the Avram Davidson electronic newsletter

Vol. V No. 3
29 September 2000
ISSN 1089-764X

Published bimonthly by whim and fancy for the Avram Davidson
Society.  Contents copyright 2000 The Nutmeg Point District Mail
and assigned to individual contributors.  All rights reserved.

Henry Wessells, Editor.
Cooper Wessells, Honorary Secretary.

All correspondence to:
Post Office Box 43072, Upper Montclair, NJ 07043-0072


Use this electronym for requests to be added to or dropped
from the mailing list.  Back issues are archived at the
Avram Davidson Website, URL :

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     The newest collection of writings by Avram Davidson, Everybody
Has Somebody in Heaven, edited by Jack Dann and Grania
Davidson Davis, is forthcoming from Pitspopany Press of New
York and Israel in late October, and will be reviewed in a future
issue of the District Mail.

On Thursday 26 October, there will be a luncheon of the Avram
Davidson Society in New York City to celebrate the new book
(see below for details).

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Whispers Through a Brass Tube :
Collaborating With Avram Davidson
Michael Swanwick

     Over his dead body. To be quite frank, that was almost certainly the
only way Avram Davidson would have allowed a collaboration with the likes
of me to occur. But he was dead, alas, and so it came to be. Among his
papers was a brilliant, maddening 5,000-word fragment titled "Vergil Magus:
King Without Country." It was not a story, though it contained within it
the unpacked implications of a story. It was, in fact, a literary puzzle,
waiting not so much to be finished as to be solved.
     Solve it I did. Whatever the merits of the completed work -- I, for
one, like it -- I have had the satisfaction of having several noted scholars
tell me they could not detect where Davidson's hand left off and mine
began. This is an accomplishment I shall always cherish. Yet honesty
compels me to admit that in essence all I did was to spell out what was
already implicit in the fragment. It was so easy! All I had to do was
apply that same skewed sensibility that Davidson conveyed in his other
comedies, and the jokes and situations popped into existence.
     All puzzles are exercises in topography. So, for the benefit of those
who enjoy wandering over complex terrain, I have decided to spell out
exactly how I achieved my resolution. If it makes me seem more cunning
than inspired, well . . . so be it.
     The fragment as received begins with a description of Emericho, the
aged Count Mar, Master of Ceremonies to the Roman Emperor Festus, and
how he comes to be the last of his line, and what this means to him. There
follows a description of the Emperor's wife, Petronella, her history, and
how she has been happily stashed far from the capital to enable Festus to
pursue women more appropriate to his stature. Then comes the history of
how the Emperor arranged for Count Mar to marry the young widow Oria.
After which there is a discursive explanation of exactly what a "King
Without Country" is, and how Vergil came to be one. Penultimately, there
are the twists and turns by which Count Mar comes first to love his new
Countess, and then grow violently jealous of Vergil -- who appears only
briefly and glancingly in the text at all.
     The effect was rather like listening to the most brilliant man in the
world talk about whatever chanced to enter his mind. It was, apparently,
     But only apparently. The very last scene ties everything together and
reveals exactly how complexly-plotted a prose machine Davidson had
created. A mysterious underling, the varlet to the vavaseur of Idalia,
approaches Count Mar with news of a weapon that can be used against a
Vergil Magus: a magician who performs sorceries upon sorcerers. At which
point, Mar declares war upon Vergil, and everything that came before is
revealed as leading inevitably to this instant.
     This is the state the story was in when I was invited to complete it.
But how? The prose was Davidson at his most orotund -- complex,
pedantic, ornate, and virtually uncounterfeitable. To simply continue the
story from where it left off would be to invite a comparison I could not
live up to. Furthermore, such a story would require that the reader make
his way through five thousand words before discovering the plot. Finally,
it would be a Vergil Magus story in which Vergil Magus plays no active part
in the first half.
     The obvious solution was to break Davidson's story into fragments and
interweave them with a second plotline, starting after Count Mar has hired
his anti-sorcerer, but before Vergil Magus knows what's going on. This
would, in effect, turn everything Davidson had written into backstory. But
it would also preserve his marvelous prose virtually intact. The one half
would provide the visceral thrills. The other would explain why they
     "Vergil wiped the blood from the blade of his dagger," I began on page
two, to signal the reader that bloody events are coming and that Vergil
will play an active roll in them. I introduced the Chinese wizard Ma to
give Vergil somebody to react against, and so I could inject Oriental
esoterica into my parts of the story. This was part of a strategy to make
my prose look compatibly dense with Davidson's without directly competing
with his Roman and Medieval lore. Which competition, I reiterate, I must
inevitably lose.
     Here I almost sank myself, for Ma's history required a description of
his passage from China to Rome, and my scholarship in archaic geography was
nowhere up to the task. My solution was to raid Davidson's Adventures in
Unhistory and lightly rewrite his description there ("Past the Great Wall . . .
the ruined stump of Babel's tower") of exactly such a journey.
     I then wrote a scene in which Vergil's distillation equipment almost
explodes, as an implicit promise that there will be a broad and violent
plot, and so that the reader will then return to Davidson's gorgeous prose
content in the knowledge that it will somehow, eventually, tie in to the
more obvious plot line.
     Cut to Davidson's half for more of the backstory.
     Returning to Vergil's workshop, I revealed the presence there of Oria,
Countess Mar, thus connecting the two plot lines. Here also, I stated that
she is after aphrodisiacs, while hinting (for the reader to later recall)
that she could as easily be after fertility drugs. Later, in Davidson's
plot line, it will be established that Oria has been neglecting her
husband. For a happy resolution, I needed an innocent (well, relatively
innocent) reason for her doing so. Alchemy lessons filled the bill.
Since Vergil does not want to provide her with the desired drugs, this
gives him a second problem (the annoying presence of the eager young Ma
being the first) to deal with.
     The section closes with the first mention of the Black Man. "Who was he?"
Oria asks, and the reader also is left with this question.
     Cut to the backstory.
     Back to the Black Man. This is he who performs sorceries upon
sorcerers, and my own joking take on the "black magician" of stock
fantasy. He has African features but rather than having darkly-pigmented
skin, he is quite literally black and possibly not even human. The reader
discovers that he is responsible for the explosion.
     Cut to the backstory.
     Next, I introduced Vergil's sword. This was derived from an offhand
comment in a later section of backstory that Vergil wore a sword for the
ceremony in which he was made King Without Country, and that only nobles
were allowed to wear swords in court. Chekhov observed that if a pistol is
present in the first act, it must be fired before the play ends, and
something similar applies to swords. From then on, I was careful to make
frequent mention of the sword, and what a useless inconvenience it is for
Vergil, so that when it is needed it will appear naturally in his hand.
Vergil tracks down the Black Man and has an interview with him. The
Black Man is, I wrote, aristocracy of such ancient lineage as to make Count
Mar look like a parvenu. His reluctance to deal with a social inferior not
only thwarts Vergil's attempt to wind up the story prematurely, but also
lays the groundwork for the ultimate revelation.
     Here, for a second time, I cannibalized Davidson's other works, this
time a story fragment, for Vergil's quite staggering list of honors and
titles. The primary reason was to introduce a streak of Davidsonian
ornamentation into a segment which (remember) could not manage it on its
own. The secondary reason was to drop in the comment that it is forbidden
him to mention any of the ranks he holds in The Order of Sages and Mages.
     Cut to the backstory.
     To up the ante, I then recounted the fate of Vergil's blacksmith-general
and his sons. Again the sword is mentioned. Again, Ma's presence is a
presumed annoyance. A third quick rip from elsewhere-published
Davidsoniana (the "salamandric powers, learnt in the Phoenicia of Sidon,"
etc., from The Phoenix and the Mirror), and a moment of bleakness
and horror for Vergil. Just to establish that, comedy though this is, there
are real things at stake here.
     Cut to the backstory.
     Vergil is still searching for a solution, while Ma lectures him on
matters that the reader knows (but Vergil cannot) are not nonsense at all.
A quick joke about white magic, the establishment that Vergil is helpless
before the Black Man, and then Ma offers to provide him with a solution.
     Cut to the backstory.
     We return to the Chinese wizard explaining his method of divination in
highest and most inauthentic Chinoiserie. After which -- and this seems to
me a very Avramesque joke -- he reads Vergil's fortune in tea leaves.
     Cut to the backstory.
     Here we've reached the end of Davidson's fragment. The reader now
knows exactly what's going on. And so the story can wind up and conclude.
     I began with a wizard's duel, deliberately cast as a Wild West
shootout. All the principals are gathered in the square either to watch or
     Here, partly for the artificial buildup of suspense, I pause to give
the history of the sword Vergil has been carrying around with him
throughout the story. After establishing that it has neither name nor
magical properties, Vergil proceeds to stick it into the Black Man, thus
killing him by means that he could not anticipate.
     This extremely good plot twist I lifted in its entirety from Larry Niven's
story, "What Use is a Glass Dagger?" I figured Niven wouldn't mind
because whereas in his story the event was central to the narrative and
made several good points about the philosophical underpinnings of his
series, here it was not at all central, but simply an enabling device.
     Besides, a joke that good deserves to be told more than once.
     It was important here to resolve the story as quickly as possible, so
I rang in Oria's playing to dramatic expectations, the Count's abrupt
surrender of hostilities in light of a better offer, and Vergil's decision
to let sleeping bygones lie, couched in such a way as to make his being
King Without Country central to the story.
     And so it ends.
     Except that the central mystery of exactly who put such a dangerous
weapon into Count Mar's hands has not been addressed. So I added a
postscript, in the style of one of the Doctor Eszterhazy stories.
     It can be disputed, of course, but I am convinced that I was right in my
surmise that it was the Empress who was behind it all. She is established
as peasant-shrewd, and then left stranded in safe isolation by an author
who knew exactly how dangerous -- and useful -- such a character could
be. And mention had been made, remember, of her being a witch, "weaving
counter-spells against the witcheries of the Petchenegs and Scotes . . ."
Also, when questioned about what is clearly not a dog, she says, "I must
always have one such," and quickly changes the subject. These are clues,
and significant ones.
     Here's where the Black Man's aristocracy comes in, for Aunt Petronella
(I postulated) is herself old, old aristocracy when gauged by the esoteric
titles predating Rome, such a one as even the Black Man must respect.
     The Empress was the only one who could possibly hire him.
     What plausible motivation could she have? Again, Davidson left a
clue. Petronella has a mother, the Imperatrix-Mum, who is capricious and
more than a touch mimsy. Her existence was established just a touch too
casually to be anything other than important to the plot.
     Also right, I believe, is the assumption that in a comedy the line of
House Mar must against all expectations be continued and that the Emperor
(who is Numinous, you recall) would be the perfectly acceptable agency by
which this might be accomplished. This left all the major characters
either satisfied or dead.
     Save for Vergil Magus, who still has the presence of the puppyish
wizard Ma to deal with. And so I quickly handed him off to the Empress's
dam, the queen-mum, where presumably he will be perfectly happy, serving
the closest thing there is to be had in the barbarian West to a true
     So there it was: Hero triumphant, villain dead in the dust, and the
lovers reunited. The resolution was, I am convinced, the one Davidson had
in mind when he set up the parameters of his puzzle. The only clue I have
not been able to decipher was the significance of thyme, the crop for which
Idalia was known. The reference to it was laid out with a wink and a
hand-thump of emphasis. Obviously it was meant to be the key to
everything. But for the life of me, I could not and cannot figure out how. (1)

     Then again, mysteries being what they are, perhaps that's for the
best. Let the ghost of possibilities haunt this text. The story I
completed is demonstrably not the one Avram himself would have written.
Nor is it the best of all possible versions. It is only the very best of
that extremely small set of versions that have actually been written.
     The "revered sage of Terra Incognita Occidentalis," mentioned in
passing, is of course Avram Davidson himself.

(1) On this point, Henry Wessells informs me that, "Clearly what Idalia has is
Time: more Time for the ancient lineage of Count Mar (viz, the preternaturally
old crone Imperatrix-Mum and Vergil's comments at the end). The low pun
is typical Avram (one strain in the 'Nine Roses of Rome' is a long pun on
flatulence)." Perhaps. The reconstructor of plots, however, no less than the
private detective, must assume a literal context for all clues, and leave any
metaphoric or metaphysical interpretations to the reader, who is better
equipped to deal with them.

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Guy Davenport writes from Lexington, Kentucky :
     I wonder if I have acknowledged "El Vilvoy"? A handsome book
and a fine addition to Avram's bibliography. I have it out on the
livingroom table, so that the perspicacious can ask "Who's Avram

Also à propos of El Vilvoy, Howard Waldrop writes from Arlington,
Washington :
     Thank you very much indeed for El Vilvoy de las Islas. It's a
swell-looking thing. [. . .]
     Everybody's forgetting the template here in their discussion of what's
going on: John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, and what La of Opar gave
him so that though he was born in the 1880s, he was still heading
guerrilla warfare in 1944. I'm sure Davidson made a nod in his
direction, anyway. (You can't write about Noble Savages, castaways,
etc. in the 20th or 21st C. and ignore Burroughs.) And like Farmer did
in "Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod" where he imagined Tarzan as written
by the other Burroughs, as Don Webb points out, this is like the
archetype written by a Spanish-surnamed magic realist, or Defoe as
done by Joan Didion, etc. Davidson's stories were usually lots wider
and deeper than they were long. . .

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From Grania Davidson Davis:

Recent and forthcoming Avram Davidson publications:

"Now Let Us Sleep" has been reprinted in Ellen Datlow's beautiful new
anthology on endangered species Vanishing Acts (Tor, 2000). The
AD story and the book have gotten wonderful reviews in Locus and

"Kar Chee Reign" has been serialized in the Czech language in the April,
May, and June 2000 issues of Ikarie published in Prague and edited by
Ivan Adamovic. ("Rogue Dragon" had previously been serialized in
Ikarie in 1997.)

"Or All The Seas With Oysters" has been reprinted in the impressive new
The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by
Garyn G. Roberts (Prentice Hall, 2000).

Classic Avram Davidson novels to be published as ebooks by Melisa
Michael's Embiid «». The schedule of publication
is as follows: Masters of the Maze, September 2000; Peregrine:
Primus, October 2000; Peregrine: Secundus November 2000.
Tentative, subject to change: The Enemy of My Enemy, December
2000; Ursus of Ultima Thule, January 2001; Rork!, February 2001.

Archive News
Ms. Sarah Fishman, museum specialist and niece of Grania Davis from
Hawaii, has spent the summer preparing a preliminary catalog of the
complete Avram Davidson Archive. She discovered new unpublished
manuscripts, and other Davidson goodies. Big cheers for Sarah
Fishman for this extraordinary project!

--Onward, Grania Davidson Davis

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Herman Melville and Avram Davidson :
Literary and Geographical Intersections

     In the issues of Putnam's Monthly dated March, April, and May
1854, there appeared a series of eleven sketches entitled "The
Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" by Salvator R. Tarnmoor, who was,
in fact, Herman Melville (pp. 311-319; 345-355; 460-466). These
impressionistic -- even fantastical -- accounts of the "Gallipagos
Islands" were among the most popular of Melville's short writings in
the 1850s and subsequently formed the solid core of the Piazza
Tales (1856). Partly a recollection of Melville's own experiences in
the islands in 1841 (only a little while after Darwin's celebrated
sojourn there) and partly a sifting together of anecdotes, legends, and
earlier eyewitness accounts, "The Encantadas" are intriguing and justly
famed for their evocation of melancholy solitude, mirages, rocky terrain,
deceptions, political eccentrics, recluses, and Spanish officers
reincarnated as giant tortoises. There is also an undeniable fascination
with death and mortality.
     For readers of Avram Davidson's El Vilvoy de las Islas, these evocations
are reasons why this work of Melville's warrants careful scrutiny. Melville's
Encantadas are the present-day Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador,
fabled among scientists and tourists alike ; in discussing the name of the
archipelago, Melville links the apparent "fleetingness and unreality" of the
islands in past centuries to the "Enchanted Ground" where the Humboldt
Current rises and where whalers once hunted the Spermaceti. Davidson's
imaginary Encantadas are, to be sure, located off "Central Coastal South
America, East," and seem to blend features of the Galapágos and Falklands
with the history of the Bay Islands off Honduras. Yet there are striking
parallels to be drawn between the texts and geographies of Melville's and
Davidson's Encantadas. It would be interesting to learn from Davidson's
letters or journals when he read these pieces by Melville -- that he did so
seems a not unreasonable conclusion.
     Consider the themes and concerns of El Vilvoy in light of the following
extracts from Melville :
     From Sketch First :
"But the special curse, as one may call it, of the Encantadas, that which
exalts them in desolation above Idumea and the Pole, is that to them
change never comes ; neither the change of seasons nor of sorrows."
     [On the vegetation :] "Tangled thickets of wiry bushes, without fruit and
without a name, springing up among deep fissures of calcined rock, and
treacherously masking them ; or a parched growth of distorted cactus trees."
     [On the "spas" of the Encantadas :] "[. . .] the vitreous inland rocks worn
down and grooved into deep ruts by ages and ages of the slow draggings
of tortoises in quest of pools of scanty water ; I can hardly resist the feeling
that in my time I have indeed slept upon evilly enchanted ground."
     And from Sketch Second :
     [The tortoises :] "The great feeling inspired by these creatures was that
of age :-- dateless, indefinite endurance. [ . . .] What other bodily being
possesses such a citadel wherein to resist the assaults of Time ?"
     Other Sketches deal with the Buccaneers and their relics ; the failed
political culture (the "Riotocracy") of Charles Island, which was
once granted as a private fiefdom to an adventurer ; and the variety
of bird life. Sketches Ninth and Tenth deal with the individual
inhabitants of some of these desolate isles : on the one hand the
resourcefulness and industry of Hunilla in catching moisture from
the air to secure drinking water on Norfolk Isle ; and on the other
hand the meager existence of Oberlus, a solitary dwelling upon
Hood's Isle, whose "appearance was that of the victim of some
malignant sorceress," and whose only companions were the
"crawling tortoises."
     There are numerous other points of comparison ; these may serve
as a beginning. (Ian Thornton's Darwin's Islands : A Natural History
of the Galápagos [Natural History Press, 1971] is a thoroughly
readable introduction to the biological significance of the islands.)

Henry Wessells

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Celebrating the publication of Everybody Has Somebody in Heaven,
the autumn luncheon of the Avram Davidson Society will be held on
Thursday 26 October 2000 in the upstairs restaurant at Zen Palate,
16th Street and Union Square East, New York City, at 12:30 p.m.
All are welcome to attend the luncheon gathering. R.S.V.P. to the
editor at by Tueday 24 October.

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The Last Wizard with A Letter of Explanation.
Publications of the Avram Davidson Society, number one.
Size: 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches, xii pages. Second printing, May 1999.
Single copies, $10.00 (postpaid).

El Vilvoy de las Islas.
Publications of the Avram Davidson Society, number two.
Size: 6 x 9 inches, viii + 32 pages. June 2000.
Trade issue of twenty-five copies hand bound in quarter green linen
with paper-covered boards, numbered 1-25. SOLD OUT
Issue of 100 copies in paper wrappers: single copies $13.00 (postpaid).

To order, send a cheque in U.S. funds, payable to Henry Wessells, to :
P.O. Box 43072, Upper Montclair, NJ 07043-0072, USA
Orders by e-mail to will be held until payment is
received. Trade discount available.

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     Your editor has recently received an inquiry from Japan, where
Tadashi Tanami maintains a website devoted to Davidson with the
bold title of SPPAD60 : Society for the Promotion of the Potboilers
of Avram Davidson in the 60s. The English language page includes
a checklist in progress of works by Davidson published in Japan. "To
our regret, Avram Davidson's novels have not been translated into
Japanese yet, except two Ellery Queen novels."
The URL is :

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Next Issue Date : November 2000

Which will include a discussion of the biology and physics of the
bicycle in the writings of Flann O'Brien and Avram Davidson.

The editor of The Nutmeg Point District Mail invites contributions
on any topic pertaining to the life and work of Avram Davidson.

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