the Avram Davidson electronic newsletter

Vol. II No. 6
31 March 1998
ISSN 1089-764X

Henry Wessells, Editor.
Cooper Wessells, Honorary Secretary.

Published bimonthly.
Contents copyright 1998 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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St. Martin's Press will publish The Investigations of Avram Davidson, a collection of mystery stories by Avram Davidson, edited by Grania Davis and Richard A. Lupoff, with an introduction by Richard A. Lupoff and story notes by Grania Davis and "additional lolligags by Michael Kurland." This is particularly welcome news as the book (apparently scheduled for early 1999 release) will gather material that has not been as widely published as Avram's science fiction and fantasy stories. Further details of The Investigations of Avram Davidson (including a table of contents) will be published in the District Mail as they become known.

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The winners of the 1998 Golden Nutmeg Award are Jan Bondeson's A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities (nonfiction) and Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon (fiction). The Golden Nutmeg Award is presented annually by The Nutmeg Point District Mail to an outstanding work of fiction or nonfiction published in the preceding year that combines good writing, eclectic scholarship, and wit. Mason & Dixon (Henry Holt & Co.) is an omniumgatherum of science, bizarreries, eccentrics of various ethnicities, and world travel. Set in the late 18th century, the book follows the careers of surveyors Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason; while the narrative is easily as long as an 18th century picaresque novel such as Smollett's The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, and runs through a suitably weird range of subjects and evokes an impressive succession of voices, Pynchon's novel is decidedly post-modern in its approach (and even the physical composition of the printed page).

A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities (Cornell University Press) is a gripping account of out-of-date medical theories and the origins of modern scientific medicine. A brief review follows this article.
The winner of the 1997 Golden Nutmeg Award was Robert W. Carrubba's translation of Exotic Pleasures, Fascicle III, Curious Scientific and Medical Observations by Englebert Kaempfer (Southern Illinois University Press, 1996). Nominations for the 1999 award (covering books published in 1998) should be sent by publishers or authors to the editor at the address above, with a copy of the book.

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A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities by Jan Bondeson

[xii] + 250p., with illustrations and bibliography.

Cornell University Press. Sage House, 512 E. State Street, Ithaca, NY 14850.

The intellectual history of medicine in Europe offers numerous examples of superstition and credulity maintaining a dominant position long after scholars have ripped through a curtain of ignorance (one of many); wrapping their arguments in threadbare remnants of hoary tradition, scientists of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries held views that seem absurd in the cold, fluorescent, clinical and rigorous light of the end of the 20th century. And perhaps not.

If members of the medical practice seem today less inclined to accept such fancies and notions as spontaneous human combustion (frequently encountered in alcoholic subjects) or the prehistoric existence of giant humanoids, these topics are nonetheless the stuff of popular legend and tabloid science. Even with belief in such claims, there is no disputing that the level of public health awareness has improved markedly since the 19th century. Yet how many of the most firmly held scientific theories might prove untenable or laughable in light of discoveries a year, a decade, a century hence? Or, conversely, will genetic testing and the use of advanced magnetic resonance imaging lead to advances in the resurrected field of computer-assisted genetic phrenology and similar medical disciplines. Jan Bondeson's A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities is a splendid account of how accumulated medical and medical-historical knowledge has contributed to tearing down various curtains of medical ignorance.
The ten essays that make up A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities each recount early examples of the art of medical diagnosis and then trace the history of the refutation of the particular condition (often during the middle and latter part of the 19th century). Bondeson's prose is at times awkward but his research in the history of medicine is sound. He catalogues early and often fragmentary evidence in such a way as to provide a clear picture of the assumptions that appear to have guided early medical writers; he is also abreast of late 20th century survivals of such ideas in the tabloids.

In addition to spontaneous human combustion, Bondeson includes essays on the literature of giants, from Pliny, Annius, and Athanasius Kircher to the 17th-century King Teutobochus and the Cardiff Giant of 1869 (which was itself the subject of an excellent novel by Harvey Jacobs, American Goliath, [St. Martin's Press, 1997); the bosom serpent; the lousy disease (morbus pedicularis) or phthiriasis, a wasting disease in which streams of insects appear to issue from the flesh of the afflicted; Mary Toft (who had all England talking and writing about her claim to have given birth to rabbits in 1726); maternal impressions (the idea that if, for example, a pregnant woman sees a deformed person, she will herself give birth to a deformed child, and so on); apparent death and premature burial; and tailed people. All of these essays are illustrated with examples of prints and pages from early books and pamphlets.
In 1728, Sir Hans Sloane, physician and botanist, published a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London that effectively discredited earlier theories of fossil giants through the study of comparative anatomy. Sloane was for many years secretary of the Royal Society and his books and specimens (for example Englebert Kaempfer's collections acquired in his oriental travels) subsequently served as the basis of the British Museum. Other figures throughout the 18th and 19th centuries played similar roles in refuting other areas of medical ignorance.
In his last two essays Bondeson traces the greater systematization of medical knowledge that began in the 18th century through discussion of the career of John Hunter, founder of the discipline of scientific surgery, and specimens in the Hunterian Museum, London (the Irish Giant, the Two-Headed Boy of Bengal, and the Sicilian Fairy); and gives an account of the life and death of Julia Pastrana, a Mexican Indian woman who suffered from congenital hypertrichinosis and gingival hyperplasia, and was in the 1850s known throughout the world as the Ape Woman.
After Julia Pastrana's death in Russia in 1860, following complications in childbirth, her husband and impresario Theodore Lent sold the corpses of mother and infant to one professor Sukolov of Moscow University. Sukolov conducted a post-mortem examination and then preserved the remains with a concoction of his own devising. Lent subsequently purchased the mummies and Julia Pastrana's posthumous career began, with tours of London, Sweden, and a return to Russia. Lent died in an asylum in the middle 1880s, his second wife (also bearded), claimed the mummies and exhibited them for a time. Displayed in Vienna and in German cities before the turn of the 20th century, the mummies ended up in Norway in 1921; they were on display until the mid-1970s, when Norwegian authorities threatened confiscation. The mummies were stolen in 1979, then recovered by police from a dump and stored in the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Oslo. Bondeson reproduces Russian posters of Pastrana and analyzes contemporary and modern medical diagnosis of her condition.

Bondeson's stories are gripping reading; moreover, he brings a real degree of compassion to his accounts of human disease and congenital affliction. A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities is a book that shows just how credulous even the most learned of physicians have sometimes been. It is also required reading for all writers (and readers) of fantastical fiction.
-- Henry Wessells

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Gregory Feeley's Annotations to "Vergil and the Dukos"

Editor's Note: "Vergil and the Dukos" (Asimov's Science Fiction, September 1997) has already generated a fair amount of discussion among readers. Gregory Feeley is engaged in writing an essay on the story, and assembled the following notes (keyed to the pages of its Asimov's appearance, its only publication to date) on some of its many allusions. Although helpful, he reports, they do not begin to plumb the complexities of this late and dense tale. Additional comments by the editor are identified with [HW].

Page 102

SICHARBUS THE SIDONIAN: Sidon was an ancient and powerful Phoenician city on the Mediterranean coast. It was noted for its extensive commerce; it is not surprising that Sicharbus (like the Red Man in The Phoenix and the Mirror) is a merchant, dealing in dyes.

NEAPOLY: The medieval Vergil legends give Naples as his home. In The Phoenix and the Mirror it is clear that Vergil makes his residence here, although Vergil in Averno and the unpublished The Scarlet Fig, or, Slowly Through a Land of Stone (its opening chapter, "Yellow Rome, or Vergil and the Vestal Virgin," appeared in Weird Tales, Winter 1992-1993) are set in other cities or lands.

CALABRIAN BREAD: Modern Calabria occupies the toe of the boot of Italy, but in ancient times the name Calabria referred to the land of the heel. A fertile region, it was noted for its pastures, olives, and fruit trees, with the latter being the principal source of its prosperity. (Strabo mentions these, though not grains or mills.) Despite being on the Via Appia, Calabria seems too far from Naples -- they are on opposite sides of Italy -- to supply the city with bread. If Davidson has a source for "Calabrian bread" (and one suspects that the Notebooks contains one), it may be from an imaginative rather than a historical work.

THE VOE OF NAPLES: "Voe" is Orkney and Shetlands dialect for a bay or creek. Vergil's home overlooks the Bay of Naples. It is difficult to imagine why an obscure word from the northern British Isles should be used in the Roman world of Vergil Magus.

Page 103

THE GATES OF GADES: Gades was an important town in ancient times, especially to the Phoenicians. It is now the Spanish city of Cadiz.

VINEWOOL: Presumably cotton, produced by the "Scythian Lamb." This fabulous creature, half-animal, half-plant, is mentioned by Mandeville and was accepted as real by Europeans during the late Middle Ages. See the chapter on "The Scythian Lamb, or the Borometz Fruit" in Exotic Pleasures by Englebert Kaempfer (reviewed in Vol.I, No.5) [HW].

THE GREAT SEA, THE INTERTERRAINS SEA: Like the reference to "the Midland Sea" on the previous page, these presumably refer to the Mediterranean. Many seas are mentioned in "Vergil and the Dukos," but they seem all to refer either to the Mediterranean or else ("the Realm Sea," "the Circumambient World-Stream") to an undifferentiated great ocean beyond. This is a reasonable belief on the part of the Romans, who knew of the great ocean beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, but whose world almost entirely bordered the Mediterranean.

GREEKLY LANDS, IF MAGNA OR MINORA: Magna Graecia, the ancient Greek colonies on the Southern Italian peninsula, including Tarentum, Sybaris, Crotona, Heraclea, and Neapolis; Minora, the settlements in Asia Minor [HW].

THE DANS: The Dans were the Biblical tribe of Dan, one of the twelve of Israel. It is also the name of an otherwise unidentified city in northern Palestine, which was conquered and renamed by the Danites. "Dan" is also the name of a trading center, associated with Tyre. Davidson seems to suggest that the Dans was another name for the Achaeans, which is difficult to understand. Later (p. 105), Vergil is himself addressed as dan Vergil. Who is addressing him thus, and why, is not clear. In a late and unpublished story, "Min dan in Danland, Bail to the Vicus of Ravenna" we learn that one of Vergil's many honors was to be addressed as Min dan in Danland. We learn nothing, however, about the Dans, the city of Danland. The phrase "Fear the Dans," which Vergil recognizes but cannot identify, clearly corresponds to Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, (I fear the Greeks even when they bear make offerings [to the gods]), words spoken the Trojan high priest Laocoon in the work of the Virgil of literary fame (Aeneid, II, 49) [HW].

THREE-HORNED SICILYA: The ancient name for Sicily was Trinacria, meaning three-pointed. Although Sicily is said to have three promontories, the 11th ed. Encyclopedia Britannica states that "The name [trinakria] was no doubt suggested by the [thrinakria] of Homer (which need not, however, be Sicily), and the geography was then fitted to apparent meaning given to the name by the change." The island of Thrinakria is mentioned in Books XI and XII of The Odyssey. It seems especially appropriate that Trinacria, a name taken from an imaginative work and bestowed on a real island (with an accompanying etymological retrofitting), should find a place in Davidson's backward-projected World of Vergil Magus.

Page 104

DOKOS, DUKOS: For all that the dukos seems in this story to be a figure of widespread horror, it is not mentioned in any other Vergil story, and seems to have been added by Davidson to the World fairly late. Philip K. Dick mentions the "Dokos" in a letter to Davidson in 1980, calling it a "simulacrum" (a favorite word of Dick's). I do not know of any other source Davidson may have used.

COLONNADES OF HERCULES: Location unknown, but it is clearly a place in Naples and not an allusion to the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar).

PISTUQUIM NUTS: pistachio nuts (Arabic) [HW].

Page 105

BALLISTAS: A large crossbow-like devise for sending missiles [HW].

PECUNIA NON DET: A misprint for Pecunia non olet, "Money has no stink." The Latin was written in hand in Davidson's typescript, and was presumably misread by the typesetter. This phrase is frequently encountered in Davidson's work.

PAESTUM, "THE DOUBLE BLOSSOMING": Paestum was an ancient city south of Naples. It is mentioned by both Strabo and Herodotus, and was renowned for its flowers. The "twice blooming roses of Paestum" are mentioned by Virgil (in the Georgics), Ovid, and Martial.

BRUNDUSY: Brundisium is the ancient name of Brindisi, a port city in southeast Italy. The Via Appia extended from Rome to Brundisium. Davidson seems to be suggesting that his Vergil was raised in Brundisium; Virgil the poet in fact died there.

Page 106


HIC INCLUSUS VITAM PERDIT: Latin for "(Whoever is) confined here loses life." The sentence is too short to determine whether it is Classical or Medieval Latin.

Page 107

TAUROMINE: This creature with the head of a human and the body of a bull may be Davidson's invention. The idea of twins that have switched body halves seems to be suggested by the wizards Gortecas and Castegor in The Island under the Earth (1969) [HW].

Page 108

SLOWLY HASTEN: Festina lente.

GUARAMANTES: The solitary dog-loving inhabitants of the Tibesti region of the Sahara, encountered by Vergil Magus in the concluding passages of The Phoenix and the Mirror [HW].

Page 109

OXTER: Armpit.

IN THE TIME OF EMERGENCY A SOURCE OF PUBLIX FIRE: This alludes to a medieval Vergil legend, in which the daughter of the Emperor of Rome plays a cruel hoax on the sorceror. In revenge he causes all the fires of Rome to be extinguished, and announces that the only means of rekindling them was (according to Comparetti's Vergil in the Middle Ages) "from the person of the Emperor's daughter." Every householder in Rome had to apply his torch to the body of the daughter, who was brought to the public square for this purpose. The fire is obtained in a manner "better left undescribed."

LUSTRUM, THE QUINCENNIAL LUSTRATION: A lustrum is a five-year period.

Page 113

SQPR: SPQR stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, "property of the Senate and People of Rome." Davidson's manuscript reads: "SQPR. Senate and People of Rome" with the initials marked STET. A subsequent typist apparent changed "People" to "Populus," but retained Davidson's abbreviation. Why Davidson insisted on reversing the two letters is not known.

GABELLE: The word, although (the OED reports) rarely used in English after the 16th century save as a foreign term, means a tax, usually the salt tax levied in France before the Revolution. The salt monopoly and tax was long a perquisite of governments; it is unsurprising that the tyrannical Rome of this story (its oppressive nature much more evident than in earlier Vergil stories) would exact one.

MADDERGANT . . . ROQUE-LAND: Presumably Madagascar, referred to in "Where did Sindbad Sail?" as the "Great Red Island." Davidson's essay also identifies Madagascar as the island where Sinbad saw the roc (also called "rukh"). The sources for calling the island "Maddergant" and "Roque-Land" have not yet been identified.

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The New York Review of Science Fiction for February 1998 (Single issue $3.50 from: Dragon Press, Box 78, Pleasantville, New York 10570) featured "Three Adventures in Autobiography and Excerpts from Letters to Myself: Avram Davidson's Comments on His Literary Life" with an introduction by Grania Davis.

The selections from Adventures in Autobiography, which owes its existence, it seems, to the promptings of Reno Odlin, are : "A Spirit Touched My Lips," concerning the Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference and characterization; "In the Locked Ward," agents and New York publishers such as Doublecross and Company; and "'Hollywood Stuff' (About the Fifties)," about psychological testing, and, well, Los Angeles if not Hollywood.

The reflections in Letters to Myself are clear-headed and rather grim self-assessments concerning a later phase of Avram's career, when his fortunes seemed at a particularly low low.

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Avram Correspondence at Auction

Swann Galleries in New York sold some Davidson material at auction in their Autograph Sale on 5 February. The Davidson correspondence (lot #208) consisted of seven letters and two postcards, dated between 1962 and 1980; two letters were mailed from British Honduras. The correspondence -- addressed to Reginald Bretnor -- was described as covering Avram's work and personal life; the purchaser is reported to be David Streitfeld.

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The URL of the Avram Davidson Website is:

Look for improvements, corrections, and an archive of past issues of The Nutmeg Point District Mail in the near future.

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Next issue will be published 8 May 1998.

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