The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: More than Melchisedech

As an e-Book, 2015

More than Melchisedech was the last novel of R.A.Lafferty to be published. It is the third part of The Devil is Dead trilogy. It was not published as such: it appeared as three hardback novels entitled, respectively, ‘Tales of Chicago’, ‘Tales of Midnight’ and ‘Argo’. But it is, nonetheless, More than Melchisedech and, unless and subject to the publication of those novels listed in the by now infamous Archipelago checklist, it is the last.
Hope then, for Esteban, for Mantis, for Iron Tongue of Midnight, for When All The World was Young, for Dark Shine, and those books already mentioned, of the Coscuin Chronicles and In a Green Tree, and hope for the chance one day and soon to add to this series of blogs.
But this is where the story ends.
More than Melchisedech is about Melchisedech Duffey, the Boy King, the Boy Magician. It’s closer in tone and content to Archipelago than to The Devil is Dead, since the latter is a Finnegan novel, and a fantasia in its way, whilst Finnegan is merely primus inter pares amongst the Dirty Five, and the others of whom Duffy is by some means a creator.
The original Melchisedech appears in the book of Genesis where he makes a brief appearance as King of Salem. Lafferty equates Duffey, who is basically Irish, with the King of Salem but basically presents him as a character without parents or birth, at the beginning of what will be a circular life that breaks down into three phases, each represented in the three books published.
‘Tales of Chicago’ deals with Duffey’s childhood and schooling, the latter to a far greater extent, since Duffey’s childhood is indefinite, and far too extensive, spent with too many pseudo-relatives, to have any fixed existence or narrative. He is pursued by three slant-faced killers, older boys with knives whose intention is to kill him, a task they will eventually accomplish when the story has moved far beyond any earthly confines represented in this or the second phase. Duffey becomes part of a group of friends, one of whom is a magician whereas Duffey is magic, able to produce gold by banging his hands together, and aided by invisible giant hands that he can call upon to do his bidding.
And yet this is a realistic phase, realistic so far as the grand Tall Tales tradition is concerned. Duffey’s coterie is a precocious group of boys and girls entirely reminiscent, though more far-fetched, of the children of My Heart Leaps Up.
Beyond Duffey’s schooling, at age sixteen, he arrives in Chicago and makes his first, and overwhelming business, a multifarious affair of impossible successes, dazzling in its ease and speed, and which brings him into contact with people to whom he gives talismans, talismans fated to be given to their children, amongst whom are the Dirty Five and the women who love them.
‘Tales of Midnight’ moves us into the realm of Archipelago, using Vincent Stranahan’s wedding to Theresa ‘Showboat’ Piccone as the catalyst to bring Duffey among the Duffeys in St Louis, to translate Duffey’s career to that town and the printing house that is the home of the Pelican Press in its mission to fight the Church’s fight against Casey Symansky’s The Crock.
It’s also the foreground of the battle for the world as Lafferty re-introduces the belief that the Devil was imprisoned for a thousand years, and that that imprisonment ended in 1945, when in an occasion of ceremony he was released from his cell at Yalta, to resume his place in the world.
But it is in ‘Argo’ that Lafferty moves beyond any mundane ties, taking Duffey beyond his earthly time, through Seven Contingent Years that he has already, seemingly, lived in non-consecutive fashion earlier in the book, and seven possible worlds in which fates symbolic of what Lafferty saw as the world in which he and we lived are played out, before he steps (again) into the boat that sails through time, correcting and directing.
This is the Argo, a central point in Lafferty’s thoughts, beliefs and writings. The Argo is a thing of myth but it is also the Church, and many are Argo Masters in their time. For now, and in this time, these are three: Melchisedech Duffey, Biloxi Brannagan (who we met in The Devil is Dead) and Kasmir Gorshak, who is Casey and who is the Antichrist.
‘Argo’ takes the book out beyond all anchors, gliding and eliding. We have gone beyond anything in the mundane world, though the Argo moves into and out of the world in which intervention is required to maintain the course, but it does so from beyond. Duffey has been unreal in the real and now he is outside it. He is killed, his flesh hacked off and burnt to ashes, ashes he has carried in a cigar case for much of the story, but just as his story has no beginning, it also has no end save return to the beginning, to renew the cycle.
There are, in fact, two endings, each with their similarities, distinguished by different fonts, and an afterword from the author which in his last published book becomes a farewell word to his readers, readers of the unfinished and encompassing ‘A Ghost Story’ that was all of R.A. Lafferty’s work.
More than Melchisedech cannot be described in ordinary writings without repeating its every event and moment. Its waters are deep yet shine clear. In the end, it was Raphael Aloysius Lafferty writing for himself to explain what he saw, and not all of what he saw is what we ourselves can see.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: My Heart Leaps Up

My Heart Leaps Up is one of the oddest of Lafferty’s books. It is a strongly autobiographical book, part of a greater whole of which only one other, partial element has ever been released. It is referred to as being part of a tetraology, the overall title of which was “In a Green Tree”, but that tetraology was intended to be a quintology, of which the fifth book was almost certainly never written, nor even named.
The details appear, where else?, in the Archipelago check-list. “In a Green Tree” was to consist of My Heart Leaps Up 1920-1928, Grasshoppers and Wild Honey 1928-1942, Deep Scars of the Thunder 1942-1960 and Incidents of Travel in Flatland 1960-1978. There was a note to add that, ‘For technical reasons, the unnamed fifth novel of this series, running from 1978-1990, cannot be written yet.’
My Heart Leaps Up was never published as a book but rather as a series of five chapbooks, each containing two chapters, appearing from 1986-90. Later, a larger size chapbook appeared of Grasshoppers and Wild Honey chapters 1 and 2, but nothing else.
Without the remainder of the tetraology, My Heart Leaps Up is forever only a partial story, and that is perhaps the biggest tragedy of all of Raphael Aloysius Lafferty’s career. He described “In a Green Tree” as ‘…not my own autobiography; it is more a biography of a group (my contemporaries, of course) and a neighbourhood I have lived in since 1920, which is the framework I chose to hang an epic-length historical-recent novel on.’
My Heart Leaps Up covers some of the school years of Lafferty’s panoply of children a class of 54 boys and girls, from beginning at Crucifixion School in the first grade, to graduation from the eighth grade. These precocious children go from age five to thirteen, a confident, energetic generation. Lafferty is often, and rightly, accused of not creating characters but rather viewpoints or standpoints, yet here it is clear that each of these children and complete and real and different.
Many times the story, if story there be, stops for roll calls, as Sister Mary Catherine calls the names and the children answer with sayings and verses, many of them deeply religious, more so than you might imagine from such a group, yet these moments neither weary nor repeat. Nor do the names flash by you as sometimes they do. This time, the names are real and not Lafferty’s exaggerated nomenclature, and behind each name you sense the beating of a real breath. Lafferty knows each and everyone of these and without hinting at those who have not survived alongside him, plainly misses each one who is not there.
There isn’t a story any more than any class of children growing up in those years of their lives form a story. There are geniuses in different ways, and there is much love and kissing between the children, and deep belief. And an equal amount of tall-tale-telling, of things that couldn’t have been in any strictly ordered world but which Lafferty, with loving skill, decorates his friends lives, and who’s to say that things were not that way back then?
One chapter is of a reverse honeymoon, where the happy couple remain at home but send the children and friends to Europe, to Ireland and England and France and more places, and much of that chapter is a travelogue, but a happy, expansive travelogue, of places and people, that makes you wish you could have been there, then and among them.
My Heart Leaps Up is naturally Lafferty’s most personal and affecting book. More even than the remaining two books of the Coscuin Chronicles, should the unpublished Lafferty ever be published and I be around to welcome it, I would more wish to read what else there is of “In a Green Tree”, and the later lives of these children.
And though it isn’t part of this book, for my re-read here I finished on Grasshoppers and Wild Honey Chapters 1 and 2, and these are also wonderfully full and improbable, and likely to be the last I will read of these characters whose lives I want to know and share. Being a fan of R.A. Lafferty has been a wonderful thing and a privilege, and if there are, as one other once said, maybe only three hundred or so of us, and many of them writers themselves, then we have been the fortunate ones but when it means that ‘In a Green Tree’ will not be read by the millions it deserves to reach and not even the three hundred of us it can be a peculiarly unhappy fortune.

Incidentally, the title would appear to come from the ‘blessed sheep of the Lake District, William Wordsworth, a short poem of the same name:

My heart leaps up when I behold 
   A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began; 
So is it now I am a man; 
So be it when I shall grow old, 
   Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

It all fits. And the child is father to the man. Maybe we can discover the men (and women) these children were father and mother to.
And then there was one.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Dotty

Physically, Dotty is a companion to The Elliptical Grave, as was East of Laughter to Serpent’s Egg. It is a United Mythologies Press chapbook novel, slightly shorter, printed on white rather than sepia paper, and similarly limited in number, this time 330. My copy should be numbered somewhere between 1 – 250, but is sadly unnumbered. Like all the few remaining books in this series, Dotty appears in the Archipelago checklist and, although it is not part of The Devil is Dead trilogy, it is a part of Lafferty’s Argo Mythos.
But only as a sidebar. Dotty is Dotty O’Toole Peisson, friend to Finnegan (who is mentioned two, maybe three times in her book), World’s Greatest Galveston-Style Piano Player, and this is her story, up to the age of twenty-one or thereabouts, and for once with Lafferty, we are given an almost clear time-frame, beginning with her birth on 15 October 1933, in dust-bowl Oklahoma, though Dotty’s natural home is indeed Galveston.
This is as clear and open a book as Lafferty ever wrote, and whilst he never descends to any crudity, it is also as carnal a story as he ever told. Dotty, the youngest child and daughter of Sheriff Slywood O’Toole and Mary Theresa O’Toole is pretty blatantly indicated to be the product of marital rape, during the War. Slywood pretty blatantly pimps his wife out to his superior officer, Colonel Kean, and Dotty herself, under the influence of Pan, throws away her virginity, and with it for a long time her Faith, becoming next to a prostitute before she is partially saved.
Dotty is about faith, or rather Faith, since what is under consideration is Roman Catholic belief, and an old-fashioned version of it that Lafferty himself considered essential to the health of the world. Dotty herself is a preternaturally intelligent and determined child, for whom precocious is a word that doesn’t go half far enough, but she lives in a real world of Lafferty’s experience and the country’s experience. This is not a fantastic book in the way that we have become used to in Laff’s body of writing, and the closest to it in its rootedness is Archipelago. Indeed, from comments Andrew Ferguson has made elsewhere on this blog, I believe it to be Lafferty’s second novel, chronologically.
Dotty begins as an adherent to the true Faith. She is rigid and doctrinal, though those are words that ill-fit her turn of mind and belief. Rather, she is Absolutist, rejecting the world of the body, of matter and dirt, characterising those who lapse into that form as pig people, in favour of the world of spirit. She’s incredibly advanced for her age, in knowledge, perception and adventuring, but in a world that is relentlessly solid.
And she is full or argument and debate, as is the book. Lafferty rejects liberalism and humanism as tools of the Devil, rejects everything that he sees as compromise from the old, original Faith. He is more direct in his philosophy than at any time since, yes, Archipelago again. But this is a section of the Argo Mythos: one day, some enterprising publisher will, we hope, create an omnibus containing all the elements of this Mythos, to be stored under one roof.
But Dotty is about both Faith and Doubt. Dotty herself Falls, under the influence of Pan, Pan who is both nature and rutting, and her surrender to physicality, outside the licit state of marriage, breaks her for a time. Absolute Faith admits no equivocation, no least failing. What rescues her, in a remainder of the story that see-saws between her attempts and failings to recover Grace, is the sailor, Charles Piesson, with whom she finds love, and marriage, and a wholeness within that is only temporary, for he must return to sea, and there he is lost and so too is Dotty again.
Here, Lafferty hints at things beyond the solidity of life. Charles has foreseen his death, has written fifty-two letters to Dotty, to be sent to her weekly so that for a year further he can speak to her. Dotty will not open them, because to do so is to acknowledge that Charles is dead, but she knows their contents. Others read them, Soft-Talk Suzie Kutz – a barmaid and, it is faintly hinted, perhaps an Angel – takes and keeps them, to give to Dotty in their proper order, weekly, once she has admitted her loss, and Soft-Talk Suzie says that some of the contents of these letters were written after Charles died.
There is the typical Lafferty non-ending. We are only seeing part of the story, just as all his novels are part of the unfinished ‘A Ghost Story’ of his entire work. We have seen Dotty to a certain point and what else lies ahead is not to be told us. Just because there is no climax does not mean we cannot have an ending. Every story goes on for longer than we are allowed to participate by its writer.
This is a book that requires an open mind, even as you will no doubt decide that R.A. Lafferty’s was closed. It is an argument and a doctrine, and I am not equipped to judge it in theological terms, only to learn how a certain viewpoint differs from my own.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: The Elliptical Grave

Like How Many Miles to Babylon?, The Elliptical Grave was published as a chapbook, a chapbook of a different dimension, but it is a chapbook whose circulation numbers hundreds not thousands. It is there in the Archipelago checklist, though it is there named ‘The Elliptic’, but I first knew of its existence in the mid-Nineties, in a Comics Journal Summer Reading List where Neil Gaiman was reading this and Dotty. Because it was the Nineties, I could get this (and Dotty) for less than the cost of a medium-sized asteroid. At least I could actually get this, which seems impossible now, as it doesn’t look like any of us who have a copy are letting it out of our hands this side of our grave.
The Elliptical Grave was the third of Lafferty’s novels to be published in 1989. I do not know when it appeared but have chosen to treat it as later than Sindbad – The Thirteenth Voyage, though I read it much sooner than either.
The book appeared through United Mythologies Press, publishers of many late chapbooks by Lafferty, most of which were compilations of short stories. It was 100 pages long, square bound but otherwise in the general format UMP established for such books. It was published in 375 copies, seventy five either private or signed and with an extra short story: mine is no 274.
It is a physically difficult book to read because, although the printing is immaculate, the typesetting is done on an electric typewriter, in unjustified lines, by copying typescript pages. The effect is narrow and grey and hard on the eye, and even though the book is only 100 pages long in this format, these are long, dense and grey pages, and far more physically draining than the ordinary run of book.
The Elliptical Grave is a strange book, even by Lafferty’s standards. Coming late in his career, it pays even less regard to the audience, framing itself around an unusual archaeological expedition, to the White Goat Valley in Calabria, the southernmost toe of Italy, digging in the ground and the air for things never defined but which are regarded as dangerous to discover, the search for which ultimately ends in the imprisonment, and implied death of all members of the expedition, eccentric of name, aspect and aptitude in the grand Lafferty manner.
And there is another suspended ending, represented only by a large font exclamation mark, in which two courses are stated to be possible but not which of them will come about.
The Expedition is in the name of its leader, Pioneer J Reventlo, who believes that in the earliest beginning, language was at its most detailed, widespread, gracious and complex, and that history has been a process of ultimate simplification, as opposed to the opposite that we all assume.
Reventlo gathers round him a crew of minds, who agree, disagree, reject and support his ideas, to one extent or another. He regards himself as being Cro-Magnon, and at least one other member of the expedition as Neanderthal. He seeks his University’s support, and bursary, to carry out his expedition to a valley that at least half of his Expedition believes to be an illusion and which, in reality, it very well may be.
Structurally, the story has three roughly equal phases. There is the initial set-up, complete with its arguments about the validity of Reventlo’s proposed expedition, its funding in the face of disagreement and the efforts of a small and secretive group whose members use code names employing different arrangements of the numbers 1 and 2 (the chief opponent is designated 1-212-1212). Cartwheeling in and out of this are two acrobats, Vivian Oldshoe and Curtis Blow, acrobatic of mind and body (when I said cartwheeling, I meant it literally), who know deep secrets for which they are constantly pursued by killers seeking to prevent these being communicated.
The second phase takes place at White Goat Valley, remote and isolated, but with a Pavilion that attracts tourists and which is used to house that part of the expedition that is not staying with the Count of San Angelo, a ghost who is nevertheless the ruler of the Valley. The Count is one of many ghosts, one of which, Cecilia Calca, becomes a member of the expedition. There is also the excavator, Il Trol, who is, as you may gather, a troll. The expedition digs and excavates in both the ground and the air above it, and it excavates from these places that are both past and future a wealth of invaluable material for their studies, whilst the members settle down to watch the latest biopic adventures of Vivian and Curtis, starring in their ongoing ‘Death Chase’ pursuit film.
But the expedition is warned not to allow all of its members inside the Pavilion at once but to always keep at least one person outside so as to help them escape. And in their excitement over their findings, the expedition forgets this and as soon as all the members, including those who are ghosts, are within, the Pavilion is locked and they are trapped, inescapably.
This is the third phase. The Pavilion has been removed from the world for 375 days. Outside there is nothing. The secrets 1-212-1212 was so determined to prevent being revealed will not be revealed because they cannot. When the Pavilion opens again, those who survive will discover…
But that’s the thing. Reventlo has a theory that life moves towards simplicity not complexity, with the oldest languages the most ornate, but that’s about as close as Lafferty comes to defining the things the expedition is looking for, and he certainly doesn’t define what they find. What it is is a matter for the readers’ imagination, and in this late stage of his career, it is correspondingly harder to divine his thoughts from a virtual paucity of matters.
In that sense, The Elliptical Grave has to be considered a failure in conventional terms, and a relatively minor work in Laffertarian terms. It is full of the usual improbable people, with strong opinions and behaviours, and sometimes with Lafferty, whose people are as unbelievable as their highly unlikely but symbolic names, that’s worth the price of entrance alone.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Sindbad – The Thirteenth Voyage

Sindbad – The Thirteenth Voyage was the last Lafferty novel to be published as an orthodox paperback, albeit a small press paperback. It was published in 1989, though whether before or after How Many Miles to Babylon? I know not.
This is an oddity for me, even amongst all of Lafferty’s works. It’s almost certainly a limited edition, though there’s no confirmation of that, or of any possible print run, and it’s not the last of Lafferty to be published, but though I have no recollection of hearing about it in advance, nor of how or when I found it, nor have I ever heard of another copy, my impression of it is of it being the last, and a removed last at that.
Last novel, that is. I have managed to collect nearly all the chapbooks of short stories, without bankrupting myself over them, though there’s still a couple to be watchful for. But Sindbad is the last of them until a deal is struck to publish the unpublished novels.
As such, it has always had a forlorn atmosphere to it for me, as if it is an outlier that’s not wholly lodged in Lafferty’s oeuvre.
Just as Space Chantey was an SF reinterpretation of ‘The Odyssey’, the title gives away that this is Laff being playful with the Voyages of Sindbad, the Master Mariner of the Arabian Nights, Sindbad of the Twelve Voyages and the fabulous adventures that Scheherezade related. This is an invented Thirteenth Voyage, a voyage into space, to discover the reborn Caliph Harun Al-Rashid and bring him home. Harun, the Boy-Caliph of Baghdad, trickster, cruellest of practical jokers.
And Lafferty incorporates those Voyages of legend and myth into his game, suggesting these are coded versions of other space voyages, some of which were to Gaea-Earth, for this Sindbad is Essindibad Copperbottom of Kintauran Mikran. Oh yes, we are once more playing fast and loose with oh so many things.
Not to mention that there are more than one Story-Teller involved in telling this Master Narrative. As well as Essindibad, and his wife the Grand-Dame Of-the-Seven-Musics Goodlife Tumblehome, there is Scheherezade Carillo y Krinski, and there is another Sindbad, a seventeen year old boy from Gaea-Earth, John Scarlatti Thunderson of North Chicago, whose words interleave with those of Essindibad, and who is intent on becoming the real Sindbad even if he has to usurp the real Sindbad from the whole of his own life.
It doesn’t take long for Essindibad and Grand-Dame Tumblehome to find the boy Harun, landing as they do in the land between the Two Rivers, Mesopotamia of old, though at first he is in disguise. Nor does it take long to discover that they are not the only spies here to find the boy-Caliph, one of whom is Thunderson.
But Harun is uncontrollable. He is a trickster, a player of practical jokes of astounding cruelty and destruction, without remorse or conscience. He can do any fabulous thing.
The story, in so much as there is a sequence that binds this tale together, is that Harun, who may be a fictional character, has two sons (supposedly fathered when he was six and seven respectively). Harun has withdrawn from the day to day rule of his Kingdom, leaving this to his two sons as co-Caliphs, although the two rule different parts of the kingdom, with different preoccupations.
Harun abdicates in favour of his elder son, Al-Amin, who shapes up to be a wise and benign ruler, with progressive policies that will transform the land between the two rivers into a terrestrial paradise of justice, equality and wealth for all.
But everyone knows that Al-Amin will only rule for one day, that his younger brother Mamun will depose and kill him the second day, and that Mamun will be a more traditional kind of Caliph.
Meanwhile, Thunderson’s interpolations into the master Narrative have him falling in love with the beautiful Azraq-Qamar, or Blue Moon, who is a wonderful conversationalist (she has only one line, ‘That is just what I think, you wonderful man’). But Blue Moon is actually a mechanical woman, kept alive by winding a key in her back, not that Thunderson-Sindbad cares, even after he learns this.
Once she has a new voicebox installed, enabling her to say anything she wishes, she starts scheming with her husband to replace the true Sindbad, including the removal of the green ferns Sindbad has growing at the fork of his body that are his identification, and the preventing of their ever re-growing.
The book has an awkward and anomalous ending. Al-Amin dies. Mamun succeeds him and marries Scheherezade, although she tricks him into a bottle, like a genie or Ifrit. The true Sindbad is deposed as Sindbad, and presumably Thunderson takes over the role, but this does not come about by any action taken by Thunderson and Blue Moon, but the unforeshadowed action of Grand-Dame Tumblehome who, inspired by Scheherezade, captures Sindbad in his own bottle.
Apparently she’s just lost interest in him, and besides, it was all a joke and he’s lost her respect for falling into the trap. Either way, Sindbad ends a prisoner in a bottle and the book ends with this, leaving at least one reader both puzzled and somewhat disappointed.
Perhaps it is this sense of a non-conclusion, and not a non-conclusion leaving we readers to consider what alternate future we might meant or expect to see, that contributes to the air of finality about this book as part of Lafferty’s oeuvre. It wasn’t final. We still have four novels to look at, all of which, incidentally, appear in the Archipelago check-list, where there is no mention of Sindbad.
But it feels like an ending. An unexpected, unwanted, incomplete ending, like the uncompleted A Ghost Story that Lafferty believed all his works belonged to. After this, there is nothing. You know that feeling.

The Man who Wrote Lafferties: How Many Miles to Babylon?

Half a dozen Lafferty novels remain to be considered in this series. All exist only in very limited editions, most of them chapbooks. Three stand in one relationship or another to the ‘Argo’ mythos that stands behind The Devil is Dead trilogy. The first of these is How Many Miles to Babylon?
I have concerns about including this story in this series. It is named in the Archipelago checklist as a novel, it is listed as such in Wikipedia, but in chapbook form it consists of thirty-six pages. That’s not a novel. It’s possible that the Babylon we lucky few know (my copy is numbered 10, though I have no idea out of how many) is but a portion of a longer work – Archipelago was itself much reduced from its original form – though I have never heard any suggestion of this.
But the checklist page could only have been compiled with the direct assistance of Lafferty himself, and upon his authority I take this to be warranted. Yet the publishers call it a novelette.
Enough! If we argue like this, we shall never have the time to read this story, let alone admit it to the Argo cycle, and the Finnegan cycle, assuming these not to be the same thing.
How Many Miles to Babylon? comes in two parts, the first little more than a page and a half, described both as a ‘letter’ and as Notes on the Finnegan Cycle, written by Absolom Stein. In either state, it first appeared independently as ‘Interglossia to The Devil is Dead‘. It is a short account of Finnegan’s many deaths, the evidence for them and the unreliability of evidence for that ending, coupled with the unreliability of Finnegan’s own evidence as to his not dying. Nevertheless, the last of these, in chronological time, as attested to in the Cycle, is the shootings of Archipelago.
The major part of the story begins in Melchisedech Duffey’s Walk-In Art Bijou in New Orleans, with which we are not yet, in this series, familiar, with the arrival of the painting ‘The Resurrection of Count Finnegan’. It’s clearly a John Solli, Solli being one of the real names of Finnegan, but Finnegan has been dead five years by now and the painting is of his resurrection, and that of Cardinal Joseph Hedayat of Antioch. Finnegan and Hedayat do not resemble one another now, but the painting is of them thirty years hence, in the style of Finnegan after thirty years more, and then they are identical. How this can be, though it is a fact, is much debated by those we have already met in Archipelago, including Stein.
Lafferty elides to that resurrection, and to the multiple assassins lying in wait to wreak it ruin. For in thirty years a thing is being driven out of the world, a thing unwanted and unneeded and thus needed all the more. X is involved again, Monsignor now rather than Mr, playing the triple Agent. Thirteen men are to be killed, thirteen men who have doubles, including Hedayat and his double, Count Finnegan.
The thing that is to be killed is the Church and the thirteen are the remaining Cardinals, but their doubles survive, to meet under the North Shore of San Simeon, the San Simeon ruled by the Balbo family, Gaetan Balbo of Arrive at Easterwine (remember: it is all ‘A Ghost Story’…)
But is it principal or double that has been killed and is it principal or double that meet in Conclave, to do as Conclave’s have always done, and elect from the Cardinals present a Pope? Pope Finnegan the First.
Consider this episode a part of the Argo Cycle, and as such to be studied and considered of equal worth to those remaining episodes we are yet to read.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: East of Laughter

East of Laughter was the second and final Lafferty novel published by Bath’s Morrigan Publications. Like Serpent’s Egg, I found and bought it in the same Altrincham shop, the standard edition first, the slipcased Special Edition several years later. The number of copies printed isn’t disclosed this time, though I doubt it exceeded the 1,010 of the earlier book, only that the Special Edition consisted of 260 issues (ten specially bound and lettered copies were for private distribution) of which mine is no. 137, signed not only by Lafferty, but also Gene Wolfe, who contributed the essay ‘Scribbling Giant’, about Laff, to this edition.
East of Laughter was also the last R.A. Lafferty book published in hardback in his lifetime.
At different times, different readings of this book produce in me different effects. Last time, I came out of the end thinking this a poor book, a confused book, a book without any real story, just a collection of what might as well be described as vignettes. There is, just as in Serpent’s Egg, a group of outstanding persons, a Group of Twelve, named as such from before the outset and consisting of fifteen persons, of whom several die during the course of (non-)events.
There is a difference of substance in that all the Twelve are adults, and all are human (except for Prince Leopold the Great, who is werehuman and spends most of his time as a Black Panther whose body is covered by golden fur except for a band across his forehead that leads people to think of him as a Golden Panther with a black bar across his forehead). Although this is to count both John Barkley Towntower and Solomon Izzerstead, mathematicians both, as separate people when the latter is a growth on the belly of the former, a talking bellybutton that actually talks more than its ‘host’.
But that reading was of a book that just went from person to person in the Group, and from place to place, home to home, without interest. That is not the book I have just re-read, again.
Don’t ask me how this book can have changed so much between then and now: this is R.A. Lafferty. Such things may be expected to happen.
It is true that this book doesn’t explain itself, but leaps headlong into whatever it is that is going on, setting neither context nor time nor place (though we may later guess that we are somewhen towards the end of the Twentieth Century, so almost contemporaneous, except that Lafferty had written no more since a devastatingly debilitating stroke in 1984). What we take to be the story is offered to us by someone signing themselves Der Alpenreise (which translates on Babelfish as AlpineTour(?))
This is about the Pillars Who Sustain The World, and the effect on the World if those Pillars have to change. Now there are Twenty-One Pillars, divided into three sets of seven. There are Seven Saints, who are always pretty easy to replace as competent saints are somewhat commonplace, and Seven Technicians, who are only slightly more difficult because of the overabundance to choose from. It is replacing the Seven Scribbling Giants, who write all that was and is and will come, where the problem arises, and not least in replacing their chief, Atrox Fabulinus, the Roman Rabelais. Lose one Pillar, and the world rocks. Lose two, and it faces catastrophe.
And if one is murdered and the other six all want to lay down their nine-foot long goose-quills and die…
It is, or by now should be easy to anticipate that this book is about the replacement of the Seven Scribbling Giants, and that all these replacements will come from within the Group of Twelve, all fifteen of them, including Jane Chantal Ardri, who is killed early on but who is written back to life at the age of nine, growing a year a day. If you’ve read every word I’ve said about Lafferty by now, you should have expected that.
This is indeed the book I read this time, jauntily swinging from place to place across a nine day week (if you were not anticipating that, you are definitely not amongst the about a million people in the world who know about and enjoy the Eighth Day of the Week, and even such a clod as yourself will understand that you are not amongst the about a thousand people in the world who know about and enjoy the Ninth Day of the Week).
(It is probable, but we cannot say for certain, that these about a thousand people have come to this knowledge by reading a copy of East of Laughter and that if only you had petitioned the publishers of this book to increase its circulation by enough to permit you also to have purchased the same, your embarrassment might have been spared).
Each day is spent at one of the far flung homes of a member of the Twelve, and which has its own incidental music, specially composed and named for the day and the place, but scored for different sets and numbers of instruments.
There is, naturally enough, the same symbolism as in Serpent’s Egg as to the Group of Twelve, irrespective of its irregular number, which is supplemented by one of that Twelve playing Judas. There is a balancing between the wonderful forgery, better than the original, a forgery for which there was no original, the statue of the Laughing Christ, and the last replacement Scribbling Giant, who is the Riant, or Laughing Giant, who can only come into his Giantship because of the actions of the Judas.
And, for once, we are not left to forge an outcome for ourselves, for the Change is completed and the World is once more full and the quills of the new Giants begin to scratch away.
Instead of a dull and meaningless rote, as last time, we have a buoyant, irrepressible redemption of the World and Men. The difference is astounding. Maybe I am now reading the Earth-2 version? How would I tell?

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.

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.