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And They Took the Sky Off at Night

by Brian Cholfin, then editor of Crank! magazine

“This introductory sketch of the life and attributes of Enniscorthy Sweeney should really have been written by someone who knew him well. But who would that be? Did anyone know him well?”

I did not know Ray Lafferty well, actually I only met him personally on a couple of occasions and corresponded with him for a little while when I was one of his publishers.

It’s difficult to know where to begin when discussing Lafferty’s work. For one thing, Lafferty does not properly belong in any particular category. Most of his stories and novels were published as science fiction or fantasy, and are certainly darned weird. But consider this: if you were to give someone a copy of, say, Arrive at Easterwine, or The Devil is Dead, someone unfamiliar with Lafferty, and tell them, this is a science fiction novel, will that in any way prepare them for what they are about to read? No. Is there anything that would help? Any word that could fill in the blank, This is a _______? None that I know of.

There have been over the years many literary pioneers who have staked out new territories; this is the normal process of literary progress. Often these writers are followed by imitators and other literary carpet-baggers, squatters rummaging about for leftovers in the tailings of the original's excavations (I mix my metaphors a bit, but what the hell). Sometimes these settlements become quite large and support minor industries (for example, Kerouac or Plath). But the territory of R. A. Lafferty seems to be a little further out than many are willing to go; the trails are not well-mapped and it is too easy to get lost in the foothills. It seems that soon folks are going to give up looking at let it become a ghost town.

Lafferty’s work went in and out of print irregularly throughout the 70s and 80s, finally disappearing almost completely from bookstore shelves. A small band of small-press publishers struggled on, but one by one gave up. When I was publishing him, I used to joke that I knew all of his readers personally. It wasn’t true, but it seemed like it on some days. Now a few of his books are available only in shabby print-on-demand editions, which seems like the last stop before complete oblivion. The chances of a sudden rediscovery and reprint seem remote.

Consider a comparison with Philip K. Dick. Personally, they could hardly have been more different. PKD was a liberal Californian, lived kind of a wild life that included five or six wives, a lot of drugs, and receiving messages beamed in from alien deities, and died relatively young. Lafferty lived almost his whole life in or near Tulsa, was a conservative Catholic, served in the Pacific during WWII, was stably employed for thirty-five years, had no wives or children (none of his siblings did, either), and lived to the age of eighty-eight. So right off the bat Lafferty is violating the rules again: he didn’t live a tormented life of literary ambition and die young. He did, however, drink a lot, at least before he started writing, and then again after.

Literarily they would not at first glance seem all that much alike. Their prose styles are very different. Dick uses much more conventional science-fictional material, even if it is often in a comical way. When you start reading a Dick novel, you might be forgiven for thinking at first that you are reading an ordinary sf novel until you realize that you have been tricked; suddenly you find yourself reading a novel that’s really about some weird shit going on inside your own head. Lafferty, on the other hand, tries to warn you right on page one:

“This is a do-it-yourself thriller or nightmare. Its present order is only the way it comes in the box. Arrange it as you will.”—The Devil is Dead

“It is too late for you to withdraw. The damage is done to you. That faintly odd taste in your mouth, that smallest of tingles which you feel, they signal the snake-death. “Die a little. There is reason for it.”—Fourth Mansions

“I drank the abominable drink, and the Epikt-extension unscrewed a little plate behind its ear, and took out a little bobbin or spindle, a spool of fine magnetized wire. ‘This is it,’ it said. ‘Give it to the world.’”—Arrive at Easterwine

But there are some common elements. By his own account, Dick’s work continually asked the questions, What is Real, and What is Human? These questions are also prevalent in Lafferty’s work. Where Dick was concerned with what distinguished the human from the artificial, the machine, the thing that looked human but had no heart, Lafferty examined what, if anything, separated humans from other creatures, both natural and supernatural, alien and mythical. Humans, in Lafferty’s view, had a privileged position in the world, but it was a position that could be lost, or taken away, or usurped by another. Therefore the task was to delineate the special attributes that needed to be preserved.

Lafferty’s ideas about what constituted the special human element was of course influenced by his traditional Catholic, midwestern upbringing; it seems that he was never able to fully accept the theory of evolution. He was also influenced by the stories of the Native Americans who lived in Oklahoma, their spiritual ideas, and their views of nature (more than a few of his stories are based on Native legends). And while he sometimes poo-poohed Jung in interviews, much of his work is as steeped in notions of archetype and the collective unconscious as any of Dick’s.

Dick’s answer revolved around the idea of empathy, the ability to form a connection with another human, to understand the other’s feelings. A human would not pull the legs from a spider, but an android would. That kind of disconnect was the root of evil behavior in the world. This is not too far from one of the central themes of Arrive at Easterwine:

“I had set up this afternoon project which I called Seminar in Love to try to throw new light on a human affliction and obsession. This love thing, which I have been unable to examine directly, leaves its pinion-prints on everything it touches, and I am reduced to studying the prints of it. It is said that this love is the life-force itself, and also that it is the one thing that always goes wrong with life. It is also said (with too much assurance, I believe) that mechanical things can have no concern with this elusive element. Why, then, am I concerned? It’s part of the job they gave me, that's why.”

For Lafferty the key question revolves around intelligence and judgment, especially moral judgment. Lafferty had a strong, traditional moral vision, and he largely rejected the liberalism and modernism that he perceived as eroding necessary distinctions. But it wasn’t particularly strict—his characters like to drink, gamble, and carouse, in a very Old West, frontier way. (Men sit on women’s laps with some frequency in Lafferty’s stories, and during a party a few friends and I threw at Noreascon in 1989, Ray had his way with several laps. Go figure.) There are things that are true, and things that are false, and if sometimes it is unclear which is which, it is because those of us who think we are awake and perceiving reality as it is are actually asleep, stumbling around in the dark and missing half the show.

The other half of the show is often what goes on inside of us when we're not looking. External appearance is unimportant to Lafferty, only the mind and soul really count. The combination of his ideas means that in Lafferty stories, machines, dolphins, elephants, bears, monkeys, australopithecines, and dolls stuffed with sawdust may all be moral actors. Truth may be revealed in the smallest and seemingly irrelevant detail, because nothing is in truth too small or irrelevant.

In a dream, you may see someone you know, but they look different from their waking appearance. In a dream, you may see someone who looks like someone you know, but is someone else. In a dream, perspectives shift suddenly, objects become larger or smaller, sequences of events are nonlinear and not necessarily causally connected. Things and people project emotional resonances not visibly apparent. All of this and more may occur in a Lafferty story, simultaneously with the waking reality, to the confusion of the characters, and often the reader as well. Dick viewed reality as something hidden behind a veil of perception; pulling the curtain away only revealed another curtain, and ‘ultimate reality’ remained elusive. For Lafferty, all of these layers of reality existed in a constantly superimposed state; if we were truly awake we’d see that that was ultimate reality. “Learn the true topography: the monstrous and wonderful archetypes are not inside you, not in your own unconscious; you are inside them, trapped, and howling to get out.”

Characters in Lafferty stories don’t act or speak as normal folks do. Impossible things happen routinely. Indeed, the whole philosophical works are staged like a two-bit vaudeville act, with characters reminiscent of sideshow hucksters and midway card-sharps, promising marvelous prizes with one hand and taking your money with the other, leaving you wondering what the hell this thing is being put into your hands while you’re being shuffled out the back door. But the prize here is the key to the kingdom, and the show is pretty funny. There is in fact no limit to Lafferty’s humor—even the old banana-peel gag will be trotted out if it’ll get a laugh.

There’s more, of course, and still more—there isn’t space here to explicate all of it, and it would be beyond my means in any case. I hope that I have identified one or two possible trailheads into the territory. The natives are friendly. Where you follow is up to you.