The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: The Devil is Dead

When first I discovered R.A.Lafferty, in Fourth Mansions, my thought was to read as much of his other works as I could get my hands on, and the first place to which I turned was the library. In this, I was in a time of fortune, for there was a British publisher of science fiction books, Dobson Books, who had great belief in Lafferty, and there were books to borrow, and re-read, and relish for a good while longer in the Seventies.
Looking at the other authors listed on the back of the dustjacket, one has to ask why? Dobsons billed themselves as publishing fantasy and SF, but The Devil is Dead was neither, or if it was it was some amalgam whose proportions had hitherto never been mixed in this degree, but the names we read are Anderson, Campbell, Laumer, Pohl, Harrison, Vance, Asimov, and these are not writers whose works sit easily on the same shelf as Ray Lafferty.
Of those I could borrow in that first glorious period, The Devil is Dead is second only to Fourth Mansions in terms of ease of reading. It is of structure a thriller, a thriller constructed around a conspiracy and the planned thwarting thereof, in which respect it is more conventional than other of Lafferty’s works. But it is only a thriller as to half its length, after which it drifts, it eddies, it meanders, deliberately so, and ends in a dramatic manner, on a half-finished line, with nothing resolved yet everything satisfactory.
How else could it end? It begins with a Prologue, or Promantia, forewarning of what things lie within in terms that mystify as much as they intrigue and yet which are no more that an accurate depiction of its contents, with a reference to Richard Burton (the explorer, not the Welsh actor), and with some strange suggestions. It describes the story as a do-it-yourself thriller or nightmare, to be arranged as you will. It cautions that, having put the nightmare together, if you do not wake up screaming, you have not put it together well.
And it admits: Is that not an odd introduction? I don’t understand it at all. We are not even on the third page by now.
It begins with Finnegan, who is bugle-nosed and not necessarily of human beings, who is sometimes called Count Finnegan, and whose real name is John (Giovanni) Solli. He has an upper life with other friends but this is Finnegan in his lower life. He wakes to find himself drinking with an eccentric millionaire, Saxon X. Seaworthy. He cannot remember, not yet, how they have met or what they have done together, though it comes to him later that they have buried a dead body together, and that the body of Papadiabolus, who is the Devil, and who walks along the street the morning after his burial. It is not always serious to die, the first time it happens.
(If you have not, by this point, begun craving to read this book, turn away: it is not for you. If you have, start saving your pennies: it may be had for as little as £39.37, but not in many places.)
Seaworthy is setting out on a cruise, in his yacht, and Finnegan, who is also an artist, is to go aboard as one of his seamen, though really it is his double or fetch, Dopey the Seaman, Doppio del Pinne, who is to go aboard and Finnegan be killed but in some manner about which no-one is certain something slips, and it is Dopey who disappears, or dies, or doesn’t.
But by being aboard, Finnegan becomes part of a band himself, opponents to Seaworthy and those he surrounds himself with. The voyage is long and winding, calling at all ports and shore-towns and moving on, and all such ports and shore-towns erupt in riots and murder two to three days later. There is the echo of the Red Revolution in the Coscuin Chronicles, transplanted a century forward in time (the period is given only as some years ago, but the inference is of the early Fifties).
There are games being played, and not all who die remain dead, so much so that Finnegan will complain of it as tiresome. Something is being implanted that is set to overturn the world, and its proponents are Seaworthy and other, including his captain, Orestes Gonof. This should number Papa D, but this is not the real Papadiabolus. Finnegan ‘sees’ his real face and paints it into a mural, but no-one recognises the face until the man is dead.
For the raid that is coming, that attempts to end this voyage of the damned, is a failure, and all die, including Anastasia Demetriades, who is cousin to Finnegan in a manner older than he thinks, and love and solace. There is a scene in this book, that I had read times before in other works but did not recognise for what it is until reading The Devil is Dead, which inspired me to write an equivalent in my own, then, first novel. I call it One Last Golden Afternoon, that final time that two people have to simply enjoy being two people in their world, with no cares other than the afternoon, before it all goes wrong for ever.
The failed raid, the deaths of Anastasia, of the second Papadiabolus and the loose and louche raiding party mark the end of the thriller, the end of the plot-driven story. Finnegan survives, but from then on he is hunted, he and Mr X, who is known to all as Mr X, and also Dolores ‘Doll’ Delancey, a human girl who comes into the middle of this with no seeming part, but who becomes one of the three journeyers, as Lafferty consciously denies his story any further momentum without yet rendering it tedious or static.
They separate, for a year, during which time Finnegan spends a considerable period in the Terrestrial Paradise, of which Lafferty gives the exact co-ordinates, in latitude and longitude.
The final scene is the meeting of these three, in a graveyard. Here is explained the relationship of Papadiabolus to Papadiabolus and how one cannot die three times. Here we learn the name under which the Devil is buried, a name that we recognise from The Flame is Green, but not I, twenty years before I read the latter. And here Doll speaks doggerel, reciting of the events we have read and ending abruptly.
I would have read The Devil is Dead in or about 1974, and had my own copy later that decade. It would be almost another decade before I learned that it was not a stand-alone book, but rather a part of the ‘Devil is Dead’ Trilogy, and not even the first part but the second. And it would be nearly thirty years after that that I would learn that the book is not complete. That there is a final chapter, in which Finnegan is called out by Seaworthy, which was excluded from the book because it apparently arrived too late at the printers (I find this explanation must suspicious and difficult to believe except that this is Lafferty, in which everything is believable, especially if outlandish).
This final piece, titled ‘Apochryphal Passage of the Last Night of Count Finnegan On Galveston Island (Unaccountably Omitted from the Standard Version of The Devil is Dead‘) saw print in the 1990 United Mythologies chapbook Episodes of the Argo (335 copies, of which mine is numbered 73.) This is the first time I have read it as part of the text, but it is a physically severed part of the text, as well as a late interloper. A non-standard version is required.
We shall encounter the other two books in this once-unsuspected Trilogy, but they too are distant in time and space. We will need to be patient.

9 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: The Devil is Dead

  1. I somehow recollect somewhere Arthur C. Clarke remarked if you haven’t read Edgar Rice Burroughs by 20, it’s too late. And that possibly can be said for a lot of authors. Hemingway, for instance, I read in my teens and early 20s, but now I would find him boorish and his female characters 2-dimensional. Thus, too, while I still admire Frank Hampson’s artwork and visual imagination, re-reading “Dan Dare” decades later in adulthood, I found the stories rambling and rather silly, and even at times scientifically questionable. Saying this, I recently ‘discovered’ (or re-discovered, because I’d read part of one story in “Heavy Metal” magazine in 1981) “Valerian and Laureline” and (if you forgive the rather cartoonish elements to some of the early artwork) I loved them and collected the entire 21 stories in hardback – but DON’T go near the movie! It’s crap! I think it was a mixture of the brilliant artwork, some clever stories (being French they have greater depth than a lot of US or UK sci-fi or graphic novels), plus the character of Laureline – a real feminist icon.
    So I read William Morris medieval fantasies, “Lord of the Rings” in 1968 and re-read several years after, until EVERYONE was reading him, and I read Thomas Pynchon’s “V” and the crazy rambling “Illuminatus!” trilogy, and Philip K. Dick, and of course H.P. Lovecraft….But then I stopped reading fiction (except for graphic novels and comics), perhaps because real life was often even more crazy and fantastic at times.
    So, while the name R.A. Lafferty might ring a vague bell, I’ve never read his novels, and likely none of his short stories….Now I never will, no more than I wish to read (for instance) Pynchon’s later books or Burroughs again. Thus, I appreciate your obvious enthusiasm, but cannot share it. The only exception perhaps was “Fourth Mansions”….If I had stumbled across it back in the 1970s or early 80s, maybe…. Yes, it probably influenced Wilson and Shea in their crazy, much more anarchic trilogy…I’ve always liked that ‘secret society/conspiracy’ fantasy idea, if done right. So there were aspects of the plot outline that intrigued me – just not enough now to go read it… One aspect perhaps that would now put me off would be his Catholicism. That said, again again many years ago I read Belloc’s “The Cruise of the Nona” and he was both Catholic and a bit fascist, yet I enjoyed it. Likewise, one of my favourite books still is “That Hideous Strength”, C.S. Lewis, whose books advocating his Protestant version of Christianity I found feeble and rather laughable (“Screwtape” for instance, if only ‘evil’ really was that silly and petty-minded!) Lewis, I always felt, wasted himself chasing his silly version of Christianity, His descriptions of Mars in “Out of the Silent Planet” and when the ‘heroes’ are hunting Merlin in the dark woods in “That Hideous Strength” show just what a great fantasy writer he COULD have been. But – an atheist since 15 – as I’ve gotten older I’ve got less tolerant of organised religion, and the “Religions of the Book” especially. I pity that the Emperor Julian died too soon!
    So “Fourth Mansions” has some interesting ideas – again I think of Dick, but also another strange book – “Operators and Things” by Barbara O’Brian, which I could never decide if it was fiction or paranoid fact…really happening in someone’s head….
    So I read your opinions of Lafferty (and that of others on Goodreads) with interest, but knowing I’m no more going to read the original than I now would want to read Dickens or Jane Austen. Thanks anyway. Bookshops are full of equally interesting books (mostly fact, some fiction) I would once have eagerly read but I know now I will never do so!

    Garth Groombridge

    NOTE NEW E-mail:

    1. Thanks for posting, Garth. I got hooked on Lafferty when I was eighteen, in the wake of discovering fantasy etc. via Lord of the Rings. We are few, but we’re loyal. As for the Catholicism, I don’t have to agree with what Laff says to enjoy it: I just can’t resist the ride. You touch upon a lot of other things that interest me, and about which I have to disagree, Dan Dare for one, and the Valerian movie, which I liked despite its flaws. I’ve got six of the seven complete volumes and plan to get the last for Xmas. As for Burroughs, I don’t believe I’ve ever read him, but I’m surprised to hear that his females are as well-rounded as TWO-dimensional…

      1. Hi Martin… Thanks for the prompt reply. Can we continue this interesting conversation on e-mail, on…. We can debate Dan Dare (of which I think we agree more than disagree) but I would like to hear your thoughts of the Valerian and Laureline books for one – incidentally is your Vol. 4 with a page duplicated/missing? I hope not, but I have both the missing page AND I communicated with the publishers and the translator. I think you confirm my point in that there is a time and place for everything, and an age which we get hooked on writers and books especially, and love them thereafter. But it probably still takes a certain, pre-set mode of thinking to get hooked (as I did, as obviously you did) on sci-fi and fantasy and the just ‘off-beat’ at such an early age. At that time you were always in the tiny minority! E-mail me please. We can ‘talk’ more.

  2. There were also a number of “Interglossia” to the book that were not ultimately published; several were absorbed into later stories in the cycle. One however was published in a zine called IS, and later republished alongside the How Many Miles to Babylon novella. It’s pretty interesting, and in true Lafferty fashion fills in a few gaps only to open up several more.

    Enjoying the posts! Hoping to get back to my own, once I can get clear of job application season.

  3. Whilst the priority has to be getting the unpublished books out, I’d also love to see a Devil is Dead with all ts interglossia reinstated into the text, rathar than offered as appendices as in Past Master. I assume that, aside from respect for the author, there are legal restrictions upon changing the actual text.

    1. Unfortunately it’s not possible to restore the Interglossia completely, since Lafferty (as was his habit) destroyed most of his old drafts when they were incorporated into other things, and there’s no real guidance from his letters as to which sections they might have been or where they would have gone. But a publication could easily include the one from IS, and the “Unaccountably Omitted” chapter.

      My dream edition of the Argo cycle would be four volumes, one each for Archipelago, Devil Is Dead, and More Than Melchisedech (each textually restored) and a final one for all the other related materials, including a few crucial fragments—for instance, there’s one that gives us a glimpse of Finnegan in the afterlife.

      1. We all would buy it, enthusiastically! That would account for somewhere between 200 and 300 copies. So this must also be marketed heavily to college libraries, so other avid young readers under the age of 20 can discover him and develop a lifelong passion.

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