Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Lafferty, R A

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(1914-2002) US writer who worked in the electrical business until retiring in 1970; he began to write only in his early 40s, his first story of genre interest being "Day of the Glacier" for Original Science Fiction Stories in 1960, and retired from writing in 1984, aged 70. His early work – examples of which appear in The Early Lafferty (coll 1988 chap Canada) and The Early Lafferty II (coll 1990 chap Canada) – are uneccentric in style and content, but soon RAL's unique voice could be heard. It found its first outlet in the sf magazines of the early 1960s.

To treat RAL as an eccentric, ribald sf writer is to misunderstand his genius. It would be difficult to assign any appropriate genre to his work, though his best novels and stories can probably be read most easily as (broadly) fantasy. However, it is almost certainly more rewarding to treat RAL in terms of specific literary analogues or influences. He is Catholic, and his work is in many respects similar to that of G K Chesterton, whose flamboyance also can move swiftly into a sometimes thin Surrealism. But the writer with whom he can best be compared is probably Flann O'Brien, whose The Third Policeman (1967) shifts from a crazy-quilt mundane into hyperbolic fantasy with an ease and off-handed dispatch; part of its fabric of "explanation", as with much of RAL's work, ruthlessly and joyfully ransacks the grammar of science and of sf.

A mature RAL work can almost always be identified as by him within a sentence. His prose revels in easy paradox and is ebullient and baroque; and the line of thought moves with an utterly natural-seeming obliquity, through Tall Tale and, by leaps and bounds which it is almost impossible to analyse, into the sublime. But perhaps the most important touchstone of his language is the demotic base from which everything else is built – or perhaps, more accurately, leaps.

RAL's characters befit this language. Many protagonists tend to be introduced as blue-collar US working men, no matter how much larger than life they turn out to be (> Avatar). They have the innocence and monstrosity of Children; the actual children in RAL's stories – such as The Reefs of Earth (1968) or "Ginny Wrapped in the Sun" (1967 Galaxy) – are undoubtedly monsters, though in a state of grace. In their adult manifestations, these protagonists may well stand in for, or literally embody, opposing forces (who resemble Gods) in the cosmic duels between the fallen and unfallen that structure Fourth Mansions (1969), Not to Mention Camels (1972) and the Devil is Dead sequence – The Devil is Dead (1971), Archipelago (1979) and More Than Melchisedech, the last published in three volumes as Tales of Chicago (1992 Canada), Tales of Midnight (1992 Canada) and Anamnesis (1992 chap Canada).

Past Master (1968) features Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), who is transported to another world where his dark joke, Utopia (1515), has been used as a grotesque societal model. Space Chantey (1968) is a Twice-Told version of Homer's Odyssey (circa 9th century BC). "Where Have you Been, Sandaliotis?", one of the two book-length stories published in Apocalypses (coll 1977), is a Dream-like story about the return to the Mediterranean of a Fortean nation which had linked Sardinia to the coast. Later works of interest include the In a Green Tree sequence, the first part of which is My Heart Leaps Up, a novel published in five segments: Chapters 1-2 (1986 chap), 3-4 (1987 chap), 5-6 (1987 chap), 7-8 (1988 chap) and 9-10 (1990 chap); and the second part of which, Grasshoppers & Wild Honey (1928-1942), starts on the same basis with Chapters 1-2 (1992 chap).

Many of RAL's short stories remain scattered, but most can be found in various collections. Books include Nine Hundred Grandmothers (coll 1970), Strange Doings (coll 1972), Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add? (coll 1974), Ringing Changes (coll 1984; first published in Dutch trans as Dagen van Gras, Dagen van Stro ["Days of Grass, Days of Straw"] 1979), Golden Gate and Other Stories (coll 1982), Through Elegant Eyes: Stories of Austro and the Men who Know Everything (coll 1983), Lafferty in Orbit (coll 1991) and Iron Tears (coll 1992). Pamphlets include Funnyfingers & Cabrito (coll 1976 chap), Horns on their Heads (coll 1976 chap), Snake in his Bosom and Other Stories (coll 1983 chap), Four Stories (coll 1983 chap), Heart of Stone, Dear, and Other Stories (coll 1983 chap), Laughing Kelly and Other Verses (coll 1983 chap), The Man who Made Models and Other Stories (coll 1984 chap), Slippery and Other Stories (coll 1985 chap), Strange Skies (coll 1988 chap Canada; verse), The Back Door of History (coll 1988 chap Canada), The Elliptical Grave (1989; 1 story added to limited edition to make coll 1989) and Mischief Malicious (and Murder Most Strange) (coll 1991 chap Canada), which contains work from as early as 1961.

If there is one contemporary figure with whom RAL shares a similar incapacity to fit the expectations of readers, it might be Avram Davidson. Unlike most modern writers of fantasy or sf, both were obsessed by, and believers in, traditional religions: Roman Catholicism for RAL and Judaism for Davidson. And there is a sense that one must know the whole of each writer before coming to an understanding of any one part. [NG/JC]

other works: The Coscuin Chronicles, comprising The Flame is Green (1971) and Half a Sky: The Coscuin Chronicles 1849-1854 (1984); The Fall of Rome (1971; vt Alaric: The Day the World Ended 1993), a historical novel; Arrive at Easterwine: The Autobiography of a Ktistec Machine (1971), an engrossingly bizarre Technofantasy; Okla Hannali (1972); Aurelia (1982); Annals of Klepsis (1983); Serpent's Egg (1987 UK; 1 story added to limited edition to make coll 1987); East of Laughter (1988 UK; with 1 story added to limited edition to make coll); Sindbad: The 13th Voyage (1989).

Rafael Aloysius Lafferty


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.