There seems to be a gap in the history here. I had read all the Dobson publications, had gathered the small handful of UK paperbacks, and without the access to US editions we have now, the only new Lafferties I could find were those short stories that still cropped up in SF anthologies. Then came a new novel.
Not to Mention Camels was first published in 1976. I have a recollection of reading a library copy on a Friday night coach from Nottingham to Manchester, returning home for the weekend, but this is probably spurious because it didn’t appear over here until 1980, leaving only a very narrow window in which I could have done that.
I still have great difficulties with this book, in particular with how to describe it. In part, this is because, phantasmagorical as it is, I don’t find it funny in the way I was, then and now, used to from Laff, and in part it’s because of the sheer bloodthirstiness of the story, the relish in blood and guts, dismemberment and rapine. I am not sufficiently robust for the esprit de Grand Guignol required.
The dust-jacket blurb is unhelpful in suggesting things that are not there. It promises a story about three anti-heroes, each inhabiting alternate worlds, and describes them in vivid terms: Pilger Tisman is ‘a protean figure of phantasmagoric qualities’, Pilgrim Dusmano’s ‘fragmented existence lies in thousands of minds beside his own’ and Polder Dossman is ‘eidolon-man and cult-figure, hypnotic, electric, magnetic, transcendent’.The blurb is self-evidently written by someone who has not read the book or, if they have, has completely misunderstood it.
But Pilger Tisman appears only in Chapter One, and as a man convicted of undetailed terrible and bloody crimes, sentenced to execution in a manner intended to be cruel and painful. His extinction is to be final. It is known that there are many worlds, and that certain persons, who are large and powerful, are world-jumpers. All of Tisman must die here, nothing must be allowed to escape and jump. Three Doctors (one of whom is an alternate to Dr Velikof Vonk, of Lafferty’s Three Eminent Scientists) and a Brigadier of Police are there to ensure this. But Tisman jumps. We see no more of Tisman.
What he has done to deserve such fate we intuit from the behaviour of Pilgrim Dusmano. Fifteen years after the end of Pilger, Pilgrim has been in his world for fifteen years, and is preparing for his next jump (though an alternate version of him will arrive to be Pilgrim Dusmano). Pilgrim is many things, a lecturer, a supplier, a cult-figure leading what one may see as a substitute for religion with himself as its unstated but acknowledged God. He has one powerful friend, one powerful enemy, and devoted cultists, the closest of whom appear to be his students, Mary Morey, a fair, freckled unlarge girl, permanently in the sun and her brother James, a silent, dog-like creature in the shadows.
Pilgrim is cast in charismatic terms – the fair and flowing hair, the hands that drip beneficence, the vulgarity of his fat jaw and the unbroken-horse look to the face.
Yes, Pilgrim is planning to jump on, and all would be well, but for one thing he does, casually, as casually as Lafferty describes it, in passing. He kills a man.
Not just any man, for this is Hut, or at least that is his codename, his cognomen, Hut, or the Hat, or shelter (Pilgrim’s one powerful friend, Noah Zontik, is also known as the Umbrella, for the same reason). Hut is an associate, one of eight (no, it was eight, it’s now seven) associates of Pilgrim’s one powerful enemy, Cyrus Evenhand. Pilgrim goes about his business in his usual manner, sending the weekly message to Supply, which involves – grim jest – killing the messenger, and his wife and two children, to enable their world-jump. The younger child is wise beyond his years.
Pilgrim’s murder sparks a retaliation, by Mut, who takes Pilgrim in his home, knifes his throat, drains him of five pints of blood (which he will later quaff in a single draught), also causing his eyes to fracture and become jewel-like. But Mut is careless enough to allow Pilgrim to lift his wallet, and supremely careless enough to carry in it some precipitate and unwise information.
This is a post-anarchic world that has rejected authority, rejected leaders. It allows a leader in the form of a Consul, masked, unknown, unpaid, certified pure, but only so long as he is unknown. Let his name be revealed, the whole world will erupt in a self-righteous frenzy, to tear him down, both figuratively and literally, to shatter him, to render his body, to sacrifice, cook and eat the bloody portions of him with a relish all the more intense for the Consul being the most undeserving of such a fate, an innocent. What fun is there in harrowing the guilty?
And Evenhand (you knew this) is Consul.
It really is bloody, raveningly bloody, markedly, unashamedly so. It’s also unreal in any respect, or at least it is to me, but not so much as to eradicate or even diminish the effect, because this is R.A. Lafferty, who will tell you that humanity originated on a planet whose cycle is 28 hours long and have you starting to believe him…
Pilgrim plans the despoilment of all nine fortunes, especially the gold, for which he employs the services of the world’s greatest Knacker. This Knacker is skilled at rendering down not merely animal corpses for their by-products but fortunes to their undeserving claimants. But thieves fall out, and the Knacker ends up knackered, his body broken and opened and made a cavity into which liquid gold is poured.
Things now do not go well. Pilgrim’s departure is raw and ill-planned, his death weak and beyond his control. And at the Narrow Corner, a Stygean, Boschean scene where souls in transit can be attacked from above by those who lie in wait for them, Pilgrim and his two cultist followers become locked in frenzied and devastating combat with three others, a Holy Knacker, a small child, and Wut-who-is-Rage.
We have already been warned. There are worlds abounding, and all jumps lead upwards, to bigger, brighter, more bombastic things. Save only from one world, which is Prime World. Though Pilgrim passes the Narrow Corner, he has not passed undiverted.
First though there is the gift, the proto-immortality, the Nine Worlds to Le Spezia, nine worlds of opulence and indulgence to towering degree, where nine versions of yourself are always leading the life your power, elegance and richness entitles you. Though we only meet two in this transit, Pelion Tuscamondo and Palgrave Tacoman, we have all their names and none of them are Polder Dossman. Polder is a Dutch word for land reclaimed from the sea, and Polder Dossman is reclaimed from the ocean, the ocean of the unconscious (I hear also the echo of Polter, of Polter-Geist, Polder-Ghost: Lafferty is a fluent multi-linguist).
Polder is Pilgrim as he emerges, but he is not wholly of human flesh. He is to be to this world the Cult-Figure that was Pilgrim, with the same fair and flowing hair, the hands that drip beneficence, the vulgarity of his fat jaw and the unbroken-horse look to the face. But this world is sceptical and disbelieving, its children hating and derisory, even though Polder comes with the latest model Hand from Heaven, hung above his head, pointing to him for all to see.
And there is no patience for his assertions, despite the efforts of the cultists and the one powerful friend who gather around him. For if Polder is Pilgrim is Pilger, he is a broken version, in the world from which he cannot leap upwards, accorded no respect or power, and ultimately ending as Pilger ended.
There are again three Doctors, one of whom is a Doctor Vonk, of the heavy pre-orbital lobes and the protruding near-muzzle. Are the Three Eminent Scientists here? Pilgrim attends a museum that has a perfect cigar store wooden Indian carved by Finnegan, delivered from Melchisedech Duffy’s Walk-In Bijou in New Orleans, as well as a tryptich titled Dotty. We are a part of Lafferty’s great unfinished work, ‘A Ghost Story’, consisting of everything he ever wrote.
This part of that work stays, for me, outside the range of easy comprehension. There is philosophy, raw and bloody (that damned word again), there are three men who are one man and more than three men, and symbolism so tightly knotted that I have never been able to unravel it. But Lafferty offers us that which we cannot receive elsewhere, and if we can just fracture our own eyes, like jewels, to see brighter and in more dimensions, we may achieve clarity.