Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Lafferty as writer of Mystical Slashers

They'd kill the Stutgards first, that very night, with axes.  They'd axe old man Stutgard, and all the blood would run out of his big red neck.  They'd cut off Mrs. Stutgard's head that was round as a pumpkin, and it would roll down to the bottom of the hill and look at you.  They'd kill the Stutgard kids.  It's most fun to kill kids who are just enough bigger than you to make it interesting.

-R. A. Lafferty, The Reefs of Earth (1968)

What has been a slow-dawning thought for a while now coalesced for me on a walk this morning:  Lafferty wrote slashers.  Once you say it plain and simple like that, you then, of course, have to qualify it to death. But let's leave the qualifications and nuances for another time.  I'm re-reading The Reefs of Earth right now, which is one of Lafferty's blatantly bloodiest tall tales, a backwoods murder-spree told through a loose-fisted science fiction trope (the killers are alien children who look a lot like human children).  But it's not just this famously murderous early novel.  It has occurred to me that almost every one of Lafferty's published novels (and a significant number of his short stories) involves attempted (and eventually successful) murder as a crucial element of the story arc (this is often in the form of politically motivated and often state-sanctioned assassinations).  Such killing all by itself, of course, only nudges these works into the murder mystery or crime story (a genre Lafferty assayed in a number of tales, including some yet-to-be-published novels).  But anyone who has read more than a few Lafferty stories will know full well that he goes way beyond mere depiction of a murder, even a grisly murder.  His tales are often soaked in buckets of blood and gore.

To throw out some of the more conspicuous specimens from his short fiction, there are  'Snuffles', 'Once On Aranea', 'Days of Grass, Days of Straw', 'Thieving Bear Planet', 'Jack Bang's Eyes', 'The Last Astronomer', and 'Happening in Chosky Bottoms'.  (Lesser specimens could include 'Camels and Dromedaries, Clem', 'Name of the Snake', 'The Hole On the Corner', 'The Man Who Never Was', 'Cliffs That Laughed', 'Frog On the Mountain', 'Ride a Tin Can', 'Sky', 'Groaning Hinges of the World', 'Ishmael Into the Barrens', 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire', 'And Mad Undancing Bears', 'Endangered Species', 'Fog in My Throat', 'Smoe and the Implicit Clay', 'The Hand With One Hundred Fingers', 'Thou Whited Wall', 'Splinters', 'The Funny Face Murders', and 'The Ninety-Ninth Cubicle' - each of which depicts grisly death or graphic violence, even if it's not as pervasive as in other stories.)

But it is probably mainly in his novels that one encounters the most gory, slashery stuff.  In fact, those of you who have read the novels can go back and re-read them with this theme in mind.  I think you'll be surprised how much of the bloodshed and killing you may have forgotten.  The quote above from Reefs is one of the tamest samples.  (Okay, I'll add in a nuance here:  a lot of the time it may be more accurate to say that Lafferty practiced a lot of literary gore rather than slasher stuff per se.  There are some really bloody scenes that don't have anything to do with persons murdering other persons - e.g. the wildly gory slaughter of the devil fish in Past Master, or the blood-spattering high-fall deaths from wrestling with God in 'Days of Grass, Days of Straw'.  But the depiction of gruesome bloodshed remains central.)

Now why call all this violence 'mystical'?  Lafferty seems to have had a sort of death-vision through which he saw the world in bloody-rosy hues.  I add 'rosy' to that characterisation on purpose.  How does such a bloody-minded author also fill us with so much joy and laughter, sometimes even as we cringe at horrific maiming and death scenes?  It's partly because Lafferty is almost always funny or wry.  He can't write anything it seems, no matter how dark, without at least a wink.  This often means that the more violent and grotesque the matter, the more hilarious (sometimes uncomfortably so) it comes across to us.  So Lafferty's work is grotesque in the comedic and carnival sense.  'I Think I Will Dismember the World With My Hands' is a chapter title in Lafferty's celebrated novel Fourth Mansions (1969) and it could be an artist's statement for Laff.  Andrew Ferguson has argued persuasively that Lafferty's practice of literary dismemberment is an artistic strategy of taking apart the science fiction genre in order to put it back together again 'renewed and revealed' in 'new potentiality' (Lafferty and His World, page 29 and following).

It is very much this and it is also very much more also.  Lafferty's comedic-grotesque slasher fiction is mystical because it exemplifies his deeply held convictions.  Comedy and laughter are huge central worldview categories for Lafferty.  He can't bring himself to flinch from writing bloody murderous horror, but nor can he bring himself to not laugh at it as well - and his laughter is ontological.  He's laughing because he thinks there's something more real than grisly horror and brutal death.  He has probably tricked you into laughing at that level too.

It seems that Lafferty just couldn't see death as termination, not finally.  Death was more of a waystation than a terminal for Lafferty.  Characters (even whole planets and the cosmos itself in Lafferty's stories) go through death on their way to something else.  Sometimes this is pretty jokey and immediate, such as when a just-severed head keeps talking and is placed at the prow of a boat in order to navigate raiders to other villages to pillage ('Groaning Hinges of the World'), or when a group of astronauts are slaughtered by their hosts on a planet only to regain life the next morning and be invited to enjoy the slaughter all over again as the day's entertainment (that's a rough remembrance of a long-ago reading of Lafferty's 1968 novel Space Chantey).

But often, neither narrator nor reader are privy to what-comes-next. Lafferty simply tells us that a resurrection, a new birth, a new creation is probably in the offing thanks to this bloody death we have witnessed--personal, communal, planetary, or cosmic.  He leaves the story open-ended on that score.  It's up to the reader whether she'll participate in the hushed anticipation that Lafferty enjoins, for example, at the end of Past Master (1968), when the narrator asks whether the destruction of the world will result in its rebirth and answers:  'Be quiet.  We hope.'

The carnival hope in Lafferty is not mere slapstick, however, as many of the deaths depicted are quite poignant and tragic ('Ride a Tin Can' is an obvious example; another for me is the intelligent talking elephant in Laff's 1987 novel Serpent's Egg).  Lafferty is aware of the big ask he is making of the reader:  to laugh even through the tears.  Indeed, to laugh in outright defiance of ultimate tragedy and sorrow (see his ending of 'I Don't Care Who Keeps the Cows' as one instance of a direct depiction of laughter as subversive resistance - a story that contains amusingly grotesque surgical body-horror as its main trope).

Well, this post is just a first stab (wink) at this theory about Lafferty.  I'll have to come back to it and more thoroughly evidence it for a start - a very fun task if you like totting up and citing deliciously gory scenes. Please let me know what you think.  Agree?  Disagree?  Have you noticed all the bloodshed and if so, what do you make of it?


Cosmic Horror vs. Cosmic Laughter (Lovecraft vs. Lafferty)

'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)