Review of The Man with the Speckled Eyes by R. A. Lafferty

Reviewed by Stephen Case

Hope is a substance that will fill a vessel of any shape, even the convoluted emptiness that is the present shape of the world.

- “And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire”

R. A. Lafferty’s short stories never quite land. That is, they land in the sense of hitting your gut like a thrown punch. They make a connection, and you either gasp or laugh. But narratively, they don’t land. They don’t come to rest at a conclusion. They don’t tie themselves up with a neat bow.

Centipede Press's
The Man with the Speckled Eyes
Lafferty, for those of us late to the party, was a science fiction author who made a splash with his short stories and novels in the 60s and 70s, being considered a part of the “New Wave” until people figured out he was a conservative old man (and a Catholic, no less) from Oklahoma. He continued making a splash after this was known, publishing dozens of stories, though people were less certain about categorizing him. They still are, though he’s developing more of a following, especially as authors like Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, and Michael Swanwick continue to sing his praise. As both a symptom of and contribution to this rediscovery of Lafferty (who continued publishing at a reduced rate in the 80s and 90s up to the time of his death in 2002), Centipede Press is attempting what has never been done before and collecting all his short fiction into gorgeous (and expensive) editions.

Part of the difficulty though, in introducing Lafferty to new readers, is this refusal of his short fiction to go quietly. The stories, as I’ve said, don’t land. Instead, they ascend, drifting off the page and into a different plane that is metaphor or analogy or symbolism.

To be fair, some of his stories are relatively straightforward and grounded in a clear narrative flow, though even these often come across more like especially well told jokes than stories. In this particular volume, the fourth of his collected fiction, there are enough “accessible” pieces to make it appealing to the new reader. (Because the stories in these volumes are being collected in no discernible order, the reader need not start with volume one. Each volume gives a good sampling of Lafferty in his short form.)

The first story in the collection, for instance, “The Man with the Speckled Eyes,” is not hard to follow. An erratic and disregarded (and dangerous) inventor gets revenge on those who doubted him. (Watch out: that silhouetted figure on the cover is falling up.) “McGruder’s Marvels,” a science fiction piece with a joke at its center, is another in this volume that at least on first reading is straightforward, though straightforward in both of these cases means told in a language and voice completely and uniquely Lafferty’s. (Editors have said they knew they were reading one of Lafferty’s stories within the first few lines because of his unique tone, which feels a bit like G. K. Chesterton filtered through the Oklahoman backcountry.) Lafferty’s stories work because of that voice: they are almost always composed nearly entirely of conversations—interesting people saying interesting things to each other.

Some of the pieces in this volume are lyric larks, almost prose poems. I loved “Been a Long, Long Time,” for example, which imagines an angel who refused to take sides in the original conflict between light and dark and is punished by being forced to oversee a group of monkeys randomly typing their way to reproduce all of Shakespeare’s works. It anticipates some of the whimsy and good-natured fun of later humorists like Terry Pratchett. And then there is the haunting “Cliff Climbers,” which felt like a history Borges might have written had Borges grown up within sight of some scrubby Oklahoman bluffs. Any of these would be a good on-ramp to the weirdness and wildness that is Lafferty.

But the hardest works of Lafferty to follow are those that are the most explicitly Christian. They are difficult because they are Christian not in content or topic alone, like some safer authors. Rather, they are impossibly Christian in their narrative structure. Lafferty was a Catholic, and by all accounts a very devout one. For him, Christianity itself is a story, but a story that lifts itself off the pages of history, that transcends a historical narrative. The story of Christ’s witness on Earth, for instance, might have climaxed with a resurrection, but it reached no tidy narrative conclusion: Christ ascended in the frustratingly vague account we have, and the story translated itself to a different plane. For a Catholic Christian like Lafferty, this is the narrative structure of everyone and everything Christian, including the institutional Church. Their narratives don’t conclude; they transcend.

What does this look like in a Lafferty story? It is illustrated most clearly in the penultimate story of this collection, which happens to be significantly longer than most of Lafferty’s stories. “And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire,” originally published in 1972, takes place in a near-future dystopia in which humanity has been laid low not by any plague or disaster but rather by a general spiritual malaise or ennui.

People in this world have given up on working and creating, embracing (and this is a common theme in Lafferty’s dystopias) an ultimate freedom that is in truth a total deadening of culture and society. The only people in this vague American west of this vague and unsettled future that have any spark or life are the “Queer Fish,” followers of an ancient creed that gives them certain powers and brilliance. Yet they are being systematically hunted and exterminated by a society that cannot tolerate their stubborn refusal to engage in the general emancipation of society from all weight and work and responsibility.

Lafferty introduces one of the saints of this hidden church, which has dwindled now so that there are only twelve apostles remaining, and the story involves her composing a letter to her followers and then being martyred.

To you who are scattered and broken, she writes, gather again and mend. Rebuild always, and again I say rebuild. Renew the face of the earth. It is a loved face, but now it is covered with the webs of tired spiders . . . To leave life by withdrawal is worse than to leave life by murder. To be bored of the world is worse than to shed all the blood in the world . . . Know that religion is a repetitious act or it is nothing . . . We will rebuild in the dark and in the light; we will work without ceasing.

And at this point the story begins to leave the rails of straightforward narrative and turn into something that seems more like an apocalypse in the old-fashioned sense of St. John. The saint’s surviving son is made one of the twelve by the laying on of hands. The remaining apostles appear, seeming to gather out of the landscape itself, journeying somewhere and discussing the coming universal renewal. The scene grows brighter and vaguer. The One who has returned multiple times returns again. The story loses focus, and it does not reach any specific conclusion.

Or rather, instead, it transcends.

In the case of “And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire,” the story still satisfies because of the tone and the style. There is a heavy hope threaded throughout, and in Lafferty’s discussion of this despondent future and the personalities of the Queer Fish, we get a glimpse into his own fears and his faith. Lafferty is not appealing to everyone, but he has an angle that is completely unique: reading his stories is an unforgettable experience. And for the reader who shares Lafferty’s ideas regarding the arc of the story that is Christianity, his fiction provides an unexpected reminder of that story's wildness, weirdness, and wonder.

Stephen Case teaches astronomy at a Christian liberal arts university by day and by night (when it’s cloudy) writes stories, some of which have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Shimmer. His novel, First Fleet, is a science fiction horror epic (think H. P. Lovecraft meets Battlestar Galactica) published by Axiomatic Publishing. Stephen holds a PhD in the history and philosophy of science, and his non-fiction book on the Victorian astronomer Sir John Herschel is forthcoming from University of Pittsburgh Press. Follow him on Twitter @StephenRCase or at

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