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R. A. Lafferty: Effective Arcanum
© Don Webb

Take the wordies
from hind brain
tell of weirdies
in a great word-rain
—Grimorie of Aloys

Blurbers (those who blurb) say two contradictory things about the work of R. A. Lafferty. Often both poles will appear in the same blurb; blurbers do not aim for consistency, but instead for creating a mood that will induce the sensory-overloaded reader to purchase the book. The first remark is how familiar Lafferty's work is—he is either compared to Twain (or some likewise wholesomely American figure) or to the folktale, ghost tale, or talltale. The opposite pole stresses the uniqueness of his work—unique, quirky, one-of-a-kind. It would seem that either the blurbers have indeed read the work, and are hard put to find words to explain the effect of Lafferty's prose on their psyches, or they are merely quoting other blurbers.

I wish to argue that Lafferty deliberately creates the mythic effect through a technique I call effective arcanum, and that rather than examining his work with the conventional tools of science fiction criticism, we need to examine his system—firstly for our pleasure, and secondly so that we may re-create it (because the sign of an authentic religo-magical system is the power of the followers to reproduce the results). It may seem strange to think of Lafferty's writing in terms of religious phenomena, but if you consider the devotion that the small press world has shown, you'll begin to see what I mean. Behold, now I speak prophetically: with Lafferty gone there will be (unfortunately) a lot of bad Lafferty pastiche—not because of the commercial viability of such writing (Lafferty being one of the least commercial writers we have) but because of the desire of the writer to re-create the effects of Lafferty's writing on his or her psyche.

In this (and a few other ways as well) Lafferty is very similar to H. P. Lovecraft. Let us examine six ways (there are nine, but three must remain hidden for I use them myself and don't want to give away any of my tricks just yet) in which Lafferty's fiction creates the Unknown rather then the Known, and then let us give some consideration to the strengths and weaknesses of the method (and its reception and lack thereof in the world of Science Fiction and fantasy). Hopefully some later, more qualified writer than I will begin the task of putting Lafferty into the bookshelf of literature, where he belongs. By the way, each of these points can be expanded into a dissertation—and no doubt will be in the fullness of time.

1. Lafferty uses textual devices to estrange the reader in a hypothetical time before the beginning of the narrative. He comments on the method himself in one of his created texts:

"'Atrox Fabulinus, the Roman Rabelais, once broke off the account of his hero Raphaelus in the act of opening a giant goose egg to fry it in an iron skillet of six yards' span. Fabulinus interrupted the action with these words: "Here it becomes necessary to recount to you the history of the world up to this point."

"'After Fabulinus had given the history of the world up to that point, he took up the action of Raphaelus once more. It happened that the giant goose egg contained a nubile young girl. This revelation would have been startling to a reader who had not just read the history of the world up to that point: which history, being Fabulinian in its treatment, prepared him for the event.'

(From East of Laughter.) By creating a text of seeming antiquity, the defamiliarization of the world is seen as something that already happened before the narrative. The story doesn't have to explain the strange state of affairs it begins with or ends with. This runs counter to the paradigms of Science Fiction, in which texts which are cited are real (or presumed to deal with the hard factual world), and provide a springboard for the Man With A Plan to demonstrate his cleverness based on the facts of the matter. Likewise it violates the paradigms of horror (our everyday world with one intrusion or anomaly which can be isolated or at least explained), and of fantasy (another world with its own consistent laws). Lafferty uses created texts, either created out of whole cloth—such as the frequently-cited The Back-Door of History by Arpud Arutinov or The Fall of Rome, an actually published Lafferty book ("auctore" simply being Latin for "by the author")—or partial cloth, wherein Laffertyisms are attributed to the Psalms, or reference made to Aristotle's Beard in Essential and Beard in Existential. These are legitimated by the actual quotations from actual people mixed into the stream. Therefore reality is carefully displaced, sometime somewhere before either writer or reader has anything to do about it. This is an extremely effective modification of the fairy tale formula of in illo tempore. But instead of the "Once upon a time," where we know what the different laws are—Lafferty just convinces us that the laws are different.

2. Lafferty makes use of dead language words to play upon our collective unconscious. Mainly Hellenisms work their unconscious magic upon us; although like Joyce he combines his Greek with Irish—note the Puca in The Reefs of Earth. Consider the following examples. In My Heart Leaps Up, Lafferty's "autobiography" from Chris Drumm, the lead character is named Helen Anastasis. We may sense the rightness of the name, but unless we know Greek, we don't realize Anastasis = against inertness. Likewise, in "Continued on the Next Rock" the hero's name of Anteros = "One who loves in return" sadly sums the hero's love and the girl's obstinacy (which are seen as a mechanism of their reincarnations—reminding one of the strangely Greek-named heroes of the Mummy films—Kharis, whose name means "gift," and Anake, whose name means "necessity"). Lafferty's use of Greek, Latin, Irish, and Hebrew tags is not merely demonstration of his vast erudition. It is a technique used by magicians for centuries to give their spells potency. Whereas he directs most of his narrative at our conscious—using simple daytime language—he also directs the same tale at our unconscious achieving a form of meta-communication. This is one of the most subtle forms of displacement. We feel early on in the Lafferty story that more is going on then we know, and at the end of the story that more has gone on than we can know. The use of foreign tags and the use of rhythm discussed below are good tools in displacing the narrative.

3. Lafferty plays upon our subconscious in another way—the use of rhythm. Yevgeny Zamyatin developed the concept of a "prose foot" as a way of internal pacing of fiction. He saw it as a kind of rhythmic device that by causing the reader to remember an earlier part of the narrative became a force for a choral (as in pertaining to choruses) cohesion that bound the story together in a different way than plot mechanics. This method, which I can't detect in Zamyatin's works (since Russian is Greek to me), is the core of Lafferty's work. He has invented the postmodern equivalent of the Homeric epithet. Now that I've told you what the magician's about to do, see if you can catch the trick the next time. Oops, went past you! A couple of examples will suffice. In the short story "The Transcendent Tigers," the device of a rhyming couplet to destroy a city of the world is used throughout the story. We become so in rhythm with the words that Lafferty doesn't have to provide the name of the city when the last half of a couplet ends the story—"Knife and Fork—and the reader provides "New York" thus having his own imagination and language complete the terrifying little tale. Likewise, rhyming nonsense is the way a character may enter the world of the Shelni in "Ride a Tin Can"—perhaps more significantly, the understanding of the nonsense can turn you into a Shelni.

Continued . . .

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