The Davidson Apocrypha (1983)

Gregory Feeley

     Publication in 1981 of Peregine: Secundus, the first book of the Avram Davidson Apocrypha to see print, raised hopes that the major eclectic fantasist now writing in English had at last begun to pull in his nets, having cast them, many had feared, perhaps too widely ever to wholly regather. At the turn of the last decade Davidson published the opening novels to three trilogies in as many years, gaining some notoriety as the inaugurator of unfinished series, and has more lately fallen into near-silence while associates have edited volumes of his already-collected short stories. The announcement in a recent Locus that Averno: A Vergil Magus Novel has been completed seemed to confirm that Davidson was seeing his ships come in. Scheduling of Averno by a publisher has not yet been announced, nor have the Jack Limekiller stories, Davidson's major project in recent years, been gathered into a volume, so a review of the Davidson Apocrypha seems appropriate.
     Being apocryphal, news concerning these oddments or promised volumes is rarely certain, so I have given the sources of what has appeared in print concerning them. Rumor, though copious and sometimes plausible, I have excluded from this compendium.

Bumberboom. The Penguin edition of Davidson's Rork! (1969) lists Bumberboom among Davidson's publications, though no such volume exists. A novelette by that title appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1966 and was reprinted by Wollheim and Carr and elsewhere. In 1967 Terry Carr edited New Worlds of Fantasy for Ace, which contains a sequel, "Basilisk". No other mention of these stories seems available, but one may speculate: The two pieces total some 22,000 words, enough certainly to get a book contract; it would seem more likely that a novel was planned (notwithstanding the protagonists' evident undoing by the second story's end) than a story collection, for Davidson has always had more than enough uncollected superior fiction on hand at any time to fill a volume. The rather off-putting cynicism of the stories may have proved uncongenial to sustain; or Davidson may have found himself drawn away in the late 1960s by the ambitious series he had already begun. No lament has been heard by any of Davidson's readership for the nonappearance of this volume.

The Cap of Grace. See The Six-Limbed Folk.

"Caravan to Illiel." A 1976 novella published in Lin Carter's Dell anthology Flashing Swords! #3. It bears the heading "An Exploit from the Saga of Corydon" on the contents page, but this was apparently added by Carter to achieve format conformity (he cannot conceive of any fantasy not being part of some amorphous series). In his introduction, Carter says only that Davidson's "new story seems to be the beginning of a new cycle of tales". The story does not prefigure a sequel except that its ending leaves the young protagonist footloose and available for more adventure.

Don't Speak of Rope. A mystery novel, undertaken in collaboration with Harlan Ellison and sold to Gold Medal Books "circa 1961" but never completed. Davidson recounts the acceptance of the book in "Scherzo for Schizoids", his contribution to Ellison's Partners in Wonder, where "after almost eight years of almost selling a book" he finally does so. The only other reference to the apparently ill-starred project can be found in the Introduction to Ellison's collection Paingod, where Ellison refers briefly to the book as ten thousand words reposing in some file cabinet, whose existence all principals would rather forget.
     The year following Davidson's period of wandering in the wilderness of American book publishing -- those eight years since the publication of "My Boyfriend's Name is Jello" in 1954, when he sold stories to non-genre markets as diverse as Collier's and Harlequin in addition to winning the Hugo and Edgar Awards for short fiction, and established a mastery in the short story that neither John Collier nor Roald Dahl were ever to exceed -- Davidson did publish two books: his first collection Or All the Seas With Oysters and the winsome collaboration Joyleg, with Ward Moore. His real period of prolificity in the novel came two years later, when between 1964 and 1966 he published Mutiny in Space, The Masters of the Maze, Rogue Dragon, The Enemy of My Enemy, Rork!, The Kar-Chee Reign, and Clash of Star Kings, in addition to a second collection, two Ellery Queen mysteries, and an early magazine version of The Phoenix and the Mirror. If one could wish that most of these books (saving the last) were a little shorter, one is nevertheless glad to have them. The two years of silence which followed preceded the inauguration of Davidson's "trilogy" period.

Peregrine: Tertius. The presumed title for the third volume of the Peregrine trilogy. Peregrine: Prim us was published by Walker in 1971, and is the first of Davidson's works to show that tendency toward broadness in humor, and slackening of verbal concision, that has been increasingly evident since then (except for the best of the Limekiller stories; those published in F&SF). "Peregrine: Alflandia" was published in F&SF in August 1973 as the first part of Peregrine: Secundus, but seven years passed before the balance of that novel was published in Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine. Thus Part I of the latter novel is closer in time (and in tone) to the earlier novel than to Part II; a slightly disfiguring schism that Berkley did nothing to allay. (One can understand how Davidson, writing for a rather different audience in Isaac Asimov's than that which saw the novelette years earlier, should provide a brief recap of the preceding action; but not why Berkley's copyeditors would allow the text to reiterate on page 34 what occurred on page 30. One may impute the hand of the erratic John Silbersack here, who recently edited the doubly mistitled Collected Fantasies of Davidson, which places some unreprinted and virtually unavailable Davidsoniana along others such as "The Sources of the Nile" and "Sacheverell" that had each twice appeared among Davidson's last three collection, as though to deter all but the author's most devoted fans from buying the book.)

The Sixlimbed Folk. Davidson's 1969 novel The Island Under the Earth has been largely overshadowed by the appearance that same year of The Phoenix and the Mirror, and the beautifully produced edition of that book, an Ace Special, has never been reprinted; one of the few Ace Specials not to be. The novel was described as the first of a trilogy, of which The Sixlimbed Folk and The Cap of Grace were to compose the remainder. The 1971 Locus listing the Ace publishing schedule for the next several months includes The Sixlimbed Folk, but no portion of that volume has ever appeared.

"The Stone Which the Builders Rejected". An oddity among the Davidson Apocrypha: a story that possesses a conclusion but no publisher, rather than the other way round. "The Stone Which the Builder Rejected" was purchased by Harlan Ellison over ten years ago for The Last Dangerous Visions, is 2000 words long (according to Ellison), and ought to have filled the place taken by, say, the third appearance of "The Golem" in Collected (or rather, Selected) Fantasies (and Non-Fantasies). No opprobrium, however, upon Davidson. [For discussion of the manuscript of this story, see The Nutmeg Point District Mail, Vol.I, No.2, July 1996.]

Vergil Magus. The Phoenix and the Mirror, published by Doubleday in 1969, has been described as part of "a trinity of trilogies", some of which may draw upon actual medieval legends concerning Vergil the necromancer; others, like Phoenix, shall not. Davidson reportedly worked ten years before completing The Phoenix and the Mirror (see James Blish's review in F&SF, August 1970). The financial failure of the Doubleday edition (the publishers resolved with indecent haste to pulp all unsold copies, which Davidson instead bought up and hawked) remains a well-known horror story, and has apparently embittered Davidson a great deal (see his 1973 interview in The Alien Critic 11). In an interesting aside in The Best of Avram Davidson, the author notes that he had not as of 1977 begun the actual composition of these novels, but had been researching the background of the medieval Vergil legend, having garnered some 25,000 data with which he planned to devote the following year "to reworking it all, going backward over it at an angle, and so producing, both systematically and by inspiration, The Encyclopedia of the World of Vergil Magus . . ."
     Whether Davidson conceives his Encyclopedia as a work actually to be published or merely the topsoil for Vergil Magus, he confirmed in the November 1981 Locus that Averno: A Vergil Magus novel"is part of the same (Vergil Magus) cycle, but comes before Phoenix... as, however, it does not come immediately before, it is not a prequel." "The Other Magus", a short story published in the 1980 Interfaces, edited by Ursula Le Guin and Virginia Kidd, concerns Vergil, but does not appear to be part of the larger work.
     Whether Davidson, who is now fifty-nine, shall be able to complete the remaining seven novels is a matter of rather anxious concern for most serious readers of fantasy. Sympathy for the disappointing reception of The Phoenix and the Mirror has resulted in the popular but uncritical belief that the book is a masterpiece (Joanna Russ, on the other hand, has discussed the limitations of the novel in an appreciative F&SF review that comes closer to limning its real achievement than have most of Davidson's partisans). In addition to Davidson's increasingly prolix and sprung prose style, a disturbingly querulous tone has crept into his work, a strident edge to his always implicit misogyny and a tendency to conceive autobiographical figures in the role of the stag pulled down by wolves. Stories such as "Basileikon: Summer", "The Ape", or parts of "The Redward Edward Papers" possess a rancorousness that threatens to poison the wellsprings of his art.
     More importantly, Davidson has always worked most congenially in the short story form, finding his real assurance in the well-turned, self-contained piece, or at most, in the loosely linked series of stories such as those eventually collected in The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy or those featuring Jack Limekiller. It is no criticism to observe that Davidson's strengths are not really consistent with what John Fowles calls "the athleticism of imagination and long wind the (novel) form must need". Most of Davidson's novels from the mid-1960s (e.g. Rogue Dragon, Masters of the Maze) begin more strongly than they finish, as though the central notions that inspire them were better suited to novelette length and suffered when extended (per contractual requirement) much beyond that. In view of this, The Phoenix and the Mirror and The Island Under the Earth seem something of a miracle, like the odd novels that John Collier and Saki managed to produce. Peregrine: Primus is picaresque; Ursus of Ultima Thule (1973) has pacing problems; and Davidson's only novel since then, Peregrine: Secundus, is essentially two novelettes, one overlong.

"Zon". A novelette appearing in If, May-June 1970, and identified as the beginning of a new series by the editor in a later issue. Science-fictional but bearing much of the trappings of fantasy, "Zon" shares some of the sere, arctic background of a novella published in If the following year, "Arnten of Ultima Thule". "Arnten" eventually acquired a sequel and became a book; "Zon" didn't.
     Though the length range of 9,000 to 15,000 words is an essentially different form than that of the short story (and sf's glory, one may argue elsewhere), Davidson has proved himself almost equally adept at this longer form, in such infrequent exercises as "The Sources of the Nile" and "Take Wooden Indians". Rogue Dragon would be a small classic at a third its length (slightly shorter than the condensed version F&SF did publish). Beyond this Davidson's control grows progressively weaker, and even the series of linked stories fail as series: the Eszterhazy novelettes, save for the envoi, suggest no greater form, and could have been spun off indefinitely like Laumer's Retief stories; and the more recent Limekiller tales, each of which concerns an encounter by its picaresque hero with some element of the supernatural in a highly detailed, mundane (if imagined) setting, prove cumulatively self-vitiating as the succession of wonders eat away, by mere dint of their number, at the aura of verisimilitude Davidson has so masterfully built up.

     Perhaps an eventual volume (not, one hopes, posthumous, though quite likely edited by another) will collect these bits and starts, setting "Zon" and "Bumberboom" alongside their dissimilar brethren to be read and enjoyed for their present merits and as occasions to wonder at the books they might have been. Regarding Vergil Magus one is tempted, not entirely out of wishfulness, to discount the structural weaknesses Davidson has revealed in less-beloved projects; the energy spent, and frequent mention of "the matrix" of Vergil Magus, imply some finer design, a projected curve that Averno, when published, may at least suggest. Bringing forth any part of the Davidson Apocrypha from the seeds of time is an endeavour worthy to encourage (or commission, though evidently not in many publishers' opinions); but it is the Vergil novels that would redeem the false starts and apparent balked years, and for which one hopes, despite incidental beauties -- particularly The Island Under the Earth -- that Davidson forgoes further labors on his other analecta.

This article originally appeared in Foundation 27 (1983).
Reprinted with permission.

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Gregory Feeley's review of Vergil in Averno (1987)