Lafferty Lost and Found

by Natasha Ball

They convened in a meeting room in the back of an old Borden’s Cafeteria. A bald man with a soft paunch, looking perfectly at home at the first meeting of Oklahoma Science Fiction Writers, sat wordlessly in the back, peering over thick glasses. His name, R.A. Lafferty — that’s Raphael Aloysius, but usually he settled for just Ray — seemed familiar to Warren Brown and the others.

He’d seen Lafferty’s name in his old copies of Galaxy, one of the preeminent magazines of science fiction and fantasy writing. Then there was Lafferty’s Okla Hannali, a novel about a great Choctaw. Dee Brown, author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, called it “art applied to history”; The Wall Street Journal said it was “elemental Americana and a great deal of fun.” Married there were years of research with folklore, fantasy, and humor; Brown had marveled. He still has the copy he picked up at a JC Penney in Toledo, back when there were still bookstores in JC Penney.

By that time —1977 —R.A. Lafferty had written much of what would, by the end of his life, total more than 200 short stories and more than a dozen novels. He had been awarded the Hugo Award, one of the highest prizes in science fiction and fantasy writing, early in his career. Harlan Ellison and Gene Wolfe were lavish in their praise. A fan of languages, Lafferty could read the copies of his novels and short stories that had been translated to French, Italian, German, and Dutch; the ones in Japanese, though, gave him some trouble. He’d been nominated for several more awards, but Lafferty, a writer whose work defied classification and confounded the traditions of the genre, didn’t quite fit the bill.

Most of Lafferty’s stories begin ordinarily enough. In “Nine Hundred Grandmothers,” the short story that carries the name of a collection cherished by the small core of Lafferty fans, a man wonders how life began. Then, in the space of a few hundred words, he discovers a cave filled with beings who never die. “It is a foolish alien custom which we see no reason to imitate,” one of them says. In “The Six Fingers of Time,” another landmark Lafferty work, a man shatters a glass and an alarm clock before he realizes the cause of his clumsiness: he controls the flow of time, a problematic new reflex. Lafferty claimed G.K. Chesterton and Balzac as influences. “Neither of them could plot worth a dam [sic], and both of them got along without any nonsense about structure or outline,” he once wrote.

Throughout his life, Oklahoma, and early Tulsa in particular, was a recurring character in Lafferty’s work, at times as itself, at others in clever disguise. There’s the short story “In Our Block,” when two men tour a deserted dead end a block long, a suggestion of Lafferty’s own Trenton Avenue in Tulsa, where he lived quietly and watched the young city unfold for the better part of seven decades. The men stumble upon a mini boomtown that seems to have appeared out of thin air, a row of shanty shops filled with winking, grinning out-of-towners. There they ship 60,000-pound loads out of seven-foot shacks, type letters with their tongues, and wonder at the market for $100 automobiles. Tulsa shows up again in “Grey Ghost: A Reminiscence.” Lafferty writes of a (very) close encounter with the dead on Halloween night, 1924, near “the old Electric Park which was south of Tulsa, between the Peoria Road and the Arkansas River. It was a dog-racing track complete with electric rabbit.” Andrew Ferguson, a Lafferty scholar who is at work on the writer’s biography, puts Lafferty in a new genre: Oklahoma fusion storytelling.

“He was deeply invested in bringing out this oral narrative technique he learned from his father and uncles and his Irish aunts who had been out on the Oklahoma frontier, and other oral storytellers in the South Pacific [during his service] in World War II and Army buddies there, Cherokee and Choctaw storytellers — bringing all these techniques into written and very self-aware fiction on the page,” Ferguson said. As a result, “no other author does what he does with language. No one gets away with the things he gets away with.”

Brown guessed Lafferty showed up to that first OSFW meeting in search of the next generation of sci-fi readers and writers, some sign of breaking dawn. The tide had turned after Lafferty’s early success, Ferguson said. Publishing changed in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and science fiction wasn’t spared. The New Wave, a fold in the genre where Lafferty’s work is most often filed, was defined by the rebellion and experimentation emblematic of the ‘60s counterculture. It was literary work based on soft rather than hard science. Still, Lafferty’s conservative politics and distaste of the gratuitous sex scene put him on the fringe even there.

Ferguson has been looking into how publishing changed during Lafferty’s time. By then publishers had early versions of software that showed what sold and what didn’t. Cult and niche authors, those whose work was more experimental than it was marketable, were pruned from editors’ lists. By the date of the first meeting of OSFW, genre traditions were reasserted, and publishing houses pandered to readers who approached a bookstand like a fast-food menu—fewer choices, no surprises, what you see is what you get. Lafferty couldn’t promise to sell tens of thousands of copies of tall tales or campfire stories masquerading as sci-fi, and he couldn’t bank on much crossover. “Science-fiction fans don’t read historical novels,” reads one Lafferty quote.

Galaxy, one of the magazines that originally proliferated Lafferty’s work, stopped accepting his submissions after editor Frederik Pohl, who split the 1973 Hugo with Lafferty, left his post. Lafferty was a fixture at science-fiction conferences. He delivered speeches and served on panels, but he became notorious for being always first in line at cocktail hour—stories of Lafferty convincing charitable women to sit on his lap proliferated, echoed by similar flirtations in his correspondence with female friends and fans. Film and video game deals for Lafferty’s novels and short stories languished or fell through. His novels and collections of short stories fell out of print or
went to garage presses for infinitesimal runs.

Even in his hometown, the daily newspapers sent him reporters only a few times every decade. On the same shelves where Lafferty kept his Hugo, silver and rocket-shaped, was his “Invisible Little Man Award,” given to him by a science-fiction group in California for work that should be
better appreciated.

Still, Lafferty wasn’t one to complain. “This is the only job in the world where you can make a fair living by working an hour a day,” he told a Tulsa Tribune reporter; he wrote elsewhere that he doesn’t know why more people don’t do it. In spite of his setbacks, he wrote as exuberantly as ever. He became a regular contributor to the OSFW newsletter. He poked fun by writing petty letters to the editor, and he wrote poems for the club’s poetry anthology under names like Mary Mystic O’Trassy and Audifax O’Hanlon. He was a lively correspondent, writing long letters to fans that were as vivid and surreal as any of his published work. Later, he included apologies for his arthritic typing in the postscripts.

Lafferty attended most of the OSFW meetings, Brown said. Dozens of times, Brown waited outside the Lafferty house, a shaded brick bungalow where Trenton comes to a T, letting his ’78 Nova idle. Lafferty knew Tulsa’s streets —some days he would walk for miles, prowling the sidewalks of Cherry Street and Swan Lake—but he wouldn’t drive, not to the OSFW meetings or anywhere else. He needed a ride, and Brown lived closest. Lafferty never said much on the commute, Brown said, or at any other time. Always more talkative on the page, he’d greet other OSFW members at the junk-food table, perhaps pat them on the shoulder. Club members would read their new work, and most of the time Lafferty—surely crushing the hopes of the writers—sat silent. Once or twice Brown remembers him saying, “Well, that may not be quite there,” or, “Well, I think you can probably sell that.” Only once did he offer Brown, whose work was published for the first time during those days of driving Lafferty, something more on an early version of his work: “You are a cold fish. But you could be a hot fish.”

Warren Brown might have emerged as a published writer without the self-dubbed “cranky old man from Tulsa,” but it’s hard to imagine what would have happened to Neil Gaiman. Lafferty was his favorite author in the world, he said. “His stories brimmed with ideas that no one had ever thought before. The use of language was uniquely his own —a Lafferty sentence is instantly utterly recognizable,” Gaiman wrote of Lafferty, in an introduction to the story in Martin H. Greenberg’s My Favorite Fantasy Story. “The cockeyed, strange, and wonderful world he painted in his tales often seems nearer to our own, more joyful and more recognizable than many a more worthy or more literal account by other authors the world stopped to notice.”

When he was 19, Gaiman dug Lafferty’s address out of the back of a library book and wrote to him, asking for advice on becoming an author. Tulsa, thanks to Lafferty, is for him a place of literary magic. “He told me how to become an author, and his advice was very good advice, and so I did. It left me quite certain that the finest literary advice in the world came from Tulsa, Oklahoma, for it did in my case,” Gaiman said. Gaiman wondered on his blog just months before Lafferty died if he would ever be recognized as a genius.

Lafferty left the earth unceremoniously, from a Broken Arrow nursing home in the spring of 2002. The rights to his short stories and more than two dozen novels and dozens of unpublished works were unsettled for nearly a decade. Plans to make a home for Lafferty’s literary estate at OSFW fell through, Brown said, so Lafferty’s heirs placed a classified ad in Locus, a news and trade journal for the science-fiction and fantasy genre. It didn’t go unnoticed. Blogs and forums buzzed with rumors and speculation about what would happen to Lafferty’s works, who the next custodian would be, and whether or not the stories and novels would be available again.

In 2011, Locus Science Fiction Foundation, the 501(c)3 publisher of the magazine and its website, purchased the Lafferty literary estate. “Neil Gaiman is on our board, and he really wanted to do it,” said Liza Groen Trombi, the magazine’s editor and president of the board of the LSFF. The hope is that Locus will bring Lafferty’s work back into circulation, outside of anthologies and collectors’ editions. Meanwhile, Lafferty still earns ink in Japan. Ferguson heard that Hayakawa’s SF Magazine will feature Lafferty in its November issue in celebration of his centennial. The World Fantasy Convention is planning its own tribute to Lafferty at the 2014 event in Washington, D.C., to take place the weekend of Lafferty’s 100th birthday, with a panel hosted by Ferguson. Over the summer Gaiman talked to The Guardian for a lengthy profile of Lafferty, helping the publication to bill him as the greatest science-fiction writer you’ve never heard of. Rumors of interest from studios and filmmakers are swirling. A Lafferty resurgence seems to be at hand. Jim Thompson, the writer behind The Grifters and The Killer Inside Me who was born in Anadarko while the Lafferty family decided where to settle in Oklahoma, would put his elbow in Lafferty’s ribs. He would know what it’s like to wait more than a decade in the grave, long after the papers ran the short obits on the pulp-fiction writer next door, before the living realized what they had lost.

Brown got a call after Lafferty’s home sold. The new owners had something, and they weren’t quite sure what to do with it. Brown had been inside the house, sat in the living room during OSFW meetings, but Lafferty had never invited him or any of the club members into his office. By then it had been cleaned out of its wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with Shakespeare, dictionaries of foreign languages, horror stories, Li’l Abner, and religious texts (Lafferty, a Christ the King parishioner and a Cascia Hall grad, was a devout Roman Catholic and, as a passage in his correspondence states, he “cannot understand how an intelligent person can be anything else”).

What was left was the door. Nearly every square inch was covered in a mysterious collage, save for the keyhole and crystal knob. Down the center were clippings of images of fine art, mostly women in portrait; a cacophony of cartoons and children’s Valentines framed them. Ancient animals and obsolete farming tools were pasted in a corner together, destined to forever coexist. It was wonderful to see, Brown said. He knew about Lafferty’s long walks and suspected he went for his typewriter and carbon paper (he worked for an electrical supply company until he turned to writing full time at age 45, but he preferred the analog) not to write but rather to type; for Brown, the door seemed to confirm it. Ferguson saw it, too. “I’m glad it was salvaged,” he said. “I have to imagine it was an emblem of how his mind must have worked, this huge array of kaleidoscopic imagery, all shuffling in and demanding attention all at once… filling every available area. That’s certainly what his stories do.”

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 21, November 1, 2014.