Friday, October 25, 2013

30 Days of Halloween - Day 24: Cosmic Laughter vs. Cosmic Horror (Lafferty vs. Lovecraft)


Today I want to make mention of my very favourite author in the whole world:  an Irish Catholic electrician from Tulsa, Oklahoma called R. A. Lafferty (1914-2002).  I've kept a blog dedicated entirely to his work since 2009, so what more can I say here?  Well, he's not an author of horror fiction, but horror and monstrosity were some of the main themes that he wove into his works (attested by the fact that some of his earliest stories were first published in horror anthologies in the 1960s and 70s).   Indeed, Halloween itself comes up from time to time in his tales.  And sometimes he just picked up old horror movie clichés and, with a wink, peppered a tale with their trappings - only to then subvert the expectations raised by such blatant references. (For example, see his off-kilter treatment of vampires and werewolves and ghosts.)  But such explicit use of the horror genre isn't even the main way he contributed to weird fiction.

His stories are known for being comic and bizarre and joyfully defiant of storytelling conventions.  Yet once you get past being slack-jawed at his imagination and laughing out loud at his wit, you see that his stories are also dark, disturbing, and gruesome.  A sense of carnival and grotesque are central to what he did.  When reading Lafferty you will encounter great buckets of bloodshed and gore as well as uncanny paranormal phenomena and visceral monsters and creatures of a wide variety.  But all this macabre and outré matter is always told in his wry 'tall tale' manner, very jokey and poetic at the same time, often fusing the sublime and ludicrous into a potent compound.  There are scenes where you're enraptured, racked with laughter, and recoiling all at once.  (You might be best to read him when alone if you don't want to be mistaken for having a fit of some kind.)

It has been theorised that Lafferty's aim in all the exaggerated and almost slapstick violence and grotesquery was to 'dismember' in order to re-member.   He was taking apart the world as we know it in order to put it back together again restored to its rightful glory.  Before the refulgence of resurrection comes the maiming of crucifixion and the despair of the tomb.  Lafferty considered himself a 'conservative Catholic' but he liked to embody this orthodox teaching in his fiction by either mixing it all around or compacting it into a single baffling moment.  It's sometimes hard to tell what's meant to be redemptive and what's meant to be damnable in his stories.  But he preferred to administer a fresh jolt rather than ply a placid platitude.  He practised what one theologian called 'theo-comedy' - working out our salvation with 'fear and trembling' (Philippians 2:12), knowing that some of that trembling is from chuckling as much as terror.

In this sense, Lafferty's fiction provides one of the most powerful foils to Lovecraftian 'cosmic horror'. Lafferty looked that possibility in the face and thought he saw through it to 'cosmic laughter' as the more fundamental reality.  He didn't deny horror and doom and gloom, but he also didn't deny that there is a Redeemer, 'the re-doomer who wrangles for us a second and better doom'.  (I think this resonates with Tolkien's concept of 'eucatastrophe', another mighty antagonist to cosmic horror.)

Though Lafferty has fallen into obscurity somewhat, he is still admired today by speculative fiction grandmasters such as Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe.  The former is rumoured to be curating a new anthology of Lafferty's short stories (which is great news considering most of his stuff is now rare and expensive and one almost needs a guide).  Here's hoping he finally reaches the wider audience his work deserves.