The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Serpent’s Egg


In the late Eighties, very early Nineties, I was working in Altrincham. Just round the corner from our office, there was an independent bookshop, which I would pass at lunch, and look at what books they were promoting in the display. On one occasion, I came back to the office and mentioned to the Senior Partner that the new Kafka was out and it was a cookbook! The author, if I remember correctly, was named Barbara Kafka, but the joke fell flat, for he looked at me blankly and, once I’d explained, told me he’d never heard of Franz Kafka. So much for that.
But the biggest shock I had walking past that bookshop was the sight of an unknown hardback R.A. Lafferty novel, published by a British publisher in 1987. I was inside and buying it on the spot.
Serpent’s Egg was the first of two Lafferty novels published by Morrigan, neither of which appear on the Archipelago list of unpublished novels.
That day, I bought the standard issue, but a decade or so later, I traded up to the special edition, with a bonus short story, completely irrelevant to the novel, but when there is so much uncollected and unpublished Lafferty, it’s worth while grabbing what you can find. Besides, I got in before the rapid acceleration of prices for second hand copies.
This was the first of two late Lafferty novels published by Morrigan Publications, who were based in Bath. The book was limited to 1,010 copies, positively palatial compared to later publications, which numbered in hundreds. Mine is one of 250 signed and numbered copies, no 220, to be exact. It, and its successor, were the last of Lafferty’s novels to be published in hardback, with beautiful dust jackets designed by Neil McCall.
Like much of Lafferty’s later work, this is a difficult book to construe. His stories had become denser and darker, his symbolism more inwardly directed. The story is set in 2035, in a future vastly removed from our latter day present. Things have changed, in a manner difficult to summarise. Our world is subject to Government by the Kangaroo, and if you suspect a correlation to Kangaroo Courts, you’re on the right wavelength.
The population has changed, has become overwhelmed by ethnics to the point where regular people are rare. If you suspect that by ‘regular people’, Lafferty means white folks, you’re once again right. And that is unavoidably racist. Yet Lafferty is anything but racist, in any of his writings. He has a massive affinity with and sympathy for the Indians, and the distinction he draws here is not carried forward into the story in any way.
Nevertheless, it disturbs, even if it’s only meant to indicate the future expansion of a trend over the near fifty years between publication and story. And indeed the principal characters in the book cannot be any more diverse, without the least drawing of hierarchies amongst them.
These central characters are mega humans, children, a foursome of trios, each the ‘children’ of two experimenters. The foremost of these, in the sense that they are introduced first and in most detail, are Ruddy Lord Randal, Inneall and Axel, gathered in the ongoing experiment conducted by George Lynn-Randal and Iris Lynn-Randall. Lord Randall is a boy, son of George and Iris, Inneall (Irish for Machine) is a Mobile-Ambulatory computer that presents itself as a human girl, and Axel is a simian of the Axel’s Apes, also known as Smithy Apes, the blue-eyed Apes, and who may be the next presiding species on Earth, replacing humans. The trio have lived together as an experiment since birth, and are nearing their tenth birthdays, at which point mega-humans achieve their majority. They are charged with finding new ways of looking at the World, only not too cock-eyed new…
This is more a descriptive book than a narrative book, with Lafferty initially focusing on the Three, or rather the more unusual two of the three, the little girl computer and the Axel’s Ape. Strangely enough, though Lord Randall is clearly indicated to be a leader, he is the least described of the Three.
The starting point for the action, such as it is, is the start of Inneall’s Ocean. By means that Lafferty doesn’t even hint at (there is practically no science in Lafferty’s SF stories, he’s not that kind of science fiction writer), the little girl-identified computer creates an Ocean, which expands and expands until it threatens to consume the entire world. Inneall has a second personality as the Pirate Queen, Bloody Mary Muldoon, and pirates need an Ocean to sail upon, not to mention yachts, which Inneall commandeers from the midas Satrap Saint Ledger, who agrees this on condition Inneall becomes his daughter, which permits Saint Ledger a role as an adviser to the Twelve, and to all diminishing versions thereof.
Because this Three are not the only Three, the only experiment. There are three others, sets of three ‘children’ of incredible levels of intelligence, who come together on Inneall’s Ocean, for the Three Days of Summerset, the End of Summer. These are Marino, a young male seal, Luas, a young male angel and Henryetta, a young female human; Lutin, a young female python, Dubu, a young female bear and Schimp, a young male chimpanzee; and Gajah, an unborn female Indian elephant, Carcalou, a young male wolverine and Popugai, a young male parrot.
And ringed around this Twelve are the Dolophonai, assassins watching. Should any of these mega-persons, or any combination of them, be a Serpent’s Egg, they will be killed. They might be killed anyway, on the Third day of Summerset.
Amongst them, the most important might be Axel. It is his duty, after midnight, to wake the sleeping Axel’s Apes, who are God’s second chance. If they are not woke, they will sleep a further thousand years.
Like so many of Lafferty’s endings there is no real ending, except for a gustatious and self-congratulatory pun. By then, several of the mega-persons have been assassinated, despite being ten year olds, as Serpent’s Eggs and the Axel’s Apes sleep on, the book leaning very much more towards disaster and failure in a way that will start to appear common.
Some of Lafferty’s symbolism seems plain: the Twelve match (in number) the Apostles, Inneall’s Ocean threatens to be the Flood, and Satrap Saint Ledger is a Moses-figure, which would cast the book in religious terms, save that this time the cleansing of the world fails to occur. Which makes this a pretty bleak book in Lafferty’s terms, especially in the jokey epilog, exploding much of what we’ve read as lies.
In the end, we all take from Lafferty what we see. Serpent’s Egg is a difficult book, more diffuse in its narratives than earlier books. This is a common theme to these later books, and especially so with Morrigan’s other publication.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Half a Sky


And thus we return to the Coscuin Chronicles, in its second, and last-published to date of four volumes, published only by Corroborree Press in the Eighties, at which time I bought it, not reading The Flame is Green until well over a decade later. Half a Sky is another of the listed unpublished novels in Archipelago, though its two sequels do not appear on that remarkable page: I hope this does not mean they never were written.
Half a Sky resumes almost from the moment that The Flame is Green leaves off. Dana Coscuin has come to Amsterdam, where the company of the Green Revolution is to go its separate ways. Dana and Charley Oceaan, the black man from Basse-Terre (which we already know, from another chronicle, is the location of the Earthly Paradise) are to set sail for the latter. The next phase in Dana’s battles is to take place in South America, in the land under half a sky.
The others are to disperse, to carry on their tasks in different parts of Europe, but there are ambushes, woundings, a threat of assault and, in the case of Kemper Gruenland, murder.
Basse-Terre is a homecoming for the Dana, who has never before been there. But it is the place of the Home of Dana Cosquin, and the Tomb of Dana Cosquin, and before this part of the story is over, it will provide the Bride of Dana Cosquin.
For Dana is to have new allies in the next phase of the Green Revolution, which will cover the years from 1849 to 1854. Chief among these will be Damisa the Leopard, an African so named for his mottled flanks that give the look of both leopard and leper. He will have the same old enemy, Ifreann Chortovitch, not dead as killed by Dana, but returning to life despite the Dana’s refusal to acknowledge him, and his insistence on treating him with disdain when he is forced to accept Ifreann’s presence.
And Dana gains another ally, in the form of the ship he acquires, and which he names the Catherine Dembinska, after his murdered wife, for the soul of one is the soul of the other, and Dana treats the ship as a reincarnation of his love.
As before, Lafferty’s grasp of political details, personalities and people in the South American republics is comprehensive, enabling him to refer both directly and tangentially to movements in which Dana and his company become involved, ensuring that the Green Flame is held high in these years and the Red Revolution is thwarted as they should be.
There are again magical things treated as utterly natural: Dana travels with a child’s coffin that contains not a body but rather gold coinage, more than could ever be contained in so small a box, and an everlasting supply of coins and other things that the Dana needs from time to time. This includes the Testament of Kemper Gruenwald.
And the Company comes to include a young woman, Serafino, who, despite all discrepancies of age, and genealogy, is still in some way the daughter of Dana and Catherine Dembinska.
It’s not until the last couple of chapters that Lafferty starts to work with concrete elements of the story. The first of these is the deposal of Argentinian Dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas. This is an unusual chapter. History records Rosas as a prototypical brutal Dictator, and Lafferty accords with this whilst at the same time setting him up as not as bad as he is being painted, and, more pertinently for the novel, infinitely preferable to the liberal/socialist Red Revolution in Banda Orientale (the then-name of Uruguay), who want him brought down.
Dana sets out to bring Rosas down, against the wishes of everyone, especially all those in his Company. He is condemned as traitor, as renegade, faces opposition from every quarter, but brings about what he wishes: Rosas’ overthrow by his friend and fellow Governor, Caudillo, with Rosas going into lengthy exile.
To achieve this, he has to overcome the opposition of Caudillo himself, but it is done, and Dana redeems himself by pointing out how he has secured at least a decade of stability, by outflanking the Red Revolution: instead of weakness in government that they can exploit, they face another Leader in Rosas’ model, but less compromised.
It’s a convoluted chapter and solution and not one I completely comprehend without more detailed historical knowledge. But it is almost the last action of the book. The final two years of Dana Coscuin’s time under the world of half a sky is brushed past with no detail, bringing the Dana back to Basse-Terre, to marry the Bride of Dana Cosquin, alias Angelene Domdaniel.
For Dana it is the end of his journeying. He will remain with his Bride, and their child to be, and never leave again, notwithstanding the summons of Count Cyril to return to Europe. Not unless Angelene herself tells him to go… and of course she is the messenger.
But Dana and his crew cannot leave without a final (for this book) confrontation with Ifreann, and this is the ending for the Catherine Dembinska. The spirit of the dead wife leaves the ship, which dies in terrible explosions, coming up against Ifreann’s more powerful vessel, the Porte D’Enfer. And Dana and his last companion, Jack Gadalope, take to the sea with their knives, to swim ninety-five miles to port, and then to Carloforte.
Carloforte would take Dana Coscuin and his part in the Green Revolution to Sardinia. The dustjacket identifies the third Chronicles to be Sardinian Summer, to cover the period from 1854 to 1862, with the final book First and Last Island dealing with 1862 to 1872. We assume these books to have been written, but we don’t know if this is the case, or if they were finished. This is the end of the Coscuin Chronicles in time. They may continue outside of time.

Beyond the Lone Pine: Malcolm Saville’s The Jillies 1 – Redshank’s Warning


To my great delight, the inestimable Girls Gone By Publishers have begun reprinting another of Malcolm Saville’s children’s adventure series, The Jillies (1948 – 1954). The first book in the series, Redshank’s Warning,  arrived in October this year, in perfect time for my birthday, and was a wonderful exercise in nostalgia.

Though the Lone Piners are who and what Malcolm Saville will always be remembered for, he wrote no less than eight series in a career of sixty-three novels (and only two standalones!). Before my recent investigation of the Buckinghams series, I had only read one other of Saville’s series, and that was the Jillies.

Amanda, Prudence and Timothy Jillions, and their loyal friends Guy and Mark Standing first appeared in 1948, when Savile had already published at least four Lone Pine books and two Michael and Mary books (about which I know nothing). Their’s was a compact career, with all six books published in six years, during which Saville also published three more Lone Pine and two more Michael and Mary, plus introduced The Buckinghams (two books) and Nettleford (two books) series, for a total of fifteen books in a seven year period: this from a ‘part-time’ writer with a job in publishing.

I’ve been trying to remember if there was any particular reason why I only read The Jillies after the Lone Pine Club and my only explanation at this remove is that they may very well have been the only other Saville books available. Redshank’s Warning was the third of Saville’s books to be made available in Armada paperback, which the first two also being Jillies’ books. The Marston Baines series began in 1963, but these were aimed at an older audience and something about them put me off. I don’t remember any of the other series, though plenty of them did appear from Armada.

So, after all this preamble, what of the book and its characters? As adventures go, Redshank’s Warning is a little simplistic compared to a Lone Pine adventure, but there is a different atmosphere from the off. We are introduced to the Jillions, whose friends call them Jilly’s, in their untidy, higgledy-piggledy first floor Chelsea flat, overlooking the Thames, midway through the Easter holidays. Their father is a commercial artist by day and a free-spirited artist all the time. he is unconventional, a little impractical, and in material terms maybe not the best father there could be, but in terms of his emotional relationship with his three children, his acceptance of them as adult already, and his encouragement of their individuality, he is far superior to many.

The Jillies’ mother has died three years before, putting a lot of responibility on the shoulders of eldest daughter Mandy, nearly sixteen. Mandy, slim, attractive, bright and practical, wearing her straight black hair in a pageboy bob, runs the household whikst managing to perform well at school. Mandy’s strong-willed, independent and imaginative, the glue of the family, Right now, she’s nursed her younger sister Prue – a serious but exciteable, frequently dramatic thirteen year old girl who most resembles their mother, who silently envies Mandy’s slimness, and who responds most deeply to beauty and animals – through a bad case of measles of which she is now cured, as well as bored at three weeks being cut-off from everything. mandy’s also keeping a sharp eye on Tim – a smaller, less tidy version of her in looks, an eleven year old, permanently hungry boarding school boy with his own ideas of fun.

Mandy persuades the Doctor to persuade JD (short for Jilly Darling, their name for their father) to take the family away for a week’s holiday. Prue, enthused about bird-watching, selects Blakeney on the north Norfolk coast. En route, they arrive at the same pub as the Standings, a more conventional family, more middle-class, more prosperous. They have two sons, Guy, tall, fair, thin, bespectacled, clever, and thirteen year old Mark, lively, outgoing, fun. Guy’s like a less crass Jon Warrender, though he does start off with a snide remark about the Jillies disreputable old banger. However, he’s quick to apologise and, when Blakeney turns out to be the Standings’ estination, and a familiar haunt, the two sets form a group with consummate ease. Oh yes, Guy and Mandy are going to have a future…

As I said, the adventure is very simple, and the conspirators typically unpleasant. Mr Sandrock, insistent on his privacy, has taken all the rooms in the boarding house the Jilies hoped to stay in and looks down his nose at them. Miss Harvey, the supposed photo journalist living in a hut out on Blakeney Point, is even more insistent on a privacy to which she has no enforceable entitlement, but she’s a bird expert who can’t tell the difference between an oyster catcher and a redshank, and she’s the kind of woman  prepared to keep a badly-injured dog tied up without food or water. The kids are quick to spot that this pair are only pretending not to know one another, and though Sandrock temporarily cons Mandy into believing he is a Detective, when it’s really the much more prepossessing Charles Martin, the kids play plausible parts in putting together the clues that enable this pair to be arrested for smuggling stolen paintings out of the country.

But the cops-and-crooks aspect is not the reason why this book works. No, that’s the Jillies. Guy and Mark, for all they try to keep up, and for all they act as the standard characters (Guy is another variation on David Morton, save that with Mandy around he will never be the ‘captain’), it’s the Jillies we’re here for. In their widely contrasting, but easily dovetailing ways, Mandy, Prue and Tim and their abundance of Life make us just enjoy being with them. What they do is nearly irrelevant, they are just fun to be wit. I recognised the life bursting out of them and wouls have welcomed a book twice the length.

And neither then nor now does the book feel dated. I never suspected, in the Sixties, that I was reading a series that had been completed befoere I was even born.

i don’t know how frequently GGB plan to put out the remainder of the series, one of which I never read, but one a month  – ridiculous optimism! – would suit me fine. Here’s to seeing Two Fair Plaits.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Annals of Klepsis


Annals of Klepsis was the last R.A. Lafferty novel published by a mass-market house. It would appear to be a contemporary book, not having appeared in the list of Unpublished Novels in Archipelago. Having said that, in large part, it reads like a throwback to the earlier, free-wheeling novels, a grand unserious affair, albeit with its philosophical elements, but these do not dominate in the way that they do in Aurelia.
And the novel is unusual in Lafferty’s works in being one of the very few to be told in the first person, the first person being historian Long John Tong Tyrone, en route to Kelpsis, the planet without a history, and the planet without a law and a government. Klepsis is a Covenanted Piracy, a Pirate’s planet, and offering of a free home and passage to all one-legged Irishmen, even if the Irish name is adopted and the leg amputated in favour of a pegleg on the spaceship to Klepsis itself.
Well, wouldn’t you cut off one of your own legs for a free spaceship ride and the chance to become a Pirate?
Klepsis is another of those implausible creations. It was founded two hundred years ago by Christopher Begorra Brannagan, and has been ruled throughout that two hundred years of non-history by Brannagan’s heirs and Interlopers, until the present Prince Henry, who is one of twins with Prince Franco, who is exiled and condemned to death, but who can move around freely because he’s a forgotten twin, and has the ability to go ‘vague’, that is, invisible, inaudible and intangible.
Simply by arriving in the company of Prince Franco, Long John Tong and his ship-mates, Andrew Gold Coast O’Malley, Terpsichore Callagy and Conchita O’Brien are condemned to torture and death by Prince Henry, though they are released to experience Klepsis by his wife, Princess Angela Gilmartin-Revel. And Long John soon finds himself taken up by an orange-red-yellow- haired (and -souled) slave Girl, Tharrala Thorn, who is herself a Princess of the Brannagan line, although one exiled for an unspeakable sin (what sin? Can’t tell you, it’s unspeakable).
This is all at the behest of Christopher Begorra Brannagan himself, or rather his Ghost, who has been a Ghost for two hundred years and who has been holding off history, which will start when he dies, really dies.
The first half of the book is pretty much a word picture. Lafferty, via Long John Tong Tyrone, is illustrating the world of Klepsis, its improbable form and enthusiasms, its covenanted piracy and the rivalry between the current ruler, Prince Henry, and his twin, Prince Franco. It recounts something of the history of the planet without a history, set in a Universe of seventeen inhabited planets in a kinetic three-dimensional ellipse, all of which have the history Klepsis doesn’t have at the same time it’s been having no history, this no history having included six generations of rulers.
We have all gotten used to this by now, and it is great fun bending our brains around situations like this. I would remind you of my earlier comment that Lafferty’s tales most conform to the great American Tall Tales tradition.
But as the book progresses, as Long John Tong Tyrone marries (under a false apprehension) Princess Thorn Tharrala, she of the unspeakable sin, he is introduced to her great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Christopher O’Brannagan, or rather the ghost of him, who may or may not be dreaming the entirety of known existence into being these past almost exactly two hundred years.
And once the Ghost of Christopher O’Brannagan dies, will everything and everybody else wink out too?
But as the Doomsday Equation increases in prominence, attention shifts to Quasimodo, the Sleeper, he whose code name is the Horseshoe Nail – as in, for want of a nail, the shoe was lost, and its inevitable escalation to the loss of the Kingdom, or here the Universe. As soon as Quaisimodo dies, the Equation is fulfilled, and the Universe goes down.
All things come together. Princess Angela Ravel-Gilmartin deposes her husband, Prince Henry, in a rebellion, and establishes herself as ruler. She declares that history is to start now, from her coronation, proposes a formal system of Government that has certain flaws in it, at least from the point of view of an absolute monarch, and has Prince Henry executed in a suitably grisly manner. This is witnessed by Prince Franco in an unexpectedly gleeful manner, because he’s really Prince Henry and it’s the innocent, the good twin, who’s done in.
In typical Lafferty fashion, there is a harum-scarum ending and a suspended resolution. Malabu Worldwinger arrives on Klepsis, intent on disrupting the Doomsday Equation by physically moving the planet’s dark shadow, it’s Lost Twin, Tarshish, from its position in space, although it’s not until he’s started that Queen/Empress Angela Gilmartin-Revel admits that Klepsis is also Tarshish. Meanwhile, doubt is cast upon the Equation itself as a maybe phoney invention of the Asteroid Pythagorus, a bird-like scientist, by a bunch of scientists from all over the Known Worlds, including Aloysius Shiplap of the Institute of Impure Science.
And it’s Aloysius who, at the last, disproves the equation. Klepsis and the Universe will be saved if he can only speak the disproof aloud, but lightning bolts are being flung at him and they are getting closer and closer to the range as the final seconds run out…
Just as in Fourth Mansions, and again in Where Have You Been, Sandaliotis?, we are left to imagine our own answers into being, dividing ourselves into optimists and pessimists, and whilst this may not be Lafferty’s intention himself, I am once and for always on the side of the optimists. Because R.A. Lafferty, by his enormous and unquenchable gusto is for Life, always and forever.
There are nine remaining novels. All were published by small houses, fans and independent publishers determined to see as much of Laff’s work in print as they could contrive, in editions in very low numbers. That I have each of these nine novels is little short of miraculous, and the outcome of luck and perseverance at a time before scarcity inflated prices beyond all recognition.
And as Lafferty’s existing popularity shrank and diminished, as his work grew even more inner-directed and dense in private symbolism. Annals of Klepsis is perhaps the last ‘simple’ book. But not the last good one.

Is there something they’re not telling us?


I am currently watching a Batman Rebirth Deluxe hardcover on eBay when I noticed that they have it classified as Non-Fiction.

This reminds me of the glory days when I lived in Nottingham and would walk home through Boots on my way to the Victoria Centre Food Court, and I would check their books section, and always I would find the same thing under Non-Fiction: The Lord of the Rings.

Maybe Alan Moore’s right about all stories being true?

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: The Fall of Rome


The Fall of Rome was published in 1971, but differently titled as Alaric: or The Day the World Ended when it was reprinted in 1993. Once upon a time, I bought this book and I owned it for quite a long time before I was willing to let myself read it. This was because I believed this to be the last R.A. Lafferty book I could and would read: as long as I held onto it, unopened, there was something left to discover.
In this I was wrong. I found a way to afford those tiny circulation chapbooks, one of which will be in this series, and there are still a tiny handful of stories left, and now the faint but actually realisable prospect that some, or maybe all of that unpublished wealth of short stories and novels might someday be available. Of course, the first of these should be the third and fourth Coscuin Chronicle books, but really I’ll take anything.
The first question to ask is, is The Fall of Rome fiction or history? I don’t have the historical expertise to pronounce upon the historical accuracy, or otherwise, of the account, but most locatable reviews, including those rare ones that are unfavourable, seem to treat it as true, if selective. And a look at the Wikipedia entries for some of the major figures, after re-reading the book, accord with the events portrayed within, insofar as battle and politics go.
But this is R A Lafferty and he does not have a completely separate style for non-Fiction, and thus the book is told as a story, and in the grand Lafferty manner, from the equivalent of a Dramatis Personae which begins the book, and which includes such descriptions of the players as: THEODOSIUS THE EMPEROR, the last who can be called ‘Great’ without laughing; SIR ICIUS, the Pope who did nothing; INNOCENT, the Pope who did next to nothing, and ARBOGAST, Count of the Franks, who had the world in his hands, and dropped it.
Clearly, this book isn’t going to be without fresh, forthright and not necessarily respectful opinions.
What Lafferty is depicting is the fall of the Western Roman Empire, which had already ended by dividing itself into Western and Eastern portions, and which in terms of its formal existence would continue some fifty years after its ending in this account, but which ended on its sack by the Goths under their King, Alaric. And Lafferty makes it clear in his terms, as always defined by his deep and ancient Catholicism, that it is Rome as Mundus, as the civilised world, of which he speaks.
The Fall of Rome moves swiftly from place to place and from person to person, of whom the two most major are Alaric the Goth, who was also Roman until almost the last, and Stilicho, the German who was Roman and nothing else, and who was Master General under the Emperor and the most competent man of these accounts, who until he was betrayed and executed, was the Master over Alaric, the Boy Giant. But Lafferty is also keen to define the Goths, more even that the Romans, in terms that will surprise we whose historical outline places them as barbarians, whereas, if we accept what we are here told, were far from it, and were in many ways more civilised than the Romans themselves, whoever they may be.
The book is dense as to both person and place, and without a prior knowledge of the times and the movers, it can be difficult to follow. Lafferty’s history is at one and the same time both more abstruse and more personal, attending to the thoughts and intentions and emotions of those in this expansive game, be they people or races. He is alive to the unreliability, and often paucity of the evidence that has come down to us, and not afraid to admit that a story may be defined but that what defines it remains unrevealed.
Nor is he afraid to give a confident judgement between contradictory accounts, choosing among probabilities and psychic commitments. And he is sweeping, yet thoroughly believable, in what on one level is a single-handed but massive attempt to rehabilitate the Goths from the false image the makers of history have placed upon them for their own ends.
There is no simple analysis of this book. Within what can be known, Lafferty treats the truth as his priority, but also halts the narrative drive to frequently observe things in the round, and to introduce moments where the inevitability of the history we see might, by a simple choice to do or not to do something might have led to a history far from what shaped the world in which we now live.
So The World Ended. According to a later series of lectures given by Lafferty, it does this over and again, though not perhaps at intervals to be known. But the Fall of Rome, and the precipitating of the Dark Ages that followed, during which history seems to stand still, its movements unseen and unfelt in its night of unreason, is the biggest of all of these, and the one that Lafferty presents as a many-sided thing, the understanding of which is heavy and important.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Aurelia


When Aurelia was published in 1983, in an edition illustrated by Larry Todd, from Starblaze Books, six years had passed since the publication of a Lafferty novel in mass-market form. By then, it had become abundantly clear to publishers that there was no mass market for R.A. Lafferty. Aurelia was immediately recognisable as one of that tantalising plethora of unpublished novels from Archipelago‘s list, where it had appeared as To Aurelia With Horns.
I’ve got to say that whilst the book itself looks like a handsome presentation, with its bright, quasi-cartoon cover showing the titular character blowing a horn in a meadow, and Todd’s clean, rounded black and white illustrations within, it’s badly in need of a proofreader. There are dozens of mistakes, most often misinterpretations of the text, causing a constant disruption as the reader is momentarily dragged out of the story, to mentally search-and-replace the right word.
Aurelia builds itself off a one-line joke in an early and much respected Lafferty short story. This is ‘Primary Education among the Camiroi’, collected in Nine Hundred Grandmothers (a superb collection). The story is basically about a group of Educators from Earth visiting the Camiroi to examine their education system, which is insanely and impossibly comprehensive and turns out comprehensively competent people. It’s a great goof, with a classic sting at the end, but one of the items on the Camiroi curriculum is World Government. This sounds like a class the American children have. The joke is that the Camiroi mean it literally: their students go off to another world and govern it for one year!
Thus Aurelia. She is a skinny fourteen year old, and one of seven Camiroi children of similar age, who are about to set off to govern worlds. Being Camiroi they have all designed and built their own space ships, full of all the machines and devices that will ensure a safe flight to their chosen planet, avoidance of danger and good landing. Not so Aurelia. She is the most awkward of the bunch. The list of things she has forgotten to incorporate in her ship grows ever longer.
As a result, Aurelia takes off badly, has a rotten flight and crashes on her planet. It is not the planet of her choice (Aurelia has forgotten to build the necessary guidance). In fact, she doesn’t even know what planet it is she has landed upon: is it Skokumchuck? is it Thieving Bear Planet? is it Gaea or Hellpepper World (we sure hope it’s not Hellpepper World). Aurelia continually asks and the people of this planet always deflect her questions.
Though the course advice is to land in secret and study the world a bit before starting to govern it, Aurelia crash lands, all horns blowing (to try to get the planet to move out of the way first). The discordancy of her horns sees her immediately taken up by the young, who have rejected music and only worship discordant notes (do I detect a little prejudice here?).
But Aurelia is taken up by many people, not least the tycoon Rex Golightly, who provides for her and loves her as if she is one of his daughters, who provides her with the world’s best bodyguard, Marshall Straightstreet, or is he Julio Cordovan,the man of a thousand faces (or are there two of them and both the same man?)
She encounters the Press in the forms of Jimmy Candor and Susan Pishcala. She meets international criminals such as Blaise Genet, Julio Cordovan, Helen Staircase and Karl Talion. She becomes the object of a cult that adores her, and another that wants to kill her. At the same time, she is denying any kinship with her Dark Companion, Cousin Clootie, who is the Anti-Aurelia.
The book builds massive walls of confusion around itself. Aurelia is everything she should not be, and during the course of the story, which covers about a week from Aurelia’s startling arrival and her improbable but unanimously foretold death at the hands of the worm with the pistol, she doesn’t actually govern anything. She becomes surrounded with factions, in her favour and against her, and she grows in stature from her ultra-klutzy beginning to her three day wanderings, issuing sermons four times a day about what the world should be and what people should be.
I get the impressions that these pronouncements, coming from an odd but not unattractive philosophical basis, are the main purpose of the book for Lafferty, as if Aurelia and her misadventures are just a context for expressing these, but the book is still full of interest and improbability. Lafferty makes the odd satirical jab at what he dislikes about modern society (we know the book must have been written by 1979 at the latest, and remember, he was 65 that year), but these often come with quite hilarious humour.
There’s a scene where a man, on the basis of sexual freedom, tries to force himself on Aurelia, which causes her to tie the Impossible Knot in it, which to undo involves pulling the entire Universe through a loop, but there’s also a lovely scene in the latter half of the book when a boy her own age is touchingly enamoured of her and shyly asks if he could ever get to kiss her: Aurelia points him to the ‘Kiss a Girl of your Choice’ booth and tells him to buy a ticket. The lad buys one hundred, and by the end of the afternoon has used fifty of them!
Even this sweet little romance has its joke as the lad ventures to wonder if they might, ever, you know. Aurelia, a little put upon at this moment, points out that they’re from different planets (and which World is this one anyway?) and shoots questions at him about their physical differences. How many chromosomes does he have? Well, go and count them!
Like every Lafferty book, these are only a fraction of the things it contains. There is always more. Every corner contains things and there are more corners than any normal geometry allows. It’s not one of the major Lafferty novels, and like all of them it leaves you shaking your head and wondering, just what was that I just read? Think about it. You can spend a lifetime asking yourself, just what was that anyway?