the Avram Davidson electronic newsletter

Vol. III No. 3
30 September 1998
ISSN 1089-764X

Henry Wessells, Editor.
Cooper Wessells, Honorary Secretary.

Published bimonthly by whim and fancy for the Avram Davidson Society.
Contents copyright 1998 The Nutmeg Point District Mail and assigned to individual contributors. All rights reserved.

All correspondence to:
Post Office 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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by Avram Davidson
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
49th Anniversary issue, October/November 1998, pp.160-169.

    The current issue of F&SF contains an excellent self-contained sketch from The Corpsmen, the manuscript of Avram's "first sustained attempt at a novel," a "semi-autobiographical" work about members of the WWII-era Naval Medical Corps at the Naval Air Station, in "Mullet Bay, Florida."
    "Blunt" recounts the adventures of Huey P. Blunt, Pharmacist's Mate, First Class, who had studied under a "very old man" named Elnathan Wisonant who "represented an older tradition in native medicine than the A.M.A." Wisonant's comments on "college doctors" are memorable:
    "'Horse leeches,' he called them; 'bumshavers, quacksalvers, peddlers of snake oil and pink aspirin.
    "'A trust, a vile and contemptible monopoly, a guild of grave robbers aping their betters among the natural philosophers.'"
    Blunt's early career included stints as a company doctor at a logging camp and as "le docteur on a sisal plantation in Haiti. [...] He was in British Honduras when the European war broke out, but paid it little attention until the invasion of Denmark and Norway by a people who might have eventually become civilized, had the British in the early part of the previous century not prevented the French from continuing to civilize them. Something stirred in the heart of Huey P. Blunt as he read the accounts of the armed parachutists dropping from the troubled sky. He went back to the United States and enlisted in the Navy."
    Blunt's practical experience makes him invaluable to his superiors at Mullet Bay, so he finds himself unable to get an overseas assignment. He soon develops other interests. His courtship of Wilma Swanson (from the neighboring town of Cataline) starts off in customary fashion, but promptly takes a turn for the comical.
    It is interesting to note that this comparatively early work reveals in full concerns that run as constants throughout Avram's later work, including an acute sense for variations in spoken usage and the contrast between odd or outdated science and the establishment. Allusions to the Masons (oblique in this tale but developed at greater length in other sketches of The Corpsmen) are precursors to later uses of Masonic secrecy and intrigue, and indeed the disconnected snatches of rumor and misinformation that surround Blunt by story's end are also consistent with structures and ideas that figure in later stories.

-- Henry Wessells

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Lupoff on Davidson, Heinlein, Burrroughs, etc.

Writer at Large by Richard Lupoff
154p., $15.00
Gryphon Books
P.O. Box 209
Brooklyn, NY 11228-0209

Richard A. Lupoff's latest collection of essays, Writer at Large, includes the introductory essay for the forthcoming St. Martin's collection, The Investigations of Avram Davidson.
Lupoff's introduction very much resembles his side of a conversation: lively and humorous, slightly digressive, and filled with anecdotes about people he has known. In "Avram Davidson, My Friend, This Stranger," Lupoff recalls his friendship with Avram in New York in the early 1960s, what happened while he was first reading Joyleg, some of the contents of Avram's library, and Avram's unique prose style.
Lupoff observes, "With a mere handful of syllables he could transport a reader to the deck of an ancient sailing vessel as it plied the waves of the sun-dappled Mediterranean, to a musty and mysterious little shop in a shadowy byway of Victorian London, to the Spartan executive offices or the clattering production line of a modern corporation. [...] Avram Davidson transcended the usual boundaries of categories, and simply told Avram Davidson stories."
Also of note are his essay on teaching writing inside San Quentin prison; "Heinlein: A Revisionist Sketch"; and two essays on the high vs low debate in literature, "Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Maxwell Perkins Syndrome" and "Wright, Van Dine, Vance."

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Reflections on The Boss in the Wall by Gregory Feeley


    The Boss in the Wall was Avram Davidson's last major project, an ambitious work for which Davidson held great hopes, and which occupied him for several years. At times it took the form of a novella, a long novel (unfinished), and a planned collaboration. He alluded to it in letters throughout the mid-1980s, and described it most fully on 3 March 1987: "THE BOSS IN THE WALL is an unfinished horror novel, so far the biggest MS ever I've written; as soon as Grania Davis and I (mostly she) finishes the Final Draft of Marco Polo and the Sleeping Beauty, we hope to get cracking with Boss. If it succeeds we may have contributed a Horror Legend original and effective enough to class with Frankenstein and Dracula."
     In conversation Davidson said that although a novella version existed, The Boss in the Wall had been conceived as a long novel. (After his death, Grania Davis told me that the novella had been produced in response to the possibility of publication in an abortive anthology project.) I have never seen the original manuscript, which Grania Davis has described as very long and disordered; but the novella -- entitled simply "The Boss in the Wall, by Avram Davidson" -- exists as an 86-page manuscript of about 23,000 words. It is dated November 4, 1982, and is apparently a submission copy; the name and address of Davidson's agent is in the corner.
    The manuscript, full of hand corrections, typed strikeovers, and interlineations, is extremely untidy, but it is already surprisingly close to the version published in 1998 by the Tachyon Press as "The Boss in the Wall, A Treatise on the House Devil, A Short Novel by Avram Davidson and Grania Davis." All the important scenes in the published version but one are present, although the early ones are in a slightly different order. The published version contains frequent changes in wording, and occasionally some dialogue has been assigned to a different character.
     After Davidson's death in 1993, Grania Davis prepared a proposal for a novel, described as being "around 100,000 words." The proposal MS (hereafter the Proposal) is entitled "Boss in the Wall, or Treatise on the House Devil or Paper-Man by Avram Davidson and Grania Davis," and runs 76 typescript pages, or approximately 23,000 words. Although some chapters are identified as "Excerpts," the narrative is a complete one, with no visible lacunae. Chapter II, "The Old House (Excerpts)" is nearly identical to the published Chapter II, "The Old House"; while the third Proposal chapter, "The Quest (Excepts)," was expanded to form Chapters III, "Vlad's Quest," and IV, "Bagnell's Quest" in the finished work.
    It is difficult to know how much of the Proposal was written by Davidson and how much added later by Davis. The only substantial passage not present in Davidson's novella MS is Chapter II, "The Old House" (the scene in which Vlad Smith's daughter Bella encounters a Paper-Man and is deeply traumatized); its action is synopsized briefly at the beginning of the novella. The chapter bears all the hallmarks of Davidson's prose; the passage in which an elderly black man accosts Vlad with some warning advice ("Firstly, get you a cat. They hates cats. Nextly, keep you a fire. They feared o' fire. And lastly, please folks, never get between one o' them and the wall!") being irresistibly Davidsonian. My guess is that the scene was written by Davidson, but was reduced to summary when he prepared the novella MS.
    Several other short passages in the published book are not present in the novella, including the scene in which Vlad Smith and Jack Stewart visit a museum and see a painting that appears to depict a Boss in the Wall (pp. 70-72), the scene where they bed down at a guest house and a Boss in the Wall scuttles across the ceiling (pp. 78-80), and the scene in which Vlad visits Claire Zimmerman and feels attracted to her (pp. 91-93). None of these scenes add much to the story. Of the various article extracts and committee reports presented in the novel, several -- the less interesting ones -- are also not in the original novella. Either Davidson omitted the weaker ones when producing the novella version, or these were added later by Davis.
    Without consulting Davidson's original novel MS, it is impossible to determine exactly who wrote what, but the Proposal was for a novel version four times as long as the material included; the shared byline may have reflected the fact that the 75,000 words of added text would be largely by Grania Davis. In the event, however, the "short novel" published by Tachyon Press contains almost nothing not already in the Proposal, although the double byline remains.
    Given the evidence of the three texts described here, Grania Davis's contribution to The Boss in the Wall seems to be largely that of an editor, who produced a legible text, arranged and reordered scenes, corrected Davidson's prose, and apparently added some short scenes. Most of the passages perhaps written by Davis (the candidates being those not present in the novella) are unimportant, and tend to repeat points already made. The claim by Poul Anderson on the back of the Tachyon edition that "Grania Davis has completed this work, which he [Davidson] left unfinished," implies a more substantial contribution than the manuscript evidence suggests.
    Similarly, Michael Swanwick's statement (in his introduction) that Davis "went through the material, re-organized it, and wrote up a novel proposal" is correct; but his next sentence -- "When this proved insufficient to sell the book, she took over the enormous mass of typescript and set about turning it into a finished novel, polishing and arranging what already existed, and adding new material of her own" -- is contradicted by the fact, unknown to Swanwick, that the Proposal and the finished work are nearly identical.


    So The Boss in the Wall, for better or worse, is essentially Avram Davidson's work, cleaned up and perhaps expanded slightly for publication, but not finally a creative collaboration. How does it hold up?
    The answer, alas, is that the "short novel" in many respects resembles the disordered succession of scenes that Davidson's original MS has been described as being. Parts of it are brilliant; others are less so, and seem haphazardly stuck together. Much of the work's oddity, such as its indefinite time period, is hard to evaluate artistically -- is the fact that the story seems at some points to be set in the Fifties or earlier and at others to be contemporary a bug or a feature? And much of what we are told in the story is inconsistent with what we are shown.
    The first chapter is close to masterful. The scene in which Edward Bagnell, a professor at Sumner Public College, confronts Curator Larraby of the seedy Carolina Coast Museum and asks to see the "Paper-Man" that he has heard the Museum possesses is charged with menace. We encounter the Paper-Man -- the creature also known as a "Boss in the Wall" -- within a few pages, but by that time we have already been made vividly aware of the aura of secrecy, danger, and loathing that surrounds it. The dramatic contrast between Larraby's extreme reluctance to discuss or show the object, which is kept in a tower room behind two sets of locks, and its unprepossessing initial appearance -- two cardboard boxes in a file cabinet -- is extremely effective. By the time we understand that the Paper-Man resembles a filthy old men's suit stuffed with ancient newspapers, we are quite ready to find it horrible. The offhand details -- Larraby using a pair of tongs to turn over the torso -- work so well that the genuinely gruesome details that come a few pages later (the photograph of the missing head; the story of how the creature was seen catching and eating a rat) only confirm our sense of horror.
    No single scene in the rest of the book is quite as successful as this. Davidson's three plot-lines -- Vlad and his attempt to discover what it was that attacked his family; Bagnell and his quest to establish the identity of Larraby's Paper-Man; the intrigue involving the missing head in a Rhode Island museum -- rely on a long succession of coincidences, and create a cumulative impression that is deeply and irreconcilably inconsistent. The existence of the Paper-Man is a secret unsuspected by the world, but once Vlad Smith, Professor of Folklore, begins to investigate it, he not only finds popular accounts everywhere he looks (although he has never before heard of the legends), but he continually stumbles across evidence of their actual existence -- he can't check into a guest house without seeing one over his bed. The creatures appear to be pathetic disease victims, but much is made of their slyness, a creepy attribute that is repeatedly cited but never shown. And the Committee, a group of extremely diverse scholars who have all discovered (apparently independently) the truth about the Boss in the Wall and come into contact with each other (how?), are united in wanting to keep this phenomenon a secret from the world, although we are never told why.
    As with much of Davidson's work, many of the best moments are bits, instants of bizarre humor or illumination. When Vlad is introduced to the grandson of a scholar he is visiting ("In theory he is reading law with me. When he is finished he will be a foremost authority on the foreclosure of mules"), the youth later gnomically remarks that "Larraby's got one locked up." A senile old man connected with the General Museum of the Province of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations ("I'm only old Harry Roberts, and I don't signify, though I am still on the Budget Committee") tells the high-handed museum director to pour him a brandy "or I'll tell the Museum about your stinking old head." (The museum director is incidentally named Silas Abbott Selby, whom Larraby calls "the most unworthy damned Yankee rat and rascal"; one of the story's most charmingly peculiar features is Davidson's insistence upon including details that seem two or more generations out of date.)
    The center of the book, its heart and raison d'etre, is the figure of the Boss in the Wall; its evocation is the book's sole purpose. At the end of the penultimate chapter, we have seen all of the Boss in the Wall, aka the Paper-Man, Greasy-Man, or Clicker, that Davidson has to show; he then ends the story by burning down a house full of them, and that is that. There is no preparation, or sense of inevitability, to this: Davidson, who felt that his skills in novel construction were deficient, concluded his last published novel, Vergil in Averno, by blowing everything up, and he essentially does the same here.
    In the novella, an escaped mental patient takes refuge in an abandoned house, where he encounters a Paper-Man. In panic he sets fire to the building, and onlookers see numerous Paper-Men writhing on the roof before being consumed in the flames. The mental patient cries "Purified by fire!" as he is led away.
    None of the characters in this scene appears elsewhere in the novella, and none of the story's unresolved elements are brought to a conclusion. It is a highly offputting conclusion, chilly (because we are denied any sense of transition or resolution) but probably not successful.
    The published version is significantly different, with a secondary plot line added (it seems safe to guess) by Grania Davis. In it, the house is identified as the one in which Vlad's daughter Bella saw a Paper-Man, and both Vlad and his daughter happen to be back in the house (one more coincidence) when it is set on fire. This new element does give a sense of closure to Vlad's story line, although only by the expedient of suggesting that seeing her father fight off a horde of crazed Paper-Men and then carry her from the burning house will allow Bella to recover from her emotional trauma.
    Unsatisfying as the original ending is, this revision serves to weaken it -- make it implausibly tidy rather than chillingly disjunct. Bella and her problems aside, the story's essential problem still remains: after Vlad discovers that there is a committee of scholars who are studying the Paper-Men and forces himself into their presence, Davidson has nowhere to go. He has created the Boss in the Wall -- a horrific image, one that he hoped would prove as durable as Frankenstein or Dracula -- but he does not know what to do with it.
    Given the unfinished (and inconsistent) nature of Davidson's drafts, either of the strategies his executor could take in preparing a version for publication held perils. Grania Davis could have published the original novella, perhaps supplemented with whatever scenes from the longer MS seemed most successful; or she could have taken "the enormous mass of typescript" and completed it herself, reconciling inconsistencies and straightening out difficulties, which could probably be accomplished only by dint of adding enough new material to warrant the shared byline.
    In the event, Davis faltered at carrying out either plan: she (apparently) added a small amount of new material, most of it weak, and left the story's problems unaddressed. Readers who accept the assurances that this is a completed and finished work will be put off by its incomplete and disorganized nature.
    Anyone who cherishes Davidson's work will be happy to see The Boss in the Wall. But we would probably have been better served by a version that kept as close as possible to what Davidson produced, and did not pretend to be anything else.

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Signed copies of Vergil in Averno

Elliott Swanson of Washington state has kindly donated three copies of Vergil in Averno, signed by Avram, to the Avram Davidson Society. These will be sold in a sealed bid auction to raise money for future projects of the Avram Davidson Society. Vergil in Averno is an elusive book and this presents a unique opportunity for readers of the Nutmeg Point District Mail to acquire a copy. The three books are as follows:

Item 1. Davidson, Avram. Vergil in Averno. Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York, 1987. First (and only) edition. Octavo, [6] + 184 pages, bound in white paper-covered boards, with dustjacket.
Signed "Avram Davidson" on front free endpaper, stamped with VM monogram and bearing the additional inscription "Vergil Magus His Mark." Signed again on title page.
As New.
Item 2. Davidson, Avram. Vergil in Averno. Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York, 1987. First (and only) edition. Octavo, [6] + 184 pages, bound in white paper-covered boards, with dustjacket.
Signed "Avram Davidson" on front free endpaper, stamped with VM monogram and bearing the additional inscription "Vergil Magus His Mark."
Slight bump at base of spine, faint shelfwear or transfer along top and bottom of rear panel of dustjacket. Half-title stuck to front endpaper at one spot.
Item 3. Davidson, Avram. Vergil in Averno. Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York, 1987. First (and only) edition. Octavo, [6] + 184 pages, bound in white paper-covered boards, with dustjacket.
Signed "Avram Davidson" on front free endpaper, stamped with VM monogram and bearing the additional inscription "Vergil Magus His Mark." Signed again on title page.
One-inch closed tears at top and bottom corners of front panel of dust jacket, affecting last two letters of "Davidson" along bottom.

SEND WRITTEN BIDS BY MAIL ONLY. Bids must specify item number, amount of bid in Yankee dollars (USD), bidder's name and address (plus telephone number and/or electronym), and should be postmarked before October 31, 1998. Successful bidders will have two weeks to send in payment. Address all bids to:

The Avram Davidson Society, P.O. Box 43072, Upper Montclair, NJ 07043-0072.

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The Avram Davidson Treasury

Publishers Weekly for 28 September 1998 briefly notes (p.79):
"Two masters of speculative fiction are honored in forthcoming major anthologies. Work by Avram Davidson (1923-1993), a driving force in the field from the 1950s through the '80s, is collected in The Avram Davidson Treasury, edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis, who both contribute forewords. Here are reprinted 37 of his best short stories, each introduced by a leading SF or fantasy writer, including, to name just a few, William Gibson, Martha Soukup, Spider Robinson and Damon Knight. (Tor $26.95 447p ISBN 0-312-86729-8)" The other collection noted is the NESFA Press book, An Ornament to His Profession, edited by Priscilla Olson, which selects 17 stories by Charles L. Harness.
A review of the Treasury will appear in the next issue.

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The URL of the Avram Davidson Website is:

The archive of past issues of The Nutmeg Point District Mail is now available; other parts of the website (including the Index to the Writings of Avram Davidson) have been updated, corrected, and expanded.
Submissions of additional material for the Website are welcome.

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Next issue will be published in November 1998.

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