The Reefs of Earth

The Reefs of EarthThe Reefs of Earth by R.A. Lafferty
Berkley Medallion Books, 1968
Price I paid: 90¢


—that’s what the people of Lost Haven called the six children (seven, if you counted Bad John) of the Dulanty Family. They looked like normal Earth children…except when they flicked their ears like animals, or made their eyes glow with a green fire…and if you looked at them sideways they did look strangely like nightmarish gargoyles.

The truth is: these children are Pucas, aliens from a strange planet. And they have taken it upon themselves to reduce the world to a population of six (seven, if you count Bad John). Wishing will make it so, for by making up an appropriate death rhyme, they can destroy their victims.

These frightening, far-out kids take a black delight in destroying their neighbors, and the Earth people are defenseless against them….

I’ll admit that I didn’t know much of anything about R.A. Lafferty before I started reading this book. I bring this up because, once I started doing a little research, I found numerous articles and statements to the effect of “Why R.A. Lafferty deserves to be your favorite author” or “Lafferty belongs in the ranks of Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein” or “If you haven’t read Lafferty and made him your idol you are a deadbeat crumbum with a stupid butt.”

I feel like I’ve missed out.

I’ll also admit that, until I went to look him up, I thought that Lafferty was a woman. I have reasons! For one, it was common for woman authors, especially in genre fiction, to go by their initials so that people wouldn’t go “Eww, don’t these women know that science fiction is BOYS ONLY?” Did I say was? I meant is. As a fandom, we kinda suck sometimes. To which fandom do I refer? All of them except yours, of course.

(Strangely, fantasy seems to follow the opposite path, probably in imitation of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, and so forth. But there’s J.K. Rowling, too. It’s all nuts with the initials.)

But more than that is the fact that I took a Latin course in college (for the job prospects) and the professor was a female Dr. Lafferty, so in my mind all Lafferties are women. Does that make sense? No? That’s good, because I’m getting your brain primed for this book.

Good heavens, am I undecided about a lot of this book. It was weird. I don’t mean to use that adjective with any connotations of quality. I’m just throwing it out there as a descriptor. This was just a book that, aside from being good or bad or somewhere in between, was also weird.

The main thing is the style. At first I was put off by Lafferty’s writing style, but as I dug through the book it really grew on me. Since picking the book up I’ve been struggling with exactly how to describe it. Conversational doesn’t do it justice, childlike sounds insulting, and evocative makes me sound like a pretentious twit. A single quoted sentence wouldn’t help, I don’t think. You just have to take the whole thing in as a gestalt.

At various times the style reminded me of other authors. I haven’t found any confirmation of this, but I got a strong feeling that Stephen King was influenced by Lafferty, particularly when King writes from the vantage point of children or the childlike. There’s a certain logic to it the flow, where it’s not in any way grammatical or “properly” styled—Strunk and White would flip their goddamn lids—but it’s still right.

There are also hints of the Weird Tales crowd floating around in there, but, well, good. A few people online have drawn comparisons to G.K. Chesterton (more initials!) but I, sadly, have not read enough Chesterton to confirm or deny that. It’s a personal failing and I’m trying to fix it.

So what’s the book about, then? That’s hard to say. I can tell you what happened (I’m using a lot of italics tonight) but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what the book was about. At least that’s how I feel about it.

On its surface, the book is about some aliens stranded on a backwater savage planet that happens to be Earth. The aliens are Pucas, who, among other things, can choose their form, psychically communicate with Native Americans (this is stated to be a quality they share with the French), and create little verses called Bagarthach that can do a whole host of things but are mainly used to kill people.

Between the words Puca and Bagarthach one gets a distinct Irishness from these aliens. Although I just looked it up and apparently Bagarthach verse is totally Lafferty’s invention. That’s cool.

So two couples of Pucas come to Earth for some reason. They’re the Dulantys. Two brothers married two sisters. Between them they have six children (seven if you count Bad John).

Okay, the Bad John thing. It’s not just the back of the book that does that. Every single time the number of family members is mentioned it works like that. That’s one example of the style of this book and how it works. For those of you wondering, the reason you might not count Bad John is because he’s not a ghost. Don’t call him a ghost. Everybody gets mad if you call him a ghost. He’s just dead and incorporeal and invisible and inaudible but he’s NOT A GHOST.

The six children (seven if you count Bad John), because they were born on Earth, are immune to Earth Allergy, which killed one of the Dulanty mothers and is slowly killing the rest of the elder generation. But that’s okay. Death isn’t something to be afraid of for Pucas. Only backwards Earth people are like that.

It’s hard to decide which is the A plot and which is the B plot in this book. In one storyline we get Henry Dulanty, one of the patriarchs, being framed for the murder of a guy named Coalfactor Stutgard. In fact, the Dulanty kids were going to go kill him, but when they got there it turned out that somebody else had already done it. Still, the Dulantys are feared and hated by most humans, so Henrygets set up as a scapegoat by the people who actually did the murder.

The reason the Dulanty kids were going to kill him is because they have decided that the Earth would be a much better place without all these people on it. In fact, the total number of people on Earth should be six. Seven if you count Bad John. They spend most of the book going around and attempting to kill people. They usually don’t manage to and it’s amusing to see these children fail at being horrible monsters. At one point they get hold of a boat named the Ile de France and a goat named Catherine de Medici and set sail to kill everybody. They keep running into people they intend to kill and they having to say “Okay, we’ll save you for last” because the people are pretty good to them. At one point one of the children goes “Look, we can’t save everybody for last or what’s the point of any of this?”

This book was often very funny but not in a way that would actually cause me to laugh. It’s almost more funny in retrospect. I guess I’d say that once I got into the flow of it I found myself perpetually amused.

While I felt that most of the book focused on the Dulanty kids and their wacky adventures burning people’s houses down and so forth, I think the part of the story that made the most sense revolved around Henry Dulanty, the one framed for murder, and Frank, his brother. These were the parts that got really sinister and, more than anything, gave me that King vibe.

So basically the Dulantys came to Lost Haven at some point in the past and most everybody disliked them from the start and told them to leave. The Dulantys did not leave. So there’s enmity there. There’s also the fact that the Dulantys are…a bit different. Some of them look perfectly human. In fact, a few of them are described as beautiful. But others look something like odd potato face people. And there’s Henry, who is a giant.

Couple that with the fact that the town is filled to the brim with typical small-town corruption. There’s a scam going on where the town claims it has a much larger population than it actually does and that all the people are living in poverty. That last part is true. So the town gets money from the government, and that money goes straight into the pockets of an already wealthy few. The Dulantys don’t have anything to do with that, but the guy that got killed does. It turns out that the guy got murdered because the other conspirators wanted a bigger cut and then it was really easy to try and pin the murder on Henry.

So a lot of the book revolves around small-town greed and xenophobia, topics that I can relate to having grown up in rural Appalachia. I can’t say anything definite, but I can say that I heard a lot of rumors that someone in my hometown was doing something very similar to the scheme going on in this book. Sadly, we didn’t have Chaotic Neutral aliens around to do anything about it.

Do they do anything about it, you ask? Well, honestly, I don’t know. Henry escapes from jail and gets captured by a random farmer. The farmer hands Henry over to the “lawmen,” who then kill Henry brutally and then kill the farmer for having seen them kill Henry the way they did. Frank goes to get revenge, but then it turns out that he gets killed too. It falls to one of the children to take down the last conspirator, and he succeeds, or does he? The bad guy goes down, but then it turns out that another character from earlier in the book, a woman who was kind to the Dulanty children, is nearby with her own smoking rifle.

The book would end there, but instead there’s this bit where the children reunite with the one remaining Dulanty parent, who spent the rest of the book in a mental hospital wracked with Earth Allergy. The children are given their True Puca Names, the last parent dies peacefully, Bad John passes over to the Other Side, and they sail off into the sunset. With a magnificent closing line:

And opposed to them, only the defenseless World!

Did any of that make sense? No? I can’t say I’m surprised. The book was so hard to put together into words, which is weird because it was already words. But really, reading this book was almost like an experience rather than a narrative. A sort of “you had to be there.” And you know, if you haven’t read any Lafferty I’d like to suggest that you find a way to be there. It’s rewarding.

It’s not often that I have to wrestle with a book to get enjoyment out of it and then win. There are a few other examples, but this one is the most recent and it’s been awhile since the last one. Usually if I have to really try to figure out what’s going on in a book, it’s because nothing is happening and the book is really bad. Other times it’s because I feel like I’m back in some English class, trying to pick apart some Victorian novel or PoMo “poem” in a way that completely saps the joy out of it, if there was any joy to be had in the first place. There’s a reason my focus was on Medievalism. It’s a win if you can just read the damn thing in the first place.

But in the case of this book it was because it was hard to understand—at least if you’re only reading casually—because it was good. I almost said it was really good but I’m not quite sure I want to go that far. I liked this book. I didn’t love it. There’s a really good chance that there’s a Lafferty book out there that I’ll love. I’m going to look for it.

10 thoughts on “The Reefs of Earth

  1. I’m really glad you got to read Lafferty for the first time; I’d recommend his ‘Okla Hanali’, though that one is all tall tale without any of the SF trappings.


  2. I really enjoyed this review! I admit, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Lafferty fan, and deeply enjoy most everything the man wrote. One line in your review is key to me:
    “It’s not often that I have to wrestle with a book to get enjoyment out of it and then win.”
    I think that is why I enjoy reading Lafferty so much. Much of what he wrote is just enough out of reach that I have to struggle to get it. When I do get it, it feels like a victory, and there’s enough real quality in his writing that there’s almost always something worth struggling to reach.
    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh hi! Nice review. May I recommend Lafferty’s short stories? They are still very weird but, somewhat more comprehensible than his novels.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You have happened on one of the least coherent Lafferty novels. But really, to see him at his best (funniest, darkest, shaggiest), you have to start with short stories. I’m betting most Lafferty lovers will tell you to seek out “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” (both the collection and the title story)..

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Cool review. I say so two and a half years late because I came via this week’s review of Spaceling.
    On a side note, you got seven comments but only four likes (before mine). I very often get more likes than I get hits. ????? I think WordPress stats are written by Lafferty and Piserchera.

    Liked by 1 person

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