the Avram Davidson electronic newsletter

Vol. XIV No. 1

30 November 2012

ISSN 1089-764X

Published irregularly by whim and fancy for the Avram Davidson Society.
Contents copyright 2012 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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The Wailing of the Gaulish Dead is to be published on 8 May 2012 as
the fourth publication of the Avram Davidson Society (see below for

The Neil Gaiman Presents series of audio books from includes
The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy (with "The Odd Old Bird"),
released in February 2012, with a running time of 17 hours and 52 minutes
according to the publisher’s website:

Avram Davidson novels are now available as e-books from Prologue Books,
including the three Vergil Magus novels and several other classic titles.
Details are to be found here:

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To lexicographers, word-fanciers, and philosophers of all stripes, and those
beloved by them; to those known not least for their manifold references to
the long tradition of ELABORATUM, that is, the practice of lexicographical
space-filling, so-called SPIRALOCUTION; to their posterity, and their
posterity; in the name of Avram Davidson, I greet you.

First aptly named the Method of Exhaustion by Grégoire de Saint-Vincent,
appearing most notably in Davidson's fondness for Capitals, that is, the
Greetings and Titles prepended to names and letters alike, which in the
Elaboratory tradition are seen as functionally identical modes of address
(witness the Authors of Antiquity known only by their books), specifying
through mantra the identification of the specific through the mystical
subdivision of the Universal Whole, invoking this Practice, I profess,
and greet you.

A matter of quotidian course in the East, it was brought to our attention in
the West by Simplicius' commentary on the Physica Auscultatio (wherein
Aristotle refutes the Paradoxes), referring to Archimedes' use of the
Geometric Series to perform the Quadrature of the Parabola, and later
revived and enshrined forever by Felix II in a secret compromise with
Damasus on the Vulgate, I profess.

Familiar throughout the world in the listing of the Names of God, Titles of
Emperors, and Charms of the Beloved, and finally brought to a state of
Art in its own right by Cervantes, Bach, and Sterne (and later by the
Aesthetes [and still later by Borges, Eco, Laurel, and Hardy]), the
Elaboratum relies on the semihomothetic approximation of form,
approaching through variants an otherwise ineffable accuracy while
avoiding the "vulgarity of directness" (Bede); the result described as "the
meeting of Mandlebrot and Miles Davis" (Bede), under certain protocols
is the only mathematically allowable means of addressing otherwise
touchy subjects.

(This ancient and storied technique is not to be confused with the opposing
method of obfuscation through CIRCUMLOCUTION, one representative
variant of which supposedly descending from two venerable inns in
Buckinghamshire (itself one of many locally vernacular Elaboratora) called
"The Infamous Cock" and "The Infamous Bull", between which stories
shuttled, accruing layers with each trip. The story remains an excellent
example of itself, and is not to be taken seriously, how are you?)

From Medieval times passed down via a series of works guarded by the
Epistolera, the ambidextrous scribes who protect the Protocola, the definitive
records of Greetings and Titles (and who duel (likewise formally) with the
keepers of Prepositional Phrases), the Elaboratum consist primarily as the
Protocola, generally recorded as "rondels", overlapping songs written on
spring-loaded Moebius scrolls, whose recitation is akin structurally to
change-ringing, and spiritually to "waulking songs", the rhythmic marches by
which fullers "walked out" impurities in wool, in the middle ages recited by the
Epistolera during entrances and exits, during greetings and honorifics, and
especially during mass and coronations, which according to the Elaboratum
are mystically entwined, as the Manifold Wholeness announces itself to itself.
In the reign of Constantine reduced to a kind of space-filling embellishment,
the devoutness of the leity and status of the courtly proven not only by the
length and number of Greetings and Titles but by the number of Epistolera in
their employ, the Elaboratum inspired one notable scribe (known only as Q,
from his use of a quincunx for the final full stop at the end of each of his works,
and who considered his entire ouevre his signature) to devise a series of
increasingly complex nesting Pantographs, which, when used with an ingenious
hand, allowed him to write rhyming ambigrams on both sides of a semi-rolled
scroll at once, on which Thomas Jefferson modeled his own labor-saving
devices, and from which the original Spirograph was devised, though its use
has latterly been somewhat corrupted.

With this spirit, I greet you. With this process, I greet you. With such a device,
I likewise and separately greet you. Borrowed wholesale from the Malay,
borrowed from sceptred kings favoured by Zeus, I greet you. In the name of
Avram Davidson, Flower of Courtesy, Nutmeg of Consolation, Rose of
Delight, may his house and possessions endure forever, beloved of Ethiopians,
Sidonians, and Erembians, and of those in Libya where the newborn lambs
have horns, where the ewes lamb thrice a year: where master or shepherd
never lacks meat, sweet milk, and cheese, for the ewes give milk all year round,
and in the rememberance of the scent of persimmons, and arugula, and all the
savory leaves of nutritious deliverance, wafting on wanton zephyrs, bottled in
malachite, served in electrum, now easing my heart by weeping, now ceasing,
eutukheite, dieutukheite, si vales, gaudeo, in love
I greet you.
Persimmons unto your house, and little oranges.
Yrs etc. etc.,

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by Gregory FEELEY

The Phoenix and the Mirror is an easy book to love; Vergil in Averno
presents obstacles for the reader to overcome. One can easily see its
narrow setting as constricted rather than focused, and its smaller
vocabulary and reduced range of syntax as signs of artistic
impoverishment rather than deliberate strategy. Even when one takes into
account a difference in design — the Phoenix ranged over the extent of
Davidson’s invented “Empery” and beyond, while most of Averno is
restricted to a single noisome locale — it is difficult not to feel that its
reduced palette and coarser grain are the product of a diminished talent.
One must acknowledge the force of these arguments before one can see
their limitations and appreciate Vergil in Averno not as a successor to
the earlier, verbally richer novel, but as a standalone work: not one peak
in a majestic range, but a solitary crag, profoundly unlike its purported
brethren and difficult to scale.

This requires the reader to resist the impulse, natural among genre aficionados,
to treat the novel as an installment in the unfinished, nine-novel sequence
(Davidson used the term “a trinity of trilogies”) that the author originally
envisioned. When the editors of the Owlswick Press collected Davidson’s
stories of Doctor Englebert Eszterhazy into a single volume, they arranged
them in order of internal chronology, despite the fact that the eight stories
published in 1975 as The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy (written, Davidson
recalls, in a single burst of inspiration) were different in style and tone than the
five much longer stories published between 1983 and 1986, which portrayed
Eszterhazy in his youth. These later works plainly presuppose a reader’s
familiarity with those first written, just as the earliest story published in that
sequence (“Polly Charms, the Sleeping Woman”) offers an introduction to
Davidson’s setting and protagonist. The reader who encounters this introduction
only 200 pages into the Owlswick volume will be understandably disoriented,
and should heed instead Davidson’s own advice to regard the five long stories
as “the second series” and read them second.

Although Davidson was willing to allow that Vergil in Averno, rather than
beingthe sequel to The Phoenix and the Mirror, might better be regarded
as the “ prequel to the prequel”* to that work, the reader should still resist
reading them as installments of a fictitious biography. Even if the existing
Vergil stories (three novels and three or four separate stories) could be
arranged in such order (as Henry Wessells has noted, what indications exist
regarding the relationship between Averno and The Scarlet Fig are
contradictory), we are left with inconsistencies.** Davidson never lived to
put The Scarlet Fig into final form, but he did complete the other two
novels and see them through the press, and to read them in close
proximity is to see how many background details established in the
Phoenix the author seems later to have forgotten or changed his mind about.

So the reader must forget Davidson’s original design for an “ennead” and treat each
work as distinct and separate (with the proviso that he seems, in Averno, to assume
the reader’s knowledge of the first book). Admirers of Davidson’s best work will
notice a difference in the work’s style, one characteristic of later Davidson: the
tendency in Averno for scenes to end with a simple reiteration of a point made a
few lines earlier, rather than a new point (or a further development of the earlier one).

Cornelia looked at them and sipped again at her wine. This time she did not smile.
Grave, serene, baffling, beautiful, she seemed now not to see him at all.
The Phoenix and the Mirror, 64


So, putting aside for the moment all thoughts of copper, as he had been obliged
this while to put aside all thoughts of tin — and of the bird of gold and her message,
and the two guardian falcon-eagles, and, indeed, the whole matter of the mirror and
those royal ladies Cornelia and Laura — Vergil decided to join in worship at the
great Temple of She Who Was Born of the Sea at Paphos. And immediately
recollected that one of the signs and symbols of Aphrodite — and not one of the
least — was a mirror.
Ibid., 120


But many things were not attractive that nevertheless needed to be done; it seemed to
him, fairly of a sudden, that he might as well go to Averno, for, as witness this last
incident, Averno seemed prepared to come to him.
And this prospect pleased him even less.
Vergil in Averno, 17


She spun, as a matter of form and status alone, her woolen yarn and her
oft-breaking thread. What else did she spin? he wondered. And the answer,
not spoken aloud, was, a web.
And one that now seemed sure to hold him fast.
To hold him fast indeed.
Ibid., 69

Davidson always used repetition as a stylistic device, but it is impossible not to notice how
more reliant he is upon it in his later work. Too many of Averno’s ironies consist of
Davidson bearing down hard on a point he had just made, and too many scenes end
with a weak repetition.

One might, of course, argue that this feature is a strategy, not a flaw: that the claustrophobic
atmosphere of Averno is reflected in the repetitions, the paucity of elaboration. It is
certainly true that while the Phoenix is divided into fourteen chapters, Vergil in Averno
lacks chapter breaks, which heightens the novel’s oppressive air: to read it is to enter a
structure unbroken by apertures to admit light. Had its text (almost identical in length to
that of the Phoenix) been separated into a dozen or so chapters, the novel would have
afforded the reader some relief. This may have made a first reading more pleasant, but
the obdurate knot at the novel’s core would have remained.

For while The Phoenix and the Mirror is a tale of mission — Vergil moves through a
succession of colorful locales, each one a progression towards the fulfillment of his
seemingly impossible task — Vergil in Averno is a tale of balking: arrival in Averno
results in continual frustration, for Vergil’s appointed task (straightforwardly if
painstakingly accomplished) is not what is truly at stake, nothing brings him closer
to learning what is, and the novel jumps back and forth in time as though in thrashing
imitation of his bafflement.

As with the Phoenix, the agon of Averno is dramatized in terms of bodily functions.
The Phoenix and the Mirror
is in crucial respects a novel of sexuality: the truth
behind Vergil’s mission is finally disclosed to be sexual; the means by which he is
compelled to carry it out is sexual; and numerous moments — the prurient sniggering
of the mandrake, the complicating intrigue of the Emperor’s concubines, the “worship”
at the Temple of Aphrodite — attest to the novel’s abiding concern with Eros. Its
governing metaphor is sexual (most specifically that of heterosexual coitus) because the
fecundity of the successful act produces progeny, and The Phoenix and the Mirror is
a novel of making, of creation and procreation. Although not linked causally, the
successful casting of the speculum majorum and the consummation of the Phoenix’s
betrothal are twin images — mirrors — of each other.

In Vergil in Averno, on the other hand, the bodily function to which the novel repeatedly,
covertly and overtly, refers is excretion. Piss and shit are alike evoked, most often
together, in nearly every scene. The early episode in the hot-wine shop, where Averno is
first mentioned to Vergil, is first to do so: the shop, close, oppressive, poor in quality but
inexpensive, functions as a synecdoche for Averno itself. “Vergil had been in privies that
were larger, and it announced its wares with a reek as strong, though of course different.” (4)
To contrast the smells of the wine-shop and the privy is of course to associate them, and
the graffito Vergil sees a moment later (“Julia pisses better stuff than what they sell here”)
enacts the same synecdoche (5). The rumored king of Averno is a “king of shit” (12), and
the scene in which Vergil secures a horse for his journey involves both the act of shoving an
object into a horse’s rectum and a sudden flow of urine. When Vergil actually reaches
Averno, images that liken its dirty avenues to ordure and its canal to a “cloaca” (30, 77)
are ubiquitous, and the scenes set in a tavern or in other semi-public places frequently
involve acts of urination and more. And when the Very Rich City of Averno is abruptly
destroyed, the site to which it is reduced—“one great torrent of boiling mud. . . a vast bog of
bubbling muck” (172) —is described in terms of seething sewage.

It is important to note that this pattern is not dictated by the subject matter. Averno is a city
set upon a region of volcanic activity—“the red hot places of the earth, elsewhere buried
deeply, were here very near the surface” (25)—and consequently filled with steam and smoke.
One could readily imagine a cluster of images suggested by this: fires of creation; endless
transformation; the hidden center of things; the fragility of surfaces. None of these is present
in the text. Davidson did not make the repeated, obsessive association between Averno and
excrement because the subject compelled it; he did so because he wanted to.

Vergil in Averno is an unremitting novel: its flashback episodes to Vergil’s youth are dark as
the city from which they briefly take us, and the scenes set in Naples at the novel’s beginning
and end are nearly as grim. Vergil escapes with his life, and (a bit implausibly) with his fee; and
the boy Iohan whom he has taken as his servant is, we are allowed to infer, the same who is
seen as a master-craftsman in The Phoenix and the Mirror. In the novel’s final pages an
ambiguous note is sounded: the possibility of a woman’s love is briefly raised, and Vergil
encounters a survivor from Averno. But Vergil brushes aside his chance for love (after learning
that the accomplished and wealthy woman who loves him went to great extremes to save his life),
and the survivor, a eunuch, genially mocks Vergil for possessing “stones,” upon which word the
novel ends. If a return to Naples suggests a shift from the excretory barrenness of Averno, we
are nonetheless still denied any vision of sexual possibility.

If The Phoenix and the Mirror is a symphony, Vergil in Averno is a tone poem.
Symphonies have movements, which offer variation in tempo and theme, but a tone
poem evokes a single mood. To see Averno as a companion volume is to diminish it
(just as seeing the two works as installments in an unfinished nine-volume sequence
relegates the short story “Vergil and the Dukos” to peripheral status, despite the fact
that it stands among Davidson’s greatest works). The novel is dark because late
Davidson is dark, and it differs in detail from the earlier novel because Davidson
continued to research and tinker with his “World of Vergil Magus” throughout the
last decades of his life. Vergil in Averno is as singular as a pulled tooth, and perhaps
as disturbing to behold, but its offputting qualities are its own: Averno is a vision of
Hell as colonic blockage, static, ungiving, impacted. It is grimly appropriate that it
can only resolve the crisis of its unnatural existence by being blown apart
by its own inflammable gases.
* Inscription to Gregory Feeley’s copy of Averno.
** Depending upon whether or not you count “King Without Country,”
a fragment completed and published by Michael Swanwick. Other
fragments exist (see The Scarlet Fig, 248-268) and three episodes of
The Scarlet Fig were first published elsewhere. See also The Scarlet
, 240. As to the inconsistencies, two small examples will suffice. In
Phoenix Vergil is repeatedly said to live on the Street of the Horse-
Jewelers, a profession that is explained by the invariable Neapolitan
custom of ornamenting all horses and mules with some form of jewelry (21).
This detail (which Davidson describes in some detail) is forgotten in Averno,
which contains a long scene set in a livery stable, which describes how a
horse is equipped. Similarly, the details concerning Vergil’s childhood
mentioned in passing in Phoenix are difficult to reconcile with the long
flashback scenes of Vergil’s youth in Averno.

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The Avram Davidson Society
and the Nutmeg Point District Mail
are pleased to announce the forthcoming publication of

To be published by the Nutmeg Point District Mail on 8 May 2013
in New York and Upper Montclair, to mark the twentieth
anniversary of the death of Avram Davidson. Publications of
the Avram Davidson Society, number four.
Original, previously unpublished Adventure in Unhistory by Avram
Davidson, composed in November 1981.
The editor would like to thank Grania Davis and the Owlswick
Literary Agency; and to thank Iain Odlin for preserving the
typescript (please make your present whereabouts known to the editor).

Edition of 200 copies, printed offset and perfect bound in heavy card covers, french flaps.
6 x 9 inches, 48 pp.
Price to subscribers before publication : $20.00
For orders received before 15 April 2013, the price includes postage in U.S.A.
Payment by cheque or money order in U.S. funds, or by credit card. NO Paypal.
Price upon publication : $25.00
Ten numbered and specially bound copies will be reserved for presentation.

The Nutmeg Point District Mail is an imprint of Temporary Culture.

Orders and payment to:
Henry Wessells
P.O. Box 43072
Upper Montclair, NJ 07043
electronym :

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LIMEKILLER in the News and in the Archives

Readers of the American newspapers will recall frequent mention of
Belize in recent weeks, with exiled software millionaire John McAfee
on the run from police forces. Your correspondent notes that this most
closely resembles a scenario from the writings of Lucius Shepard, but
it is always worth returning to the Limekiller stories.

On another note, in an article in the Princeton University Library
, “Hidden Textures of Race and Historical Memory: The
Rediscovery of Photographs Relating to Jamaica’s Morant Bay
Rebellion”, Mimi Sheller describes the cotton-tree or silky-tree
with an astonishing 1865 photograph of a tree in Jamaica.
Thinking about Limekiller also helped me tease out the source
for the title and other aspects of “A Far Countrie”, the last story
in the sequence, which is rooted in a Thomas Hardy tale,
“ The Three Strangers” (Longman’s Magazine, March 1883).

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The next issue of The Nutmeg Point District Mail (Volume XV, no. 1)
will be published on 1 May 2013. Contributions on any subject
pertaining to the life and work of Avram Davidson are welcomed by
the editor.

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