys been!" motif.'

-R. A. Lafferty, 'Make Sure the Eyes Are Big Enough' (1982)

Friday, February 24, 2012

IRON TEARS and Magnesium Joy!

Just finished a couple weeks of hard work on a few university essays today.

(One for English Literature on narration in Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights; the other for Philosophy on sense-data and physical objects in Bertrand Russell's philosophy of perception - but that's by the bye.  No, no, in fact it's utterly pertinent as Narration and Perception are HUGE themes in Lafferty's writing!  Not to mention that Spark is a fellow Catholic hybrid-fiction writer that will someday make some Lafferty academic a very fine comparative study and Russell provides a perfect secular humanist foil for much of what Lafferty had to say.)

After handing the second essay in today, I came home to find a greatly anticipated parcel awaiting me.  The perfect reward!  You guessed it, Iron Tears, a now rare collection of Lafferty's short stories.  I found this for under £40 the other day at random online (I haven't seen it for under £100 for a few years I think).  I begged my wife and promised to skip coffees and sandwiches in town and put some of our children into factory work or whatever it takes to afford it!  I just couldn't pass it up at that price.  To be honest, I've been fully expecting to get an email telling me it wasn't for sale after all (it's happened to me more than once with Lafferty books - and one time several years ago with Iron Tears!).

And it's the original version from Edgewood Press with the introduction by Michael Swanwick and what I think is a really cool cover!  (Mr. Swanwick's intro is a very poignant little essay entitled 'Despair and the Duck Lady' that I will interact with another time.)

Here it is in all its second-hand glory (photo by my lovely wife, Andrea)

Three incredible blurbs about Lafferty by fellow writers grace the back cover:

'In these wonderful stories Lafferty unfailingly puts us, in his own words, "into a different juxtaposition with all things else in the world."  Nobody else does it better.  In fact, nobody else does it at all -- not like this.  Lafferty is one of a kind, a magician of strange images made fleetingly recognizable, of familiar emotions made strange and new and haunting.  A delight.'
                                                   Nancy Kress

'The stories in Iron Tears are alive with the strange combination of beauty and inexplicable terror and wonder usually found only in dreams.'
                                                   James P. Blaylock

'I love this book... Lafferty is our unheralded American Garcia Marquez... a word-slinger totally out of synch with today's slim-fast reductive rhetoric; a sly old buzzard who conjures up fables as lurid as Bible stories and tells them in a tornado of words wild enough to drive wood splinters through a windshield.'
                                                   Terry Bisson


Introduction: Despair and the Duck Lady
by Michael Swanwick

You Can't Go Back
Lord Torpedo, Lord Gyroscope
Thieving Bear Planet
The World as Will and Wallpaper
Horns on Their Heads
By the Sea Shore
Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies
Magazine Section
Or Little Ducks Each Day
Le Hot Sport
Gray Ghost: A Reminiscence

A good half dozen of these I've already collected in multi-author anthologies, but some are very rare indeed, only collected in very limited chapbooks that are now unavailable or very expensive (just for a story or two).  Plus, the prospect of an overflowing handful of stories I've never read by Laff, well, you can't beat it.  The ones I have read are some of Lafferty's VERY best in my opinion and I'll no doubt discover at least a few more to put in that category.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Question: Where should I start with reading Lafferty? Answer: Er, well...

I keep getting asked where to start with reading Lafferty, so an 'official' post suggesting starter points is long overdue.  This is pretty much the best I can do just now and is based in part on what appears to me to be fairly readily obtainable.  (If you can't be bothered to read through all this, I'd recommend scrolling down to the last section entitled:  'THE GIFT BASKET APPROACH'.)

Some stories available online:
I suppose we ought to start here.  At the very bottom of the the Lafferty wikipedia page are listed 'Works available online' with links to each of the six stories.  Most Lafferty fans are uncertain whether these particular stories are the best place to start.  'Nine Hundred Grandmothers' and 'Narrow Valley' have often been anthologised.  'Slow Tuesday Night' is fairly well celebrated.  The other three are not so well known, but have their charms.  (I particularly love 'The Six Fingers of Time' and I quite like 'The Transcendent Tigers'.  Also, 'Nine Hundred Grandmothers' is something of a classic for me - but other fans will sharply differ I'm afraid.)  But, to be honest, no matter how you slice it, perhaps none of these six stories really show just how wild and wonderful, nor how hilarious, nor how literary and language-rich (nor even how philosophical and theological)  Lafferty can get.  Some of them will probably become some of your favourites, but they're really best appreciated when read among a wider-ranging collection of Lafferty's stories.  Still, these are available to the person that just needs to taste Lafferty right away with no delay.  If that's you, I guess I'd recommend 'The Transcendent Tigers' as it's fairly lively (probably not in a way you'd expect from the title - his story titles are delightful but often enjoyably misleading) and it's short.  Just promise me you won't stop there.  You promise?

          ADDENDUM:  In his excellent comments below, Andrew Ferguson (the world’s first academic Lafferty scholar – see his dissertation ‘Lafferty and His World’), regards ‘Narrow Valley’ as a fairly ideal starting point for reading Lafferty.  Having myself just re-read the story, I’m now more inclined to agree than I was before.  It is rich in American storytelling.  And it is a TALL yarn indeed, demonstrating repletely Lafferty’s preternatural ability to narrate the impossible.  It reads something like Swift, Twain, and Carroll together spinning a contemporary Native American myth.  As Andrew aptly put it, it is ‘a defining example of Lafferty's ability to stack the lies higher and higher’.  There are grins and chuckles to be had too as well as some sly political commentary about the white man (with a tinge of poignant sorrow about the plight of modern American Indians) and a slam-bang horror-jokey ending also – so I guess Andrew is fairly on the mark to say this Lafferty story ‘has it all, pretty much’.  (He also says he often recommends 'Slow Tuesday Night' as a starting point too.)

Not much left in print that's affordable, but, here goes:
Rumour has it that Locus Magazine has bought the rights to Lafferty's complete works and are in discussions about what the heck to do with such a priceless but hard-to-market prize.  [Andrew, in the comments below, assures me this is no mere rumour, but a done deal.]  In the meantime, most of his books seem to have gone well above the fifty dollar price and often into the hundreds or even thousands!  But it looks like old copies of the following are still available on Amazon.com for under twenty dollars (and I'm sure you can find a few better prices if you do a more extensive search through other dealers and book-search engines).  You can click on the titles to go to where I found them on the Amazon page (but they are, of course, subject to disappear):

Short story collections (it's definitely best to start with his short stories if you can)
* Strange Doings
* Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?

For just a little over twenty dollars
* Ringing Changes

It looks like there are still a few copies left for around 25 and 30 dollars of his celebrated collection
* Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Each one of these collections has some of Lafferty's very, very best short stories, but to the beginning reader of Lafferty the collections can feel rather uneven in quality.  Even fans notoriously disagree over what are the best (and worst) stories (and collections).  Usually, you find that stories you weren't that impressed by first time round can years later, when Lafferty has been marinating in your soul for a while, become some of your favourites.  But a lot of the favourable first impressions will be very lasting and certain stories will always remain favourites.

Nine Hundred Grandmothers is certainly the 'seminal' collection - the first published and still probably most referred to - and it definitely has some of his best and most memorable stories.  But it's not clearly superior overall to the other collections for me.

Ringing Changes has some of Lafferty's very, very best stories but it might also have too many less impressive ones (that feels so wrong to say about such a master).  It's a collection that gave me, at least, a lot of pleasure when I first read it.

Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add? gave me less pleasure on a first read, though it has some of my favourite stories.  But a number of its stories have also proved to be total gems that I just blockheadedly under-appreciated the first time round.

Strange Doings is one of the better collections, I think.  Maybe it and Nine Hundred Grandmothers are the most solid, with the latter being perhaps the place to start if you can afford it.

Phew!  You have no idea what agony it is to try to recommend starting places or say what's 'best'!  (At any rate, see below about short stories not found in these collections, which are maybe even better places to start.)

          ADDENDUM:  In the comment thread Andrew also mentions that 900 Grans 'will almost certainly be reprinted in the next couple years' and also 'there is most assuredly a "Best Of" compilation in the works'.  So look out for those!  (You can count on those being announced here, so feel free to use the 'Follow by Email' box at the top right of the blog to stay informed.)

The seminal three that all came out in 1968 and took the sf publishing world by storm:
Past Master
* Space Chantey (it's printed as an 'Ace Double' with another author's novel called Pity About Earth)
* The Reefs of Earth

Three more classics that quickly followed and are still considered seminal classics also:
Fourth Mansions
Arrive At Easterwine
The Devil Is Dead

Lesser known masterpieces:
Annals of Klepsis
Not To Mention Camels
Apocalypses (containing two short novels: Where Have You Been, Sandaliotis? and The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney)

Warning:  Lafferty's novels, though utterly delightful to the initiated, are not the place to start if you can get hold of the short stories first.

Of the first half-dozen listed here, Past Master and Arrive At Easterwine are probably my favourites at a gut level.  The former is especially good if you want to see Lafferty in full theological satire mode and in full science fiction mode too (future/another planet/space travel/technology/robots/time-travel/dystopia - though it's also fantastical with ghosts and primordial monsters and so on).  It's perhaps not as smoothly written as some of the others but still has some of his best prose moments (especially once it gets past the first choppy chapter) and some of his best imagery and ideas and incidents.  The historical Thomas More (the originator of the concept and word 'Utopia' is brought forward from the past to fix the novel's ailing utopia) is one of Lafferty's 'thickest', finest drawn characters in my opinion.

Easterwine is often thought of as becoming nearly incomprehensible about a third of the way in - that's an exaggeration, but it is one of his most tangled tales.  Still, most fans really love it.  It too is one of his best characterisations:  this time the sentient computer, 'Epiktistes', whose autobiography the novel is (he's also a fan favourite from a series of Lafferty's short stories).  This novel too says a lot of what Lafferty wants to say philosophically, culturally, and theologically - but in very layered and encoded form.  Though it too can be jangly and juddery in plot and style, it also has some of Lafferty's best prose moments, images, ideas and scenes.  Still, Easterwine is almost certainly not the place to start with Lafferty, while Past Master might be a decent option.

In some ways Space Chantey is more straightforward - certainly in terms of the flow of the prose and the plot - but it's still full of very potent Lafferty weirdness.  It's a rip-roaringly enjoyable read, an adventurous and rollicking retelling of Homer's Odyssey on a galactic space-faring level.

The Reefs of Earth I also found eminently readable in terms of prose-flow, but it's one of the very, very strangest of Lafferty's fictions in terms of just the scenario and unfolding of events.  Alien children that look just like human children (almost), who have lost their parents and have decided to murder all the humans.  It's really nothing like what that summary makes it sound like.  There's not really a Twilight Zone-like 'eerie suspense' or anything like that.  It's very earthy and rustic in a way, and very like a folk tale mixed with a Southern Gothic tale, but still in a way that those descriptions don't really signify.  It's genuinely baffling, and not entirely in a 'wow! that was so cool how weird it was!' kind of way. I'm still not sure what to make of it in Lafferty's canon, but it was nevertheless a very pleasurable read in its own strange way.  I wouldn't normally recommend it as an introduction to Lafferty, yet several people I know have read it as an intro to Laff recently by default, as nothing else was available.  And... their reaction was quite favourable.  So there ya go.

The Devil is Dead is a favourite of some fans, but though I enjoyed it (and, as always, it contains some of my favourite Lafferty moments), it has never been one of my favourites and I definitely wouldn't have recommended it as a starting point (plus it's a middle book that's part of a much larger series that was only barely published and is now unavailable - it may turn out to be his magnum opus when read all together).  But (again!) someone I know recently had to start there, again due to scarcity of available works from Lafferty, and they really enjoyed it.  (I didn't love it as much when I first read it because it didn't seem to as blatantly incorporate much of my favourite Lafferty tropes - fantastical, supernatural, paranormal, or multi-dimensional happenings and/or bizarre twists on science-fictional themes.  But really, it's full of good Lafferty strangeness and some fine prose.)

Fourth Mansions is usually one of the most beloved and lauded of Lafferty's novels by his fan base.  I was more uncertain on my first go with it, but in a recent re-read I loved it very much.  It has some of his best prose.  Its plot flows along pretty nicely (not necessarily comprehensibly, just readably).  It's kind of a magical realism and urban fantasy sort of scenario with some very memorable characters and a very interesting theological theme.  Again, it's not where I would probably recommend a neophyte begin their Laffertian journey.  This time I don't know of anyone personally who has done so and liked it, but I think I've read comments online that some people started there and loved it.

As to the lesser known three listed last:  Annals of Klepsis is actually one of my very, very favourite of Lafferty's novels, probably the one I read with the single most readerly pleasure.  It's VERY freakishly strange and weird and in some ways barely understandable (the prose is clear and the events are more or less 'see-able', but it's just... 'what... why... huh?').  A historian travels to a pirate planet that has no written history and he hopes to remedy that.  There's feasting and storytelling going on inside the belly of a beached whale whilst it is being shot up with bullets on the outside.  There's a dog with missiles for teeth guarding an underground treasure.  A group of characters go on a spectacular and bizarre boat journey through the canals of someone's brain... and so on.  Those snapshots don't necessarily give the right impression.  None of Lafferty's work is really what I'd call 'surreal' (though this occasionally is said of his fiction).  It's too earthy, folky, bloody, visceral, meaty, and musky for that.  It's 'insane', but not really in a 'hallucinatory' or 'trippy' way (though I don't blame readers for sometimes mistaking it for such - certain qualities of dream are admittedly present and pervasive).  It feels like something deeper and 'tougher', like myth and fable and legend, though definitely transmuted through carnival and through contemporary concerns and motifs.  So, would I recommend starting with Klepsis?  Ah, hm.  Sure.  Why not.  To sample at least.

I love Not To Mention Camels.  Very much.  Probably not the place to start.  It would probably be too brain-splitting to follow when you're not used to where Lafferty can go yet.  Multiple selves in multiple worlds (and even a [thrilling] chapter on multiple archetypal selves battling between worlds), lots of philosophical exposition.  You may think you're bad enough to start there, but don't kid yourself.  Earn your spurs.  Try it later.  (Though again, I recently read of someone being introduced to Lafferty through this one and being very much sold on it and Laff through it.)

The first novel of Apocalypses is often considered rather average fare, but I quite enjoyed it.  Definitely do not start there - you'll flag and give up.  The second novel, Three Armageddons, is acclaimed as one of Lafferty's very best by most fans, I think.  I loved it - but, like Not To Mention Camels, it will melt your brain if you're just getting started.  It's probably the best historical sort of work I've read by Lafferty, invoking early 20th century Chicago.  But it is fantasy also, full of intellectually demanding exposition and speculation, as well as full of mind-bending events and scenarios about what's real and what's not (a theme Lafferty continually explores - related, I suppose, to things like The Matrix and Inception, but totally without their 'slick' and 'hip' feel).  Don't start here either.  (But do go ahead and purchase this kitschily-covered little gem while it's cheap - you'll thank me later when your apprenticeship has progressed.  Indeed, I guess this pretty much applies to all of the above.)

          ADDENDUM:  Andrew also mentions in the comments below that Lafferty's Okla Hannali probably deserves a mention here as a possible starting point.  I only neglected to because I still haven't read it yet.  It is unanimously spoken well of and is still in print, read by a lot of folks who otherwise know little or nothing about Lafferty.  It is a historical fiction novel about the Choctaw nation and is very beloved of fans and others alike.  As Andrew points out, 'for most novel readers it provides a recognizable form that helps ease in the Lafferty weirdness. (Also: hilarious and shatteringly sad by turns.)'


Individual short stories in multi-author anthologies:
* 'The Configuration of the North Shore' in Modern Classics of Fantasy
* 'Smoe and the Implicit Clay' in Future Power
* 'Bright Flightways' & 'The Man Who Walked Through Cracks' (two-for-one!) in Chrysalis 3
* 'In Deepest Glass: An Informal History of Stained Glass Windows' in The Berkley Showcase Vol. 4
* 'Symposium' in Omega
* 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire' in And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire (or, alternately, in Sacred Visions)

It just so happens that some of my very favourite Lafferty is only collected just one story at a time in old multi-author anthologies and nowhere else.  This baker's half-dozen could easily be expanded to a score or more but most of these can be obtained for a few dollars plus postage.  Heck, if you're going to spend twenty or so bucks on getting acquainted with Lafferty, I'd almost recommend just snatching up this handful of books as a nice little Lafferty basket sampler.  (Go on,  throw in a basket and some ribbon and treat yourself!  Or someone you love VERY much!  [Dang, now I'm starting to wish I got commissions.])  But now I can at last more unequivocally enthuse about how great these stories are because I'm not having to consider how a whole collection of Lafferty's stories may hit you as a first-time reader.  If you get hold of any of these based on my recommendations and descriptions here, try to completely block out of your mind anything I've said about a particular story so you can approach it as freshly as possible with as little expectation as possible.  I only allude to what they're 'about' here to whet your fancy and tickle your appetite.

'Configuration' is easily in my top five favourite Lafferty stories.  It has yet to fail me as an intro for someone who has never even heard of Lafferty.   They are invariably hooked in by the wow-factor and humour of his unbounded imagination and oddness on full display in this folksy and freaky (and even mythopoeic!) tale of depth psychology and dream sequences.  (This is the one story in this list that is collected in a Lafferty-only collection - Lafferty In Orbit.  But this book costs over 50 dollars and, anyway, the presentation of this classic Lafferty tale is better encountered in the quality binding and printing of the Modern Classics of Fantasy anthology rather than the frankly shabby, type-o-infested Lafferty in Orbit.)

'Smoe' I only discovered recently and it instantly became a favourite.  It's one of Lafferty's many 'planet-fall' stories of usually farcically disastrous contact with alien cultures.  It very oddly and oddly effectively draws on the G.I. 'Killroy was here' myth woven with Native American traditions.  A gorgeous and grotesque cataract of prose and style comes bursting out at particular crucial moments in the story.  Very stirring, yet almost slapstick at the same time.

'Bright Flightways' and 'The Man Who Walked Through Cracks' make a disturbingly lovely diptych about reality cracking down the middle and which side we choose to find ourselves on.  Both stories seem almost unfinished, but both have amazing moments of language and at least a few very bizarre images that will resonate for a long time.

Lafferty often brings an idiosyncratic Neanderthal mythos into his whole web of story and 'In Deepest Glass' is in my opinion the very best of this motif that I've seen.  This one too taps into the mythopoeic for me, whilst also being wryly quirky and just really, really strange.  I remember first reading this one and just thinking:  'where does this man's imagination hang out? no one else comes up with this kind of stuff!'  It also taps into Lafferty's poignant theological evaluation of society if you're interested in that.

'Symposium' is another hidden gem:  children's toy blocks that are artificial intelligences having a discussion with one another about origins of the universe and cycles of history - told in some of Lafferty's fine, rhapsodic language.

'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire' is maybe Lafferty's most overtly 'Christian' story:  a 'cowpunk' sort of Oklahoma tale about those who resist the future's drugged out, demoniac, dehumanising dystopia by organising and building and constructing a Fire that will outlast the wobbly-eyed Age of Thinness.  It's kind of a Chestertonian Screwtape Letters filtered through Southwest regional fiction and s.f.

ADDENDUM:  In the comments below Andrew (world's first Lafferty scholar, in case you didn't read that above) recommends these titles be added to the gift basket:

'Bubbles When They Burst' in Galaxy Nov 71
'Quiz Ship Loose' in Chrysalis 2

Well, for what is was worth...

(Don't say I never at least tried to help make the world a better place.)

If you're an old hand at Lafferty Ranch, please don't hesitate to make your own recommendations (and argue with mine) in the comments.  If you're a noob, please don't hesitate to ask questions!

Friday, February 17, 2012

'A world that believes in open things is at least fertile...'

'What things a man or a world believes or disbelieves will permeate every corner and shadow and detail of life and style, will give a shape to every person and personifact and plant of that world.  They will form or they will disorder, they will open or close.  A world that believes in open things is at least fertile to every sort of adventure or disaster.  A world that believes in a closed way will shrivel and raven and sputter out in frosty cruelty.'

                                                                                                   Audifax O'Hanlon

(R. A. Lafferty, 'Ishmael Into the Barrens', originally published in Four Futures, 1971)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Laughing Lamentations

Right.  It's obvious I've had almost no time for this blog for some months now, but I've just got to try harder to at least jot down some notes about 'Lafferty theory' as my thoughts develop.  Lafferty's fiction is ever haunting the edges and centres of my imagination and I need to let some of this poltergeistic activity manifest itself in 'print'!

I've just read the first three stories in the collection Golden Gate and Other Stories (1982, Corroboree Press, signed copy, illustrated).  I'm struck afresh with the profound commingling of deep joy and deep sorrow in Lafferty's fiction that I began to try to analyse previously here.  These opening stories are wonderful specimens of consummate storytelling, each framed with certain types of narrational rhythmic repetitions characteristic especially of oral forms (which give his stories a 'live' and performative sort of feel - if you haven't done it yet, you must try reading some of  his tales out loud to family or friends; it adds whole new levels to the experience).

The first story ('Golden Gate') takes place within a week's time, narrating several rollicking evenings of contemporary (1970s) working class folks having a high time at an 1890s style bar and pantomime venue.  Each major scene is a ritual repetition of the build up to and then occurrence of a given weeknight's vaudeville-type melodrama, which is then capped by group singing to round out the night's rowdy fun.

The second story ('Mr. Hamadryad') takes place in semi-secret bars in Africa, North America, and Polynesia during short, apparently incidental, meetings between the narrator and the mysterious man of the title.  Each major scene is a ritual repetition that recounts the bartender's making of the titular character's mixed drink (each one crowned by the cracked egg of a local exotic bird placed in the completed drink still in its shell and sprinkled with the local version of something like sesame seeds).

The third story ('This Boding Itch') takes place within, I think, less than two hours in a near-future America running at a hyper-productive speed similar to Lafferty's celebrated story 'Slow Tuesday Night' and the packed passage of time is marked by the ritual repetition of television news reports at 6:21, 6:41, 7:01, 7:31, 7:46 and so on.

Now, for me, it is its own pleasure just to notate these narrational framing devices.  But they very much serve a purpose in - or rather, evince and exemplify a purpose underlying - all of Lafferty's writing, revealing of the existential wrestlings he performs in his art.  The narrational significance can be seen when noticing and notating the theme of each of these stories.

Each one is about a grave loss to the human world.  More and more I see how much so many of his stories are elegiacs and jeremiads.  He wrote not only comic prophecies with cosmic laughter (jibing and joking as a means of calling his society to very sober choices and actions) but also wrote out-and-out lamentations, beautifully and heart-rendingly chronicling just what it is we've lost, what we've failed to choose, how we've failed to act - or indeed, how those of us who perhaps may have wanted to choose and act have been brutally denied this path by the powers that be.

'Golden Gate' is about an era's loss of a clear Villain or Devil.  'Mr. Hamadryad' is about an era's shift-change from the Monkeys ('scatterbrained, petty, inefficient and human') to the Cats ('clear and clean, and cool and cruel') - i.e. from being bumblingly human to being efficiently inhuman.  'This Boding Itch' is about the grotesquery of Thought Police acid-burning-off the maps of the future on the palms of our hands and the acid-burning-out of the third eyes on our foreheads that understand that map of the future - i.e. being bureaucratically and brutally severed from our own possibility of transcendence into fuller meaning, fuller humanity.

Loss, loss, loss.  When you enter into sympathy with Lafferty's work, you really feel the deep sorrow and bereavement of these stories.  The effect on the reader is a kind of reverse-Sensucht. (This was a term C. S. Lewis employed to describe our piercing sense of 'inconsolable longing' for 'another world'.  So in Lafferty's counterpoise version it perhaps describes something like an 'inconsolable mourning' for a 'lost world' or better, an 'inconsolable stupefaction' due to a 'missed world' that we have somehow sidestepped and 'misplaced'.  Possibly this is relevant to understanding Lafferty's oft-used term 'amnesia' to describe our contemporary cultural state).

But that's not all.  That is not the entirety of the effect on the reader of these jeremiads.  You had also been experiencing a deeply haunting joy intertwining the sadness as you read each story.  Where  does this strange ecstatic (I would say 'eucatastrophic') element come from if the theme is about a terrible loss - indeed, the loss of our humanity, or at least its severe diminishment?  I suggest it comes from the storytelling itself:  mainly the orally organised narration I've briefly described here, the richly (but raucously) poetic and polyvalent ( = multi-level meanings) language, and, of course, the unbounded imagination the author exercises - or rather, a very powerfully bound and bridled imagination that is thereby ferociously empowered to CREATE a kind of elemental fantasy writing that may well have no equal, a scarily deep level of creativity that is submitted to an infinitely wealthy spiritual orthodoxy which liberates and unleashes the artist into a truly primal and preternatural exercise of expression and craft.

Yet, to complete the incarnationally paradoxical sort of miracle that Lafferty's writing is (in the ballpark of the Divine Word becoming Human Flesh), the issuing forth of its nearly unspeakable wonders is never without a firm eye and ear on real people, usually 'salt of the earth' people, everyday folks.  (There are a plenitude of 'tall' characters too, of course, but even they seem to be grown from the rich red clay beneath our feet.)  Indeed, in this regard, Lafferty is probably the wildest, woolliest mixture of the canny and uncanny the world is going to see.  This latter 'ordinary folks' sort of element is, in fact, where a lot of the fun, funny, joking quality comes in.

So, it is by means of these in-woven elements that a certain unspeakable elation seems to be infusing the stories, a pungent gladness that poignantly mixes with the sorrow and bewilderment the stories also exhibit.

(Look, I know that's wordy.  Someday perhaps I'll hone my own writing craft to trim down much of this teetering verbosity.  I do have a poet's free-association imagination and intuitive communicativity, so there is a lot of 'play' in my word-hurling, I admit.  YET, please believe me that I am here combing through my words and trying to sculpt them until they really seem to fit the subject matter.  I believe that if some thought and patience is given to the above paragraphs, it is at least a pseudo-noble, if pitiful, effort at apprehending this great man's craft and artistry.  I mean for it to gain traction, to get purchase, on Lafferty's writing and truly help elucidate it.)

To try to sum it:  there is a very piercing sorrow in many of Lafferty's tales at the level of the theme that the events narrate - namely, loss or diminishment of humanity in a socio-cultural era of the philosophical denial of the human person (following from the era's denial of the divine and/or divine revelation).  And, at the exact same time in the reading experience, there wrestles with this sorrow a piercing joy at the level of the storytelling itself - a wild joy and mystery and even hope comes through in the very narration and events narrated, the mind-and-heart-expanding wonder of experiencing impossibilities tumbling out and over you in exquisite pungency and potency.  (Indeed, I haven't even explored here the weird wonders these particular stories contain - a man in a crowd shooting and killing another man on a stage and only the two them know it has happened; a baboon-faced man with a giant invisible panther for a slave; thirty freshly severed left hands crawling out the windows of a room of thirty people to escape being eaten by dogs bred for the purpose - you get the idea.) This strange commingling of opposed elements makes the stories Laughing Lamentations it would seem, a fitting tag perhaps for the writer who took up Chesterton's mantle as merry maker of paradox and brought the practice to whole new levels.

Indeed, Lafferty has a constant 'double vision' in a variety of ways and themes, so this fits in with that.  (And there's lots of academic literary terminology about 'twinning' and 'doubles' and so on that could be tapped into for theoretical equipment with which to analyse this central aspect of Lafferty.)

If you made it through to here - thank you and congratulations:  you are undisputedly a lusty, robust, stamina-stacked, longsuffering reader!
'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)