Thoughts Occasioned by Publication of The Avram Davidson Treasury

By Henry Wessells

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 somewhat involved, or at the very least complicit, in other ways that I will spell out below). And yet. Having been accused of being a "one man conspiracy" and "the world's greatest authority on Avram Davidson" (or was it "expert"?), 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. . . .
Hence these paragraphs which, if not exactly a review, might still offer something of interest.
In the dark, out-of-print years just after Davidson's death in 1993, there were any number of reasons to keep the flame alive: the Vergil Magus and Peregrine books, the Limekiller stories, "The Affair at Lahore Cantonment, "The Slovo Stove," and "Naples." Now, with this book in front of me, there's all the more cause for celebrating the work of an American original. The Avram Davidson Treasury is a compendium of most (but by no means all) of Davidson's best short fictions, arranged chronologically, with story introductions by host of eminent science fiction authors (and one other, yours truly). The Treasury is a book that should be on the shelf of every reader of science fiction. Some of these 38 stories ("Or All the Seas With Oysters" or "The Golem") are ubiquitous; two have been published as chapbooks; and one of the most distinctive, "The Affair at Lahore Cantonment," is reprinted for the first time since its original appearance in 1961, for which Davidson won the Edgar Award.[1]
Yes, Avram Davidson was the man who won the Hugo, Edgar, and World Fantasy Awards (and the last of the Ellery Queen Awards), and spent his later years living in what was undeniably poverty.[2] Davidson in the 1970s created the very distinct worlds of Jack Limekiller (in British Hidalgo, a 20th-century Central American country that is so richly drawn that it must be somewhere on the map) and Dr. Englebert Eszterhazy (in the 19th-century Balkan empire of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania), and wrote two of the most brilliantly understated tales ever, "Naples" and "And Don't Forget the One Red Rose."
But at one point during the middle 1970s (he would have been over 50 by then), he wrote that he lacked the money to mail a manuscript. The worst hells are always of our own making, but it still appalls me to think of what happened to him (and I never met the man).
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 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."
There are a few, very few omissions: "The Dragon Skin Drum" is the one important early story I miss most "They Loved Me in Utica" is hilarious but admittedly minor; both are worth digging up. One of the Adventures in Unhistory (perhaps "Postscript on Prester John") might have served to introduce new readers to Davidson's nonfiction. These and others might also form part of a volume of Uncollected Writings.
When I opened this book and came to the story "Polly Charms, the Sleeping Woman," I distinctly recalled that this was the first story by Davidson that I ever read, when I found a copy of the paperback Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy in the autumn of 1992, and first became interested by Davidson's digressive and often fragmentary prose. I soon bought the Owlswick Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy, which I passed on to my brother in due course. In a desultory manner, I began looking for other stuff by Davidson to read. I did not have much luck at that point. What I did read seemed somehow to unlock something for me -- the notion of incorporating odd knowledge into fiction -- although I cannot say that "The Polynesian History of the Kergu­len Islands" took the world by storm when it appeared in Exquisite Corpse, and "The Institute of Antarctic Archaeology" remains unpublished. In May 1993, I called up George Scithers to enquire if the Adventures in Unhistory book had ever appeared, and learned that Avram had just passed away (he did in fact see the book before his death). Over the next several months, I began to correspond with various people who were also interested in Davidson; I started to compile titles of stories and books to look out for. As I found these scattered stories and out-of-print books, this eventually grew into my "Preliminary Annotated Checklist of the Writings of Avram Davidson." In September 1995, when I asked a colleague how to make a list into a database, instead, the first version of the Avram Davidson Website was born. The rest, is of course, history (and a labor of love). As I wrote at the beginning of this letter, I am involved and complicit in the production of this book, having contributed a few thoughts on "The Lineaments of Gratified Desire" (another obliquely understated tale that makes me shiver just to recall it). In a few instances I provided Grania Davis with a clean copy of a story; and once suggested that an author be given a particular story to introduce.
With the recent publication by Tachyon of The Boss in the Wall, A Treatise on the House Devil by Avram Davidson and Grania Davis, the appearance of the Treasury, and The Investigations of Avram Davidson forthcoming from St. Martin's, it seems that there is actually a Davidson renaissance under way. What a pity it didn't happen during his lifetime.

1. "The Affair at Lahore Cantonment" was in fact reprinted once in Ellery Queen's to Be Read Before Midnight (Random House, 1962).
2. Avram Davidson won the 12th annual Ellery Queen Award in 1957, for "The Necessity of His Condition." The award was discontinued after the 13th year; the original series of award-winning stories was reprinted in Ellery Queen's The Golden 13 (1970); more recently, I think during the early 1980s, the award was revived. By the early 1980s, Avram's poverty was very concrete and his period of residency in a VA Hospital effectively enjoined him from publishing, for any earnings would have been translated into a reduction of his benefits.

Originally published (without footnotes) in The New York Review of Science Fiction, November 1998.

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