the Avram Davidson electronic newsletter

Vol. III No. 5
31 January 1999
ISSN 1089-764X

Henry Wessells, Editor.
Cooper Wessells, Honorary Secretary.

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.


+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +


+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Edited by Grania Davis and Richard A. Lupoff
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999

          The Investigations of Avram Davidson, edited by Grania Davis and Richard A. Lupoff, will be published in February by St. Martin's Press. The stories travel far and wide in time and space, from the antebellum slave-owning South of "The Necessity of His Condition" to 1950s Cyprus in "The Ikon of Elijah"; and from early nineteenth century New York City in "The Importance of Trifles" to the idyllic Central American mountain village in "The Third Sacred Well of the Temple." Richard A. Lupoff notes in his introduction, "Avram Davidson transcended the usual boundaries of categories, and simply told Avram Davidson stories." This is a superb collection of first-rank Avram Davidson stories.
          "Lord of Central Park" is a charming and improbable tale that could only have come from Avram's typewriter, with a richly varied cast of hereditary river pirates, very, very petty criminals, Balkan terrorists, and a genuine ingenue, plus a remittance man who is unique in all of literature. It contains some of Avram's best list poems, from the multitude of titles of the Marquess of Grue and Groole to the contents of shop-windows and ship's cargoes pilfered by the Goodecounce family.
          Grania Davis recalls the composition of "A Quiet Room with a View": "How we laughed when we read the story aloud -- it must have been just before dinner. In 1964, the grim reality of living in a retirement institution seemed very far away." "Mr. Folsom Feels Fine" is sheer delight, a fantasy of prosperous retirement in an exotic land, composed when Avram had already begun to experience the grim reality of life in the V.A. hospital system. While the story introduction to "The Deed of the Deft-Footed Dragon" emphasizes how Avram drew upon his experience in China for the portrait of the hatchet-wielding On Lung, the story is also notable for offering a new interpretation to the events in the Borden household in Fall River, Massachusetts.
          The attractive black, gold and white dust jacket bears a photograph of a foggy city street (possibly London) superimposed over a late 18th century map of lower Manhattan. It carries blurbs from Michael Dirda, Ed Gorman, Joe Gores, Bill Pronzini, Janwillem van de Wetering, and Rand Lee; the photograph of Avram Davidson is the well known one of Avram at his most distinguished, a formal pose in a dinner jacket (from the 1970s), reproduced here inside an oval frame with a sepiatone effect that gives the portrait the look of an antique carte de visite.
        --   Henry Wessells

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Immigrant Cultures and Parallel Structures
in the Fiction of Avram Davidson

          As I have been (re-)reading the stories in the recently published Treasury and the forthcoming Investigations, I have been impressed by many aspects of Avram Davidson's stories. Perhaps chief among these interesting qualities are Avram's acute observations of the immigrant milieu (whether the story calls itself fantasy or space opera or mystery) and his successful use of a particular form in a series of novelette-length tales written at different stages of his career.
          Nothing demonstrates Avram's peculiar strengths as a chronicler of the lives of newly Americanized immigrants more clearly than the happy coincidence that brought together, side by side in the Treasury, his finest long story, "The Slovo Stove" (1985) with his finest miniature, "The Last Wizard" (1971). "The Slovo Stove" is set very specifically in 1950 yet it offers a timeless picture of the adaptation and abandonment that appear to be part of the process of Americanization. The gulf that separated Slovo and Huzzuk on the European landmass is ultimately meaningless in rust-belt Parlour's Ferry, where they are but two groups among many seeking to establish themselves. The cultural snobbery of the Huzzuks is rooted in their ties to European high culture; yet the Slovos preserve an even more ancient (and wholly science-fictional) heritage in their two-stone stove. The learned Mr. Grahdy, "with his wife's alexandrines, his violin, Heine, Schiller, Lermontov, Pushkin, Paganini and the Latin Psalms -- keeps a failing delicatessen and is, in the end, unable to survive in the melting pot. The Slovo grandmother, who abandons her stove in favor of the latest electric model, was the last possessor of secrets preserved in another venerable tradition. What "The Slovo Stove presents in richly detailed prose, "The Last Wizard" tells -- uproariously, puzzlingly, and tragically -- in the space of a page and a half.
          Throughout Avram's career there were instances when he adopted the trappings of a particular genre or form -- in shorter pieces as well as at novel length -- and created his own distinctive fiction within that space. Consider, for example, the short interstellar space fictions, "Now Let Us Sleep" or "The House the Blakeneys Built," in which Avram built complex morality plays in nine- or ten-page tales. This capacity is apparent even in the ghost work on the Ellery Queen novels and in his lesser science fiction and fantasy novels of the mid 1960s and early 1970s, such as Rork!, The Enemy of My Enemy, and Ursus of Ultima Thule.
          In a 1957 letter to Frederic Dannay (half of Ellery Queen), Avram wrote that acceptance of "The Necessity of His Condition" marked a turning point in his writing career, even before he won the Ellery Queen award. Not long after, Avram appears to have found one particular form that would prove fruitful: the medium-length short story or novelette, which Gregory Feeley observes "can retain the concision and urgency of the short story while permitting more complex dramatic development."
          "Take Wooden Indians" (1959) was the first of these stories in a mode that Avram returned to with "The Sources of the Nile" (1961), "Lord of Central Park" (1971), "The Slovo Stove" and "The Spook-Box of Theodore Delafont De Brooks" (1993), as well as in the Eszterhazy and Limekiller stories. It is uncanny how closely "The Sources of the Nile," "The Slovo Stove" and "The Spook-Box . . ." resemble each other in their structures, pacing and closing cadences and moods: with an almost mystical fervor, Bob Rosen, Fred Silberman, and T.D. De Brooks are each in search of something glimpsed and lost, something unattainable that Avram has nonetheless created in the mind of the reader.
     --   Henry Wessells

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

by Gregory Feeley

          "What do you care about those poor suckers for?" asks an incredulous Peter Martens of Bob Rosen, whom he has caught reading an article on "Demography of the Jackson Whites" in a copy of the Journal of the New York State Geographical Society.
          "They don't buy, they don't sell, they don't start fashion, they don't follow fashion. Just poach, fornicate, and produce oh-point-four hydrocephalic albinos per hundred. Or something."
          We are in the opening scene of "The Sources of the Nile," where the subject of Bob Rosen's reading is mentioned for the first and last time.

          Who are the Jackson Whites? There is no entry for them in any standard reference work, but Henry Wessells recently sent me two articles describing their history. And in the story of this unfortunate clan, we find a theme that was to occupy Davidson repeatedly over the next half dozen years.
          Long notorious as a family of "hereditary degenerates," the Jackson Whites inhabit a remote region of New Jersey's Ramapo Mountain Region near the New York state line [Ed.: if, indeed, any actual place in New Jersey can be described as "remote"]. Popularly credited as the descendants of Hessian troops, Dutch settlers, escaped slaves, and perhaps Tuscarora Indians, they are supposed to be inbred to the point of degeneracy. Hakim Bey, who wrote about seeing them in a short 1990 article in Exquisite Corpse, likens them to the Jukes and the Kallikaks, "tri-racial isolate communities" widely supposed to be genetically peculiar. The Jukes and the Kallikaks are familiar to readers of Finnegans Wake; Joyce scholar John Bishop glosses them as "a clan of morons, prominent both in Finnegans Wake and in the press of Joyce's day, whom generations of inbreeding had reduced to a state of breathtaking feeblemindedness."
          In fact, the Jukes and the Kallikaks turn out to have been families identified by early twentieth-century eugenicists as cases of genetic criminality, not inbreeding (Stephen Jay Gould writes interestingly about the pseudoscience used in the Kallikak case in The Mismeasure of Man); while the Jackson Whites, who are known today as the Ramapough Mountain People, were in the news as recently as 1995: they have sought Federal recognition as an Indian tribe, but their claims were denied (the Federal government classifies them as black, not Indian). Randy D. Ralph writes that although "their isolation has resulted in a high degree of intermarriage among the families which has, on occasion, produced genetic anomalies such as syndactyly (fusion of fingers or toes), polydactyly (extra fingers or toes), piebaldness, albinism, sometimes distinguished by a grayish skin color, and mental retardation[, t]he majority of the members of the extended clan . . . are robust, intelligent people with striking good looks."
          This enlightened view is relatively modern, however; Mark Moran, co-editor of Weird New Jersey, detailed in a 1997 issue the various accounts of the Jackson Whites published between 1872 and 1936, all of them dubious and sensationalistic. The portrayal of them known to Avram Davidson in 1960 -- of a pathetic clan of inbred rustics -- was the only one available.

          The Jackson Whites play no further role in "The Sources of the Nile," but the image of the isolated community, inbred and deteriorating further with each new generation, recurred in several subsequent Davidson stories, most notably "The House the Blakeneys Built" and "Bumberboom." Rork!, a minor novel published the same year as "Blakeneys" and (like it) involving a lost settlement on another planet, deals similarly with the themes of isolation and consequent degradation, but its effect -- involving as the novel does an additional set of standard SF-novel concerns -- is more diffuse. And the image of the small population, separated from the rest of the world by some calamity and reduced in time to ruinous degeneracy, recurs through Davidson's later fiction, most notably in "Manatee Gal, Won't You Come Out Tonight," where the wretched inhabitants of Cape Mantee are frequently referred to though never actually shown. But "The House the Blakeneys Built" and "Bumberboom" concern themselves directly with these unfortunates; their titles refer to the structures that house them.
          "Bumberboom" is a long and comical tale, rather Vancian in its urbane insincere exchanges between well-spoken scoundrels. Bumberboom, the terrible cannon wheeled from one locale to another by its crew of inbred idiots, has long lost its ability to menace; the hereditary crew continues to be propitiated by the people whose lands they enter because the people are idiots as well, unable to see that the juggernaut's masters have decayed worse than the weapon itself. Something called the Great Gene Shift has afflicted the world, and the dwerfs and elvers (and, presumably, other-shaped people) no longer know what indeed was the original bodily form of mankind. The protagonist's name is Mallian, son Hazelip and his father is High man to the Hereditor of Land Quanaras. We later learn that Quanaras is a land afflicted by some malady, but what catches our attention immediately is the protagonist's name, with its echoes of "Mal" and "hairlip," and the reminder of hereditary issues. The geography over which the story takes place is dominated by a region called the Great Rift, which sounds like an physical manifestation of the Great Shift. Everything about this tale (which tells the efforts of young Mallian to turn the great gun Bumberboom to his own purposes and his spectacular failure) bespeaks malformation and fatuity, which Mallian's relative cleverness only casts into greater relief.
          This rather sour novelette trifles with its disturbing theme, but there is no trifling in "The House the Blakeneys Built," which focuses exclusively upon horror of family degeneracy, as observed from two healthy couples about to start families of their own. Only a third the length of the longer story, "The House the Blakeneys Built" can be read (as Ursula K. Le Guin has recently noted) as a revisionist take on science fiction's long infatuation with tales of planetary castaways triumphantly recreating civilization from scratch -- the genre that John Clute has called a "Robinsonade."
          Certainly Davidson had little truck with genre SF's beloved myths of progress; and the horrific plight of the castaways on Cape Mantee -- they were shipwrecked from a slave ship, echoing a detail from the popular legend of the Jackson Whites -- can be read as dark commentary, worthy of Conrad, on the benefits that European colonizers brought to the people they colonized. But the Blakeneys suggest a horror greater than a political reading can account for. Davidson dramatizes them as a perversion of the family, and the family (for all that intact and happy ones are rarely portrayed) is extremely important in his fiction, an ideal to which the protagonists at the end of his comedies aspire and the protagonists of his bitter stories see marred. Feeding cannibalistically upon itself instead of looking out to the world for sustenance, the inbred family is a figure, literally, of horror.
          Both "The House the Blakeneys Built" and "Manatee Gal, Won't You Come Out Tonight" are horror stories, and it is interesting to note that most of Davidson's other horror stories contain a suggestion of inbreeding: "Naples," the first story that comes to mind if one is asked to name a classic horror tale by Avram Davidson, has at its heart the revelation that a man has used a blood relative for monstrous purposes, holding back for himself what should be released into the world. (What he arrogates is his kinsman's death, but the unnatural element of his act seems homologous to sexual victimization.) And "The Goobers," the other pure horror story, concerns backwoods squalor, an isolated and unhealthy broken family, and makes a plain allusion to incest.
          "The Tail-Tied Kings," another story about an isolated community, inbreeding, and degeneration, differs from the pattern present in the other stories, perhaps because the protagonists are rats (who regard the humans above as "slaves," since they labor only to create goods for rats' consumption). As in the other stories, the stagnant society ends in violence, but two characters -- not related to each other -- escape, eventually to mate and bring forth healthy progeny. With humans, however, even calamity cannot produce rebirth from such abomination.
          The image of the long-inbred family was most powerfully evoked by Davidson when he published "The House the Blakeneys Built," Rork!, and "Bumberboom" in 1965-66, but it recurs throughout his work, and the appearance of any of its elements tugs at other dark strands in other stories. No one has undertaken a structuralist reading of Davidson's work, but the nexus of incest, place-name titles (even "Manatee Gal," echoing Cape Mantee, may count as a partial hit), and slavery might prove fruitful to analysis. Certainly what Anthony Burgess, discussing the power of incest in Levi-Strauss's theories of Structuralism, calls "the knot that it is dangerous to untie since, untying it, you are magically untying the knot that holds the natural order together" suggestively recalls the knots that join the tails of the "Tail-Tied Kings," disabling them (as incest disables the society that holds them captive). And the rats' society is destroyed just as One-Eye bites through the knotted tails; while his maimed nature (his role in life determined that one of his eyes be put out in infancy) powerfully suggests the single good foot of Oedipus -- "swellfoot" -- who was had a spike driven through his foot when he was exposed on a hill as an infant. To pull free the foot (bite through the knot; sing aloud the innocently intended Buffalo/Manatee wordplay) is to call down terrible destruction.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +


        Your editor recently received the long-awaited hardcover issue of The Boss in the Wall, and a very pleasing volume it is. The book is printed on better paper than the paperback issue, in sewn gatherings that are sturdily bound. The dust jacket is a slightly redesigned version of the paperback cover, with a somewhat brighter printing of the cover painting by Michael Dashow. The front of the jacket correctly notes that Avram was "winner of the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement." Pagination follows the paperback, with a limitation sheet tipped in after page 122, the last page of the novel. The limitation sheet states that the first edition consists of 26 signed, lettered copies (not seen), 100 numbered copies signed by Grania Davis, Peter Beagle, and Michael Swanwick, and 1,000 copies of the paperback edition.

Available from:
Tachyon Publications
1459 18th Street, San Francisco, CA 94107

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

The URL of the Avram Davidson Website is:

Submissions of additional material for the Website are welcome.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Next issue will be published in March 1999.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +