The Novels of Avram Davidson
by Rich Horton
Today would have been Avram Davidson's 96th birthday. He died in 1993. In his memory, here's a repost of something I did back in 2003 on rec.arts.sf.written, a quick summary of his novels. For the most part I don't say much about them. I've revised it to account for the 2005 publication of The Scarlet Fig.
Avram Davidson is one of my favorite authors, but his reputation, with me as with most anyone, is founded on his short fiction (and, I suppose, to some extent on his exotic nonfiction, as with Adventures in Unhistory). Davidson's strengths were a sharp moral sense, a fascination with curious minutiae, a quirky imagination, obfuscation to good effect, and a glorious sprung prose rhythm. All of these strengths, it seems to me, are better displayed at shorter lengths. His novels tended to be sloppily plotted, or to display signs of lost interest, or to simply not finish (as in the case of his several series begun but never completed). Thus I urge those who have not yet discovered Davidson to seek out the short fiction, recently collected in such places as The Avram Davidson Treasury, The Investigations of Avram Davidson, and The Other Nineteenth Century. Highlights include the Engelbert Eszterhazy stories, the Jack Limekiller stories, "The Sources of the Nile", "The Slovo Stove", "What Strange Stars and Skies", "El Vilvoy de Las Islas", "Dragon Skin Drum", "Dagon", "The Lord of Central Park", and many more.
But here we consider the novels. Several were written in the middle sixties, and published as paperback originals, probably for minimal advances, probably written fairly quickly. These show signs of being forced into rather pulpish and conventional plot frames, and the exuberance of the writing is sometimes muted. Still, the prose does break free at times, and Davidson's imagination remains compelling. (Incidentally, while my copies of the books are all old paperbacks, except for Vergil in Averno, I should note that Wildside Press recently reissued nearly all of Davidson's novels, so they are fairly readily available.)
Many of the novels were parts of projected series, though these series were not usually finished. Here's a summary of Davidson's "novel series", with the books listed in (to the best of my knowledge) internal chronological order. (After the series summary, I'll list and describe all the novels individually).
The Kar-Chee Reign (1966), Rogue Dragon (1965) -- no more ever planned or needed
Vergil in Averno (1987), The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969), The Scarlet Fig; or Slowly, Through a Land of Stone (2005)
Up to six more "Vergil" books were reputedly planned. A number of short stories about Vergil have also been published, some of which may be extracts from The Scarlet Fig. Here's David Tate's list of the Vergil short stories:
"Vergil and the Caged Bird", Amazing, January 1987
"Vergil and the Dukos: Hic Inclusus Vitam Perdit, or The Imitations of the King", Asimov's, September 1997
"Yellow Rome, or Vergil and the Vestal Virgin", Weird Tales, Winter 1992/1993, also in The Avram Davidson Treasury
"Vergil Magus: King Without Country", with Michael Swanwick, Asimov's, July 1998
"The Other Magus", in Edges, Eds. Ursula K. Le Guin & Virginia Kidd (Pocket Books; Berkley paperback, 1980)
"Sea-Scene, or Vergil and the Ox-Thrall", Asimov's, February 1993
"Young Vergil and the Wizard", Infinite Matrix, December 2001
I have heard that there are possibly another half-dozen unpublished shorts.
The Island Under the Earth (1969), The Six-Limbed Folk (apparently never written), The Cap of Grace (apparently never written)
Peregrine: Primus (1971), Peregrine: Secundus (1981)
A third Peregine book was planned but never written. Davidson's son Ethan wrote a novelette, "Peregrine: Parentus", based on Avram's notes for the final novel. It was published in 2016, but I haven't seen it.
Now, to briefly describe the various novels individually. I'll list them in publication order, to the best of my knowledge. There are a couple I haven't yet read. Also, many of them I read in short order as I found them used in about 1994, which was before I kept notes on the books I read. Which means I don't remember them all very well.
Joyleg (with Ward Moore) (1962)
A version was serialized in Fantastic. This is one of three novel-length (or nearly so) collaborations by Davidson: the other two are with his ex-wife Grania Davis. This novel is about a man living in the back hills of Tennessee who turns out to be a veteran of the American Revolution. The secret of longevity attracts the attention of the American Government, and the Soviets as well, and much political foofaraw occurs, much revolving around the book's real main characters, a Congressman and Congresswoman (the "woman" underlined on the back of my 1962 Pyramid paperback -- I suppose that was considered almost more SFnal than a 200 year old guy back in 1962). I thought it went on a bit long, and that it read too much like Ward Moore and not enough like Davidson. Minor.
Mutiny in Space (1964)
Expansion of the Worlds of Tomorrow novella "Valentine's Planet". Probably the least of Davidson's novels. It is reminiscent of Poul Anderson's slightly earlier Virgin Planet, in that it features a man or men spacewrecked on a planet dominated by women who, it turns out, are just looking for a REAL MAN [TM]. In this case a mutiny leads to a spaceship crew being marooned, on a planet where the males are all small and childlike (as I recall), so that the women rule. Naturally, things change. It's not horrible, and not completely un-Davidsonian, but it's not very good, either.
Masters of the Maze (1965)
The first novel to show real signs of Davidson's true obsessions, and his true, or mature, prose style. It's a weird thing, and I didn't really find it wholly successful, but I found aspects quite fascinating. I admit I don't remember it well at this remove, but it involved weird alien creatures in control of a "Maze" that allowed travel through space and time, and a failing young writer, and dangerous aliens who need to be stopped.
Rogue Dragon (1965)
Davidson earned a Nebula nomination for this, though it should be noted that in those days (this was the first year of the Nebula awards), the rules were different, and the list of nominated works is rather long. The aliens known as the Kar-Chee came to Earth and brought the Dragons with them, but the Kar-Chee have been defeated, but Earth is an exhausted backwater. Now the Dragons are hunted for sport by rich men from elsewhere in the Galaxy. Jon-Joras, the hero, comes to realize that this sport must cease. A decent, fun, sometimes dark, novel.
In an exhausted human-colonized portion of the Galaxy, a young man goes to Pia 2, "the most
remote, isolated, world in the Galaxy", and gets involved in a conflict between entrenched colonialist men who have enslaved the local species called "Tocks", and the Wild Tocks, all further complicated by the danger of the fierce rorks, yet another species. Parts of it were quite good, parts, particularly the ending, were simply rushed.
The Enemy of My Enemy (1966)
I don't remember this one well. A fugitive gets surgically transformed to become a Tarnisi, and ends up affecting the course of a hopeless war between Tarnis and some other nations. The solution is slightly unexpected. I don't think this was one of may favorite early Davidson novels, but as I say I don't remember it well.
Clash of Star-Kings (1966)
Very short novel (about 38,000 words, originally half of an Ace Double) that appeared on the Nebula nomination list for Best Novella of 1966. It depicts a conflict between alien entities as a conflict between the ancient Gods of the Aztecs and the Olmecs, witnessed by a couple of writers living in Mexico to save money. Pretty good stuff, best I think for the depiction of everyday life for American expatriates in Mexico. My full review is here: Review of Clash of Star-Kings/Danger From Vega.
The Kar-Chee Reign (1966)
Prequel to Rogue Dragon, telling of the end of the period of Kar-Chee oppression of Earth. My full review is here: Review of Rocannon's World/The Kar-Chee Reign.
The Island Under the Earth (1969)
Published as one of the celebrated first series of Ace Specials in 1969. Here the source of Davidson's imagination is closer to Greek myth. The novel is set in a strange land with such creatures as Harpies and especially Centaurs. Unfortunately I remember little else except that I liked it, and that I was saddened to hear that Davidson never wrote the sequels.
The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969)
First published by Doubleday in 1969 (as far as I know, the Vergil novels are the only Davidson novels originally published in hardcover), then as an Ace Special in 1970, expanded from a 1966 novella in Fantastic. Perhaps Davidson's most highly-regarded novel. It is an "Alternate History Fantasy", set in a Roman Empire full of magic, and alchemy, and strange creatures, in which the poet Vergil was a powerful sorcerer. This novel is about Vergil's search for the perfect Speculum, or mirror, and his involvement with several women. It is the first novel in which Davidson gave full reign to his fascination with the oddities of history and "unhistory", and in which he let his prose style loose to its full flowering of elegant eccentricity.
Peregrine: Primus (1971)
Perhaps Davidson's single most engaging novel, and the most overtly comedic of them. It's set in another alternate Roman Empire. As I said in my review of the Wildside reprint, for Maelstrom SF: The story is set in an alternate history. Peregrine is the younger son of "the last pagan King in lower Europe". When he reaches his majority, his father reluctantly exiles him, in order to prevent trouble with the Crown Prince. So begin Peregrine's, er, peregrinations. Accompanied by a faithful page and an aging sorcerer, he roams about "lower Europe", encountering the remnants of an eccentric Roman Empire, a wide variety of mutually heretical Christians, and many other wonders.
Ursus of Ultima Thule (1973)
One of two Davidson novels I have not read. Apparently set in prehistoric times, and when I asked about it people seemed to think it fairly good. There is a presumably shorter magazine serial version, "The Forges of Nainland are Cold", from Fantastic in 1972. (There is also a 1971 If novella, "Arnten of Ultima Thule", which may be part of the novel as well.)
Peregrine: Secundus (1981)
Much of a muchness with Peregrine: Primus, it continues Peregrine's story without seeming to bring it closer to any sort of conclusion. I'd say it's not quite as good as the first book but still quite enjoyable. Assembled from a 1973 novelette in F&SF ("Peregrine: Alflandia"), and a 1980 novella in Asimov's ("Peregrine Perplexed").
Vergil in Averno (1987)
The prequel to The Phoenix in the Mirror, telling of Vergil's journey to the underworld. I found it a
lot harder going than its predecessor, to be honest.
The Scarlet Fig (2005)
I wrote this for Fantasy Magazine when this novel finally came out (in a lovely and expensive hardcover edition): Some books have significance and value beyond their pure value as novels. Certainly The Scarlet Fig is one such – the long awaited third Vergil novel from the late Avram Davidson. Its value as fiction is high enough, mind you. It’s very characteristic of late Davidson, stuffed with evidence of his erudition, the prose complicated, eccentric, enjoyable for those of us who have a taste for Davidson’s prose. (That said, often a bit prolix, perhaps a bit too precious.) The story concerns Vergil’s travels after he leaves Rome (“Yellow Rome”), fearful of accusations of having tarnished a Vestal Virgin, and also menaced by piratical Carthaginians. He visits many strange shores: Corsica, Tingitayne, the Region called Huldah (and its beautiful eponymous ruler), the island of the Lotophageans, where he drinks of the Scarlet Fig, and finally the Land of Stone in North Africa. All along we witness much magic and many wonders – all reflecting the altered Rome of Davidson’s Vergil Magus, a Rome reflecting the legends that accumulated in the Middle Ages: so, gloriously grotesque satyrs, victims of the cockatrix, the dogs of the Guaramanty, etc. I enjoyed it greatly, particularly the character of Vergil and the mix of darkness and strangeness throughout. It is also beautifully presented: a large handsome hardcover, with beautiful illustrations, and much excellent additional material to the novel: afterwords by both Davis and Wessells, and several appendices including a few “deleted scenes” and
reproductions of some notecards from Davidson’s collection (“Encyclopedia”) of Vergilian research.
Marco Polo and the Sleeping Beauty (with Grania Davis) (1988)
I have not read this book either. Apparently, the plot concerns Kublai Khan's setting a task for Marco Polo before allowing him to return home.
The Boss in the Wall (with Grania Davis) (1998)
A long novella (perhaps 32,000 words) extracted (by Davis) from a much longer novel that Davidson had been working on for some time when he died. This was published in book form by Tachyon after Davidson's death. It's good stuff, with much of the classic Davidson flavor, about nasty critters that lurk in the walls of houses.
An extract from my review for Tangent: So what is it about? To quote: "A Paper-Man or Paper-Doll or Paper-Doll Man. A Hyett or Hetter or Header. A Greasy-Man or String-Fellow. A Rustler or Clicker or Clatterer. And/or other names." Or the "House-Devil". Or "The Boss in the Wall". Professor Vlad Smith moves into a new house. Which is a very old house, owned by his Uncle Mose. Almost immediately, something unexplainable and scary kills his Uncle and puts his wife and daughter into states of shock. A local doctor puts Vlad in touch with Professor Edward Bagnell, who has been investigating sightings of the "House-Devil". And we follow Vlad, and Bagnell, and others in a rambling search through the available scholarly and semi-scholarly and crackpot records of other potential "Paper Men", "Rustlers", and "Bosses in the Wall", to an encounter with a mysterious committee studying the phenomenon, and to a resolution to (at least) Vlad's story.