The Man who Wrote Lafferties: Fourth Mansions

There’s always a first book. For every writer whose work captures you, there’s always a first book that grabs you and makes you want more. Sometimes, that first book turns out to be the best book, or the one that you most want to return to. After all, it’s what opened your eyes and mind to the possibilities in this writer. Sometimes it’s the one you’ve read most because it’s the one you’ve had longest and sometimes it’s because it’s the one you keep re-reading.
All of these things and more describe R.A.Lafferty’s Fourth Mansions for me. And to think I owe it all to one of the most unreliable blurb writers I ever read.
You’ve heard me say before that I first got into SF/Fantasy via The Lord of the Rings, in the back end of 1973. It wasn’t until the following January that I read the whole story, in a post-Xmas present with Xmas money. I’ve always tended to date my fascination with the genre to that moment, but it strikes me that I had probably started combing the library shelves for similar delights before the end of the year.
Whenever I started, one of my early discoveries was Roger Zelazny, and his Amber series. I was sufficiently hooked on Zelazny that, when I saw his name on the cover of an unusual book, in a Stockport back-street bookshop, praising the work, I bought it. Zelazny turned out to be an appalling guide to good books, at least so far as my tastes were concerned, except once. That very first book: Fourth Mansions.
I remember it was sunny, but whether this was late spring or early to medium summer I can’t specify. I can’t even state for certain that it was the very first Lafferty I read, only the first novel. I had already discovered Damon Knight’s Orbit series of collections, several of which were in Manchester libraries, and most of which had a Lafferty twinkling in their pages.
One thing to state, up front, about Fourth Mansions is that it is a deeply religious book, drawing heavily on Catholic Symbolism and the work The Interior Castle, written by Saint Teresa of Avila in 1577. Yet that need not be off-putting: I have never been deeply religious, was barely even shallowly religious in 1974, and am long-term atheist by now, but I respond to the book as it is, as a gambol of symbols, exchanging places, balancing forces and circling the book’s ‘hero’, Freddy Foley, newspaperman, everyman and great goof, to whom great things are given, and in whom the outcome lies.
The book takes the shape of a conspiracy theory, one to which Freddy is led by interested parties who are themselves a conspiracy. There are multiple conspiracies at work here, sometimes supplementing, more often contradicting each other, and each represents a group excluded from the Castle, that is, from the accounting of ordinary humans. These are the Pythons, the Toads, the unfledged Falcons and the Badgers, each of whom have been excluded by God.
“There is entwined seven-tentacled lightning. It is fire-masses, it is sheets, it is arms. It is seven-coloured writhing in the darkness, electric and alive. It pulsates, it sends, it sparkles, it blinds!
It explodes!
It is seven murderous thunder-snakes striking in seven directions along the ground! Blindingly fast! Under your feet! Now! At you!
And You! You who glanced in here for but a moment, you are already snake-bit!
It is too late for you to withdraw. The damage is done to you. That faintly odd taste in your mouth, that smallest of tingles which you feel, they signal the snake-death.
Die a little. There is reason for it.”
You too are snake-bit because you have read these words, here, now. Fourth Mansions begins thus, though we are then introduced to the unformed, inquisitive simpleton that is Freddy Foley, newspaper reporter. Freddy is already bit, pressed mentally by the Pythons, the Harvesters to goof and goof greatly. Which he has.
The Harvesters are a septet of rich people, three husband and wife pairs and Bedelia (Biddy) Bencher, a young, unattached girl, save that she is Freddy’s girlfriend (not that either appears the least bit sexually inclined to one another, both being suspended adolescents in different waves.) The others are Jim and Letitia Bauer, Arouet and Wing Manion and Hondo and Ensalziamenta (Salzy) Silverio. Each are described, and continually referred to by artistic characteristic or other passions – Wing Manion as a Klee fish, Biddy Bencher as a cinnamon cookie, a charcoal sketch in cinnamon-pink.
By some means, the Harvesters have created between them a brain-weave, concentrating, intensifying and amplifying their natural psychic strength exponentially. The Harvesters intend to shape the world, to take it over and direct it to their wishes. They have pushed Freddy to goof greatly, but they have pushed him at the second of these exterior creatures, the Toads, the Revenant Toads, with jewels in their heads.
Freddy has goofed on Special Advisor Carmody Overlark. Two years ago, Overlark, an overlooked bureaucrat, suddenly became a Man of the Moment, not merely in the Moment but in all his past Moments. Freddy compares him to Kar-Ibn-Mod, an Egyptian bureaucrat of centuries past, who looks like Overlark, but only in Overlark’s recent photos.
It’s the Hidden Hand conspiracy, the recurring or returning men, as old as cliché, as incredible as underwater breathing. Freddy’s editor Tankersley wants Foley off the story, in roughly equal measures because it’s absurd and because reporters who pursue such stories end up dead.
Meanwhile, the Harvesters essay another shaping push, this time on the highly-regarded intellectual, Michael Fountain. Fountain is, or could be a great man, but has never attempted to be; the Harvesters will fill him with the energy to be and become. But Fountain is defended mentally and sloughs off the attack, the power of which first kills Fountain’s sickly nephew/namesake and then takes hold (not that the Harvesters know this) in Miguel Fuentes, a loutish Mexican south of the Border.
Miguel becomes the leader of a ramshackle, absurdly small band dedicated to overthrowing the world and running it properly. You’d smile at the pretension, but Miguel is of the third order of external creatures, the Unfledged Falcons, who are force and authority and, in their dullest aspect, Fascism (the original fascism, axes or fasces, not the Nazi abhorrence). Miguel has the force.
Back in town (an unnamed Tulsa), Freddy and Biddy go to talk to Michael Fountain and learn of Miguel. Freddy goes on to meet the town’s other, less reputable and austere sage, Bartigrew Bagley (an unflattering quasi-self-portrait of the author). Bagley’s crude and raw, a newspaperman who busted over the same story as Freddy. He’s unequivocal about identifying the four exterior creatures for he is of the last of these, the Badgers, the abiding men, the only one of the exterior creatures whose attitude to man is benevolent, still waiting for God to accept them and allow them to enter into the Castle.
So these are the creatures, three of whom plan to change the world. Of these, you sense that Lafferty approves of the Falcons, is neutral about the Pythons (though if they include the delightful Biddy, even if she is the seventh and lowest of them, they cannot be wholly bad), and is set against the Toads.
For St Teresa’s book was predicated on the notion of seven mansions through which the soul progresses, three rising cycles, a fourth or transitional cycle, and after that three further rising cycles. Lafferty applies that to his book by postulating a history that shows a frustrated progression, three rising cycles followed by a fourth that fails and busts down to a beginning, starting once again in First Mansions.
This is clearly depicted by the Toads, who claim responsibility to the continuing failure of Fourth Mansions, as they continually surface to frustrate progression, breaking the world down to beginnings again. They are the Hidden Hand, working against man and for themselves, to maintain their control of affairs.
And Freddy Foley, simpleton and goof and everyman is at the centre, the representative of man upon whom all these creatures working, As the world collapses into death and danger, plague and panic, as the revenant Toads occupy so many people, including Biddy herself at the very end, the Toads will implant any ancient and mighty one of their line into Freddy, causing him to die. But Freddy has had the remnants of the destroyed brain-weave handed to him. Miguel has given command of the Falcons to him. And the Badgers, in their conclave of Patricks and Crolls and Aloysiuses have elected him to the thousand year vacated position of Emperor.
Never before has a man combined in one body all five creatures, interior and exterior. What outcome will there be in the morning? Will the world wake to First Mansions, or will it be the long-awaited Fifth?
That’s a question fated not to be answered. Lafferty ends his book on this note, a cliffhanger of immense proportions, one for each of us to answer in our own way. Mine is to side with confidence, with the hint that the unprecedented combination will be the key to that long overdue forward movement.
Should I do so? I mean, we are dealing with Lafferty’s most intense beliefs. To me, his intense and severe Catholicism comes closest to the overt herein (Lafferty is not a preachy writer), couched in this ornate and fascinating symbolism, even more so than in his Argo cycle. He and I are completely opposites in our core beliefs, for to Lafferty the world is only properly ordered if it adheres to the strictures of Mother Church. What we call liberalism is to Lafferty the very opposite. In his person as Bagley, he responds to the mention of Secular Humanism with the words, “At the name of which even buzzards gag,” and he has a left-handed form of the weave destroy Michael Fountain, introduced in such kindly and wise a form, by drawing from him the meaning of his refinement, which is to remove ‘impurities’, to reduce rather than to expand, to build a castle and take away its foundations.
But Lafferty is Lafferty, and his gift is to make the unbelievable believable. He will toss out casual ideas, such as humanity originating from a planet with a thirty-four hour not twenty-four hour cycle, to which we revert in times of stress, or that red-headed women are an alien species, and we swallow it whole and wonder if he knows stuff we don’t.
For instance, above I said that Lafferty postulates the four mansions cycle, of three rising mansions leading to a fourth of destruction, and he gives examples, but I always ending up wondering if Lafferty, an erudite and much read man, isn’t simply telling us things that the history books won’t.
Fourth Mansions belongs to my early era of discovery. Like Alfred Bester’s Extro, from the same time, it’s a kaleidoscope of ideas and imagination that overwhelms and overflows. I have left out so much that I want to admire, because there is so much that this post would have to be as long as the book itself to express things in the depth necessary. Like Extro, it was a creative explosion: a writer could mine Fourth Mansions for ideas for years without running out of possibilities. Though Roger Zelazny would steer me badly wrong several times, until I learned to avoid his recommendations, he was true enough this once and I owe him a lifetime of Lafferty as a consequence. This one is my favourite.

10 thoughts on “The Man who Wrote Lafferties: Fourth Mansions

  1. _Fourth Mansions_ is my favorite novel. Favorite in any genre by any author. There is so much going on in it, that I catch new levels every time I re-read it. Also it is very deeply funny at times.

    I believe the reason I resonate with _Fourth Mansions_ is that it is ultimately a very hopeful book. By making Freddy such an unplowed everyman, goof, everylout, Lafferty is implying that any one of us malodorous worms in the middle, any (and every) individual human has the ability to integrate the powers of the four exterior creatures–in reality to acknowledge and harness those strengths within ourselves–and lead humanity into the fifth mansion. The scary counterpart is that he thrusts the responsibility to do so into our hands. So will we wake up into the fifth mansion or the first? It is really up to every one of us!

  2. I agree with every word. It’s so noticable how many of Lafferty’s books don’t properly end, requirng each of us to decide upon the future. I think Fourth Mansions was the first time I ever read anyone do this.

  3. Excellent again, thanks for the generative reading! One thing that can be taken or left: Lafferty was very firm in interviews that Bagley was not a picture of himself, even in a cracked mirror. For one thing, at the time of writing this he was living with his sister, with both of them caring for their aged mother, and with large groups of family members still passing through regularly for holidays or just random visits—he was hardly isolated or a basement dweller.

    Then again you could see Bagley as a split-off of certain tendencies Lafferty might have seen within himself, however dimly, or a possibility he was attempting to guard against.

    One more thing about the books: it’s one of Lafferty’s most deeply Tulsa novels, at least until Foley leaves town, and I think there’s something to Tulsa as the place that unites all the contraries just as much as Foley is the person who unites them all.

  4. Thanks for the correction about Bagley, Andrew. Visually, BBB resembles Laff and I do think he decanted something of himself into the Badger, but there is a deep contrast between Lafferty’s circumstances and those of the character.

    And on reflection, I think I’m guilty of not giving enough mention to the presence of Tulsa as the home to so much of the ouevre. Lafferty doesn’t advertise this overtly but there are enough references to T-Town that, until i knew something of his background, I certainly never understood. Rather like Superman originally being based in Cleveland because that was where Siegel and Shuster lived.

    1. I remember reading a quote somewhere. An interviewer asked Lafferty if he had ever written himself into any of his books. and he responded that the best example was Bertigrew Bagley. Now I have to look and see if it’s one of the interviews I’ve reprinted in Feast of Laughter.

      1. Interesting. You point to an interview in which Laff self-identified with Bagley, Andrew to ones in which he denies it. In the words of the great J. Wellington Wimpy, let’s you and him fight!

      2. Ah, here we go, in Feast of Laughter 4, “Maybe They Needed Killing & the Importance Of Happiness: An Interview with R. A. Lafferty by Robert Whitaker Sirignano” on page 232:

        RWS: I have been informed that you wrote yourself into
        Fourth Mansions. Which character are you?

        RAL: Yes, I’ve been accused of writing myself into Fourth
        Mansions, and I always say it’s a lie. I’ve been accused of being
        Bertigrew Bagley, the Patrick of Tulsa. Well, maybe I looked
        like him about then, but I’ve since taken off fifty pounds to a
        skinny two hundred; I’ve got a good looking set of artificial
        teeth; I’ve sweetened up my disposition; and we’re just not as
        much alike as we used to be. And we never were really the
        same person.

        Click to access Feast_of_Laughter_Vol_4.pdf

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