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Lafferty, R A

Entry updated 25 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1914-2002) US author who worked in the electrical business until retiring to write full-time in 1970; he came to writing only in his forties, publishing his first sf, "Day of the Glacier", with The Science Fiction Stories in January 1960. Over the next twenty-five years (he reportedly retired from writing at the age of about seventy) he produced very many stories – about 200 have been published – and a number of novels. The extremely active Small-Press interest in his work gave birth to a large number of titles in the late 1980s, most of them short collections, but much Lafferty material apparently remains in manuscript, including several of the novels mentioned in The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists (1983) by Malcolm Edwards and Maxim Jakubowski.

There are reasons for this apparent neglect of a writer whose originality and whose value to the sf/fantasy world have never been questioned. From the first, Lafferty demonstrated only the slenderest interest in making his work conform to any critical or marketing definition of either sf or fantasy or horror. He has fairly been described as a writer of tall tales, as a cartoonist, as an author whose tone was fundamentally oral; his conservative Catholicism has been seen as permeating every word he wrote (or has been ignored); he has been seen as a ransacker of old Mythologies, and as a flippant generator of new ones; he clearly delighted in a vision of the world as being irradiated by conspiracies both godly and devilish, but at times paid scant attention to the niceties of plotting; he has been understood by some as essentially light-hearted and by others as a solitary, stringent moralist; he was technically inventive, but lunged constantly into a slapdash sublime only skittishly evocative, and only occasionally, of anything like the traditional Sense of Wonder; his skill in the deploying of various rhetorical narrative voices was manifest, but these voices were sometimes choked in baroque flamboyance. Throughout his writing career, these various affects and effects were used by Lafferty to construct stories and novels that nestled within larger (but often untold) tales and universes, and were often to be understood as epigonal offshoots of those larger, earlier, linguistically more complex, mysteriously governed worlds. In the end, his corpus as a whole gave off a sense of teasing incompletion and of secrecy: almost as though it was only the entire story (to which his numerous unpublished manuscripts added almost mythic stature) that made sense, that commanded the rest. Lafferty often used tags, puns, mythological plays, parallels and conundrums, much of this ornate display – as in "The Transcendent Tigers" (February 1964 Worlds of Tomorrow), where it is in fact fully explicit – consisting of half-uttered Basilisks. It could almost be said that his entire unknowable corpus constitutes, in the mind's eye, either an aleph (see Jorge Luis Borges), or a basilisk, or both at once. He and Gene Wolfe have more than a shared faith in common.

Lafferty was awarded a 1973 Hugo for Best Short Story for "Eurema's Dam" (in New Dimensions II, anth 1972, ed Robert Silverberg); and in the 1960s and 1970s, partly through his (in retrospect tenuous) association with the New Wave, he was seen as a figure of looming eccentricity and central import. For his career's sake, it was certainly unfortunate that his response to renown seems to have been an intensification of the oddness of his product; final judgement on the effect of this failure to observe normal canons of writing still awaits a coherent presentation of his work as a whole. Lafferty did, however, assemble several volumes which grant some view of the entirety, including Nine Hundred Grandmothers (coll 1970), Strange Doings (coll 1972), Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?: Stories About Secret Places and Mean Men (coll 1974), Ringing Changes (coll 1984; first published in Dutch trans as Dagan van Gras, Dagan 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), Mischief Malicious ... And Murder Most Strange (coll 1991 chap), Lafferty in Orbit (coll 1991), which puts together all the work originally published in Damon Knight's Orbit series of original anthologies (1967-1980), and Iron Tears (coll 1992). Many other stories have been printed as chapbooks (see listing below). The ongoing Collected Short Fiction sequence – so far comprising The Man Who Made Models (coll 2014) and The Man With the Aura (coll 2014) – is intended to assemble the entire corpus, but each modestly sized individual volume to date has been arranged according to the personal taste of the editor, John Pelan, generating an apprehension that the entire set may comprise a series of samplers.

Lafferty's first three novels, Past Master (1968), The Reefs of Earth (1968) and Space Chantey (1968 dos), all appeared within a few months of one another, causing some stir. Pre-publication praise for Past Master (including accolades from New Wave writers Samuel R Delany, Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny) demonstrated the impact his work was beginning to have, and, though it can be said that the US New Wave was more an iconoclastic tone of voice than a programme, its generally sardonic air proved bracing to such mature writers as Lafferty, whose entry at age forty-five into the field seemed to betoken its growing maturity. Past Master places Sir Thomas More on the planet Astrobe, where he is tricked into becoming World President and suffers once again a martyr's death: the contrasts between Utopia and life are laid down without the normal derision. Space Chantey retells Homer's Odyssey as Space Opera, very rollickingly, and is the most representative of Lafferty's attempts to liberate sagas by echoing them in a rambunctious, myth-saturated, never-never-land future. In The Reefs of Earth (his first-completed novel) a passel of Alien children bumptiously attempt to rid Earth of humans, and fail.

More complexly, Fourth Mansions (1969), possibly Lafferty's most sustained single novel, articulates with some clarity the basic underlying bent of his best work: a protagonist (or several) finds a pattern of flamboyant, arcane, dreamlike clues to a conspiracy (or conspiracies, involving sharply differentiated cabals of Secret Masters) between Good and Evil whose outcome will determine the moral nature of reality to come; and enters the fray joyously (though confusingly) upon the side of the angels. There is an abiding sense in his work that the plays of a deadly serious Godgame are being unfolded, almost certainly in terms of a deeply held Catholicism. Later novels, like Arrive at Easterwine: The Autobiography of a Ktistec Machine (1971), the life story of a Computer/AI which also features in some stories, begin to evince a tangledness that comes, at times, close to incoherence. "The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny", the second of two novel-length tales assembled in Apocalypses (coll 1977), suggests that the comprehensive power of opera might, in an Alternate World, avert war by diverting its terrors into cataclysmic Music.

Though much of Lafferty's work shares characters, and plot segments shuttle back and forth from book to book (as argued above), he wrote only one explicit genre series, the Argos Mythos, which treats a group of World War Two buddies as reincarnations of Jason's Argonauts (see Archipelago), and engages them in a long, myth-saturated battle against Evil. The sequence comprises Archipelago: The First Book of the Devil is Dead Trilogy (1979), The Devil Is Dead (1971), Promontory Goats (1988 chap), How Many Miles to Babylon? (1989 chap), Episodes of the Argo (coll 1990 chap), which contains part of the conclusion of the long-written third part of the series, the More than Melchisedech sequence, now finally published in full as Tales of Chicago (1992), Tales of Midnight (1992 chap) and Argo (fixup 1992). A final (published) volume, Dotty (1990 chap), though not directly part of the Argos Mythos and ostensibly not sf or fantasy at all, embraces the "mundane" world, sf, fantasy, Jason, the Argonauts and much else in ninety-six packed pages.

Lafferty was given a World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement in 1990, and in 2002 (just after his death) a Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award. [JC]

see also: Cities; End of the World; Fantastic Voyages; Heroes; Humour; Intelligence; Linguistics; Messiahs; Perception; Reincarnation; Seiun Award.

Raphael Aloysius Lafferty

born Neola, Iowa: 7 November 1914

died Broken Arrow, Oklahoma: 18 March 2002



Argos Mythos

  • The Devil Is Dead (New York: Avon Books, 1971) [Argos Mythos: pb/Robert LoGrippo]
  • Archipelago: The First Book of the Devil is Dead Trilogy (Lafayette, Louisiana: Manuscript Press, 1979) [Argos Mythos: hb/nonpictorial]
    • Archipelago (Weston, Ontario: United Mythologies Press, 1979) [coll: simultaneous with one poem, "Archipelago", added to the above: Argos Mythos: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Promontory Goats (Weston, Ontario: United Mythologies Press, 1988) [chap: Argos Mythos: pb/nonpictorial]
  • How Many Miles to Babylon? (Weston, Ontario: United Mythologies Press, 1989) [chap: Argos Mythos: pb/nonpictorial]
    • How Many Miles to Babylon? (Weston, Ontario: United Mythologies Press, 1989) [coll: simultaneous with one piece, "Interglossia to The Devil is Dead", added to the above: Argos Mythos: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Dotty (Weston, Ontario: United Mythologies Press, 1990) [chap: Argos Mythos: pb/nonpictorial]
    • Dotty (Weston, Ontario: United Mythologies Press, 1990) [coll: simultaneous with one story, "Holy Woman", added to the above: Argos Mythos: hb/nonpictorial]

Argos Mythos: More than Melchisedech

  • Episodes of the Argo (Weston, Ontario: United Mythologies Press, 1989) [coll: chap: Argos Mythos: More than Melchisedech: pb/nonpictorial]
  • Tales of Chicago (Weston, Ontario: United Mythologies Press, 1989) [Argos Mythos: More than Melchisedech: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Tales of Midnight (Weston, Ontario: United Mythologies Press, 1992) [Argos Mythos: More than Melchisedech: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Anamnesis (Weston, Ontario: United Mythologies Press, 1992) [issued with limited edition of the above: Argos Mythos: More than Melchisedech: pb/nonpictorial]
  • Argo (Weston, Ontario: United Mythologies Press, 1992) [Argos Mythos: More than Melchisedech: hb/nonpictorial]

Coscuin Chronicles

  • The Flame Is Green (New York: Walker, 1971) [Coscuin Chronicles: hb/Richard Roth]
  • Half a Sky (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Corroboree Press, 1984) [Coscuin Chronicles: hb/David Brian Erickson]

In a Green Tree

Described by Lafferty as a group biography of his contemporaries, set in his home neighbourhood as an "epic-length historical-recent novel". The four projected volumes were My Heart Leaps Up (1920-1928), «Grasshoppers & Wild Honey (1928-1942)», «Deep Scars of the Thunder (1942-1960)» and «Incidents of Travel in Flatland (1960-1978)». Only the following instalments appeared.

individual titles

collections and stories


The Collected Short Fiction

individual titles


about the author


Feast of Laughter

This anthology or magazine in book form includes new and reprinted articles about Lafferty, stories inspired by his work, and some Lafferty reprints [see under links below]. His previously unpublished stories "The Rod and the Ring" and "The Hand of the Potter: An Idyll" appear in #4 and #5 respectively.

individual titles about the author


previous versions of this entry

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