the Avram Davidson electronic newsletter

Vol. III No. 4
30 November 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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Lordie, what an occasion! Here it is, almost everything we might have wanted to preserve, in one portable volume. When in six months' or a decade's time some innocent enquirer puts in an appearance and asks "Who was this Avram Davidson, anyway?" we will be empowered to point jubilantly to the present book as all-sufficing answer. It really is that complete.
All right, I know `Dragon Skin Drum' was left out, and if I were to let myself brood long over that, it would lead me to snarling at the moon and snapping at publishers and other creatures of the night. Yes, there were things less worthy by far which actually did get included. `Author, Author,' for instance, is a piece of junk. And I have never been one of the admirers of Dr Morris Goldpepper.
The omission of these two would have cleared room enough for the absolutely seminal `Drum' [1] -- and then we could have seen, by lining it up in our minds with `Dagon,' what an extraordinary variety of things Avram could hammer out of the same basic experience [2] : as between `The Power of Every Root' here and Clash of Star Kings (which he called Tlaloc but confidently or jestingly expected the publisher would re-title Aztec Goddesses from Outer Space with Big Boobs); or between the unpublished Dragons in the Trees and the Limekiller stories, especially the extraordinary `Manatee Gal, Won't You Come Out Tonight' which is, glory be, included here.
In fact, `Author, Author' -- bad cess to it! -- affords such a remarkable variety of opportunities that the temptation to go on rooting about in it cannot be resisted. So let's, already (Could It Hoyt?):
Of course it is where the proof-reading errors proliferate most freely (this tends to be an intermittent problem, suggesting that a team divvied up the book to read proof, and that one of the team was, to put it delicately, Not Quite Up To The Job): and where Avram himself, bored to death I fancy and small wonder, could simply not be bothered to eradicate such clinkers as "fortuitous accident" (115, but in oratio recta) and "the four provinces of Northern Ireland" (116).
Whether we owe "Clemantina" (117) and "justicia" (122) to his hand or to the proof-reader's may be easy enough to determine if you have Strange Seas and Shores near at hand; but when we read "The rustic slowly hook his head" (113) and "risability" (115) and "proferred" (115) and "Pharoah" (117) and -- moving ahead now to other stories -- "deductable" (135) and "monastary" (309) and "Bhuddist" (299) and "LUCIVS" (342) and "butterfiles" (343) and "sneaky pet" (for "Pete" -- 363) and "How coffee" (for "Hot" -- 379), there can be no doubt from the very start.
The story points up as well a generic problem over accents and dialects: those heard as against those remembered. That Avram's ear for ambient accents and those he grew up among was one of superhuman delicacy and accuracy goes far beyond the merely axiomatic: but in dealing with those remembered or garnered from books -- well, there is Peregrine: Secundus where his control over plausible Brit dictions pretty plainly collapses; and there is `Author, Author'; and I won't quote what Anne McCaffrey had to say about his pitiable attempts at Dublin demotic [3]; but in these regions the ear was, shall we say? palpably less reliable.
And I cannot divest myself of the unworthy suspicion that the story was included here to make a polemical point about publishers -- Heaven has deprived me of any knowledge regarding the identity of Melisa Michaels, but hers is by long odds the most tempestuous Introductory Page in the entire book, a mere eighteen lines in length but filled with characterizations of the publishing industry as "hideous fiends" and "monstrous wickedness" and "loathsome creatures" (and she seems to me to be "in denial," as the current cant phrase has it, when she sneers at "those who say [Avram] was testy and irascible," which toward the end he absolutely was and small wonder, and it detracted in no respect from his continuing charm and wit and courtesy) -- and not for any imagined merits the story may possess.

Now, about the physical book. (And after this the bad news ends, you will be glad to hear.) It is very handsome to look at. It is, I suppose, technically "hard-bound" -- if you allow the word "bound" to dignify the method known in the trade (on the principle lucus a non lucendo [4]) as "perfect" binding: that is to say, loose sheets glued to a backing, what my boys call "paperbacks in drag." In a year, or two years or ten, that glue will dry up and the pages will flutter away to the tune of `Autumn Leaves.' . . . And the boards are covered in a sort of textured paper, not cloth.
By way of comparison, the recent NESFA reprints of Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia and The Rediscovery of Man were bound in honest sewn signatures, with honest cloth covers, and at a substantially lower retail price. (The proofing was better too.)

The list of contributors, or co-sponsors (or unindicted co-conspirators?) constitutes an amazing line-up altogether. If all those who put in a good word for Avram Davidson here are to receive complimentary copies, the first print run is going to put a serious dent in someone's plans for other Holiday Gifts.
Of these contributions, at least Ray Bradbury's and Harlan Ellison's Afterwords are retreads. I am glad of the Ellison piece for its story about AD's "accidentally" dropping his, Ellison's, German typewriter. This adds to the canon. This is the Davidson who repeatedly refused publication in Germany, saying: "I do not dip my bread in my brother's blood." (He is also the Davidson who would not push an elevator button on Saturday: a Sea-Green Incorruptible in fact, as Carmen Edmondson can attest, whose first meeting with Avram and Grania as newlyweds involved a shopping-bag full of kosher food, which Avram carried about against unsuitable dietary risks which might be encountered en route. Perhaps Grania still remembers what she learned that week about huevos rancheros. . . .)
Whether it was Bradbury himself or a helpful Editor who changed "Introduction" to "Afterword" in his piece `Night Travel on the Orient Express,' I cannot summon enough curiosity to determine. It is late at night, I am weary, the point is of no importance.

What remains most vivid is Avram's own voice, or voices. I spoke to you a year or so ago about my sense that `The Sources of the Nile' furnished a wonderfully good idea of his conversation; two other pieces here reflect his correspondence with the same accuracy, namely `Selectra Six-Ten' and `Hark! Was That the Squeal of an Angry Thoat?' `Selectra' in fact, like much of his work in one way or another, is thinly-veiled autobiography, as Ed Ferman would probably be the first to acknowledge. . . .
How he would have enjoyed the letter objecting to a particularly noxious current usage, quoted in a recent Internet posting from Camille Paglia: ". . . `gay people and lesbians.' What's that all about? They don't say African-Americans and mammies, Native Americans and squaws."
The sheer linguistic joy of that might have induced him to relax his guard for a few moments against what he, or his typewriter, called "bull-dukes," a breed he had encountered far too often, I surmise, in his last sad decade, among the armored vaginate bipeds who run the day-to-day functions of the Veterans' Administration Hospitals. But that leads us pretty far away from the book under consideration. . . .

So then: of the solid achievements in his shorter fiction, most of the important titles are present here: `The Slovo Stove' [5]; `The Golem'; `The Woman Who Thought She Could Read'; `Manatee Gal . . .'; and `The Affair at Lahore Cantonment.' The book is damned well indispensable. Then there is `Yellow Rome,' that conclusive demonstration that he had lost NONE of his powers in his "declining years." Marvelous!
`Yellow Rome' leads up to and answers, ringingly and affirmatively, its key question: "Some knowledge had I gained, but had I gained wisdom?" The Vergil of The Phoenix and the Mirror would have pursued the Vestal, not fled Rome. [6]

To sum it all up, I have wanted three things in general: I wanted to read Adventures in Unhistory. All of it, all in one volume. Done! and handsomely, by George Scithers at Owlswick Press. (And anyone who has missed the Prester John investigation therein contained confesses himself, to precisely that extent, incompletely human.) An additional satisfaction with this book was that Avram actually lived to see the first published copies, after years of gloomily supposing the book was doomed to stifle unpublished.
I wanted to see `The Slovo Stove' between boards where someone other than myself might be able to read it, and to note what a magisterial effort it constitutes. And here it is!
I wanted to read `The Wailing of the Gaulish Dead,' and through the indefatigable industry of Grania Davis, who has finally found the missing half of that essay, I have done so.
So what's left to want? Well how about the missing 19 pages of Dragons in the Trees? How about *publishing* that book, and The Corpsmen, and the Limekiller stories? Somebody? Anybody?
How about the episodes Avram didn't live to write, God rest his soul, in the on-going series Adventures in Autobiography?
In fact, how about an alternative life-line which would NOT have included the four strokes he suffered over the publication of Vergil in Averno, and which would have allowed him, in his cheery and affluent advanced years (ha!), to fulfill his light-hearted promise -- but indeed, this requires some background information. Briefly, then:
My older son, having visited Portsmouth, NH and having been struck by its sombre atmosphere reminiscent of Lovecraft's things-that-go-blub!-squish!-in-the-night-laden Innsmouth -- something which had occurred to me also, years before, upon viewing a book of photographs entitled The Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua -- proposed to go back with a camera and shoot up the town, with an illustrated edition of the Lovecraft story in view. Avram, hearing of this, wrote me on 12 September 1992: ". . . and how, by the way, is the photographic history of legend-haunted Innsmouth coming along? I will gladly pose for anything squamous or rugose, so long as I don't have to swim to or from a reef." Of course nothing came of it . . . .
In such an alternate life-line, he and Ward Moore might even have found time and energy for the definitive rewrite of Joyleg, that rewrite which would have removed the faded topicalities which mar all the existent versions, and would NOT have replaced them with topicalities equally certain to fade in the next few decades. The strengths of Joyleg are such that it can survive the topicalities handsomely, but they remain an unnecessary annoyance.
Now, about that `Dragon Skin Drum' . . . .



PS = A letter with footnotes? Why not ! It unclutters the text, doesn't it ? Must the pleasures of the format be restricted to Edward Gibbon -- and, Avram would add, Jack Vance? It is to laugh.

1. During the remainder of his editorship at Kenyon Review Robie Macauley routinely said of new manuscripts: "Oh, it's good, it's good -- but it's not `Dragon Skin Drum'!" What he said at Playboy, and then at Houghton Mifflin, I don't know.

2. One of the Introducers speaks of `Dagon' as Dunsanyesque, and I suppose it may be: but in it is also a sly critique of Lovecraft's many variations on the theme "I became that which I dreaded," as may be inferred from the title itself, a sidelong allusion to HPL's `The Shadow Over Innsmouth' with its Esoteric Order of Dagon.
Of Lovecraft's own sketch titled `Dagon' we ought to be mindful too: Dunsanyesque this may have been, and a link from Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym to his own more fully-realized `Innsmouth' as well: but it suffered the fate of posthumous publication at the hands of August Derleth, and therefore cannot escape the dry suspicion of having been tampered with en route to publication. (Its last paragraph seems to me to bear plentiful marks of such tampering.) In any case, there seems little overt relationship, other than the name itself, with AD's story.
We must not overlook the great likelihood that John Crowley took from this Davidson story a hint for his figure of Grandfather Trout in Little, Big -- another book by no means to be missed. (That Crowley got the idea of the photo album in that book from Conan Doyle's Coming of the Fairies seems to me, and to others whose judgment in such matters I take seriously, indisputable.)

3. Partly because I haven't the shadow of a chance of finding that letter, and partly because of various irksome provisions of present-day Copyright Law.

4. A lexicographers' joke from the long-ago: "Lucus," a grove, called thus because no light shines there: "a non lucendo." Well, so it doesn't translate. So?

5. For those who missed it the first time around -- and how could you NOT have done so, poor devils? for its first and only previous publication was in an evanescent anthology named Universe 15, in 1985 -- `The Slovo Stove' is one of those few stories which create an entire cosmos for the reader to explore. All this in a scant 27 pages: two vanishing cultures, the whole of their history on two continents, the entire tale of their mutually contemptuous relationship over the centuries, the whole of it permeated with the most poignant sense of loss over their absorption in no more than two generations by an imperfectly-understood New World identity. Very occasionally a writer gets something done to absolute perfection. This was that occasion for Avram Davidson. To some it never happens at all.

6. But there is, come to think of it, another omission I am sad to report: `The Great Globe,' a tale of twisted temporal threads and an utterly amazing cadenza on bird migrations (to which in memory I compare the vision of the sky-blackening and stercoriferous multitudes of the Passenger Pigeon in Adventures in Unhistory), moving swiftly to its hilarious denouement in the fate of the diminutive Ser Minnimus Rufus. Perhaps this was thought to be too tightly interwoven with the unwritten parts of `Vergil in the Cave'? Don't know. I thought it stood alone quite well.

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The November issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction published a letter from your editor and graced it with the title, "Thoughts Occasioned by the Publication of The Avram Davidson Treasury," which has a nice 18th-century ring to it.
Two brief excerpts:

It would be somewhat improper for me to review this book, for reasons that are to be found in the table of contents. [...] I am reluctant to let this moment pass doing what I have been doing on and off for the past five years. Namely, to say, to anyone who will listen, "Hey, have you ever read anything by Avram Davidson? You really should read this book. . . .

For all his reputed cantankerousness, Davidson was a great writer, and in his work and in his person he touched a whole lot of writers (some of whom don't even talk to each other). No one buys a book merely for the introductions, but the ones in the introductions in the Treasury give some sense of the diversity of Avram's odyllic forces. Some are perfunctory nods, others bittersweet recollections of Davidson's wit and erudition, and a few are substantial essays or memoirs. The most noteworthy are, in no particular order: Gregory Benford's reflections on evolution for "Now Let Us Sleep"; William Gibson's note on "the instant of my missing Avram"; Robert Silverberg's introduction; Harlan Ellison's afterword to "Polly Charms" and his thoughts on learning of Avram's death, which form an afterword to the Treasury ; Guy Davenport's remarks on "Or All the Seas with Oysters," which he calls "so sinister a fable of man and his losing battle with the machine" ; John M. Ford's introduction to "Take Wooden Indians"; and Gregory Feeley's assessment of "The Sources of the Nile."

The New York Review of Science Fiction.
Issue # 123, November 1998. $3.50.
Available from:
Dragon Press
P.O. Box 78, Pleasantville, NY 10570

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Reviews of The Avram Davidson Treasury
Michael Dirda's review of the Treasury (in The Washington Post, 11 October 1998), entitled In the Realms of Wonder, is a charming and polished essay that should bring a host of new readers to Avram's work. Dirda writes, "For the most part this bearded Orthodox Jewish autodidact wrote what one might call fantasy, of a sort, sometimes drifting into the starry realms of science fiction and sometimes into the wild gardens of the antiquarian essay (see the wonderful -- and highly idiosyncratic -- Adventures in Unhistory). Grasping fruitlessly for comparisons, his admirers have likened Davidson to Saki, Chesterton, John Collier, Lafcadio Hearn, Kipling, even I.B. Singer and S.J. Perelman. And you can see what they mean. I would add that he frequently reminds me of the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell: Two similarly brilliant stylists with a compassionate interest in bohemians, losers, immigrant culture, New York, oddities, con artists, crackpot inventors, and the passing of humane, small-scale neighborhood life. [...] He celebrated vanishing cultures and foods and customs and places, most of them now absorbed in the homogenized tele-glitz of modern American mall-life. There is no better sketch of the Slavic immigrant culture of my own youth -- almost entirely gone now -- than "The Slovo Stove," while the portraits of Jewish dentists and Hispanic cooks and old scholars from "Chairmany" and 1950s admen seem just as true and apt. Apparently Davidson spent much of his adult life in a series of rented rooms, enjoying the company of the raffish, the outcast, and the hardworking poor. Friends say he was a terrific raconteur, but from the evidence of his fiction he was an even better listener."

The entire review is archived at the Avram Davidson Website

In the October issue of Locus, the Treasury was reviewed in glowing terms by both Faren Miller and Gary K. Wolfe. Wolfe also reviewed The Boss in the Wall, which he described as a "waggish intellectual horror story with the convincing flavor of a genuine folk-legend." (Wolfe erroneously dated the origins of The Boss in the Wall to the mid-1980s: one complete manuscript bears the date 1982). Wolfe's most perceptive comment on the Treasury appears later in his column, when he writes, "The beauty of Theodore Sturgeon's best stories is of a whole different order from Davidson's, and what helped make Sturgeon more revered in his day than Davidson may be the same qualities that pose a challenge to his posthumous rehabilitation. In reading Davidson stories from the 1950s, we are startled at how fresh and undated they seem; in reading Sturgeon stories from 1947 to 1949 -- the years covered by the 17 stories in The Perfect Host, the fifth volume of Sturgeon's complete stories to be published by North Atlantic Books -- we are too often struck by how dated the language and the characters seem."

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Setting the record straight:
Despite what the dustjacket flap of the Treasury states, Avram Davidson had published numerous articles and stories in English prior to 1954, when he published his first science fiction story. Most of these early pieces appeared in Jewish Life or in Commentary. As best as can be determined, he was nominated for the Nebula Award nine times during his lifetime.

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Revised in April 1999

Avram Davidson's Nine Nebula Nominations:
Short Fiction:
Edgar Award Nomination:
World Fantasy Award Nominations:
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The URL of the Avram Davidson Website is:

An abundant mix of material has just recently been posted to the website, including bio-bibliographical essays, reviews, plus updates, corrections and expansions.
Thanks again to webmaster Jim Nicholson, who remarks that his favorite story in the Treasury so far is "Crazy Old Lady."
Submissions of additional material for the Website are welcome.

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Next issue will be published in January 1999.

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