The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: An Introduction to R A Lafferty’s novels


People (it is traditional to address an audience with the word the great man was wont to use in his fiction when preparing to discuss Raphael Aloysius Lafferty, known professionally as R.A. Lafferty and to his family and intimates as Ray). People: little as I am qualified to do so, given my lack of great erudition, my unfamiliarity with deep Catholic liturgy and beliefs, my similar inexperience with more than a shallow amount of world-wide mythology and the absence in me of familiarity with more than merely my native tongue, but buoyed up by forty plus years of reading the great man’s writings, not to mention the qualification of being one of the few hundred people on this globe who enthuse for his works. People: I intend to re-read, and write upon the various novels of the late R.A. Lafferty. May God have mercy upon you.
The thing about reading Lafferty is not that it qualifies you for a very exclusive, inclusive club of enthusiasts and fanatics, but that you find yourself writing introductions like that.
Raphael Aloysius Lafferty (1914-2002) was born in Neola, Iowa, and moved with his family to Tulsa, Oklahoma, aged 8. Other than during Service in the US Army in the Pacific Theatre during World War 2, he lived there for the remainder of his life, the last eighteen years of which he spent in a nursing home after suffering a debilitating stroke in 1984. For someone with such a sharp, inventive mind, that was a tragic ending.
Lafferty first started to appear, as a writer of short stories, in 1959. For a time there, it was touch and go whether he would become a crime fiction writer, or a science fiction writer. In the end, the SF field claimed him for their own, although the fit was always more one of default than nature. Lafferty was a writer of dense, allusive but also broadly comic prose, a fizzer with ideas. He was a true one-off: expert writers who try to pastiche what at first sight appears to be a slapdash, easy going, campfire style that fits closest with the American Tall Tales tradition, universally agree that it’s incredibly hard work to give even a surface impression.
Lafferty was a regular in the SF magazines in the Sixties and into the Seventies, and produced a number of well-received novels. He was in demand from editors and welcomed passionately by his fellow writers, until sophisticated publishing and circulation software revealed that Laff’s actual market was minuscule: in a conversation with a fellow fan, a bookseller, a few years ago, he reckoned that there are only about three hundred of us in the world.
And if you go by their quotes, something like twenty-five percent of them at least are fellow writers. Neil Gaiman is an avid fan, who corresponded with him whilst still a child: he has said, “(Lafferty) was undoubtedly the finest writer of whatever it was that he did that ever there was.” Theodore Sturgeon commented that, “some day the taxonomists, those tireless obsessives who put labels on everything, will have to characterise literature as Westerns, fantasies, romances, lafferties, science fiction, mysteries…”
My favourite comment comes from Michael Swanwick: “If there were no Lafferty, we would lack the imagination to invent him.” I can think of no more beautiful tribute to a fellow writer.
Most people concur that Lafferty’s strongest writing comes in his short stories. His working methods were very intense, involving two hour writing stints, and having to extend this across the number of pages required for a novel has most people believing that his talents were being diffused.
Some of his short stories are incredible miniatures, that can have you in tears of laughter, or just boggling at what he’s done in so short a space and time. But although I may have read a couple of his early stories when I was first feeling my way into SF/Fantasy, back in 1974, my first serious exposure was a novel.
Lafferty’s novels in publication order bear no discernible relationship to their order of writing. I know from the Continued on Next Rock website that Archipelago was Laff’s first, even though it was not published until 1979, and then in very limited quantities, but I’m going to go by publication order, and you’ll have to keep up.
We all have to keep up, and that includes me. I’m going to write this because I want to write this. If it can persuade any of you to join in increasing our numbers to 301, it will be a welcome bonus. But you’ll need a lot of money to afford to buy the out-of-print books…

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6 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: An Introduction to R A Lafferty’s novels

  1. You’re right that the order of publication for the novels is at best a rough guide to when Lafferty was actually writing stuff (and for the novels, he stacks up a whole lot of unpublished manuscripts before he manages to get three published at once in 1968). However, there won’t be too much of a gap in the early going.

    Very glad someone is taking on the novels—especially since it’ll be a while before I get to any published ones other than Archipelago and Dotty. Looking forward to reading your thoughts! (And maybe check out the new edition of Past Master if you get the chance…)

    1. Hi Andrew, and nice to hear from you, as I’ve been following your site almost since it started. I can’t pretend to be able to go into the books in the depth you do, but I shall do my best. Past Master comes up next week, but I’m working from my original copy: I know it was re-issued with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, but was the text different? If so, I must grab it.

      1. The new edition comes out in about a month from Library of America, this time with an intro by me (I don’t see any income out of it selling more or less copies, so hoping this doesn’t come across as being too self-promoting—you can get the same text in the SF Novels of the ’60s set that Gary K. Wolfe is editing, without my intro, too.)

        The text has been re-set, fixing a few things along the way, and the notes will have some substantial alternate passages indicated along with where they were cut from the manuscript.

        Not that I want to hold you up! I’m always eager to see new writing on Lafferty’s works. Just thought you might want to know about it. And in the meantime, maybe I’ll steal a little time to get back to Dotty…

  2. Interesting: I’ll have to get a copy. The plan is to release a new post every Wednesday, with Past Master the one for next week, but I can do a supplemental post later.

    Is there any chance any of the unpublished novels/short stories might appear? That would be magical.

    1. More than a chance! We’ll definitely get some of the unpublished ones out, at the very least as ebooks. There’s plans pretty far along to bring out the entire In a Green Tree series, and it’s a priority to get out Esteban as well as the third and fourth Dana Coscuin books. Fair Hills of Ocean, Oh! is also one of the sooner possibilities. The weirder and more obscure ones may take a bit longer, but I’m determined to have them see daylight; there’s good stuff in all of them.

      1. That would be brilliant! All my information about unpublished Lafferties comes from the checcklist in Archiplago, so I’ve never hard of Fair Winds of Ocean, Oh! until now, but yes yes yes to In a Green Tree and the Coscuin Chronicles.

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