the Avram Davidson electronic newsletter

Vol. II No. 2
31 July 1997
ISSN 1089-764X

Henry Wessells, Editor.
Cooper Wessells, Honorary Secretary.

Published bimonthly.
Contents copyright 1997 The Nutmeg Point District Mail and assigned to individual contributors. All rights reserved.

P.O. Box 43072
Upper Montclair, NJ 07043-0072


Use the electronic address for requests to be added to or dropped from the mailing list.

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Your editor had occasion to visit San Francisco at the end of June and an unexpected and spontaneous side-benefit was the chance to visit Grania Davis and essay a survey of the boxed materials from the Estate of Avram Davidson. By my count, we managed to look through some seventeen boxes and one suitcase (only a fraction of the total Archive) during the afternoon. There was also time to examine title pages, etc. of various published works, both early and recent, and in due course the District Mail will include a corrected bibliographic update.

One of the finds of the day was a splendid Eszterhazy fragment (in a notebook opened at random -- "How random is random?" as el Maestro Wm. Burroughs comments) on the legal machinations of the Tram Company, juveniles in uniform, and Dr. Count Spasm's erotic interest in armpits as well as and sundry other topics. Although we did not examine in detail the boxes of books from Avram's library, amidst the papers were a number of books inscribed to Avram, such as John Crowley's first novel, The Deep. Among the documentary materials that turned up was Avram's "Visitor's Permit" for the first trip to Belize in December 1965 and January 1966 (chronicled in Dragons in the Trees), and various "mumblesheets" on writerly topics.

Two mumblesheets in particular refer to the composition of "Bumberboom" and "Basilisk" and the novel to be written from these stories. "Bumberboom" was a "cover story" written for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to accompany an existing illustration of the sunken Statue of Liberty. The story appeared in the December 1966 issue, and reference to the statue is typically indirect, in truest Avram form. One mumblesheet also clarifies why the Bumberboom novel never appeared: the nearly complete manuscript was stolen from a parked car in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1973 and, being disinclined to rewrite the book, Avram prepared a short story collection for Doubleday instead (presumably The Redward Edward Papers, from the 1976 date of the last part of this mumblesheet).

For the enthusiast of the Vergil Magus cycle, the non-appearance of the "trinity of trilogies" mentioned in The Phoenix and the Mirror represents one of the sadder aspects of Avram's life. Only three novels were written (The Archive includes the typescript of The Scarlet Fig, which will form the subject of a future essay in the District Mail), but in his researches, Avram compiled a shelf of notebooks of densely typed pages that make up the Encyclopaedia of the world of Vergil, as well as a handwritten card catalogue of references throughout the "Matrix."

The Archive preserves these materials, and with a scanner and CD-ROM technology, the Vergil Magus Encyclopaedia could be on everyone's shelf . . . Even though a computer-generated index to the text would undoubtedly be more complete, the search terms would invariably derive from Avram's own index cards, and a facsimile card catalogue should form an essential part of the Encyclopaedia. Any foundations out there ready to sponsor such a project? Perhaps The Nutmeg Point Historic Preservation Fund can be established to undertake this.

All jesting aside, there is a vast amount of material in the Archive, and your editor's visit was too brief to do more than scratch the surface. In these days of telepresence and anonymous electronic exchanges it was a real pleasure to meet again with Grania, a longtime correspondent, and to meet her husband Dr. Steve Davis. A dinner at the Lhasa Moon restaurant in San Francisco rounded out the day.

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by Gregory Feeley

1. Both writers produced a late work (Davidson in 1987, Metcalf in 1991) entitled "Mountaineers are Always Free."

2. Both writers have been praised by Guy Davenport, who wrote the introduction last year to Volume One of Metcalf's Collected Works and was a friend (and admirer) of Davidson in his last years.

3. Both writers have spent their careers at the fringes of critical recognition, and are in print now only through small press editions of earlier published work. There is a difference, however: Metcalf has been exclusively published by small presses, and has in recent years moved "up" from tiny publishers of de luxe editions like the Jargon Society and the Gnomen Press to small trade publishers such as North Point Press and the coffee house Press. Davidson's trend was in the reverse direction: from mass market publishers to none, then finally to small presses such as Owlswick -- a happy development interrupted by his death.

4. Avram Davidson and Paul Metcalf are both deeply preoccupied with the past, and stud their prose with nuggets of arcane lore. More significantly, both writers return repeatedly to touchstone figures from history: Metcalf to Christopher Columbus and Herman Melville (his great-grandfather), Davidson to vergil Magus, Marco Polo, and other deeply researched (if somewhat imaginary) figures. Both writers evoke a powerful and tragic sense of the bloody history of the European settlement of the New World, with the charm of the nineteenth century's expansive and invention-driven optimism -- Patagoni and "Or All the Seas With Oysters" betray a kindred sensibility -- being nonetheless regarded with bemused fondness. Fantastic themes, never distant with Davidson, are elliptically but frequently touched upon by Metcalf: monsters in Genoa (a book concerned, among others things, with teratology), the affinity between hawks and forest fires in the suggestively titled Firebird, leviathans in his writings about whaling. Their imaginative approach differs: Metcalf selects and juxtaposes quotations from little-known sources, often in typographically arresting manner; while Davidson writes a highly mannered, redolent prose. Metcalf's first two books (Will West, 1956, and Genoa, 1965) are novels, and although the rest (with the possible exception of his short Zip Odes) are essentially nonfiction, he has identified several of them -- on the basis, presumably of their typographical presentation -- as poetry. Save for occasional essays, Davidson has always written traditional narrative. Nonetheless, one suspects the two writers would have seen an affinity in their works.

5. Both writers found their metier in lengths that were, commercially, too short for their own good. Most of Metcalf's books are between fifty and 150 pages long, a deadly length for a writer seeking publication. Davidson began as a short story writer, developed into a commercial genre novelist and then a highly accomplished one, and spent the last twenty years of his life working largely with the novelette form. Trade publishers trucked with neither.

6. Both writers spent time as academic vagabonds: writers in residence, visiting professors for short periods. Neither lodged long in academia.

7. Both writers are beloved by a small audience. Lovers of one would probably like the other, although the overlap between their readership is almost nil.

One difference between Paul Metcalf and Avram Davidson: in his eightieth year, Metcalf is now seeing his complete works published in three volumes by the Coffee House Press. Dead in 1993 at age seventy, Avram Davidson is largely out of print, his best novels unavailable and much of his best short fiction uncollected. He still awaits his publishing angel.

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"Blunt" (a self contained episode from The Corpsmen, Avram's unpublished first novel) will appear in a future issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Gordon van Gelder. Grania Davis reported the sale in early July.

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The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, edited by John Clute and John Grant (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), is available, with Gregory Feeley's succinct entry on Avram appearing on pages 251- 252. The article notes strengths and weaknesses alike, and clearly states important points. Avram's early science fiction novels have considerable fantastical elements and "show him employing his skill at evoking exotic locales with commercial competence and somewhat more panache than his markets required." On Vergil Magus, Feeley writes that The Phoenix and the Mirror "possesses the imaginative force of only the most powerful fantasies: we believe in the cosmos of the novel, that its existence continues beyond the page." The Eszterhazy and Limekiller sequences are also noted. There are a couple of minor and perhaps editorial errors (i.e., there are eight early and five later Eszterhazy stories), and it is distressing to see Adventures in Unhistory passed over so lightly, but this essay provides a good introductory view of Avram's work.

Just received at the post office today: copies of Foundation 69, Spring 1997, with your editor's essay, "'A place that you can put your arms around': Avram Davidson's Jack Limekiller Stories," on pages 44-60.

Avram's witty and accurate assessment of H.P. Lovecraft (see Vol.I, No.3) was cited in "H.P. Lovecraft: The New England Connection" by Henry Wessells, in the issue of AB Bookman's Weekly for 28 July 1997.

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Brief reflections on "The Helping Hand" and other stories

In Avram's work, a profound respect for learning and for learned people is everywhere apparent. Among the major characters, Vergil, Appledore, and Eszterhazy are perhaps the most immediately recognizable manifestations of this high esteem, but numerous lesser known characters in the novels and stories also reflect the value of learning. Whether it is Doctor Rafael, the District Medical Officer in "Manatee Gal, Ain't You Coming Out Tonight," the bookseller from the High Vale of Lhom-bhya in "And Don't Forget the One Red Rose," or the impoverished, erudite and scrupulous uncrowned King of the Single Sicily in "Duke Pasquale's Ring," there are a host of examples of high regard for those who have acquired knowledge. It is not merely book-learning: consider the instant recognition that occurs between the Skraeling wizard Eeiiuullaalaa and the Indian medicine man Roan Horse in "Cornet Eszterhazy," or the role of the witch-doctor Ysidro Chache in "The Power of Every Root."

In many other stories, the obverse of this esteem can be seen. For those who have, shall we say, the paperwork but not the spirit of learning, Avram reserved a singularly unpleasant range of experiences as they learn the consequences of the abuse of knowledge. These figures are in fact some of the more notable villainous characters in Avram's work. Melancthon Mudge ("Duke Pasquale's Ring") is a splendidly villainous villain, and his comeuppance represents the way Avram integrated his interest in "the biter bit" into his later stories.

"The Helping Hand" is an early and comparatively unsubtle minor story that was published in Manhunt in 1958.  Dr. Harold Marmon is a cancer quack who practices at his exclusive and profitable suburban clinic. Marmon is a womanizing bon vivant, and scornful of poor but scrupulous old Dr. Flecker of the shabby downtown Skin and Cancer Hospital, who has attempted numerous times to have Marmon prosecuted for medical fraud. The lingering detail with which Avram sketches Marmon's indulgent lifestyle also conveys the charlatan's moral bankruptcy. Marmon is careful to turn down anyone who actually seems to have cancer, and so ensure the reputation of his clinic. "I can understand a man's being a crook, Marmon," Flecker had ranted. "I can understand his being a traitor, or a pimp. But I cannot understand anyone being so cold and corrupt and calloused as to become a cancer quack."

"The Helping Hand" recounts how the brothers of a woman Marmon had seduced beat the doctor, and what ensues. The story is flawed in its resolution, but of interest precisely because of its lack of subtlety. Avram's tales of "the biter bit" from the 1950s regularly show creepy people suffering the consequences of their plotting schemes (The Polish equivalent of this maxim is: Whoever digs a hole under someone falls into that same hole), but "The Helping Hand" directly equates the misuse of learning and knowledge with the fatal results of misdeeds. Two counter-examples: sometimes, however, characters do not experience the repercussions of their unscrupulousness within the bounds of a story; their nastiness remains patent nonetheless, as in the case of advertising scoundrel T. Pettys Shadwell in "The Sources of the Nile." Likewise, as in the case of Harper, the conscientious and doomed scientist of "Now Let Us Sleep," erudition is not universally rewarded -- excepting, of course, Vergil and Eszterhazy, as idealized personae.

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WHERE? WHICH? A short quiz (published works only)

The prize is one grumpkin (redeemable in the New York, New Jersey, or Philadelphia area in vino or in coffee).

Name three stories by Avram Davidson set in New York City.

Extra credit given for answers in essay form.

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ANSWERS TO WHERE? WHICH? from the seventh issue

What did "The Man Who Saw the Elephant" see?

"On that subject I am coy." "The elephant, then." The showman mumbled his chew. "Hmm," he said. Not an elephant.

(Nor will your editor reveal what animal was seen, but suffice to say that the rube in question left under a severe misapprehension).

Richard Bleiler wrote: The man who saw the elephant saw San Francisco! It was a phrase that came into existence during the gold rushes of last century. Here's a case much more research is needed than when this portion of the quiz was proposed.

Avram's story "The Man Who Saw the Elephant" (Yankee Magazine, October 1971; reprinted in Avram Davidson: Collected Fantasies, 1982) is set not long after the summer of Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death (1816), in an early 19th century New England that is populated by a very serious bunch of folks indeed. Farmer Ezra Simmons conceives the very frivolous (and equally firm) notion of travelling to see an elephant in a circus. (Concerning gullibility, showmanship and exotic animals.)

Did Avram engage in backward projection of the phrase to this earlier period? Certainly there are elements of the attitudes associated with P.T. Barnum (1810-1891) in Avram's showman, but the itinerant's style differs from Barnum's flamboyance. Lexicographical evidence welcomed.

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Efforts are underway to get past issues of The Nutmeg Point District Mail archived at the Avram Davidson Website.

The editor reminds readers that letters, anecdotes, contributions and fulminations are welcomed.

Payment will, of course, be negotiated in the form of grumpkins.

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Next issue will appear in September 1997.

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