"Something Rich and Strange" : The Writings of Avram Davidson

A Bio-bibliographical essay by Henry Wessells

     Certain authors contribute to science fiction and fantasy by writing books and stories that become classics of a recognizable type of work, whether it be "hard" science fiction, epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, or cyberpunk. Other writers constantly push at the boundaries of genre fiction in their work. One such author who surpassed these limits was Avram Davidson (1923-1993), who published 17 novels and wrote more than 200 stories and essays during his lifetime.
     Davidson's work includes science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels and stories. His short fiction, notable for its wit and erudition, won numerous awards and has been widely anthologized. "Or All the Seas with Oysters" (1958) won the Hugo Award for short story, while "The Affair at Lahore Cantonment" (1961) received the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
     He was an influential editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction from 1962 to 1965. During his tenure, the magazine received a Hugo Award in 1963. His novels include Joyleg (1962), Rogue Dragon (1965) and Clash of Star-Kings (1966), both Nebula Award nominees, as well as The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969), and Vergil in Averno (1987). Nine collections of his stories have appeared to date, including Or All the Seas with Oysters (1962), and the World Fantasy Award-winning The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy (1975).
     Davidson's distinctive, even unique style is apparent from his earliest published writings, and grew more colorful and elaborate in his mature work. He won a second Howard, or World Fantasy Award, for the short story "Naples" (1978). However, his prolific output and critical recognition did not always translate into commercial success. Davidson received a third World Fantasy Award in 1986, for lifetime achievement, but his novel Vergil in Averno was not promoted after publication, because the book's publisher had discontinued its science fiction line.
     In the last years of his life, however, two books appeared from the small press publisher Owlswick Press. Since his death, his stories continue to be published in magazines and in anthologies such as The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories (1993) and Modern Classics of Fantasy (1996), and interest in his work remains strong.
     Avram James Davidson was born on April 23, 1923, on Hog Hill in Yonkers, New York. His father was Harry Davidson, and his mother was Lillian, née Adler. He was educated in the local public schools, and briefly studied anthropology at New York University before joining the U.S. Navy in 1942. He served as a hospital corpsman, first with the Naval Air Corps, and then with the Fifth Marines.
     As an observant Orthodox Jew, Davidson was scrupulous in his efforts to keep kosher during his military service, often walking great distances in order to buy food. His experiences at Banana River, Florida, later formed the basis for his (unpublished) first novel, The Corpsmen.
     Davidson saw overseas duty in the South Pacific, and was in China at the time of the Japanese surrender in September 1945. In a biographical note written during the 1950s, Davidson remarked that he had at one time "the only beard licensed by the First Marine Division, of which the Fifth Regiment was then a part."
     After his discharge from the military, Davidson spent some time in travels in England, Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. He also continued his formal education at this time, but although he attended Yeshiva University in New York City and a number of other institutions, he never completed a degree. Despite this lack of academic credentials, Davidson was a born scholar and accumulated a great store of knowledge.
     Davidson was in Palestine just before the creation of Israel in May 1948, and apparently served as a medic in the armed forces. He also worked as a shepherd, for upon his return to the U.S., he studied at an agricultural college (in 1950) and then went back to Israel to put his knowledge into practice.
     Davidson returned to the States not long afterwards. He had published short stories and several essays in OrthodoxJewish Life, beginning in 1949, and in Commentary beginning in 1952, under the name A.A. Davidson. He was very active in the Orthodox Jewish community in New York City during this period.
     In July 1954, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction published its first story by Davidson, "My Boyfriend's Name is Jello." Over the next several years, publishing stories in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy, and elsewhere, Davidson earned himself recognition as an original new writer in science fiction circles. These stories brought a literary dimension to science fiction. Davidson was in fact something of a "magic realist" years before the term gained currency. Many of Davidson's stories in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and other detective and men's magazines at this time also had a literary touch.
     In April 1957, Davidson's story "The Necessity of His Condition" appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The story originated in research Davidson pursued for an article on the Dred Scott case, and is a complex, dramatic, and unsettling examination of legal and historical issues relating to slavery in the antebellum South. After a fatal accident, a slave broker is charged with murder, and the only witness to the incident, whose testimony would clear the broker, is prevented from speaking, because "it's a basic principle of the law that a slave can never testify in court except against another slave."
     "The Necessity of His Condition" won the Queen's Award and brought Davidson a hefty influx of cash, the first big money his writing had earned him. At the time, he wrote that he felt "the acceptance of this story (even before it was picked for the First Prize) marks the turning point in my career as a writer."
     Over the next several years, Davidson published dozens of tales, ranging from "Now Let Us Sleep," a morality play on the conflict between primitive and developed cultures, set in the context of interstellar travel, to "King's Evil," in which Davidson speculates as to the whereabouts of King George III one afternoon in October 1788, and presents selections purporting to be from The Memoirs of Dr. Mainauduc, The Mesmerist and describing a quack magnetic cure for scrofula.
     Two other notable stories, "Dagon" and "The Dragon Skin Drum," drew upon Davidson's wartime experiences in China for their exotic setting, while "The Sources of the Nile" is set in a Madison Avenue advertising milieu and looks at how fads and trends come about. The title of this essay, "Something Rich and Strange," derives from a story in the June 1961 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which recounts the gastronomic implications of a rich man's quest for the Mermaid. Fantastical beings of all types (including mermaids, werewolves, and other shape-changers) are frequent subjects of Davidson's stories and essays. "The Golem" features a gray-faced golem compelled to mow a suburban lawn by the nonchalant Mr. Gumbeiner and has been widely anthologized.
     Another frequently reprinted story is "Or All the Seas with Oysters," which first appeared in the May 1958 issue of Galaxy. This peculiar tale of the life cycle of safety pins, clothes hangers, and bicycles won its author the Hugo Award, and has become a science fiction classic. It was also the title of Davidson's first collection of stories, published in 1962.
     The June 1961 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine included Davidson's story, "The Affair at Lahore Cantonment." At first it seems to be a recollection of late 1940s England, and conversations in a pub in an unnamed village. The story turns upon much earlier events that occurred halfway around the world in colonial India. Davidson's narrator learns of rivalries among enlisted men for the favor of a young woman, of a murder and planted evidence, and "that young chap from the newspaper that wrote about it. Funny name 'e 'ad -- something like Kipling -- Ruddy Kipling, 'twas." Kipling's poem "Danny Deever" is reprinted after Davidson's story. He won the Edgar for this literary effort.
     Davidson had lived for a time on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s, but by late 1961, he was living on West 110th Street opposite the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. That autumn, he met Grania Kaiman, and they were married not long after, in early 1962, at the Milford, Pennsylvania, home of Damon Knight.
     That year proved an eventful one for Davidson. He assumed the editorship of Fantasy & Science Fiction in April 1962, and published three books, including a collection of true crime essays, Crimes & Chaos (Evanston, Illinois: Regency, 1962), and a collection of short stories, Or All the Seas with Oysters (New York: Berkley, 1962).
     His first novel, Joyleg (New York: Pyramid, 1962), written with Ward Moore, is a comic look at politicians and the media. A congressional committee finds that a pension of $11 a month is being paid to a veteran, and scandal ensues. The recipient of the pension is Joyleg, an apparently immortal Revolutionary War veteran (and governor of the sovereign state of Franklin), who lives on an isolated mountain peak in Tennessee. The novel's caustic satire of Washington and witch-hunting politics remains quite topical.
     As editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Davidson was also responsible for preparing annual anthologies from the magazine. The first of these was The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, Twelfth Series (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1963), followed in due course by The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, Thirteenth Series (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1964) and The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, Fourteenth Series (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965). Davidson's headnotes to the stories are entertaining, and the contents of these anthologies give a clear idea of his editorial influence. He published the first professional work of Terry Carr (1937-1987), who later edited the Ace Special series of books, and the Universe anthology series.
     During this period, Davidson was also writing the first of two Ellery Queen detective novels. Frederick Dannay (1905-1982) and Manfred B. Lee (1905-1971) together wrote more than two dozen novels under the Queen name. Davidson wrote two novels from lengthy outlines prepared by Dannay. Lee then revised the manuscript, often extensively, to prepare the final version. The first of these novels, And on the Eighth Day (New York: Random House, 1964), is one of the more unusual novels bearing the Ellery Queen name, and evidence of Davidson's style can be seen throughout.
     A son, Ethan, was born in November 1962, and not long after, Davidson and his family moved to Milford, which had already become something of a gathering place for science fiction writers. In addition to Knight and Kate Wilhelm, Judith Merril, James Blish, and Virginia Kidd also lived in the town. Knight and Blish had founded the Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference, an annual event that had attracted professionals in the field since 1956.
     While living in Milford, Davidson completed the manuscript of the next Ellery Queen novel, The Fourth Side of the Triangle (New York: Random House, 1965), in late April 1963. He apparently considered writing a third Ellery Queen novel (and began negotiations concerning The House of Brass, but this book was ultimately written by Theodore Sturgeon).
     The move from New York City turned out to be a disaster, as a dispute with their landlady about the placement of a garden turned into an eviction at the hands of the sheriff. The landlady then tried to sue. Having given up their New York apartment, Davidson and his family "were broke, homeless, and looking for an adventure."
     In mid-1963, they moved to Amecameca, Mexico, a remote and exotic town near Mount Popocatepetl (and incidentally a jumping-off point for mountain climbers). Davidson remained at the Casa Chelius in Amecameca for over a year, writing stories such as "The Third Sacred Well of the Temple" and the first of several short "pot-boiler" novels.
     Ed Ferman, the publisher of Fantasy & Science Fiction, wrote that Davidson "moved to Mexico during his final year as editor and handled this long-distance affair with calm and efficiency, despite the fact that these were days before faxes and FedEx; in fact there was only one phone in the small town where he lived. I don't recall any missed deadlines, though he once claimed that a missing manuscript was eaten by an iguana."
     Davidson's first solo novel, Mutiny in Space (New York: Pyramid, 1964), was followed in rapid succession by Masters of the Maze (New York: Pyramid, 1965), Rork! (New York: Berkley, 1965), and The Enemy of My Enemy (New York: Berkley, 1966). Davidson's science fiction adventure novels are above-average, and each of these novels has interesting features, but Masters of the Maze is the strongest of these four. Its elaborate plot involves inter-dimensional travel and the secrets of the Masters, Masonic intrigues, insect invaders from outer space, and Ambrose Bierce. The book contains as well a number of reflections on the life of the writer of popular fiction.
     The expatriate life in Mexico had its considerable charms, but also many stresses. Ultimately, the stresses and financial difficulties took their toll on Davidson and his wife. She returned to California in June 1964, while Davidson remained with their son in Mexico for several months longer. Even after their divorce, and Grania's subsequent marriage to Dr. Stephen Davis, relations between Davidson and his ex-wife were cordial and close. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, Davidson lived in the Bay Area in order to be near his son.
     Davidson wrote about some of the pleasant strangeness and peculiar tribulations of life in Mexico in the realistic parts of Clash of Star-Kings (New York: Ace, 1966), which appeared as an Ace Double with Danger from Vega by John Rackham. Originally titled Tlaloc by Davidson, the novel combines traditional religious customs with the science-fictional device of extraterrestrials returning for a mechanism concealed in the head of a tlaloc rain deity. It was nominated for the Nebula Award.
     Along with a second story collection What Strange Stars and Skies (New York: Ace, 1965), Davidson published two loosely connected novels set on a far-future Earth. Rogue Dragon (New York: Ace, 1965), also nominated for the Nebula Award, combines the medieval customs and vocabulary of the hunt with dragon lore to create a richly rendered world in which dragon-hunting tourists from other planets played a central economic role. The Kar-Chee Reign (New York: Ace, 1966) was published as an Ace Double with Ursula K. Le Guin's first book, Rocannon's World.
     In late 1965, Davidson was consciously attempting to get off of the "space opera" treadmill. He determined to visit British Honduras, and to "be dogged and resolute enough to write the next thing which I would want to write regardless of the reactions of others, with full confidence that it would not only be worth writing but would eventually find publication."
     Now the nation of Belize, the colony of British Honduras was then in the midst of a heated debate about the prospect of independence. Davidson spent December 1965 and January 1966 in British Honduras, and prepared a lengthy (and still unpublished) account of his travels entitled Dragons in the Trees (the title refers to iguanas, locally called dragons).  Excerpts from this manuscript were published in The New York Review of Science Fiction in a special Avram Davidson issue (June 2000).
     Davidson returned to British Honduras in the late 1960s, living there for about a year. His ex-wife and son lived there (separately) at that same period. Although the travel memoir never saw publication during Davidson's lifetime, it subsequently served as a textual source for Davidson's six fantasy stories featuring Jack Limekiller. Set in "British Hidalgo," in a time close to the present, these stories have a strong element of magic realism and represent some of his best mature work. Published in periodical form between 1976 and 1993, the Limekiller adventures have not yet been collected in book form.
     In the middle 1960s, Davidson embarked on what he saw as his master work, a series of novels to be set in an alternate world of the first century B.C., and featuring Vergil Magus, a character derived from late medieval European accounts of Vergil not as poet but as sorcerer. Davidson expended enormous efforts on his research, effectively compiling a cross-referenced "encyclopaedia" of the world of Vergil Magus, which he referred to as "the Matrix."
     The first novel in the series to be published was The Phoenix and the Mirror (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1969), a science fantasy of the alchemical creation of a "Major speculum" or mirror of virgin bronze. This mirror is intended to reveal the location of the missing daughter of a noblewoman. A search for pure ores of copper and tin takes Vergil Magus across the classical world, but it is a world far different than that recorded in history books, richly imagined and populated with unusual and exotic characters. Davidson wrote a second novel in the Vergil Magus series, Vergil in Averno (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1987), as well as a number of stories. He completed a third Vergil Magus novel shortly before his death: The Scarlet Fig ;or, Slowly through a Land of Stone remains in manuscript.
     Davidson was living in British Honduras when he read the proofs of The Phoenix and the Mirror, but returned to the Bay Area not long thereafter. During the late 1960s and 1970s, he lived at various times in Novato, Mill Valley, Berkeley, San Francisco, Sausalito, Oakland, and Richmond.
     Davidson began two further series of novels at about this time. The Island Under the Earth (New York: Ace, 1969) and Peregrine : Primus (New York: Walker, 1971) were intended to be the first volumes of two separate trilogies. Sadly, Davidson never finished either of these series, although he did complete Peregrine : Secundus (New York: Berkley, 1981), and left early drafts of a third volume among his papers.
     Davidson had a lifelong interest in spiritual matters. In 1970, he began studying the Tenrikyo faith, a form of the Shinto religion, and subsequently spent time in Japan, learning Japanese and preparing a number of translations into English.
     During the course of the 1970s, Davidson also published a novel, Ursus of Ultima Thule (New York: Avon, 1973), and several collections of stories, including Strange Seas and Shores (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1971), with an introduction by Ray Bradbury, The Redward Edward Papers (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978), with an introduction by Randall Garrett, and The Best of Avram Davidson (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1979), edited with an introduction by Michael Kurland. Along with Or All the Seas with Oysters, Strange Seas and Shores provides the best sampling of Davidson's earlier short fiction.
     During the middle 1970s, however, Davidson's most notable literary creation was a series of rich and complex tales set in an alternate 19th-century Europe. The location for these fantasies is the small and multi-ethnic Balkan empire of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania. Englebert Eszterhazy, a learned nobleman with an affinity for the unusual and inexplicable, is the protagonist of The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy (New York: Warner Books, 1975), which won the World Fantasy Award in 1976.
     Davidson had a few brief stints in the academic world during the 1970s, lecturing at the University of Texas, El Paso, and as visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine, and at the English Department of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. While Davidson was at William and Mary, a separate edition of a story from The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy was published as a chapbook, Polly Charms, The Sleeping Woman (1977), in an edition limited to 100 signed copies.
     Always a master of short fiction, Davidson was honored with a second World Fantasy Award in 1979, for "Naples," published in an anthology edited by Charles L. Grant, Shadows (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978).
     The early 1980s saw publication of Avram Davidson: Collected Fantasies, edited by John Silbersack (New York: Berkley, 1982), and an anthology edited by Davidson, Magic for Sale (New York: Ace, 1983). In 1982, Davidson moved to Washington State, as his son was now older, and the rents were cheaper. He initially came to house-sit for his good friend and fellow science fiction writer Alan E. Nourse, and then stayed on, living at various times in Bellingham and Bremerton. As his health problems increased, Davidson lived in a Veterans home for a period in 1984-1985. In order to do so, he had to be indigent, which effectively inhibited him from publishing his work, since any earnings would jeopardize his benefits.
     In 1986, Davidson and Anne McCaffrey were guests of honor at the Norwescon science fiction convention in Seattle. Under the Dryad Press imprint, fans Matt Hargreaves and Gale Sherry produced two books which were released at the convention. Habit is an Old Horse by Anne McCaffrey collects two stories and was published in an edition of 400 copies in three states. Despite its small output, the press is also significant in science fiction history as it prompted the establishment of a number of other small presses in the Pacific Northwest, including Axolotl Press, Hypatia Press, and Pulphouse Publishing.
     The second book from Dryad Press was a separate edition of Davidson's And Don't Forget the One Red Rose. The eight-page book reprints a story from December 1975 issue of Playboy, and was published in an edition of 200 copies, comprising 185 copies in stapled paper wrappers and 15 signed and numbered hardcovers. This edition is of interest as one of the scarcest of Davidson's publications, but also for its contents. The story tells of the meeting between one Charley Barton and an eccentric bookseller from "the High Vale of Lhom-bhya" in Central Asia:     The bookman examined an odd-looking tag. "The price of it,"
he said, "is a bar of silver the weight of a new-born child." He
removed it gently from Charley's hand, replaced it in the
pigeon-hole in the cabinet, closed the cabinet, lifted the carven
lid of an aromatic chest and took out something larger, much
larger, and wrapped in cloth of tissue of gold. "Edition of
great illustrated work on the breeding of elephants in captivity,
on yellow paper smoored with alum in wavy pattern; most rare;
    For one thing, Charley hardly felt in a position to disagree
and for another, he was greatly surprised and titillated by the
next illustration. "Hey, look at what that one is doing!" he
    The bookman looked. A faint, indulgent smile creased his
ivory face. "Droll," he commented. He moved to take it back.
    "How much does this one cost?"
    The dealer scrutinized the tag. "The price of this one," he
said, "is set down as 'A pair of white parrots, an embroidered
robe of purple, sixty-seven fine inlaid vessels of beaten gold,
one hundred platters of silver filigree work and ten catties of
cardamoms.'" He removed the book, rewrapped it and restored it
to its place in the chest.
     In 1986, Davidson received his third "Howard," when he was given the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Despite this recognition, the next years were extremely lean ones. Vergil in Averno was published by Doubleday in 1987; just after this the firm's science fiction imprint was discontinued and the book received only minimal promotion. This was a sour ending to Davidson's long and often troubled association with "Doublecross and Company." Davidson's last book to appear from a large commercial publisher was an "unrecorded" tale of Marco Polo, Marco Polo and the Sleeping Beauty (New York: Baen Books, 1988), written with Grania Davis.
     The small press, however, continued to be a viable outlet for his work. Following a special issue of Weird Tales (no.293, Winter 1988-1989) devoted to Davidson's writings, George Scithers issued The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy (Philadelphia: Owlswick Press, 1990), which added five new stories to the 1975 collection. This was followed by a volume of essays, Adventures in Unhistory : Conjectures on the Factual Foundations of Several Ancient Legends (Philadelphia: Owlswick Press, 1993), collecting Davidson's examinations of such matters as mermaids, dragons, werewolves, mandrakes, unicorns, and the extinction of passenger pigeons and other birds.
     Davidson had been suffering from health problems for many years, and shortly after the publication of Adventures in Unhistory, he died in Bremerton, Washington, on May 8, 1993. Short stories unpublished at the time of his death continue to appear in such magazines as Asimov's Science Fiction and Fantasy & Science Fiction. To the delight of his many readers, Davidson's writings endure. His best work is unique and exemplifies the richness and diversity of science fiction and fantasy, even as it challenges readers, authors, and editors to look beyond the conventional expectations of the genre.
     Interest in Davidson's work has been increasing in the years since his death. An electronic newsletter, The Nutmeg Point District Mail, has been published bimonthly since May 1996; the Avram Davidson Society was established on April 23, 1998 (the 75th anniversary of his birth), to encourage and promote interest in his writings. The first Publication of the Avram Davidson Society, The Last Wizard with A Letter of Explanation, was issued at the society's inaugural meeting in New York City on 23 April 1999.  Davidson's novella, El Vilvoy de las Islas, was published on 30 June 2000 as the second Publication of the society.
     A late novella, The Boss in the Wall, A Treatise on the House Devil (with Grania Davis), was published in paperback in June 1998 by Tachyon Publications (a limited hardcover edition was issued shortly thereafter). "Blunt," a previously unpublished section from The Corpsmen, appeared in the October/November 1998 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A massive retrospective collection, The Avram Davidson Treasury, was published by Tor Books in October 1998; and a mystery collection, The Investigations of Avram Davidson, was published in February 1999 by St. Martin's Press.
     Two important science fiction research collections have large, catalogued holdings of Davidson's manuscripts and correspondence. These are the University Library, University Archives and Special Collections Unit, at California State University, Fullerton, and the Sterling C. Evans Library, Special Collections & Archives, at Texas A&M University, in College Station, Texas. The Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University in New York City holds the papers of Frederick Dannay and the archives of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. These include Davidson's correspondence with Dannay and others, and the manuscripts for the Ellery Queen novels, as well as manuscripts for Davidson's numerous stories published in the magazine.
     Grania Davis, of San Rafael, California, the administrator of the estate of Avram Davidson, also has a substantial archive of Davidson's papers. This material has not yet been fully catalogued, but has already yielded several notable manuscripts. A selection of the correspondence between Davidson and Philip K. Dick was published in the August 1997 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction, with an introduction by Davis.
     Eileen Gunn is at work on a biography of Davidson, tentatively entitled Strangeness and Charm. She has catalogued a vast quantity of Davidson's correspondence, and has other material such as recordings of lectures by Davidson. I would like to acknowledge her generous assistance in determining the chronology of Davidson's life.
     I have also published "A Preliminary Annotated Checklist of the Writings of Avram Davidson" in the Bulletin of Bibliography (vol.53, nos.1-2, April and June 1996). Despite minor errors and omissions noted since publication (and recorded in the Index to the Writings of Avram Davidson), it remains a serviceable and comprehensive guide to his work. A detailed study of the Jack Limekiller stories and their roots in the Dragons in the Trees manuscripts appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of the British journal Foundation.

An early version of this article appeared in as "The Career and Writings of Avram Davidson" in AB Bookman's Weekly (vol.100, no.16, October 20, 1997).

Copyright 1999 by Henry Wessells. All rights reserved.

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