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Creator / R. A. Lafferty

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Atrox Fabulinus, the Roman Rabelais, once broke off the account of his hero Raphaelus in the act of opening a giant goose egg to fry it in an iron skillet of six yards' span. Fabulinus interrupted the action with these words: "Here it becomes necessary to recount to you the history of the world up to this point.
After Fabulinus had given the history of the world up to that point, he took up the action of Raphaelus once more. It happened that the giant goose egg contained a nubile young girl. This revelation would have been startling to a reader who had not just read the history of the world up to that point: which history, being Fabulinian in its treatment, prepared him for the event.
The Fall of Romenote 

There was a writer from Tulsa, Oklahoma (he died in 2002), who was, for a little while in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the best short story writer in the world. His name was R. A. Lafferty, and his stories were unclassifiable and odd and inimitable — you knew you were reading a Lafferty story within a sentence. When I was young I wrote to him, and he wrote back.

Raphael Aloysius Lafferty (November 7, 1914 – March 18, 2002), more commonly known as R.A. Lafferty, was an American author of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He is most associated with the state of Oklahoma, where he spent most of his life, although he was born in Iowa. Something of a late bloomer, he first started publishing fiction in his mid forties, midway into a successful career as an engineer and well after a stint in the army during World War II. Lafferty's fiction is blatantly anti-realistic, taking as its model tall tales, oral folklore, and standup comedy more than mainstream fiction or non-fiction, and the Fourth Wall is frequently broken. He is also one for Mood Whiplash, and his stories and novels often start off in the comic realm before switching to tragedy or horror and maybe coming back.

Tropes associated with R.A. Lafferty's work include:

  • Awesome McCoolname: In the short story "Nine Hundred Grandmothers", the Special Aspects Men all give themselves names like Manbreaker Crag, Heave Huckle, and (in a name that turned up later on a sample character in the first edition Dungeon Master's Guide) Gutboy Barrelhouse. The one exception is the story's protagonist, Ceran Swicegood. Eventually he gives in, though:
    On his next voyage he changed his name to Blaze Bolt and ruled for ninety-seven days as king of a sweet sea island in M-81, but that is another and much more unpleasant story.
  • Bears Are Bad News: Snuffles intially subverts this. Snuffles is an somewhat intelligent alien creature that resembles a bear and is very friendly until the second chapter where it's played straight, then taken up to eleven.
  • Bigger on the Inside: In "Narrow Valley", an entire valley resembles a ditch from outside. "It's like one of those trick topographical drawings."
  • Body Horror: "Dream" is a nice Christmasy story where everyone suddenly starts to dream that they are hideous ogres, crawled over by bugs the whole time, whose digestive system consists of rats that run in and out of their mouths to bring food into their stomachs. But there's an uplifting ending: humanity realizes that their own fate is in their hands, and all they have to do to stop the hideous dreams is to decide, once and for all, that they want to wake up in the real world.
    The mad dream disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared. The world came back to normal with an embarrassed laugh. It was all over. It had lasted from its inception six weeks.
    The mad dream that vanished, however, is the dream that people weren't hideous ogres...
  • Braids, Beads and Buckskins: Spoofed in "Narrow Valley", when the Rampart children meet Clarence Little-Saddle and refuse to believe he's an Indian because he's not wearing a feathered war-bonnet or carrying a bow and arrow. It turns out that he does own a feathered war bonnet, but only because his son bought it at a tourist trap in Japan and sent it to him as a joke.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Lafferty was a lifelong Roman Catholic and theologically conservative, and religious themes show up in a lot of his stories.
  • Contemporary Caveman: The recurring character of Austro, a bona fide Australopithecus.
  • Deal with the Devil: In "Bright Coins in Never-Ending Stream", the protagonist sells his soul to the devil for a pocketbook that will never run out of money, and a shot at immortality. Naturally, there are one or two small catches...
  • Earth That Was: The novel Past Master, Earth, or Old Earth, has apparently been rendered uninhabitable by humans. Humanity has all migrated to the planet Golden Astrobe.
  • The Fair Folk: The creepy children in The Reefs of Earth are supposed to be aliens, but behave more life enigmatic and mischievous fairies.
  • Family Theme Naming: In "Narrow Valley", Clarence Big-Saddle has a son named Clarence Little-Saddle and a grandson named Clarence Bare-Back.
  • Fictional Political Party: The planet Astrobe in Past Master has a bewildering array of parties, encouraged by its intricate voting system. These include the Hatrack Party, the First, Second and Third Compromise Parties, the Unreconstructeds (humans only, no robots), the Esthetics, the Anesthetics, and a splinter calling themselves "Local Anesthetics". At one point, Thomas More finds himself being interviewed by The Crank, a one-man "party" who managed to slip between the cracks.
  • Foreign Cuss Word: Played with in "Narrow Valley". The 'swear words' used by Clarence Big-Saddle and Clarence Little-Saddle are all names of Pawnee tribal groupings.
  • Gendercide: "Parthen" is set during a Gendercide, in which asexually-reproducing aliens who resemble pretty young women mingle with the human population, causing every man who sees them to fall chastely in love with them. This induced a form of Love Makes You Stupid, so the infatuated men quit working, abandon their families, and eventually perish in the streets. Human women clean up the bodies and replace men in the workforce, while the alien "girls" buy up property when the male owners desert it. A transmission from space had previously warned the Earth that aliens would destroy half of humanity and enslave the other half, yet even as they're starving to death, the male protagonists keep assuming it'll be a violent invasion rather than a Gendercide.
  • Giving Radio to the Romans: In essence what the scientists want to do in Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne. By killing one messenger they can, in theory, open up scientific exchange between Charlemagne's kingdom and the more advanced Muslim Spain, thus ending the Dark Ages centuries earlier. They succeed, but don't realize they did. They attempt something similar and end up sending civilization back to the Stone Age.
  • Gratuitous French: In "Narrow Valley":
    "Mort, ruine, ecrasement!" spoke-acted Cecilia Rampart like the great tragedienne she was.
  • Hand in the Hole: In "Old Halloweens on the Guna Slopes", Austro claims that in his day, neighbors would retaliate for potentially-lethal Halloween pranks by replacing their doorbells' black buttons with booby-trapped holes. He professes that he lost his fingertip trying to ring a "doorbell" that concealed a miniature guillotine.
  • The Hidden Hour: In "Days of Grass, Days of Straw", heroes take it upon themselves to wrestle with the gods; if they win, the human race is allowed a "day of grass", when all of life is more intense and fulfilling than the "days of straw" that constitute everyday life. (We don't remember the days of grass during the days of straw, although deja vu, love at first sight and such phenomena are caused by a sort of half-memory of people we met and things we did in those happy moments.)
  • Historical Domain Character: Thomas More in his debut novel, Past Master.
  • Imperfect Ritual: The ritual in "Narrow Valley" requires a particular kind of bark, a particular kind of leaf, and a particular magic word. Every time it's performed in the story, it's done with a different kind of bark, a different kind of leaf, and a different word (because the leaf and bark aren't handy and the word has been forgotten). It works every time.
    "The next time I do it, I think I'll throw wood-grain plastic on the fire to see who's kidding who."
  • Keep Circulating the Tapes: Despite acclaim from fellow authors like Neil Gaiman, comedian Bill Hader, and several awards Lafferty tends to fall out of publication from time to time. Some of his books can go for three times their original worth second hand. His only historical non-fiction book, The Fall of Rome, has never been republished since the 70's.
  • Master Computer: Epiktistes the Ktistec Machine, performs this function at the Institute for Impure Science. Epikt is several rooms big, but his user interface module looks like a sea-monster from a carnival float and he talks with "a blend of Irish and Jewish and Dutch comedian patter from ancient vaudeville." Lafferty's novel Arrive at Easterwine is his memoir.
  • A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Read: A scientist creates a device that helps to see others' subjective impressions in "Through Other Eyes" and uses it to see the way a woman he believes himself to be in love with does. He doesn't like what he sees, and it's mutual.
  • Mind Screw: Almost every story of his has an element of mind screw in it, some more than others, but his novels like Not to Mention Camels can take it to extremes. Averted with Past Master, which is fairly straightforward in terms of plot.
  • Monkeys on a Typewriter: "Been a Long, Long Time". At the end of a vast span of time it seems that the monkeys have finally got it right, until someone notices a tiny error...
  • Mood Whiplash: One of the masters of this trope. Snuffles starts as a whimsical science fiction story but ends as an unsettling horror.
  • Multipurpose Monocultured Crop: In "Dorg", a cartoonist dreams up a large rock-eating edible animal to amuse an increasingly-famished planet. Then an actual dorg turns up, evidently because he'd concocted it.
  • Nebulous Evil Organization: In "About a Secret Crocodile", the Secret Crocodile and its many subordinate organizations control, well, just about everything, in a conspiratorial hierarchy which takes all the allegations of Secret Masters up to eleven. The only likely threat to it is another secret society which has no name except "Good Guys and Good Gals", which comprises all the good guys and good gals of the world.
  • One-Man Industrial Revolution: The protagonist of Rainbird is this. So brilliant is he that at the end of his life he invents a time machine so he can give his younger self all his future inventions, allowing young!Rainbird to work on even more advanced technologies. After trying this once too often, old!Rainbird freaks out young!Rainbird and causes him to give up inventing altogether, thus erasing all Rainbird's inventions from history.
  • Paper People: The antagonists in "Narrow Valley" temporarily become this as a consequence of being inside the valley when it becomes narrow again. Once they leave the valley, they gradually return to their proper dimensions.
  • Plausible Deniability: A supercomputer in "What's the Name of That Town" reveals that there used to be a city called Chicago that was destroyed in a horrendous accident so traumatic that the very existence of the city has been wiped from historical records and everyone's memory. As soon as the story is told, all the listeners forget, as does the computer.
  • Prochronic Product: The main point of Rainbird. A genius from the age of the American Revolution invents devices decades ahead of his time: the steamboat, the locomotive, the lightbulb, etc. In fact, after he invents a time machine to give tips to his younger self he creates inventions centuries ahead of his time, including television, nuclear power, interplanetary rockets, and Terraforming.
  • Recurring Character: Several of them, in fact.
    • Austro, the Contemporary Caveman
    • Epiktistes the Ktistec Machine
    • Gregory Smirnof and several members of the Institute of Impure Science
    • The three "eminent scientists" Dr. Velikof Vonk, Arpad Arkabaranan and Willy McGilly (whose scientific method is magic) who usually function as a team.
    • The Camiroi (an entire race of eccentrics)
  • Reset Button: The novel Space Chantey has a literal reset button, called a Dong Button; if you've made a major blunder, you can press the Dong Button to go back and correct your mistake. One scene makes use of the fact that, since losing all your money on an ill-advised gamble is a major mistake, it would be useful to have a Dong Button in a casino, and always make the largest bet you can make.
  • Super-Speed Reading: Inverted in "Primary Education of the Camiroi", which features an alien race who regard those who read rapidly as intellectually inferior on the grounds that they don't take the time to absorb and memorise every detail.
  • Time-Freeze Trolling Spree: In "The Six Fingers of Time", the protagonist can move sixty times faster than other people. He uses his skill for all kinds of pranks, including the creepy one of kissing and fondling a girl he likes.
  • Tonto Talk: In the first scene of "Narrow Valley", Clarence Big-Saddle speaks an idiosyncratic form of broken English.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Lafferty is one of the few authors who could play with this in the Third Person, usually to great effect. For instance, The Name of the Snake is about a Catholic Priest who sets out to convert the Analoi on a distant planet. A first it seems like a normal, if jocular, third person narration until the end where you realize that the story is being told by an Analoi who, in the last paragraphs, brags about what a good meal the Catholic missionary made.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Lafferty's prose is filled with language and historical jokes that few will perceive.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Invoked by Thomas Castlereagh, the title character of the story "The Man with the Aura." A thief and multiple murderer, he's also an inventor whose device bends animal magnetism so that regardless of what he does and what evidence there is against him, no one can think anything but the best of him.
  • Weirdness Magnet: The eminent scientists, Dr. Velikof Vonk, Arpad Arkabaranan, and Willy McGilly.
    That bunch turns up every time you get on a good one. They just happen to be in that part of the country where something interesting is going on.
  • World of Symbolism / Rule of Symbolism: Prevalent in most of his novels, though not so much in his short stories. Lafferty remarked that his novels were 'more rewarding' than the short stories.