Tag Archives: collections

Feast of Laughter 3

Feast of Laughter 3: An Appreciation of R.A. LaffertyFeast of Laughter 3: An Appreciation of R.A. Lafferty by Ktistec Press, R.A. Lafferty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Welcome to the feast of laughter. The banquet has been set, the feast is open, endless, varied, and delicious– if you want rich fare and strong drink. Yet the banqueters are few. One of the opening (reprinted) essays of this, the third volume of a festschrift of sorts to the wild, wonderful, and largely neglected author R. A. Lafferty, sets out the imagery: those (in this volume and elsewhere) who have discovered and celebrate Lafferty’s works are the Family of the Empty Hall.

If this is true, I’m struggling to find a metaphor for what the third volume of Feast of Laughter is. It’s more than a toast given in one of the echoing corners of the hall. It is, perhaps, a congregation of fellow discoverers gathered around a table, in the light of a sputtering flame, discussing, sharing, tasting what they have found.

Feast of Laughter is now in its third volume, and rumor has it the indefatigable editors are putting together a fourth. Once was an event and twice a happy coincidence, but three times seems to imply we’ve struck a vein of precious ore (to abruptly switch metaphors here) and are following it out, mining it through, bringing to light as much of the rich writings and life of the spooky old man from Oklahoma as possible.

So what have we found this time around? Here we have another (thicker) collection of essays, analysis, correspondence, interview, and imitation of Lafferty. Some of it, as with previous volumes, is original, some reprinted from hard to find sources. Most all of it is pretty good.

Yet it’s also for a closed audience, of sorts. That’s not to say there’s anyone who would be unwelcome to the feast. But it is to say if you’re new to Lafferty you don’t necessarily want to start with this (though the volume does include two of Lafferty’s own stories, including “The Configuration of the Northern Shore,” which I’ve always found especially haunting). Rather, you want Lafferty himself first un-distilled and uninterpreted (perhaps by dipping into one of the three or four collected volumes of his fiction out or forthcoming from Centipede Press). But if you’ve read him and are bemused or enchanted, maybe a little confused or delightfully bewildered, and you want to get at his work from other eyes and angles, this is where you want to be.

Literary analysis is not necessarily my thing, and I find often find myself most annoyed with essays that repute to explain the deeper meanings of some of my favorite authors (some of the recent work on Gene Wolfe immediately springs to mind). But what I enjoyed about this volume is that several pieces focused on Lafferty’s novels, including interpretations or reprinted forwards for The Devil is Dead, Fourth Mansions, The Annals of Klepsis, and at least a few on Past Master, I found these quite helpful in approaching works that have seemed (and sometimes remain) a bit of a tangled thicket to me, even as I’m enjoying pushing through them. Reading these pieces helped me catch the things I had missed and see overall structures and themes click into place.

As far as the included correspondence and interviews, these are priceless and help Lafferty come alive, especially useful for those of us who discovered him after his time. The exchange with Alan Dean Foster, brief as it is, reveals much of Lafferty’s character and whets the appetite for the rumored forthcoming biography.

And then there is the part where people do their own stories inspired by the master. These are a nice garnish to the main course, but not really central to the feast (and I of course include my own contribution in this judgement). The two that stand out are “People are Strange” by Christopher Blake, which to me felt most clearly like a Lafferty homage, and J Simon’s “Bone Girl,” the best original piece in this collection, which could have easily found a home in any professional market and here really makes the rest of us look better just by being alongside it.

Flip the magazine over. There, on the back cover, is an image of the famous Door to Lafferty’s office. There’s a lot to be said (and a lot probably will be said) about this particular door, but this image alone is what you need to know about the man if you need to be convinced his words (and books like this filled with words about his words) are worth you time. It’s covered with clippings of art, diagrams, stickers, captions, and paintings in a contained sort of organized fractal. But totally covered so you can barely see a single spot of wood. Imagine walking down a hallway of doors (I don’t actually know where Lafferty’s office was– home or business or whatever) and seeing one like this.

Imagine the kind of guy who would be waiting on the other side.

Crack the cover, and come on in to meet him . . .

Feast of Laughter vol. 2

feast-frontFeast of Laughter 2 by Kevin Cheek

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fanzines are a new thing for me. But when I was approached about one of the reviews I published here about Lafferty’s collection Strange Doings appearing in the Lafferty fanzine Feast of Laughter, I was happy to oblige. And then when the editor asked whether I had any Laffertesque pieces of fiction that might fit its remit as well, I was even happier. Which is how a contributor’s copy of volume 2 of Feast, “An Appreciation of R. A. Lafferty,” appeared in my mailbox.

And what a fanzine! Feast, which I read from cover to cover is indeed just that: a veritable feast for anyone interested in Lafferty or his works. The table is set equisitely: the magazine is well put together, with a gorgeous cover (which I’ve admired but only just realized the creepy details from the story it illustrates depicted), perfect-bound, nearly 300 pages. As lovely as the front cover is, the back is even cooler: an office cameo of everyone’s hero himself. The only way this magazine could physically be better would be if it came with a tiny duplicate of the legendary Lafferty office door itself.

feast-backAnd then there’s the occasion for the meal itself. What other obscure Catholic science fiction writer could generate three hundred pages of prose (and a bit of poetry) simply because people like him so much? One who inspires a great deal of interest and loyalty among erudite fans and even a bit of emulation. A writer whose work is hard to find, difficult yet rewarding to digest, and almost entirely untouched by the popular press. (But you probably know all that already if you’re someone considered a work like this.)

So what are the courses of the feast? First we have essays. Besides Daniel Otto Jack Peterson, I wasn’t familiar with any of the authors. Some of the essays were compelling, especially those that dove into the allegory and Catholic context of Lafferty’s work. A few were as obscure as some of Lafferty’s own difficult work. In particular, I found Persaud’s “Question: Why? Excuse: Because Monsters” montage a bit inscrutable.

The second course consists of articles regarding Lafferty fandom around the world, particularly in Japan and Russia. The Japanese article was especially useful, as it opened a door into a world of Japanese science fiction with a list of recommended works by Japanese readers who love Lafferty. With Lafferty as a common denominator, this could be a powerful window into exploring the speculative literature of another culture, something that’s always daunting to know how to begin.

Then we get an interview with an early and important Lafferty fan, followed by a section of reprinted essays by greats such as Michael Swanwick. I was a bit lost in the contributions by Knight and Sirignano, which attempted to explain the labyrinth that is Lafferty’s Melchizedek saga, but this will likely be an important resource for someone who has read that work and is interested in deciphering its puzzles.Then come the reviews, and I was by this time so immersed in the meal that I had the simultaneously pleasant and disconcerting experience of turning a page and being surprised to see my own name, having forgotten for a moment that the whole reason I had been invited to this feast was because I had prepared a small dish.

The penultimate course is the Lafferty-inspired pieces, which consist primarily of poetry, though I have a story sandwiched pleasantly between a cozily-gruesome little piece by Daniel Peterson and a haunting story by Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley (yes, that Howard Waldrop, the one who wrote “The Ugly Chickens”). My piece is “What I Wrote for Andronicus,” which was originally published in Ideomancer in 2010. The meal ends with dessert: a reprinted interview with Lafferty himself and a reprint of one of his best known stories, “Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas,” which is illustrated by the fantastic artwork on the volume’s cover.

Then the plates are cleared away. The feast is over. But we’ll gather here again soon. Roll on, volume three.

The Man Who Made Models

The Man Who Made Models: The Collected Short FictionThe Man Who Made Models: The Collected Short Fiction by R.A. Lafferty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s kind of fun to be part of a renaissance, even if you were late to the party. It’s kind of fun to be part of something gathering steam, spilling open, being rediscovered. Right now, that’s more or less what’s happening to the writings of R. A. Lafferty.

If you don’t know Lafferty, you haven’t been reading my blog long, as I’ve reviewed at least two of his books here already. You also probably haven’t seen the lovely fanzine, Feast of Laughter, which celebrates the man and his work and in which in the latest issue I have a story and review. You haven’t heard there was this really odd guy in Oklahoma writing at the crest of the New Wave in science fiction who was– bizarrely– Catholic, conservative, and curmudgeonly. You’re one of the lucky ones, because you get to discover his work from the ground up.

The collection The Man Who Made Models is the best place to start. I’ve written about Lafferty’s novels before. They are, I would argue, an acquired taste (but one well worth acquiring). It is in his short stories though that his madness and exuberance come in more manageable bits. But these aren’t dainty snacks; even as short stories they’re bloody, quivering chunks of meat you have to unhinge your jaw to swallow.

Part of what makes a Lafferty renaissance fun to be a part of is that Lafferty’s writings are so immense and scattered. Only one of his books is still in print, and his short story collections are treasures for which used bookstores are to be scoured regularly. Many of his later works were never published on a large scale and only appeared in now-vanished small presses. His short stories are spread across decades and lost in a farrago of out-of-print collections, unpublished manuscripts, and copyright litigation. All of which makes this particular collection so exciting: it’s purported to be the first volume in Lafferty’s complete collected short fiction.

And it really is a great place to begin the strange odyssey that is Lafferty, assuming you can sweet-talk your local librarian in getting her hands on it. There’s a fantastic mix of Lafferties in here, though I don’t believe this volume was designed to be a “best of” collection. (My single complaint about this volume is that the editorial afterword doesn’t explain the selection process for this volume. It is not chronological, as the list of original sources at the volume’s conclusion shows these stories range from the 1960s to the 1980s and appeared in everything from big-name magazines to small-press chapbooks.)

Models a pleasant patchwork, but that makes it sound comfortable and cozy. It’s not. It’s a patchwork of monsters. You’ve got stories in here that are among Lafferty’s best and brightest: “The Six Fingers of Time,” “Frog on the Mountain,” and “Narrow Valley.” These are the ones you want someone to read for the first time when you’re trying to explain who Lafferty is any why people get so excited about him.

But when you want to go beyond that and highlight his exuberant monstrosity, you’ve also got plenty of choices here. You have “The Hole on the Corner,” for instance, which I think is one of the best examples of what makes Lafferty tick: the Chestertonian joy of the gruesome, bizarre, and hilarious. There are some that are genuinely frightening, whether that means chillingly subdued like “Parthen” or riotously macabre like “The Skinny People of Leptophlebo Street.” And you have the ones where Lafferty almost goes too far, leaving you with a simmering crackling in your mind, an effervescence that only hints at the things other writers feel they need to work into their stories such as plots or conclusions: “The Ungodly Mice of Doctor Drakos,” for instance, or the concluding work of the volume, “Rivers of Damascus.”

I’m not a literary analyst who can comment eruditely on the philosophical or theological things lurking below the surface of Lafferty’s prose, like some of the contributors to Feast of Laughter. But I want to comment briefly on two of the stories in this collection, because it’s not worth much to an outsider to simply say Lafferty is impossible to classify and leave it at that. Each one of his stories bears deeper analysis, and each one in some way forces eyes and minds toward a world where a multiplicity of options and universes await, something that is often off-putting for those coming to his stories hoping for tidy conclusions and explanations. Things are a bit larger than that here; it’s like waiting for a cloud-scape to fall into its final configuration.

But there are two stories in this volume I especially love. The first is “Days of Grass, Days of Straw,” which is absolutely strange. On first blush this story seems to be an alternate reality tale, in which a man comes to awareness in a “weird western” motif where Indians have a thriving civilization on the Great Plains. This, it is eventually explained, is a “day of grass,” an extra day in the calendar that doesn’t count, as opposed to the ordinary, mundane “days of straw.” Life in the day of grass doesn’t have much narrative structure: the characters eat and talk and make war with buffalo and dance beneath a floating mountain. Simultaneously, in our own reality the characters discuss the nature of these lost calendar days, and Lafferty lists several of them for us, days we’re led to believe he’s lifted from obscurity from half a dozen ethnic calendars. The story ends abruptly with no real conclusion: we’re left with only potentiality, a flicker of wonder around the edges of our own life, and some pseudo-philosophical discussion of time and potentiality. It’s gorgeous.

And then there’s “Thus We Frustrated Charlemagne,” which features– as much of Lafferty’s short fiction does– characters that form a recurring cast of sorts in many of his stories. A group of scientists has achieved the technological breakthrough of sending avatars back in time to alter the past. (One of the best things about reading Lafferty is the way he handles technology. His explanations, which border on the absurd, somehow have aged much better than some of the best “hard science” explanations for fictitious technology.) Each time they alter the past, the world around them is transformed. It’s a trope that’s been explored often in science fiction since, but here it’s as fresh and new and hilarious as an actual real world popping into existence.

That’s much of the deep magic here: new, real worlds. Lafferty’s science fiction is never about making fantasy worlds to replace this one. Rather, he writes to open our eyes to the weirdness and the wonder in this one. The world, Lafferty’s fiction seems to say, is stranger than you can imagine. This one. The one you’re sitting in. It’s going to eat you alive. All of the fantasy– all of the horror and monstrosity and laughter and joy– is just him shaking your shoulders. Shaking them hard. Wake up.