Why I Like Avram Davidson's Novels & Stories ; with comments on selected stories
Henry Wessells

     These paragraphs do not comprise a well-ordered critical essay about Avram Davidson's work. They are an attempt to express some of my enthusiasm and delight. In late 1992 I first read a battered but intact copy of The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy paperback. I was surprised, again and again. The rambling sentences and digressions impressed me, but most of all it was the way in which Avram integrates obscure and bizarre knowledge into these stories: knowledge that in anyone else's hands would be dusty and uninteresting or an info-dump (technique invented, perhaps, by Jules Verne) that strangled or squashed the flow of language. I went to all the right schools and have read lots of books, but Avram was genuinely learned, as even a single sentence taken at random will reveal. There is a healthy measure of irreverence to temper this erudition, so that one is not oppressed by the weight of information.
     I do not count myself among the ranks of the academicians. This website is a portmanteau, Humpty Dumpty piece of scholarship, one writer's response to another writer's work, full of quirks and deviations from the straight furrows of traditional academic scholarship. Avram Davidson's writings contain and call for a good measure of delirium: not incoherence or ignorance, but the inspired capacity to follow an idea, a phrase or a cadence in a new direction, to take a point a little bit further than its simply logical conclusion. His work at its best (the Vergil and Peregrine books, the Limekiller and Esterhazy stories) is incredibly fresh and rich, each sentence resonant with suggestions of the complexity and concreteness of the worlds described.
     I am unsuited to write an extended critical evaluation of Avram's work as it should be written. For me, to read Avram's work is to understand how little I have read and how little remembered. Anyone can salt a text with brilliant references, but it is the throwaway references and ghosts of allusions rippling casually and untrumpeted throughout Avram's work that demonstrate his vast reading.
     This said, I have nonetheless made a beginning.


Shadows.Ed. Charles L. Grant. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978.
World Fantasy Award Winner

Laundry Lines and Random Walks

     Poverty is the principal character of this tale of Avram's -- poverty and a concept of the city of Naples that will never be found in Thomas Cook, Baedeker or Michelin guides. While a thorough guidebook might even note in passing the concentration of back-alley pasta-shops in poor quarters, the aim would clearly be to caution the tourist against ill-advised gastronomic adventures.
     I remember a book from my teenage years in Brittany, the Guide noire de la Bretagne. It was filled with tales of ill-fated demoiselles buried under oak trees by spurned lovers or furious brothers (including where to locate said oak trees on the grounds of certain chateaux). Recounting the Breton version of the Arthurian legend, the book mentioned the perron de Merlin, Merlin's threshold or doorstep. To step on this stone in the Val sans Retour, the Valley of No Return, is to be transported forever to the place under the lake where Merlin has been imprisoned. The guidebook was considerably less exact on the location of this stone than in other matters, and I remember paying close attention to where I walked during our trips to that forest.
     An Occult Guide to Naples might include some mention of the alleys and hovels through which Avram's travelogue takes the reader, but such a guide would be unlikely to notice the laundry lines strung across the alleys and sunless courtyards, or to notice the stark poverty of men who wear their coats buttoned to the top because their only shirt is being washed.
     I will admit that I have not read "Death in Venice" for many years. What I remember is an air of decay, of over-ripeness and world-weariness. And a pomegranate. There is squalor, decay and depravity in Avram's "Naples," and there is an infinite weariness. In "Naples," the decay and squalor arise not from over-ripeness but from starvation and barrenness -- think of fruits withering on the vine or in the blossom; the weariness is not part of that rarified lavender climate of the sophisticate, but the weariness of lives ground by the wheels of poverty; and the depravity is not that of a rich man turning away from some noble Northern ideal, but that of a poor man committing unspeakable cruelites because no alternative exists in his world.
     There is nothing left unspoken in "Naples," and yet everything is unspoken. The narrative unfolds in beautiful cadences, tracing a foreign visitor's walk through the narrow alleys of the poorest quarter of the city. Avoiding all overheated language and gratuitous violence or gore, in fact "merely" by taking a walk and relaying a few words overheard on a staircase in a slum, Avram moves the narrative quite beyond the bounds of the ordinary world.

     The cartography is the story: the actual map of the visitor's route is twisting but insistent, relentless, and finally disorienting. In Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas walks at random ("How random is random?" as William Burroughs asks) across the city of San Francisco and discovers the unknowable extent of the conspiracy onto which she has stumbled; similarly, in "Naples," the path is not from Point A to Point B to Point C, but from Point A to some Point X outside the known.
     In Avram's excellent (and un-Conan-like) fantasy, "The Head of Shemesh the Eshurian," Corydon searches in vain for the Great Adyt of the Great Temple of the Cartha Cabira. After traversing the slums of the Monkey Dell section of Cartha Cabira, he sights three structures roughly approximate in distance and size.

     The lepers' hostel.
     The dung pit.
     The charnel house.
     Thither, as though thitherunto doomed, Corydon picked his way.

      He soon enough lost it. . . .
      There were no longer lanes, nor were there alleys, but in between the stolid walls of stone and heaps of crumbled brick higher than his head, he half slid, half stumbled along in mere passages: round about, and round about and in and out, and round about. Up and down. And back and forth.
      Thus it was that without warning and without transition, he found himself inside the Great Adyt. . . .
     Afterwards (though not then) he bethought himself of the immense paradox that the great Adyt of the Great Temple of the Cartha Cabira was not actually within the Great Temple . . . nor, for that matter was it actually within the Cartha Cabira.

     This "immense paradox" unfolds again and again in Avram's work, it might be said to be one of the essential qualities of his writing. In "Naples," Avram charts the path to a chilling revelation with the sights and smells of a tourist ramble in a poor quarter. His narrative pulls the reader along a strange route: look closely at the laundry hanging on the lines. This image recurs with ever more unsettling resonances. In fact, these are signposts along a road to one of many hells.

The Affair at Lahore Cantonment

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 1961
Edgar Award Winner

     Ostensibly a bar-room tale in England in the late 'forties. Some conventional models are John Buchan (especially The Runagates Club), P.G. Wodehouse (the Mulliner stories and the golf yarns), and Lord Dunsany's Jorkens stories. While Buchan occasionally and Dunsany regularly ventured into the fantastical, as did Arthur C. Clarke in Tales from the White Hart, or Fletcher Pratt & L. Sprague DeCamp in Tales from Gavagan's Bar, their tales remain stories told in a bar, light entertainments.
     Dropped off at the local -- "One gin and two ales, Alfred -- no more, mind!" -- by his aged but not pink or soft wife, the Gaffer (older even than Wodehouse's Oldest Member) tells a story from his youth as a soldier in India, of his friendship with a fellow soldier, Daniel Devore, known as "Docker;" of meeting and courting a girl from a Portuguese (i.e., Eurasian) family, and then, of the discovery that Devore murdered another soldier, apparently a rival for the affections of one Miss De Silva.
     "There was that young chap from the newspaper, that wrote about it. Funny name 'e 'ad--something like Kipling--Ruddy Kipling, 'twas."
     The narrator's "casual" questions give the tale a great dramatic turn at the end:

     "'What was your wife's maiden name?'" "'And how,' I asked, 'do you pronounce D-e-v-o-r-e?"      It works as an Ellery Queen type of story -- where the narrator's questions provide a different perspective on the Gaffer's account of the events of the previous century and resolve a long-ago murder. However, had any other writer but Avram Davidson written such a story with oblique and crucial references to Kipling and his poem "Danny Deever" (reprinted to good effect in the magazine after Avram's story), everyone would have cried "meta-fiction!" (or at least, perhaps, "literature!").

To read Rudyard Kipling's poem

O Brave Old World!

Beyond Time. Ed. Sandra Ley. New York: Pocket Books, 1976.

     One of the best of Avram's many alternate history tales, delivered with a minimum of razzle-dazzle or hype. Outrageous in its total reworking of American history, the historical figures remain true to their fundamental natures.
      Frederick (son of George II), sent to America for his health, becomes widely popular and the center of a royalist revolt against England when the purse strings are cut. America becomes the seat of the monarchy, the Continental Congress (under the leadership of Franklin and then Washington) supersedes Parliament. England is invaded and occupied, seething under the tax burdens inflicted by the most Roman dictatorship under Washington's successor, "that scoundrelly American prime minister-president," Aaron Burr. Jefferson et al are refugees in London fomenting a war of independence from America.

The Slovo Stove

Universe 15. Ed. Terry Carr. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1985.

     Fred Silberman, returning to his hometown of Parlour's Ferry (a city in one of the rust belts populated by colorful but unfashionable immigrants from eastern Europe), is enough of an outsider to the long history of relations between Slovos and Huzzuks that he hasn't seen a Slovo stove (an impossible, wonderfully simple artifact, two pieces of stone that together make heat) and doesn't understand the proverbial Slovo joke ("'Was the water hot yet?'" "'Hot? Hot? It didn't even get warm!'") told by Huzzuks. This joke is one that still rankles the Slovos, eighty years on.
      But where the descendants of the Slovos see in this joke only the arrogance of the Huzzuks (long ago their feudal landlords), Fred is fascinated by the Slovo stove.

     "And how does it work, Mr. Grahdy? I mean . . . scientifically?"
     The one-shoulder shrug. "Who knows, my dear young gentleman? Consider the electrical properties of the amber, a great curiosity in the former age; but today, merely we flick a switch."
     While Fred is seeking to understand the old-country origins of the stove, other, inexorable forces are at work. In this tale, Avram examines the process of forgetting that is immigration to America: how the magical and paradoxical is replaced by the mass-produced, by the hotplate and stove, and the old knowledge is lost. Many of Avram's stories reflect on the passing of tradition and wonder, but in "The Slovo Stove" the experience of loss is uniquely intense.
     One of the reasons Avram's work never left the lively but less reputable suburbs of genre fiction can be seen in this piece. "Things Gone and Things Still Here" is a beautiful, disjointed and memorable story by Paul Bowles, set in Morocco. It deals with subjective time travel, strange transformations, and domestic sorcery. In his writings, Paul Bowles explores these exotic phenomena and is without any hesitation labelled literature. Avram's notions are as exotic and as arcane as anything mentioned by Bowles, but the unglamorous settings of his stories sometimes provide such effective camouflage that the exotic and unpredictable aspects of American life are overlooked.


The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1959

     A story about a goldfish swimming in a bowl of water.
     Narrative of an American naval officer in old China before the victory of the People's Army: an opening that is in genuine Avram fashion both direct and indirect, lots of local color -- street life, some interesting observations on the life of a sailor or soldier. As the officer proceeds in search of the fulfillment of "certain hopes and expectations," the story seems to be moving in the direction of an exotic tale of concubinage. With the appearance in a restaurant of a conjuror and his disappearing bowl of goldfish, the narrative moves seamlessly from an arrogant, ironic account of luxury and contrasting squalor, to one of apotheosis, delusion, and a strange transformation of world and perception.
     John Crowley also touches upon this notion of scale in Little, Big, when Ariel Hawksquill tells the demagogue Russell Eigenblick that "The Chinese, you know, believe that deep within each of us, no larger than the ball of your thumb, is the garden of the immortals, the great valley where we are all king forever" (446).
     It also seems apposite to cite Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China, vol.2: "To know that heaven and earth are no bigger than a grain of the smallest rice, and that the tip of a hair is as big as a mountain mass -- that is to understand the relativity of standards" (103).

Copyright 1996 by H. Wessells. All rights reserved

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