The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Not to Mention Camels

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.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Arrive at Easterwine

Arrive at Easterwine was another 1971 publication, and another of those invaluable Dobson Books editions, without which I would have found it harder to get into Lafferty’s works. It would have saved me a considerable amount of money, yes, but just think what I would have missed out upon.
The book’s cover and title page are out of the ordinary, and are explained by an ‘exchange of letters’ between the author and a representative of his Literary Agency, over the credit for the book. The novel’s full title, which is key to the understanding of the book, is actually Arrive at Easterwine the Autobiography of a Ktistec Machine as Conveyed to R A Lafferty. You see, the book is written by a machine, Epiktistes, the aforementioned Ktistec Machine.
Fortunately, by the time I bought this book, I already knew what a Ktistec Machine was, or at least I knew about Epiktistes. I was looking forward to reading at full length about the several members of the Institute of Impure Science, with whom I had become acquainted via a number of stories in Laffferty’s first collection, Nine Hundred Grandmothers. Oh yes, the shambling giant, Gregory Smirnov, the anima’s rock-throwing little sister, Valery Mok, her unoutstanding and overshadowed husband, Charles Cogworth, the stiff-necked Glasser and Aloysius Shiplap. Are these not wonderful names? How can you not have fun with scientists of those kinds of names, and an Institute that dedicates itself to Impure Science?
The book is Epikt’s account of himself and the Institute’s first three Great Failures, over the first months of his existence, from the moment he’s acquired enough sentience to start re-directing it. As such, it pre-dates every short story about the Institute, though it’s fair to say that though it has its moments of interest, and the space to go into who and what the members are as people, it never approaches the heights of the short stories, whose brevity focuses upon the idea Lafferty is exploring.
Indeed, much of the novel is, as is very often the case, based in Lafferty’s philosophical interests. Epikt, for all his intelligence, is starting from point zero, collecting information in great gobbets but always watching from a different angle than that of the humans. He’s an amalgam of naivete and boastful knowingness, which makes him the ideal observer, searching for enlightenment and requiring answers, whilst placing himself above humans in knowing, but not necessarily understanding those answers.
The cast is expanded a little, to include Gaetan Balbo, Director of that earlier and eradicated Institute that didn’t include Gregory Smirnov, and also two others among Lafferty’s vivid and highly intelligent short story regulars, Audifax O’Hanlon and Diogenes Pontifex, two of the elegants, like Aloysius, as opposed to the fellahin, like Cogworth and Glasser, but who are excluded from membership on account of failing the minimum decency rule.
To provide the book with what narrative structure it has, Lafferty and Epikt relate the Institute’s first three Tasks, tasks we’re told in advance will fail. Gregory’s intent on outlining these in turn, which, stripped to the barest possible explanation, will take an hour or so each, that is until his colleagues reduce them to three words: they (and Epiktistes) are to find a Leader, a Love and a Liaison. And Epikt has his own vision (he intuits visions) integral to his cause. This is of Gaetan Balbo’s family crest, its familiar but symbolic quarters, it’s curious writhing scroll and changing motto and, at its centre, its overwritten area, where various levels exist, obscured by the others. The contents of this flow through different but closely related names: El Brusco, the brusque one, La Brusca, the Burning Bush and Labrusca, the wild-wine.
Each name, in turn, relates to the three investigations, or searchings or uncoverings or failures Epikt and how each is illuminated by the synbols Lafferty produces.
Ultimately, though the characters are as vivid and enjoyable, the fact that the book is about three Great Failures robs it, for me, of any successful ending, not even in the sense of that of Fourth Mansions, where the ultimate effect is withheld for us to determine from our individual readings. And, like all Lafferty books, it has its fans and its detractors, whose opinions seem to derive from how flexible the mind can be about a book written with no thought of convention in mind.
It is immaculately Laffertyesque, with lines and thoughts of brilliance and high humour, and it throws out a hundred thousand ideas that no-one else could have had and which leave the receptive reader speculating wildly which one of them or the writer is on powerful hallucinogens (hint, it wasn’t Lafferty), and more than half convinced that Laff is on to something that none of us have noticed. And it’s incredibly funny, to those of us tuned to Lafferty’s absurdity.
So, Arrive at Easterwine. I have known it too long to be anything other than affectionate towards it, and incredibly defensive on its behalf to those who plainly do not understand (this means most of you, right? Don’t worry I don’t mean that insultingly) but I will not pretend it is the book you should want to read to decide if you like the Cranky Old Man from Tulsa. But if you do, and once you are sure, don’t leave it long, people.
As Epikt says, it really is the best thing ever done by a machine.

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.