by Andrew Ferguson

Raphael Aloysius Lafferty (November 7, 1914 – March 18, 2002) was an American idiosyncrasy: an Oklahoman autodidact who spent the first half of his life listening to others swap tall tales and the latter half channeling that liar’s aesthetic into a string of wild science-fiction, fantasy, and uncategorizable tales. Over a career of about three-and-a-half decades, Lafferty wrote 36 novels and 260-odd short stories, plus boxfuls of essays and verse. He was nominated for nearly every award within the field, winning most notably the 1973 Hugo for his short story ‘‘Eurema’s Dam’’.

R.A. Lafferty, photo by Jay Kay Klein
© UC Riverside Libraries

Throughout the worlds of speculative fiction, there are few odder career arcs than the one Lafferty followed. Born to a homesteading father and schoolteaching mother in miniscule Neola IA, Lafferty moved at age five to Tulsa, where he would remain almost his entire life. Though works such as ‘‘Seven-Day Terror’’ and Reefs of Earth are filled with childhood mischief, Lafferty was himself a shy, bookish boy, most often found reading Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, or the entire Grolier’s Encyclopedia. Though his formal education ended with high school, Lafferty took night classes in German and electrical engineering. The former led to an eventual reading knowledge of perhaps 20 languages, the latter to a career selling parts at an electrical supply store.

An apocryphal story has it that a young Lafferty essayed a writing class, only to be told by the instructor that he needed to get out and live life for 20 years or so before returning to the typewriter. True or not, Lafferty wrote nothing more till 1957; instead, he absorbed others’ stories – from his frontier Irish kin, for instance, or from Native American or other blue-collar workmen met on the job. During WWII, he served in the 129th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, repairing searchlights and stockpiling tales from his fellow GIs as well as from tribal storytellers from the Malay Islands and Papua New Guinea. After his discharge, Lafferty spent an aimless decade until resuming writing as a means of ‘‘cutting back on my drinking and fooling around.’’ (Though a self-acknowledged alcoholic, Lafferty never drank while writing, and only fell off the wagon, and occasionally his barstool, when attempting to combat his shyness at conventions.)

Lafferty tried his hand at several genres, but science fiction proved most profitable: Frederik Pohl’s Galaxy in particular. Unlike many SF writers who served apprenticeships in letters columns and fanzines before graduating into the digests, Lafferty appeared on the scene seemingly fully formed, with a style impossible to mistake for any other writer’s – as Neil Gaiman remarked, ‘‘You knew you were reading a Lafferty story within a sentence.’’ His is a sustained tone equal parts carnival barker, apocalyptic prophet, and barroom liar; hallmarks include R.A. Lafferty (1980s) direct address to the reader, diverse (often imaginary) epigraphs, doggerel verse, theological paradox, tortured etymologies, and gleeful bloodletting. Though at first glance his prose can appear folksy, guileless, even naïve, on closer examination it reveals considerable sophistication and keen attention to resonance and rhythm.

While the works range in space and time from ancient Rome to far-future Astrobe, they may be divided into three loose groupings: historical fictions (The Fall of Rome, The Flame Is Green, Okla Hannali); futuristic offworld SF stories (Space Chantey, Annals of Klepsis, tales such as ‘‘Nine Hundred Grandmothers’’); and works set in roughly the present day. This last group further divides into those set against an indeterminate, usually apocalyptic backdrop (Not to Mention Camels, ‘‘Ishmael Into the Barrens,’’ ‘‘And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire’’); those placed in or around Lafferty’s own Tulsa (Reefs of Earth, In a Green Tree, the tales of Austro and of the Institute of Impure Science); and those located elsewhere on the globe, whether international (the South Pacific in Archipelago and ‘‘Cliffs That Laughed’’, much of the globe in The Devil Is Dead or East of Laughter) or domestic (Chicago in The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny, Galveston in any number of tales about the Old Wooden Ship bar).

R.A. Lafferty
Photo by Charles N. Brown ©LSFF

Lafferty peaked alongside the 1960s New Wave, when his genre-bending stories and idiosyncratic style earned him representation by super-agent Virginia Kidd, and the admiration of such editorial luminaries as Judith Merril, Damon Knight, Terry Carr, and Harlan Ellison – the last of whom published Lafferty’s story ‘‘Land of the Great Horses’’ in Dangerous Visions. But even as volumes like Past Master, Fourth Mansions, and the indispensable collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers established Lafferty in the field, they also presaged his descent into obscurity. Working apart from recognized genre formulas and protocols was fine within the experimentally pluralistic New Wave, which could tolerate his references to Catholic saints and his conservative satires of progressive ideals. But they found little purchase among later readers looking for social critique, on the one hand, or militaristic action on the other. More to the point, perhaps, Lafferty’s books never moved a lot of copies. By the mid-’80s, the bulk of Lafferty’s writing emerged from small presses in tiny print runs.

Lafferty ‘‘retired’’ from writing on his 70th birthday, both because of persistent arthritis in his hands and a conviction that his best writing was behind him. Nonetheless, he continued to carry out revisions of his works and a voluminous correspondence until a series of strokes in the mid-’90s left him in full-time nursing care. He would die without seeing a revival in either the critical or material fortunes of his work. After his death, influential fans including Michael Swanwick, Gene Wolfe, and especially Gaiman periodically pushed for a Lafferty renaissance, and newer genre approaches such as slipstream or what Gary K. Wolfe called ‘‘The New Cacophony’’ could find in Lafferty a literary precursor. But it wasn’t until the acquisition of his famously tangled estate by the Locus Foundation that reprints and new projects could begin moving forward. With a deluxe edition of his collected stories now several volumes in, and with the promise of a career retrospective and the possible release of unpublished material, the second Lafferty century seems set to pick up from where the first one never quite took off.

Andrew Ferguson