A Little Describing of R.A. Lafferty

Since I can go off praising R.A. Lafferty from time to time, I thought it would help some if I included two obituaries about his by John Clute and Neil Gaiman to give a sense of who this author was. When I was considerably younger I used to drop acid (the one oops from youth I do not regret at all). Lafferty is a lot like that.

From the Washington Post, April 4


R.A. Lafferty, who died at 87 on March 18, was undoubtedly the finest writer of whatever it was that he did that ever there was. He was a genius, an oddball, a madman. His stories (his short stories were, in the main, more powerful than his novels) are without precedent: If he can be compared to anyone it might be to a more whimsical Flann O'Brien, but comparisons are pointless. The world only got one Lafferty. Nine Hundred Grandmothers was the first collection of Lafferty's shorter fiction. It is currently in print -- the small presses work to keep Lafferty in print -- and is a fine place to start. It contains a number of points of view you may never have encountered, embodied in stories such as "Narrow Valley," the tale of a huge valley in a tiny ditch, or "Primary Education of the Camiroi," a short story that is mostly syllabus, or "Slow Tuesday Night," which tells of a world running at Internet speed. Funny, wise and odd, his tales are unique. One sentence in and you know who you're reading. Lafferty never fit as an sf writer, as a fabulist or as a horror writer, although his work was sold as such and he won the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award. He was a genre in himself, and a Lafferty story is unlike any story by anybody else: tall tales from the Irish by way of Heaven, the far stars and Tulsa, Okla.

(Neil Gaiman's books include the Sandman graphic novels, "American Gods" and the forthcoming miscellany "Adventures in the Dream Trade.")


And from John Clute


From the Independent, April 2

John Clute

WITH R. A. LAFFERTY, who has died at a great age after a short career, comparisons are more than usually misleading. He stood alone.

Unlike almost all American science fiction writers, he came very late to his craft, in 1960; and he stopped writing after less than a quarter of a century, in 1984. Unlike most science fiction writers, he was deeply religious; moreover, unlike almostanyone else in the field, his Roman Catholicism governed not only the surface of his work, but its deep structure as well. And unlike most of his fellows he was deeply pessimistic about the value of the life experiences of Fallen Man.

Rafael Aloysius Lafferty was born in Midwestern America, in the tiny town of Neola, Iowa, in 1914. By the age of five he was living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, several hundred miles south, and never moved again. He served in the Second World War for four years,in the South Pacific theatre of action. He spent a normal working life with the Clark Electrical Company in Tulsa, not retiring until 1970, after he had been publishing short fiction for a decade.

He lived with his sister until her death; he was a bachelor, a good drinker, a non-driver; an only occasional visitor to science fiction conventions, where his deep shyness and his massive frame combined to generate a sense of massive, formidable reserve. But behind that barrier, and in his work, he was a joker.

There were four books before 1970, each of them remarkable. Space Master (1968), his first, retells the life of Sir Thomas More as the President of a Utopian planet - but the deep structure of More's tragic life is re-enacted here, and he is martyred, as must be. Space Chantey (1968) exuberantly retells the Odyssey as a myth of the future; The Reefs of Earth (1968) introduces some aliens to the tangled world of Earth, where they utterly fail to get rid of humanity; and Fourth Mansions (1969) invokes what became an abiding theme: the argument that the battle between Good and Evil is conducted through a series of extravagant, slapdash, hectic, deadly conspiracies.

Each of these books is spatchcocked with literary allusions, twice- told myths, puns and jokes, all of which helped Lafferty gain his early prominence, while at the same time concealing, for a while, his underlying grimness, his dark Catholic sense that we live in shadow.

It was only after his retirement that Lafferty became a full-time writer; almost all of the more than 50 books and pamphlets released during his lifetime appeared after 1970. There were many collections of stories - beginning with Nine Hundred Grandmothers (1970) - and novel after novel, most of them loosely linked together into a great patchwork of conspiracies against Good.

Lafferty's later career was commercially unsuccessful, for he paid decreasing attention to his publishers' requirements. His work became more eccentric, private, brilliant, unstoppable. When he retired in 1984, small press publishers continued to inveigle him into releasing already written material. His bibliography is, therefore, chaotic. There are something like 29 novels in all, and at least 200 short stories.

His last years were shuttered by illness, and he is not now in print. But a 1990 Nebula Award for lifetime achievement signalled that he had not been forgotten. A proper sorting of his work, and its subsequent release in organised form, could bring this solitary giant back into our ken.

John Clute

Rafael Aloysius Lafferty, writer: born Neola, Iowa 7 November 1914; died Broken Arrow, Oklahoma 18 March 2002.


Although it must be noted that Clute misnamed one of Lafferty’s novels. It was not SPACE MASTER, it was PAST MASTER.


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