Book Review: The Best of R.A. Lafferty

R.A. Lafferty is an anomaly not only in the world of speculative fiction, but also in literature in general. Although he has won major awards, he is all but unknown outside the genre world. He has an idiosyncratic style that makes his work easy to spot. It’s weird and funny and erudite and often extremely dark.

Sometimes in the past I’ve craved some Lafferty and sought some of his books. However, I was inevitably frustrated because either they were only available in special editions priced for the wealthy, or they were rare older volumes priced for the collector’s market. I was very happy to see British publisher Gollancz put out The Best of R.A. Lafferty as part of its SF Masterworks series. To my shock, though, by the time I sat down to order the book, just a few weeks after it first appeared on Amazon, it was out of print. I kept checking in, and eventually some reasonably-priced new copies appeared for sale on various bookseller sites.

This edition has a good selection of Lafferty’s best stories, and as an added bonus each story is introduced by famous authors such as Neil Gaiman, Connie Willis, Harlan Ellison, Michael Swanwick, Robert Silverberg, and Samuel R. Delany. All of these top-class writers are Lafferty enthusiasts.

For me, some Lafferty stories work and some don’t in this collection. The ones I enjoyed most are stories that have been my favorites of his work for decades. For instance, “Land of the Great Horses,” which originally appeared in the groundbreaking anthology Dangerous Visions, tells of gypsies from around the world who suddenly have the urge to go home; it seems aliens had stolen their country for examination and had just brought it back. And then there is the brilliant “Narrow Valley” about a Native American who hides the valley he inherited from his ancestors by working some magic to make it appear no bigger than a ditch. In “Nine-Hundred Grandmothers,” one of Lafferty’s most famous stories, a space explorer finds a world where everyone lives forever, but as they age they get smaller and smaller until they are the size of animate dolls. In the story “The World as Will and Wallpaper,” a man starts traveling westward around the world only to discover that the world’s neighborhoods almost but not quite repeat themselves after he has gone a certain distance; the ending of this one is as wacky as it is bleak.

There are other exemplary stories in this collection, but some of Lafferty’s work defies description. You just have to give it a try yourself. You’ll probably either love it or hate it. The trick is finding copies of it. I just did a quick search of the usual channels on which I search for books to see how available Lafferty is. The Seattle Public Library has only one Lafferty book, Okla Hannali, a critically-acclaimed historical novel about Chocktaw Native Americans. On Amazon, The Best of R.A. Lafferty is once again available, although they’ve hiked up the price (or maybe the copy I bought was discounted; I can’t remember). Other new editions of his novels and short story collections seem to be available as well. If it’s a new trend of making Lafferty’s work available at prices common folk can afford, then I’m all for it. Check out a book or two by the amazing R.A. Lafferty. Who knows? You might get hooked.

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