…Such colors and their divine provision were much on Lafferty’s mind at that time, as a long-running story series then underway—much of which would be collected as Through Elegant Eyes: Stories of Austro and the Men Who Knew Everything—borrowed its structure from the colors of heaven. In particular, Lafferty drew on a conceit of “pop theologian” E.I. Watkin in his 1931 essay The Bow in the Clouds. Watkin postulates a range of ontological experience, ranging from brute matter to pure spirit, and uses “the imaginative symbolism of the spectrum—the colours of God’s bow in the clouds” to represent “objective contacts with reality at its various levels, and in various modes.”[i]
In practice, this means sorting the pursuits of mankind into color categories, with the material and physical sciences starting in the ultraviolet and the theological and mystical shading into the ultra-red. This may seem restrictive as a story structure, but it at least provided a series of prompts, or “pegs,” to hang stories on, even if that prompt featured only obliquely (if at all) in the finished work.[ii] But many of these stories could be fit along this spectrum; in one handwritten schema, Lafferty provides not only the color for each but also its range as measured in angstroms.[iii] A few caveats apply: while the linked stories in Through Elegant Eyes proceed chronologically, they do not always move directly through the colors of the rainbow—for instance, the story that starts the book, “The All-at-Once Man,” is an “in-between” or “pseudo-chromatic” color: a “high brass” that falls between orange and yellow; meanwhile the yellow story corresponding to “Art,” “St. Poleander’s Eve,” closes the volume.[iv][v][vi]
The most visible remnant of this structure, paradoxically enough, is in “Mud Violet,” which corresponds to invisible ultraviolet—though for Lafferty this was also the color of matter or “plain clay.” In the tale, a ghoulish assignment leads to the apparent suicides of several high-school students, among them Loretta Sheen and Violet Lonsdale. The former—the daughter of inventor Barnaby Sheen—comes in some way to animate a large doll, and to speak through “pronouncements” found in sifting through the sawdust filling her. The latter gives way to a poltergeist and alternate personality by the name of Mary Mondo.
In later stories, Barnaby’s unusual household is joined by Austro, a young Australopithecus houseboy, comic-strip artist, and exchange student of sorts, and also his partner in weird science and get-rich-quick schemes, an electronics prodigy named Roy Mega. The youthful personalities shake up and eventually show signs of supplanting the older generation of Sheen and the other Men Who Know Everything—professor Cris Benedetti, politician Harry O’Donovan, and Dr. George Drakos—and the one who doesn’t, Lafferty (or Laff) himself, providing first-person narration. The series contains many of his strongest ideas: in “And Read the Flesh Between the Lines,” the spontaneous combustion of libraries and other archives due to the continual compacting of history within; in “Rivers of Damascus,” the patina embedded on historical artifacts is used as a medium for broadcasting the past as it was actually experienced into the present; in “The Ungodly Mice of Dr. Drakos,” mice made out of ectoplasm and bits of the doctor’s own soul draw down the lightning of divine jealousy, or possibly laughter. The stories, all but two written between 1972 and 1976, form a golden age in miniature—and, like the macro-level golden age it mirrors, this happening stems from the transmutation of trashy pulp, in particular that hoariest of science-fictional pretenses, the gadget tale.
[ii] Cf. letter to Kidd, 19 January 1971, and again 20 May 1971.
[iii] Cf. the document titled “Colored Countries” in the miscellaneous unidentified fragments folder, Ms. II.24.32 (and compare the similar document “Quest and Question,” Ms. II.20.20). This usage also explains a curious subtitle given to Archipelago: “A Fantasy at 3700 Angstroms,” which would put it likewise in the ultraviolet range.
[iv] In addition to further possible “pseudo-chromatic” colors and stories, Lafferty also indicates slots for the “non-chromatics,” Black, Gray, and White. Further, he indicates that the spectrum is a helix, such that beyond the infrared, there is another ultraviolet “in a higher octave.”
[v] At the time of this schema, Lafferty had not written or assigned “Brain Fever Season,” though as much of the story concerns porno bookstores as a speedy distribution system for new knowledge, and it ends with half the characters heading off for a mass rut, the assignation seems likely.
[vi] Other Austro stories unlisted on this schema: “Rivers of Damascus”; “Old Halloweens on the Guna Slopes”; “And What Big Tears the Dinosaur’s”; “And All the Skies Are Full of Fish”; and, not collected in Through Elegant Eyes, “All Hollow Though You Be”; “Two for Four Ninety-Nine”; “Slippery”; “The Funny Face Murders”; and, in a different register, “You Can’t Go Back.”