fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFourth Mansions by R. A. LaffertyFourth Mansions by R.A. Lafferty

Despite it having been given pride of place in Scottish critic David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, and despite the fact that it has been sitting on my bookshelf for many years, it was only last week that I finally got around to reading R.A. Lafferty’s 1969 cult item Fourth Mansions. The author’s reputation for eccentricity, both in terms of subject matter as well as writing style, had long intimidated me, I suppose. But just recently, Jen, one of the managers of NYC sci-fi bookstore extraordinaire Singularity, was enthusing to me about her recent acquisition of a first edition of Lafferty’s 1970 short story collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers for only $40, and I suppose that her enthusiasm proved contagious in my case, as I manfully dove into Fourth Mansions soon after. This book was Lafferty’s fourth novel, released when the Iowa native was 55 (Lafferty was a latecomer to the sci-fi game, only releasing his first story at the age of 46, after decades of being an electrical engineer!), following the near-simultaneous release of 1968’s Past Master, Reefs of Earth and Space Chantey. Well, to my great surprise, despite the fact that Lafferty is “one of the most madcap writers of them all” (that’s Pringle talking), and notwithstanding that “faintly irritating title” (Pringle again), I found myself hugely enjoying this crazy romp of a book.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThat’s not to say, of course, that I can honestly claim to have fully understood it. Fourth Mansions is loosely based on St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, a guide for the development of the human spirit, which came out in 1577. Although the book is described on the Amazon site as “one of the most celebrated works on mystical theology in existence,” I must admit that I have not read it, and wonder just how many people have today. The plot of Lafferty’s novel is so outré and bizarre that I despair of even describing it; any such description will surely not give justice to the loopiness of the entire conceit. Suffice it to say that our hero, young reporter Freddy Foley, learns that the U.S. Secretary of State’s right-hand man, Carmody Overlark, bears a remarkable resemblance to both an Egyptian civil servant of 1350 B.C. AND a Mamluk officer of around 500 years ago; the thought occurs to Freddy that all three might somehow be the same man! This thought has been placed in Freddy’s mind by a septet of mental mutants (three very strange couples plus Freddy’s teenage girlfriend, Bedelia Bencher), the so-called Harvesters, whose “mind-weaving” sets some very strange events in motion, as they attempt to mutate further and overthrow the world. And eventually, Freddy learns that the mundane events of our unknowing planet have long been influenced by another “secret society,” the so-called “returnees,” who live for a while, then hibernate for centuries, and then come back again to take over the bodies of other men! Not to mention a third secret society comprised of the “patricks,” dedicated to fighting the returnees! And before long, poor Freddy is caught up in the cross machinations of all three of these groups, only to find himself thrown summarily into the nuthouse, while the world is racked with plague, hysteria and civil war…

Anyway, those readers who deem David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) the strangest science fiction novel ever written might want to revise their opinion after reading Lafferty’s Fourth Mansions. But despite its way-out plot (there is simply no way for the reader to ever predict what is coming from sentence to sentence!), the author, remarkably, maintains absolute control, and the book manages to hang together. Often, seemingly meaningless lines and bits of business attain significance a hundred pages later on. Conversely, the strangest things are mentioned in passing sometimes, never to be dealt with again in any sort of depth. (For example, the author tells us offhandedly that the Harvesters have just inducted Baubo, a demon from hell, into their group. In most stories, this would be kind of a big deal; here, it is just a brief aside of casual strangeness. Then there is the matter of the “plappergeists,” the fascinating half dog/half ape familiars of the patricks that can only be seen out of the corners of one’s eyes; they are mentioned a few times in passing but the reader is certainly left mystified by them, and wanting more.) Perhaps the single best thing that Fourth Mansions has going for it, though, besides its wild story line and its author’s seemingly limitless imagination, is Lafferty’s manifest great joy in writing and his love affair with the English language; in that regard, he is reminiscent, for me, of a writer such as Mark Helprin, whose novels almost read like poetry (I say this despite the fact that The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction mentions Lafferty’s “labored singing prose”). Thus, in telling us of one of the Harvester couples, Lafferty writes:

There was sometimes a frightening gaiety about this couple, something of serpentine mottled green humor, wholly uncontrollable under-strata of recklessness bursting up in artesian fountains of water that was frosty with forbidden minerals…

Wow! And like most authors who are in love with language, Lafferty is not afraid to make up his own words to suit the occasion; thus, “intengent,” “gangeroo,” “actionist” and so on. Despite the fact that the book’s range of literary reference is fairly formidable (besides the St. Teresa book, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Lycidas, G.K. Chesterton’s essay The Nightmare, and Shakespeare’s Othello and Henry IV, Part 2 are also mentioned), Fourth Mansions is very often laugh-out-loud funny. Freddy does a lot of maturing as the book proceeds (a partial benefit of his brain having been touched by the Harvester mind-weave), and he never seems to be at a loss for a clever comeback or amusing one-liner.

A hugely entertaining, maddeningly bewildering, beautifully written mindblower in the best sense, Fourth Mansions is certainly like no other book that I have yet to come across. Pringle tells us that Lafferty’s work is “full of blarney and mysticism,” and the book in question certainly is that. But really, how could I possibly dislike ANY book that references my favorite author, H. Rider Haggard, repeatedly, and that uses my favorite word in the English language, “chthonic,” no less than three times? Thanks for the inspiration, Jen!


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

    View all posts