R.A. Lafferty: “The Greatest Catholic Novelist You Never Heard Of”

Who is R.A. Lafferty?

A man who drank a lot and sold electronics in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

No wait! That’s not the important thing. The important thing is that Lafferty soldiered off to the Pacific during World War II and disappeared on Willie Jones Island.

Oh shoot, that’s not the important thing, either. The important thing is that after drinking full-time until about 1959, Lafferty went to drinking part-time, so he decided to fill up the extra hours writing stories. He wrote all kinds of stories, but the ones he sent to the science-fiction magazines sold.  That’s how R. A. Lafferty became one of the most important science-fiction writers of the 20th century. He won science fiction’s prestigious Hugo Award in 1973 for “Eurema’s Dam,” which ironically was one of the stories he didn’t think was so hot.

No, that’s still not the most important thing. Here it is: R. A. Lafferty is the greatest Catholic writer of our age whom you’ve probably never heard of.

He wrote nine short novels between 1968 and 1972. The world may dub it science fiction, but Lafferty wasn’t really a science fiction writer. He was a speculative metaphysical novelist, or a lay preacher, or a sacred historian with plausible argumenta stuck in. He dressed all that up in science fiction and it sold. Some enterprising grad student in the future might compare his novels in this respect to Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins.

Lafferty was not a best seller but a writer’s writer. The raves on his books are a Who’s Who of science fiction greats: Poul Anderson, Samuel Delany, Harlan Ellison, Damon Knight, and Theodore Sturgeon. Gene Wolfe, who is arguably the greatest living Catholic science fiction writer, wrote a loving homage to Lafferty called, “Has Anybody Seen Junie Moon?” It features a cranky old man from Tulsa named Roy T. Laffer. Michael Swanwick, who won the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, and Alan Moore, who wrote V for Vendetta, are both out and proud fans. Neil Gaiman, who wrote Sandman, is such a fan that he spearheaded a campaign to get Lafferty’s work back in print through the Locus Science Fiction Foundation. Centipede Press just printed the first four volumes of Lafferty’s collected short stories. The Guardian and The New York Times wrote admiring profiles. Give it another decade or two, and he’ll be published in the Library of America. Lafferty’s the Velvet Underground of science fiction: he never had a bestseller, but everyone who read him became a writer.

So yes, Lafferty is at last getting his due as a great writer in all but one crucial way: as a Catholic novelist. Most of Lafferty’s elite fans like him despite the fact he was Catholic. They don’t yet grasp what the cranky old man from Tulsa really meant with his electric sentences and blood-drenched tales.

To understand the man, start by reading Lafferty’s two early short story collections: Nine Hundred Grandmothers (1970) and Strange Doings (1972). How can you not read a short story called “Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne” or “Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas”? Lafferty was good with titles. Good at writing funny stories, such as “Camels and Dromedaries, Clem,” a story about a man who suddenly splits in two, veers into a disquisition on doubled donkeys and twin apostles in the Gospel of Matthew.

But to find out what Lafferty really cares about, read his novels.

He wrote nine. Space Chantey is The Odyssey retold as thrilling space adventures—with a finishing splash of Tennyon’s “Ulysses”. The Reefs of Earth features a plague of children come to afflict the Tulsa countryside. Ah, but those children are scary space aliens. Or maybe they’re Irish spirits. Or maybe they’re demons, or maybe they’re fearsome angels: “Puca” they call themselves. Whatever they are, those Earth folks are a low, sinning lot who deserve to be afflicted by a Puca-plaguing. Past Master zooms Thomas More one thousand years into a Utopia in the future, which he must defend against an infestation of demons in the guise of mechanical men. Fourth Mansions narrates the tale of several simultaneous conspiracies against mankind, the solution to which is a spiritual evolution loosely modeled on Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. The Devil is Dead is a story of amnesia, ocean travel, love after death, and a conspiracy against mankind by Neanderthal demons. The Flame is Green is the 1840s prequel to The Devil is Dead, meandering from blighted Ireland to the hills of Carlist Spain to revolutionary Paris to devil-haunted Poland.   Okla Hannali tells of the double crucifixion of the Choctaw in the Trail of Tears and the Civil War, and how they came after much suffering to be white men in spirit—although some of their white-skinned grandchildren kept on being Indian. (By tribal adoption, Lafferty’s name was “Writes With A Dead Pan of the Choctaw.”) Arrive at Easterwine is the autobiography of the computer Epiktistes, the search for the meaning and the shape of the universe, and the discovery that it is a cosmic shroud.  The Fall of Rome is the story of how Alaric’s Goths destroyed the only rightly ordered state that ever was on Earth.

He’s marvelously funny: Of the relationship of the Choctaw to punctuation: “Someone had told them that they must punctuate, but nobody would ever be able to tell them how.”

On Gothic philosophizing: “There is no record of their early philosophy. Since they were Germans, they must have constructed philosophical systems; and also, since they were Germans, these would have been erroneous.”

But his worlds are swaddled in sin and beset by demons.

History is the fall of Rome, the Black Death, the Great Hunger, the Trail of Tears. On the planet Polyphemus in Space Chantey (1968), they eat sheep. The sheep are men, too habituated to their role to rebel. We lose our loved ones, as in The Devil is Dead, die in all that matters, and go on living. The same happens to the Choctaw Hannali in Okla Hannali (1972), with only one-third of his family surviving the butcheries of the Civil War: “Everything that follows is epilogue,” a “contingent latter life” for “a man already dead.”

Devils and demons are recognizable by marks upon the body.  In The Devil is Dead and The Flame is Green, the devils are (perhaps) a remnant of Neanderthals resentful of the new recension of homo sapiens. But these Neanderthals are also diabolical, with names such as Ifreann, Papadiabolous, and Chortovich—an Irish hell, a Greek son of the devil, and his Polish brother. The old recension bears a mark—a scar, a tattoo, on the inside wrist. Where the Devil does not mark men, he marks the land. At the Battle of the Frigidus, where thousands of Romans and Goths die in the defeat of paganism, the battlefield itself, Lafferty writes in The Fall of Rome (1971), is a rocky portrait, “the face of the Devil.”

Such demons tempt us to turn away from the ambition, the hope, the motion, the life, the spiritual openness that can lead us toward salvation.

Mankind is beset by sin not least because we have fallen from our rightly ordered state—the only one that ever was—the Roman Empire from the time of Constantine to the Sack of Rome. But the Empire fell, although Lafferty records in The Fall of Rome that Theodosius preached to the young Alaric among his other cadets, “that if the Empire should ever fall, it was the world itself that would end.”

The fall wasn’t inevitable: “The World did not have to end then.” But at the end, as the Goths prepared their final siege of Rome, Alaric shrugged off what Theodosius preached, “left off being a Roman and became once more a Goth.” A change of mind, a shrugging off of sacred duty, with fatal consequence.  Rome was a Pandora’s Box filled with treasure, opened by the Goths—and the treasure escaped when the box cracked.  And so, “on the terrible blast of the Gothic Trumpet, the world came to its end.”

Since then, Lafferty tells us in Fourth Mansions, the office of Emperor has been sede vacante. What is left, in The Flame is Green, is the rule of Count Cyril, imago Christi: “he is really the Count of every County and Grafschaft on Earth … whoever else seems to hold them, they hold them from the Count Cyril, or they hold them in error or usurpation.” Faithful men must serve a lost state: “The Empire is in abeyance, we live all our lives in exile. … Man on earth has two tasks to attempt: to reconstruct himself as nearly as he can to the image of God, and to reconstruct the world as nearly as he can to the image of the Kingdom.”

Lafferty shows us the world of sin, the devils, the endless fall—and the hope that survives:

“It is a chain of miracles that the world has not already died of its own hot business. There is really a furnace burning under our feet. We live on a frail framework above this everlasting furnace, and parts of the framework are always catching flame and falling off into the deep flame-ocean. … Just before the framework breaks up and falls into this furnace, someone shoves in a reinforcing plank or two to strengthen the shaky over-structure; and this will help for a day, for an hour, for a second. And then, twice as much of our support will fall off into the flame.” (The Flame is Green).

But whence this strange hope in the midst of the obvious empirical reality of evil? (Here again, the unexplored comparison to his near-contemporary Walker Percy comes to mind).

Arrive at Easterwine’s “Easterwine” refers to the Abbot Eosterwin mentioned by Bede—and Lafferty makes great play of the possible etymologies of “Eosterwin.” It is:

“The east wind, which is the warm wind, the yeasting wind, is the exception that makes the difference: for the prevalent winds of the world are from west to east. The west winds are the mass winds, the lump winds. But the tempering wind, when it comes, the fermenting wind, the leavening wind, is from the Levant, from the East.”

Easterwine is also the Easter wine, the blood of the Passion, the Resurrection, and the Mass; that Eosterwin the “east wind” from the Levant is the spirit blowing to us from Golgotha. But there may be more. The west winds may be mass winds, but surely the east wind is a Mass wind? An easterly wind is an Easter-ly wind; and if you follow the etymologies far enough back toward our Proto-Indo-European roots, east is *aus-, the shining of the dawn. It would be just like Lafferty to sneak in more etymologies when you weren’t paying attention. It would be just like him to set you up to start making false etymologies. No way to tell.

So, Lafferty brings up image after image, theological referent after theological referent, and then casts them aside—or builds them up into a concatenation of images, but accreting rather than tightly structured. So, his digressive disquisition in Arrive at Easterwine on the grain of the Eucharist:

“Now, if the Host, if the Love-Body is not of wheat but of millet, then there are whole new areas of allegory opened up. For millet, though it had become the grain of the poor people by the time of the turning of the era, had earlier been the rare grain of the rich, of the very rich, of the kings, of the gods. It is small-grained, and it was originally ground by Neraithai, little people no larger than a man’s hand. It was baked into little cakes, and these cakes with honey were the food of the first gods. Millet will grow on higher ground than will wheat, on mountain slopes, and this was the grain that grew on the slopes of Olympus. There is something else: millet is much more ‘fleshy’ than wheat, in smell, in taste, and in its completion. And that first love was much more fleshy than those that came later. Millet was the bee-bread, the love-bread, the love-body. It was the cult, which was before the culture.”

Human reason is not the way to escape from devilish sin. Lafferty mocked its limitations. Arrive at Easterwine catalogues the use of human reason to discover the meaning of the universe—in “synthetic love essence”:

“Institute members were out now trying to read patterns and shapes in the fluorescence of sea-lice, in snail-slime patterns, in the cross sections of marrow of rock-badger bones, in paddle-fish trails, in nine-year-flight-way designs, in constellations, in ballads (especially in roundels which never do find their own round), in the polterghostly unbalance of a hiatus-human species known as the adolescents, in the cross-timbers, in spark-worm responses.”

We will not find what we are looking for in the fluorescence of sea-lice.

Where, then?

In Lafferty’s worlds, those who face the challenge are of the one true Catholic Church. The computer Epiktistes in Arrive at Easterwine gets baptized. Lafferty’s characters quietly, regularly, make confession, go to Mass. His Choctaws are also Catholics. His Puca in The Reefs of Earth aren’t precisely Catholic, but they have an affinity to scripture and a compulsion to confess. Diogenes Pontifex is barred from membership of the Institute of Impure Science in Arrive at Easterwine by the Minimum Decency Rule: “he accepted the Full Revelation and he rejected the Liberal Consensus.” The answer to the devil’s challenge lies in the Catholic faith.

Above all, mankind survives by faithful service to God. “for aeon after aeon, that He may be convinced of our good will.” (Fourth Mansions) Stilicho in The Fall of Rome provides a plan for action: “as long as there was one pauper or one slave or one heretic or one rebel remaining, then they had failed at the proper ordering of the Empire—of the world.” And though the Empire has fallen, that duty remains: “But we are all Goths, for all that, whoever we are; which is to say, Outlanders. And like the Goth Sarus we still owe loyalty to an Empire, but we no longer know of what the Empire consists. We are still bound by the statement of Stilicho that the highest duty in the World is the proper ordering of the World.”

The good fight must go on, miracle by miracle, until the Apocalypse. In Arrive at Easterwine, Lafferty unfolds the picture of the divine shape of the universe. The church, a cathedral made of snow, a bridge to the sky whose glow is a property of its structure rather than its substance, “more than a spectacle, more than an allusion, … a communicating instrument.”

A whisper: “What advantageth me if the dead rise not?”

What is Lafferty at the end of the day? A distinctive and often brilliant prose stylist. A comic writer of great talent.  A man with intense theological vision—who saw devils, sin, and failure all around us, painted them brilliantly in rhapsodic chiaroscuro and outlined by allusive, elusive hint the rickety bridge to salvation from the darkness around us.

To which canon does Lafferty belong?  The Christian science fiction and fantasy writers, with C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Gene Wolfe? The Irish one, all besotted with an endless tangle of words, with Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne and James Joyce? The one of the modern Christian literateurs, with Graham Greene, Geoffrey Hill and Flannery O’Connor? The one with sermonizers and mystics, with Teresa of Avila, John Donne and Thomas Merton? The modern American canon of psychedelic humor and twisted narrative, with John Kennedy Toole, Hunter Thompson and Thomas Pynchon? He stands well in any of these comparisons.

The British sci-fi writer David Langford reported in a 2002 column that once a “French publisher nervously asked whether Lafferty minded being compared to G.K. Chesterton … and there was a terrifying silence that went on and on. Was the great man hideously offended? Eventually, very slowly, he said: ‘You’re on the right track, kid,’ and wandered away.”

But really, Lafferty’s like the planet Bellota in his story “Snuffles.” Bellota isn’t like any other planet in the universe—“a midget world with floppy shoes and a bull-roarer voice. It was designed to keep the cosmos from taking itself too seriously. The law of levity here conspires against the law of gravity.” And that’s Lafferty as a writer, a category of one, clowning savage tales which unfold toward God.

Raphael Aloysius Lafferty rests in peace in St. Rose Catholic Cemetery in rural Noble county, a long winding country drive from his funeral mass at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tulsa, where he was a daily communicant.

David Randall is Director of Communications at the National Association of Scholars. He has written on science fiction for First Things, he is the author of the young-adult fantasy series In the Shadow of the Bear, and Edinburgh University Press will publish his history “The Concept of Conversation” in February.

We asked David to give us a cell phone video reading one of his favorite Lafferty passages. “Be glad to read it aloud. Thoough I gotta say I’ve been accused of having a peculiar speaking voice: like a mildly demented PBS radio journalist.” Scroll down to see David Randall below. 

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