The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   105

The Avram Davidson Treasury

by Avram Davidson

edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis

New York: Tor, 1998

The Investigations of Avram Davidson

Collected Mysteries

by Avram Davidson

edited by Grania Davis and Richard A. Lupoff additional lolligags by Michael Kurland

New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999

The Boss in the Wall

A Treatise on the House Devil

by Avram Davidson and Grania Davis

introductions by Peter S. Beagle and Michael Swanwick

San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 1998

Avram Davidson's Afterlife

The great Muslim theologian, jurist and logician Abu Hamid al-Ghazali wrote a book on The Incoherence of the Philosophers, much of which was devoted to attacking the notion of causation along lines which would be followed several centuries later by David Hume. One of his examples was a demonstration (valid) that there is nothing logically impossible in a corpse happening to ``sit up and write learned volumes in a well-ordered script,'' though he allowed that such occurrences were not ``habitual.''

But habits change: nowadays it almost seems more unusual to not get at least one volume post-mortem from an author's pen or keyboard. Some, indeed, grow far more prolific once the tomb has cut off distractions, though I wouldn't want to have to vouch for the learning or even the penmanship of the late Ms. V. C. Andrews.

All the currently in-print works of Avram Davidson (1923--1993) have been published since his death; indeed, within the last year. They are three: the Treasury, a collection of his stories --- mostly fantasies and science fiction, which is representative of his work --- with accompanying tributes by other writers; the Investigations, which collects a number (not all by any means) of his mystery stories; and The Boss in the Wall, a short novel carved out of sprawling manuscript several times as long by Grania Davis, Davidson's ex-wife, who had been his literary collaborator for years before his death.

The Treasury is probably the best place to begin, especially if you've never read Davidson before which, odds are, you haven't, or else more books than these would be in print. The eulogies tend to get a little repetitive after a while, because there are only so many ways of saying that somebody wrote some of the best short stories ever to grace the English language, stories that were erudite, elaborate, economical and marvelously effective, and that it's a crying shame he was neglected during his life because his stories happened to be fantastic, and not translated from Spanish. It may in fact be better to first read all the stories, and then go back and read the eulogies, because then you'll realize that they weren't exaggerating.

Investigations limits itself to mystery stories; there is no overlap with the Treasury. These are at least as good as the fantasies and works of science fiction. Several of them lack corpses, but succeed as mysteries nonetheless. The only eulogies and introductions in this volume are provided by the editors.

The Boss in the Wall is a horror novel; the only really uncanny one I've read in years. It has been six months since I read it, and I am still not quite comfortable with empty houses or clumps of discarded clothes.

Two of Davidson's other books retain a tenuous presence on the shores of light --- so tenuous I cannot get my local bookstores to order them, and accordingly have omitted them from the header of this review. (I would prefer not to discuss the means by which I procured my copies.) One, Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy, is a collection of mysterious fantasies or fantastic mysteries, brought to the attention of (though not always solved by) the polymathic and impeccable Dr. Engelbert Eszterhazy, of No. 33 Turkling St, Bella, the capital of the Triune Monarchy of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania, in the years before the Great War. (One of these stories, ``Polly Charms, the Sleeping Woman,'' is included in the Treasury.) The other is Adventures in Unhistory: Conjectures on the Factual Foundations of Several Ancient Legends. In addition to being a mine of wonderfully obscure lore (e.g., a Scots schoolmaster's encounter with a mermaid in the 1800s), it suggests what Sir Thomas Browne or Robert Burton or Robert K. Merton (in his On the Shoulders of Giants mode) might have written, had they only been reincarnated as Jews from Yonkers.

All his novels are out of print. Perhaps the one most worth searching for is The Phoenix and the Mirror, the first of a sequence called Vergil Magus, inspired by the medieval legends which made the Roman poet Vergil into a master sorcerer.

Reading him for the sheer joy of the near-perfect style (he must have made mistakes from time to time --- must he not?, but I've never seen any), you get caught in the web of story, and your emotions played upon like a trumpet in the hands Gillespie. Contrariwise, go to him for story --- ``tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral,'' not to mention mysterious, fantastical, mysterious-fantastical, scientifictional, satirical or horrific --- why, go to him for that, and I defy you to not become enchanted by his style, by the way each word fits in its place just so, like the parts of an ancient, jeweled watch that has kept time long after its maker was dust. I cannot urge you too strongly to seek out these marvelous devices.

Treasury: 416 pp.; Investigations: 246 pp.; Boss: xxii + 122 pp.
Fantasy / Historical Fiction / Mysteries / Science Fiction
The Treasury is currently in print as a hardback, US$27.95, ISBN 0312867298, and a paperback, US$17.95, ISBN 031286731X, LoC PS3554.A924 A6; Investigations is currently in print as a hardback, US$24.95, ISBN 0-312-19931-7, LoC PS3554.A924 A6; Boss is in print as limited edition hardcover, US$50, ISBN unknown to me (but can be ordered directly from publisher; see link on the books-by-publisher page), and as a paperback, US$12, ISBN 0-9648320-9-7; no LoC number as it's not in the Library of Congress catalog.
10 November 1999; thanks to John Lawler for pointing out a glitch, 23 May 2001