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The Man Underneath: The Collected Short Fiction, Volume Three Hardcover – April 5, 2016
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This volume contains nineteen stories, with an introduction by Bud Webster and an afterword by the editor, John Pelan. There's three photos of Lafferty, and some silhouette artwork at the start of each story. But Webster's introduction is not entirely new. I had read most of it before somewhere online.
The title story, "The Man Underneath," is a fine way to start the book, a magic trick that's REALLY a magic trick and which spirals out of the magician's control. Something like Lafferty's writing itself, which is often much more than it appears to be.
"Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies" is Lafferty at his best, impossibly inventive, wildly unpredictable, ineffably beautiful. What if TV was invented in 1870, and the early shows were recorded? And they changed every time one played them? And they showed, not just stories, but stories within the stories with a whole drama ongoing between the actors and producer? Only Lafferty could have thought of this, and only he could have pulled it off.
"Dream" is as close as Lafferty gets to writing horror. It's a good thing too, or none of us would sleep at night.
"Boomer Flats" features Lafferty's perennial scientists Arpad Arkabaranan, Velikov Vonk and Willy McGilly searching for, and finding, in Oklahoma, abominable snowmen. A subtle blend of myth, cultural anthropology, Jungian psychology, and some very wry humor.
"The Hellaceous Rocket of Harry O'Donovan." No comment. The title says it all.
"You Can't Go Back." I had an epiphany reading this story, a sudden insight into what Lafferty is all about. A bunch of childhood friends go back, as adults, to a strange place (I won't give it away) they found as children. But the magic has gone out of it. It's a common theme, beautifully realized in Graham Greene's wonderful story "Under the Garden." But Lafferty is using real children he grew up with, from his own childhood. To know this, you have to read "In A Green Tree," his autobiography. In the first chapter, he lists the fifty-six children in his first grade class at Crucifixion School in Tulsa, taught by nuns. These same children reappear constantly in Lafferty stories, sometimes as children, sometimes as adults. Whether he's using their real names or not, they are his inventors and boy geniuses, they are his beautiful and powerful women. Particularly Helen Anastasis, who is a major character in "In a Green Tree", coincidentally (?) Greek, and blowing a horn in his fiction. Which leads to this conclusion: LAFFERTY IS A CHILDREN'S WRITER! Yes, this sounds absurd, given his immense vocabulary, his virtuoso display of polyglot and polymath talents, but what I mean by this is that Lafferty himself is stuck in childhood, its wonders and mysteries, where science is inseparable from magic, myth and legend, and nothing is impossible. This child's world pervades his writing as distrust of the adult world and its boring reality, an almost total lack of sexuality, casual and sometimes graphic violence (like boys torturing small animals), accelerated time, and the continuous metamorphosis of things and people into their opposites, just as adults can turn from loving guardians into raging monsters. (And in Oklahoma, a bright sunny day turns into a tornado.)
I don't have space to explore this idea further, so I'll just list the remaining stories, with a few comments: "Thou Whited Wall" (What if the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls? And people lived their lives by them?) "The Effigy Histories." "The Wooly World of Barnaby Sheen." "McGonigal's Worm." (An early (1960) and not well-developed story.) "Inventions Bright and New." (I was unsure I understood this story, so I read it again. Now I'm sure I don't understand it.) "Snuffles." "What Big Tears the Dinosaur's." "The Last
Astronomer." "Ifrit." "The Funny Face Murders." (Probably the strangest detective story ever written.) "Calamities of the Last Pauper." "Nine Hundred Grandmothers." (A classic.) "Through Other Eyes." (Also early, but good, and may offer insight into Lafferty's view of women.)
All these stories have been previously published, but to find them you'd have to pay at least as much as buying this single volume. The prices on used Lafferty seem to be going up, so you might as well get on at the ground floor and enjoy the elevator ride. I haven't found the top floor yet.