the Avram Davidson electronic newsletter

Vol. VII No. 2-3

July-September 2002

ISSN 1089-764X

Published bimonthly by whim and fancy for the Avram Davidson Society.
Contents copyright 2002 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,


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Tor Books will publish Adventures in Unhistory. The last book published during
Avram Davidson's lifetime will once again be available for the edification and
pleasure of readers. Not a month goes by but your editor receives multiple inquries
from would-be readers, collectors, librarians, and even booksellers seeking what has
become a genuine rara avis among recently published books.

Further details, including publication date, will be announced as they become known.

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[On reading The Other Nineteenth Century :]
I'm pleased that Avram Davidson is, in death, gaining a measure of the respect he did
not have in life. I wonder if Lafferty (87, Alzheimer's-senile now, in an old people's
home in Tulsa) will be recognised as a genius once his death is announced. (I did
the entry on Lafferty in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, which ended by pointing out
that the only person in the body of SF Lafferty could be compared to was Avram
Davidson.) I suspect that he won't be, not unless someone who is in exactly the
right place culturally introduces a collection of Lafferty stories designed for the
mainstream, much as _The Avram Davidson Treasury_ helped define Avram and
what he did, and used a number of major authors to do so. And it probably won't
happen. But one can hope. (Does it matter if he's respected? Not a bit. Does it matter
if he's read? Damn right it does: no-one else did the things that Lafferty did in
prose-and-occasionally-poetry, although Flann O'Brian came close.) [. . .]

Neil Gaiman Journal, 31 December 2001

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Prising Averno
by Gregory Feeley

Vergil in Averno is such a strange book -- the strangest by far that Davidson
ever wrote -- that readers have shied from its disturbing nature, preferring to
call the novel "dark" (which it certainly is) and speaking of it as being
"distinguished," which registers at once relief that a second Vergil novel was
eventually published and a tacit acknowledgement that it is not as great a novel
as the first. The Phoenix and the Mirror is an easy novel to appreciate -- its
form is that of a quest; it offers an unrushed, detailed tour of its exotic world;
it conclusion offers both a satisfying closure and the openness that promises
further volumes -- while Averno concedes the reader nothing. Bereft even of
chapter divisions (those structural units that, like a fruit falling open into
slices, assures us that the whole can be consumed), the novel offers no front
matter of any sort: no dedication, epigraph, or banner waving Part I to signal
that this novel belongs to a familiar species, one whose acquaintance we know
how to gain. There is nothing to do but to enter the tiny aperture -- a single
sentence, only a word high -- and follow it, without landmarks, like a bead of
water working its way through a crack of unknown extent. The novel doesn't
care whether we read it.
      It is this implacableness -- all of Davidson's other novels invite the reader in;
they all, in various ways, let us know that they hope and intend to earn our
admiration -- that sets Vergil in Averno so immediately and irremediably apart.
(It does not later relent.) Questions as to whether it is "as great a novel as The
Phoenix and the Mirror"
become fatuous, of concern only to the kind of
reader who will fail to register this work's true strangeness. From the corrosive
irony of its opening page (in which the reader is invited to appreciate the
contrast between an invitation to tour a torture chamber and a trip to "see
the bears," as though the narrator failed to see that they are not different
at all) to the punning misprision that precipitates the climactic disaster and
the appalling pun of its closing line, Vergil in Averno rubs the reader's nose
in evidence of an essential wrongness in things, one hardly set right by the
fact that the immediate locus of such wrongness is ultimately destroyed.

      The first scene, in which Vergil is taken to the torture chambers as one
might be taken to see a bear-baiting, occupies two and a half pages. Vergil is
conducted underground (we do not learn until the scene's last word who the
city officials showing him about are) and passes from a realm of light, bright
enough that his host can read a list of charges "as though he were taking up a
menu," into dimness, where a naked young man is seen contorted and in chains.
Vergil feels horror and pity for the torture victim, and a flash of indignation
that any ideal of justice lead to this. Then the lights come up, and Vergil sees
(just as a remark of his host also makes clear) that the young man is not the
prisoner but the torturer, and the prisoner is aged and unlovely. Vergil is slow
to shift his sympathy to the true sufferer, and instead feels right "that youth
and beauty should torture old age and ugly . . ." or at least "wrong that it should
be obliged to tarry there to do so" rather than escape into sunlight and clean air.
Vergil's "difficulty" in coming to appreciate the falsity of this impression is
overcome only as he surmounts another, cognitive error: that there is sunlight
and cooler air outside, for he is (and the scene here ends) in Averno.
      As striking as the scene is, its strangeness only begins fully to register as one
reads the next scene, which begins with a recitation (by an unidentified voice)
of Vergil's professional accomplishments, which include many distinctions but
not yet the title of Incantor et Magus. It is only that this point that the reader
the previous scene realizes that Vergil, treated as an honored guest being shown
the local sites, is not Vergil Magus, the puissant and venerable figure of The
Phoenix and the Mirror.
In a scene that weirdly parodies its predecessor --
Vergil is again in a close, warm chamber, but it is a hot-wine shop, where he
has gone for refreshment; and it is he who is being questioned (although the
implicitly interrogative statement is identified as "not" a question), in an
establishment that is squalid rather than "very rich" -- Vergil becomes, for
the reader, a young man where he had been first taken for an older one. The
misidentification of young with old now repeats itself, in reverse, with Vergil
as the subject rather than the observer.
      This second scene may not take place in Averno; we do not know whether
it takes place before or after the one it follows. It ends with the statement that
Vergil subsequently forgot it: a further erasure of causality. The reader
understands that the chronological relationship between the two scenes --
whether progression or flashback -- will become clear in time, just as it is clear
that Vergil will later forcefully remember the scene that we are told to subtract
from our mental account of what his consciousness contains. The third scene is
similarly adrift from the first two in time and space: it is set in a coastal city,
within sight of an isle, but otherwise not specified. It is not until the beginning
of the fourth scene (which begins at the same locale as the third, later that
evening) that a thread of continuity is established.
      The torture chamber may be described as a "hot room, dark, and fetid with
sweat and fear," but it is the wine shop that is actually called a "cell." The torture
chamber has a fire, and various details suggest its humidity, but it is the wine
shop that has "hot-water baths above the charcoal glow." Although Vergil had
repaired to the wine shop voluntarily, and his willingness to allow himself to be
taken to the torture chambers is so profoundly qualified that the novel's first,
long paragraph is followed at once by two paragraphs of a single sentence each
("He had gone." "Had he not gone, would they not have tortured?") in
uncomfortable justification, the two acts are linked in perversity: Vergil no
sooner apprehends the scene of torture correctly than his mind engages in a
"long, unlovely moment" of seeking to justify the outrage is has registered; and
Vergil (though able to afford better) goes into a low wine-shop because "old
tastes have a way of returning." The narrator explains that second act in a further
sentence: "Though you expel nature with a pitchfork, she will always return." A
pitchfork connotes devils, and the first scene evokes images that immediately
strike the reader as infernal -- but allusions that explicitly suggest Hell appear
only in the next scene, where the word "devils" soon also appears. Toward the
end of the third scene (the first to have a pleasant setting), Vergil makes an
impish remark that he immediately regrets, and in the first paragraph of the next
scene the word "devil" is used: "some small devil enter[s] into him" and causes
Vergil to say something mildly perverse to an innocent watchmen. The theme of
Vergil acting perversely recurs, again in a context that echoes the image of
deviltry, the image that was not used when Vergil was in a literal site of
underground torment, but which (as though the forces of denial have slackened)
begins to surface repeatedly immediately afterward.
      Devils wield pitchforks, but the object of the sentence was something expelled
with a pitchfork, which is usually ordure. This image is explicitly linked to Averno
in the third scene, when the freedman who has engaged Vergil to assist in the
building of his house refers to the ruler of Averno as "King Kakka . . . a king of
shit." Shit and money -- Averno's riches having been explicitly cited just before --
are identified with each other; and Vergil, never in the Phoenix an avaricious or
covetous man, is seen soon in the fourth scene to be preoccupied with the gaining
of wealth. The tangle of themes -- deviltry with tiny acts of perverse behavior, shit
and money -- come together with monstrous literality in the underground inferno
of Averno, where Vergil observes transgression horribly punished and finds
himself inexplicably favoring the side of torture.
      That flicker of perception in the first scene -- the image of tormented youth that
turns at once into tormentor -- has implicated Vergil, made him to some degree
complicit in its evil, because it managed to turn his horror and pity into
rationalization, and the "long, unlovely" moment it took him to wrest his moral
bearings back to true has marked and will continue to haunt him. Anxious for
money, young and quick to favor youth, Vergil has consented to visit the torture
chambers ("Had he not gone, would they not have tortured?"), and the act has
marked him. A wine shop becomes, in a sense, Averno; and so (in another sense)
does the "good house" that Vergil helps a good man build: and another image not
present in the first scene -- of a dyer's hand stained by contact with the stuff it
works -- begin to recur again and again. Contact has stained; images of perversity,
sexual or otherwise (the word "pervert" was used in that sense in the first scene),
now adhere to everything, so after several passing intimations in the first scenes of
sexuality involving children, Vergil's virtuous client cannot mention his plans to
adopt a young girl without the reader wondering. The text, in more ways than can be
traced, has linked fire with steaming liquid, hot wine with urine (a wine-shop graffito
reads: Julia pisses better stuff than what they sell here), staining dye with
transgression -- the freedman got his hand stained when he grabbed at something
he shouldn't have -- and stained hands (two separate ones appear before the
freedman's) are presented in ominous contexts. Vergil's moment of cognitive and
moral vertigo has disordered everything that follows, and the reader, seeing that
briefly-visited inferno emerge in everything the protagonist says or sees, realizes
that "Vergil" and "Averno" disconcertingly share a vowel.
We are, at the end of the third scene, only twelve compressed pages into the novel.
The reader, like Vergil -- but in importantly different ways -- stands on the lip of

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The Autumnal meeting of the Avram Davidson Society will be held on
Tuesday 15 October 2002 in New York City, in the upstairs dining room
of the Zen Palate restaurant, 16th Street and Union Square East, at 12:30.
All are welcome to attend the luncheon gathering. R.S.V.P. to the editor
at by Friday 11 October.

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AD in Supernatural Fiction Writers

Your editor has contributed a biocritical essay on Avram Davidson to the
forthcoming Supernatural Fiction Writers, Second Edition, edited by
Richard Bleiler and published by Charles Scribner's Sons (an imprint
of Gale) ISBN: 0-684-31250-6.

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David Jenkins, of the College of William & Mary wrote to answer a question
about the publication of Polly Charms ,The Sleeping Woman [Williamsburg,
Virginia : The English Department of the College of William and Mary, 1977]:

"My apologies for slow responses and inaccurate ones! In my last response, I
wrongly stated the number of copies of my Polly Charms booklet of Avram
Davidson's story. I do not think I made so many, possibly 50 instead of 100.
[. . .] Avram signed all copies, I believe. He liked it, and I did too."

Your editor has seen two signed copies: one unnumbered; and one (in the
Archives of the College of William & Mary) numbered 5. It is somewhat
scarcer than the Dryad Press edition of And Don't Forget the One Red Rose
(1986), which is regularly seen but at steadily increasing prices

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Buchanan, Rossetti, & Swinburne
(A Footnote to the Afterword to "Buchanan's Head")

Your editor recently conversed with a collector of late nineteenth-century poetry
who was much taken by the title of The Other Nineteenth Century. When the
contents were briefly described to him, with mention of "Buchanan's Head" and
its link to Rossetti, he remarked instantly, "You know that in Germany they
bought many copies of Swinburne's retort to Buchanan, Under the Microscope
[1872], thinking that it was a scientific treatise."

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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.
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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An unsolicited plug for a very useful (and easy to use) bibliographical database.
use it, cite it, spread the word:

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database, compiled by Hal W.
Hall of Texas A&M University

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Six months after the inauguration of the new domain name, the Avram
Davidson Website continues to receive a steady (if not enormous) number
of visitors each week. Thanks to all those whose assistance and suggestions
have enriched the ongoing process.
The editor apologizes for the eccentric periodicity of the newsletter and
welcomes correspondence and contributions on any topic concerning
the life and writings of Avram Davidson.

Next Issue Date : November 2002

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