Monday, April 27, 2015

'Well then, this was something that did not explain itself at all'; Or, 'the grin of a tribal deity full of rogue power and eternal youth'

Overlark breathed out deeply, emptying chest and collapsing his whole upper body in the expelling. Then he plunged his head and neck and shoulders into the large bowl and began to breathe the water deeply.  If this was fakery it was good fakery,and it hadn't been rigged just to impress Freddy Foley.

The man, if he was a man, was breathing very deeply under water - if it was water.  His eyes were open and they had a new snap to them.  He grinned, a not altogether fish grin.  It was the grin of a tribal deity full of rogue power and eternal youth, one at home in all the elements.  Something false about both the power and the youth, though.

Fred Foley scooped water and tasted.  It was half salt - brackish, like tide-turning estuary water, or water from the sea very near the mouth of a great river.  Or it was like water from an ancient ocean, one with less salt in it than have the oceans now.  But why did Fred Foley think of that?

There were minute plants in the water, and small fish.  It was not tap water.  It was either drawn from a particular source, or carefully mixed.  Foley had a sudden belief that there might be an upwelling of that water in that room, even though it was an upper-floor room, just as there was an upwelling of water on Auclaire's mountain, though there were dry caves below.

Well then, this was something that did not explain itself at all.   Carmody Overlark had had his head under water for more than five minutes, and the water itself was in constant change or parade.  There were schools of small fish that passed through it laterally.  They did not follow around the curve of the bowl, they disappeared.  And other sorts of fish appeared, all traveling a parade in the same direction, coming out of the glass itself (for all that could be discerned of them), traveling across the bowl in a straight line and disappearing into the glass wall again.  There was optical illusion or there was strong current flowing through that bowl.

Was the underwater breathing of Overlark somehow the key to suspended animation?  It was a funny key; it didn't seem to fit any of the locks.  It was plain that an ordinary man would be dead, as it was now ten, now fifteen minutes that Overlark had his head and breathing below the surface.  It was plain that he was not an ordinary man.

Then the water went out of the bowl.  It could not be said that it drained out, for there was no drain. Air followed water in the current-parade across the inside of the bowl, and then the inside was dry. Overlark pulled his head out.  He was beaming and greatly refreshed.

"Wonderful, Foley, wonderful.  You should try it.  There's nothing like it to set a man up."

-R. A. Lafferty, Fourth Mansions (1969)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Laffertian Muck-Monsters

The essay I hope to write for Feast of Laughter volume 3 (due to come out this autumn) is about monsters in Lafferty's fiction, one section of which will be on 'muck-monsters' specifically.  I want to drop a note or two about that here.

My family didn't have much money growing up, so I couldn't afford extensive comic book collections.  Thankfully, some family we knew had a son heading off to college who decided to bequeath to me two brown paper grocery sacks full of comics from the 60s to the early 80s.  Among these were a fairly random selection of Man-Thing and Swamp Thing issues, both of which series pleased me greatly.  I've recently reconnected to those series and discovered they are the flowering of an older type of creature known as the muck-monster, one of the origins of which is The Heap from the WWII era.  

One of the main things I connect with in these monsters is their sheer physiognomy.  I just love the green, goopy, swampy, leafy, muddy, mucky mess of their form.  Man-Thing, for me, trumps Swamp Thing in this regard, the former being of a much weirder bulk than the latter's rather elegantly anthropic bearing.  Nevertheless, Alan Moore's Saga of the Swamp Thing series is by far the greater literary achievement.  (But I've also been enjoying catching up with the whole multi-world nexus conceit of Steve Gerber's The Man-Thing, finding it fruitful for limning theoretical ideas of the muck-monstrous.)

L to R:  Swamp Thing, Man-Thing

I suppose muck-monsters emblematise the dream of humanity's visceral (and viscous) connection to and intermingling with the rankly copious flora that supports its carbon-based, oxygen-breathing biosphere.  Perhaps it reifies a longing for deep rootedness and earthiness, and reminds us of our ecological connection to slime.  And, of course, all this connects to my ongoing study of 'dark ecology' and my own developing theory of the 'ecomonstrous'.

Somewhat to my surprise, as soon as I gained renewed and newly informed interest in muck-monsters, I began to notice a muck-monstrous theme cropping up rather frequently in Lafferty's fiction.  Just off the cuff (rather than going and researching it all right now), I can name the following stories that seem to evince muck-monstrous resonances:  

'Boomer Flats' (bigfoot-type primordial peoples ritually bury themselves in muddy river banks for spiritual renewal)

'Happening at Chosky Bottoms' (same type of folks as in 'Boomer Flats', with some great descriptions of glowing muddy monster-men)

'Smoe and the Implicit Clay' (primordial people rising up out of the clay underfoot, inviting others to recede into said clay with them, again for purposes of renewal)

'Incased in Ancient Rind' (the whole earth becomes swampy and the people slow down and thicken, this time apparently to show the opposite of spiritual renewal)

'Entire and Perfect Chrysolite' (a deadly swamp dream, noting our need for a connection to swampy depths, but our present inability to make this connection without casualty)

'Dream' (also titled 'Dreamworld'; a very nasty version of swampy existence takes over our present world, this tale cautionary again of the dehumanising versions of muck-monstrousness)

'Scorner's Seat' (people working in sewers full of fungoid bioluminescence and which host a gigantic version of Beowulf's Grendel monster, this one explicitly called a 'sewer monster' - this story perhaps exemplifies the tensions between the humanising and dehumanising versions of the muck-monstrous)

As to Lafferty's novels, the 'feral strips' on the planet Astrobe in Past Master seem to connect to muck-monstrous themes.  Some of the anthropo-amphibious ontologies of certain characters in Fourth Mansions perhaps connect too.  There are probably Southern Gothic swampy connections in The Reefs of Earth and I wouldn't be surprised if re-reads show some relevant resonances in the rank ontic luxuriance of Annals of Klepsis and the theo-monstrous discourse of Aurelia. Tangentially connected are oceanic monster/people themes in Past Master, Fourth Mansions, Serpent's Egg, and East of Laughter.  No doubt more instances will arise.  Please, dear reader, let me know of any I missed.

It's really no surprise, I guess, that a writer as earthy as Lafferty would resonate with a study of slime and muck-monsters.  And Lafferty's all about recovering lost depths and roots and so on.  

So, Laffertian muck-monsters, here we come!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Dissertation is in and Feast of Laughter 2 is out!

The dissertation is handed in.  I didn't get to take the argument as far down its arc as I'd hoped.  I knew the 10,000 word limitation couldn't contain what I wanted to say, but it contained even less than I predicted.  For example, my section on 'Snuffles' was reduced to a paragraph and I didn't get to include a discussion of 'Days of Grass, Days of Straw' at all!  Ai yi yi.  Guess that and some other overflow will be the next chapter in my exploration of the ecomonstrous in Cormac McCarthy and Lafferty.  But working on the section on 'Smoe and the Implicit Clay' was especially exciting and enlightening to me.  It will take much greater detail, tighter argument, and further wrestling with one of Lafferty's most richly layered and bizarre stories, but it felt like I was getting somewhere - especially in happening upon a resonance with a thinker called Alphonso Lingis who has argued for a metaphysics of upthrusting 'faces' in non-human things (a metaphor for the fact that all things are engaged in a task in response to an imperative), which is similar to Lafferty's imagery of faces rising up out of the clay in this tale.  I will upload the paper to my site (and provide a link here) when I've received a mark on it and made a few adjustments based on that feedback.  It's only an undergraduate dissertation, but the paucity of academic writing on Lafferty available on the web perhaps justifies sharing it with the public.

Having said that, here's a feast of writing about Lafferty (academic and otherwise) that I've yet again been privileged to make contributions to:  that's right, Volume 2 of Feast of Laughter: An Appreciation of R. A. Lafferty is hot off the press!  This thing is more of a beast of a feast than volume one.  The quantity and quality of the content have only increased (as well as the inner layout and design of the text).  We're so surprised this thing is going from strength to strength - not because we think Lafferty fans aren't enthusiastic and talented, but because we just had no idea how many great people would make great contributions as a pure labour of love (there's no profit garnered from the books at this stage).  There are reports from Laffertians in Japan, UK, Netherlands, Germany, and Russia.  Truly fascinating stuff, trust me.  There are new essays on how Lafferty's fiction works and what it achieves, as well as some more excellent and obscure reprints (including an academic article from a Thomas More journal on Lafferty's Past Master), some in-depth elucidations of Lafferty's barely-read, but by all accounts masterful, Argo Mythos, and reviews of a number of Lafferty's books.  There are a variety of creative approaches in all this as well, from the highly academic to the utterly experimental, each enlightening and enthralling in its own way.  And, in fact, as I've been reading through it, I've been amazed to note that the essays form almost a Laffertian baton race, where each new article picks up certain threads from the others and further elaborates.  A big picture of the ethos and workings of Lafferty's cosmos is starting to emerge, I swear!  There are also creative contributions again:  songs, poems, stories, and art - including, again, Lissanne Lake as cover artist:  her lovely rendering of Lafferty's short story 'Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas'.  That story is also included in this volume, as well as an interview with Lafferty by Tom Jackson.  We also got another professional 'lafferty' (an attempt to write a story in Lafferty's signature style), this time by Howard Waldrop!

I know I haven't reviewed volume 1 yet, as I promised I would, but I will and then I'll review this one as well.  I want to briefly engage each and every piece in each volume, partly for the sake of each contributor getting at least that tiny bit of direct engagement with their work, but also just because each contribution is valuable and fascinating for its part played in the emergence of a Lafferty revival.  And for the record, there are, from time to time, certain interpretations and viewpoints that I strenuously disagree with in these contributions.  So it's not just a back-slapping club but a genuinely diverse and opinionated community.  But I'm profoundly grateful for those views that spark rebuttal in me:  iron sharpens iron and all that.

There's lots of other Lafferty news that I'd like to report on (like the induction of Lafferty into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame and related events).  But it will all have to await another post.
'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)