Thursday, June 11, 2015

Not a Bestseller: The Avram Davidson Treasury, edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis

Not a Bestseller: The Avram Davidson Treasury, edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis

A review by Rich Horton

Not done with my latest Old Bestseller, so I'm turning to a review I did quite a while ago of a magnificent posthumous collection of stories by one of SF's greatest and most individual writers, Avram Davidson. I hope his work is not forgotten ... I don't think it is -- but it does seem to get less mention than it used to. 

Avram Davidson died in 1993, 70 years old and too young. He was, as is so often said, one of the great originals. His writing was elegant and complex, always adapted to the voices of his narrators and characters, and always at some level humorous even when telling a dark story. He was one of those writers whose stories were consistently enjoyable for just wallowing in the prose, with its sprung rhythms and fine, out of the way, images. His stories also were enjoyable for wallowing in atmosphere, with their evocation of exotic place-times, whether it be late-50s New York City or early-70s Belize, turn-of-the-century Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania or far-future Barnum's Planet, and for their evocation of exotic world-views, and the packing and repacking of wondrous, seemingly inconsequential (though rarely truly so) background tidbits of history and unhistory. His best stories took these characteristics and harnessed them in the service of well-honed themes or (sometimes) clever plots. 

This collection is organized as a retrospective, with the selections placed in order of first appearance. This is, I think, an excellent choice for any collection of this magnitude. It allows the interested reader to try to track evolutions in the writer's style and thematic concerns over time. (I would suggest, perhaps, that the older Davidson was more prone to explorations of esoterica than the younger, and less often openly angry. Throughout his career, he was ready with the comic touch, even in the midst of a darker context. His style was always special, but perhaps grew more involved as he grew older.)

Another feature of this collection is the introductions by many of Davidson's friends -- mostly fellow authors and editors, but also his son; and too his bibliographer, Henry Wessels. This represents a significant chunk of "value added": they include some personal reminiscences, some analyses of the work, and some elegiac passages. I'll add that the book is nicely and elegantly put together, and that editors Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis (as well as Tor in-house editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden) deserve thanks and applause for working to bring us this book.

But, of course, there is no Avram Davidson Treasury without the stories Avram Davidson wrote, and 38 are assembled here. And, the stories are the only real reason to buy and exult in this book. I'm a big Davidson fan: make no mistake. I come to this review not at all objective, and having reading all but a few of the stories already, many of them several times. At least one, "The Sources of the Nile," is firmly on my personal list of the best SF stories of all time.

So, highlights? As mentioned, "The Sources of the Nile" is an all-time favorite of mine, a mordantly funny (indeed very funny) story of a young writer who stumbles across a family that anticipates future fashion trends. This proves of great interest to the advertising industry, and the writer chases after the secret. But he's not the only person who could make use of such information. It's tightly plotted, always logical, and perfectly resolved (the first two features not being very high on Davidson's list of strengths). It's also full of gorgeous telling details of character and setting, as well as the odd Davidsonian bit of thematically-pointed esoteric knowledge. And, as Gregory Feeley's introduction points out, it has a sound moral core.

"Manatee Gal Won't You Come Out Tonight?" was the first of the Jack Limekiller tales, and "Polly Charms the Sleeping Woman" the first of the Dr. Eszterhazy tales. Each serves as the representative in this anthology for its respective series, and each is wonderful in its own right as well as a great introduction to the characters and settings (both important) of both sets of stories.

The Limekiller stories are often called "Magic Realism." I don't want to try to define that term but it does give a small sense of their flavor. "Manatee Gal ..." introduces Jack Limekiller, expatriate Canadian, owner of the boat Sacarissa, and his adopted home of British Hidalgo (i.e. British Honduras, or Belize). Jack gets entwined with a mystery concerning manatees, the old African tribes called Mantee or Mandingo, a lost colony in the British Hidalgo bush, and plenty more. The mystery is satisfactory and nicely resolved, but the joy of the story is the detail of the Caribbean setting, and such points as the nicely recorded voices of the various characters. "Polly Charms ..." is set in a Ruritanian sort of locale: the Triune Monarchy of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania. Again, there is a mystery: a young woman who has been sleeping for decades, without growing older, is put on display. The "unquestionably great and justly famous Engelbert Eszterhazy, Doctor of Jurisprudence, Doctor of Medicine, Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Literature, Doctor of Science, et sic cetera" is urged to investigate, perhaps because fraud is suspected, but the story comes to a sadder, more moving, conclusion than would result from any bald explanation of the facts. Once again, the finely rendered details of life in the Triune Monarchy provide a major portion of the pleasure of the story.

I had read, I said, the great majority of these stories, but a few were new to me. "The Affair at Lahore Cantonment" is one of Davidson's mysteries (he was a regular contributor to mystery magazines). This story won the Edgar Award, but has apparently not been reprinted until now. I've been reading a lot of Kipling lately, and it occurs to me that Davidson is definitely like Kipling in many important ways (although not politically, except perhaps for disliking Germans! Ray Bradbury makes this point briefly in an afterword, as well). "The Affair ..." is, in fact, based on a certain famous Kipling poem, and as such is perhaps too obvious an example. However, it shows how Davidson shares with Kipling the ability to use a frame story subtly to the advantage of the main story, the love of planting subtle clues in places you don't expect (little details which seem interesting when introduced and are vital later in the story), and, of course, the beautiful use of characters' voices, especially the ear for accents.

Another story new to me was the rather recent "The Slovo Stove." This is a great story, telling of a man returning to his hometown after many years, and encountering a family of immigrants. The plot, about a wonderful device (the title stove) brought over from the old country, echoes "The Sources of the Nile" in some ways. But thematically, and more importantly, the story carefully, and mostly in the background, recapitulates the process of assimilation of immigrants into the dominant culture of the new land. Again, it's very moving, and very funny too. And, it seems to me, deeply true.

Davidson was at the same time an instantly recognizable writer, with an eccentric and lovable prose style, and a writer of great range. He could do straight comedy, quirky horror, mystery, social criticism, pure fantasy, mainstream, and at least relatively hard SF. (OK, pretty squishy, but real SF for all that.) He's shown in all these phases in this anthology (and of course, many stories combine several of the above features). So read "Author, Author" for comedy, "Dagon" for eerie horror, "The Necessity of His Condition" for bitter social commentary, and "Now Let Us Sleep" for SF (and also bitter social commentary).

There is not space to list the remainder of the delightful stories herein contained, such as ""Hark! Was That the Squeal of an Angry Thoat?" with its loving portrayal of Greenwich Village; "Yellow Rome; or, Vergil and the Vestal Virgin", a tempting beginning to the third Vergil novel; and the truly creepy SF horror story, "The House the Blakeneys Built." Suffice it to say that this collection is big enough, and varied enough, to whet the appetite of any reader whose ear can be tuned to catch the strains of Davidson's voice. And even this large collection inevitably leaves out many fine stories (the other Eszterhazy and Limekiller stories, "The Lord of Central Park," and many more), to say nothing of his engaging collection of essays, Adventures in Unhistory, in which he discusses at length many obscure legends and their possible bases in fact. So buy it and read it, and very likely you will find yourself searching out the out-of-print and small press books which house the rest of his work (for now). Very likely too you will be hoping with the rest of us Davidson lovers for a few more treasures to be dug from his papers, like the recent novella The Boss in the Wall, or perhaps the third Vergil novel.


  1. Grania Davis was happified by this review's appearance, and I am, as well...I hadn't thought too much about the anger bubbling under some of the early stories, but it's certainly more in evidence than in the later. "Lahore" was reprinted in some of the crime-fiction media...I first read it in THE YEAR'S BEST DETECTIVE STORIES mini its year, for example, much as I did "The Lord of Central Park" and I would scour every back issue of the mystery magazines I came across particularly for Davidson stories new to me. Though even such a cf scholar as Don Harron recently assumed Davidson was only an infrequent delver into crime fiction.

    He was the best of a good bunch of editors of THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, and he knew his ancient tech well enough...much of his work prefigures steampunk to one degree or another.

  2. Hm. Henry Wessells, in his review of the TREASURY, states that "Lahore" was only reprinted in an Ellery Queen annual, where I might've seen it instead...