THE OTHER NINETEENTH CENTURY

by Avram Davidson

Tor

0-312-84874-9

327pp/$27.95/December 2001

The Other Nineteenth Century
Cover by Tom Kidd

Reviewed by Steven H Silver


The Other Nineteenth Century is only the latest collection of Avram Davidson’s stories to be published during the current resurgence of his literary career instigated by his ex-wife, Grania Davis.  At the title indicates, the twenty-three stories included in this collection all deal with the nineteenth century, although they are not, for the most part, alternate history.  Instead, Davidson plays with strange views of the nineteenth century in ways which could have happened from the ordinary Quakers of “The Man Who Saw the Elephant” to the more august ranks of poets who populate “Traveller from an Antique Land” [sic].  Of course, with the setting in the nineteenth century, the editors have included a story of Davidson’s mythical empire of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania and Dr. Eszterhazy in “The Odd Old Bird.”

Nearly all of the stories in The Other Nineteenth Century demonstrate Davidson's astounding ability to select words and craft sentences which are reminiscent of an earlier, more flowery and less frantic style of writing.  Because of this, unfortunately, his stories will not appeal to some people more accompanied to a more action oriented literature.  Davidson's work is highly entertaining and represents some of the best stylistic writing within the genre.

Davidson plays around with the causes of the American Revolution and the death of Frederick Prince of Wales in 1751 to create a world which is at once different from our own and the same when England decides to rebel against the monarch who has ensconced himself in the colonies in “O Brave Old World!”  The story is essentially a light piece, although it does remind the reader that history is as much a matter of perspective as it is of events.

“Great Is Diana” takes the form of the recounting of an eighteenth century travelogue of Henry Taylor, who, more than strange customs, was in search of women to describe.  When he finally does discover a particularly exotic woman, Taylor runs screaming.  This story demonstrates one of Davidson’s great skills:  his ability to make a story humorous without making the story comical.

Contemporary historical figures are often viewed as being companions, which is sometimes the case, but not always.  In “One Morning with Samuel, Dorothy, and William,” Davidson combines two of the Romantic poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and demonstrates their disparate personalities, even as they both produced poetry of the same school.  Bringing them together and working in the story as a counterpoint to both of them is Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy.

Davidson uses historical figures as the basis for his characters in “Traveller from an Antique Land” (sic), which tells the story of the drowning of Shelley.  Davidson offers an explanation for Shelley’s fate aside from merely the effects of a storm, fingering a possible culprit with a surprising motive.

“The Man Who Saw the Elephant” is the story of Ezra Simmons, a Quaker farmer who has a sense of wanderlust which causes him, one day, to forsake his farm and go in search of an elephant which is supposed to be on exhibit in a nearby town.   While a simple story on the surface, “The Man Who Saw the Elephant” examines the yearning need to discover something, anything, new, even if it is not what a person sets out to find.

“Pebble in Time,” written with Cynthia Goldstone, is a cross-time story in which a man’s attempts to simply witness a momentous event results in the destruction of that event despite the care he took.  In this case, a rock dislodged by his foot results in Brigham Young electing to continue the Mormon Exodus until they settle on the West Coast instead of Utah.

Many authors have taken the opportunity to introduce Sherlock Holmes into their narratives, usually by donning the voice, as Arthur Conan Doyle did, of Dr. Watson.  Davidson takes a different stab at the legendary detective by describing a patient who meets Holmes while seeking surgical assistance from Watson in “The Singular Incident of the Dog on the Beach.”  Amazed at Holmes’s abilities at deduction, the protagonist alters his plans in a manner which gives the story its twist and its bite.

The nineteenth century was a time of great advances in technology, each building on previously invented gadgetry.  In “The Engine of Samoset Erastus Hale, and One Other, Unknown,” Davidson examines what happens when a new technology is introduced before the world has been made ready for it.

”Buchanan’s Head” is a languorous story of a Victorian man's slow decline in health.  Davidson's revelation at the end of the story, which provides the justification for the work, explains that "Buchanan's Head" is the story of how an artist's emotions not only influence the work he is creating, but also can have a direct influence on those who view the creation.

“The Odd Old Bird” is one of Davidson’s stories of Englebert Eszterhazy which is not collected in the Owlswick Press collection The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy.  This is the story of the search for a legendary third fossil of an Archaeopteryx which Eszterhazy believes may exist within the borders of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania.

In only a few deftly written pages, Davidson manages to examine the two worlds which co-existed in the nineteenth-century west between the Caucasians and the Chinese.  “The Deed of the Deft-Footed Dragon” looks at the gratefulness of On Lung, a warrior-turned-laundryman for the unsuccessful kindness of a Caucasian woman who has problems of her own.

Although “The Monteverde Camera” begins as a magical shop story, it quickly leaves that realm and follows the purchaser of a camera which belonged to a pioneer in the photography field.  As he begins to use the camera, Lucius Collins begins to make a connection between the objects he photographs and a run of bad luck.  Looking at the history of the camera, he realizes that its association with evil goes back to its origins.  Although a simple idea, Davidson could have spent more time examining his characters and their relationships for a stronger, more intriguing tale.

Davidson shows off his skill at descriptive writing and digressions in  “What Strange Stars and Skies,” and Edwardian story of kidnappings in the stews of London.  Focusing on a handful of the kidnap victims, Davidson clearly shows the plight of the lower classes while capturing the feel of the era about which he is writing.

“The Lineaments of Gratified Desire” is a demonstration of how history can not be understood without an understanding of preceding events and, more importantly, beliefs.  Ostensibly an account of a young man searching for either a love charm or an hunting charm, the last line of the story reveals his identity and changes the entire tenor of the tale.

Davidson uses family names in “The Account of Mr. Ira Davidson,” which gives the story the appearance of an autobiographical piece about Davidson's grandfather rather than a fictional tale.  Employing the antiquated style of a story based on the narration and notes of another, Davidson looks at a bit of apocryphal family history which is reminiscent of the investments of the historical Mark Twain.

”Twenty-Three” tells the story of a family which lives in the shadow of a curse which claims the lives of its men at the end of twenty-three.  Davidson's story looks at the hopes and fears of a generation which is on the verge of coming to grips with the curse and the hope that it is now past.

“Business Must Be Picking Up” is the story of a farmer who is, on the surface, a believer in doing things the old way and not taking anything from the government.  His obduracy annoys his family and friends who have a more pragmatic outlook on their situation, but, in the end, the farmer demonstrates that his way is completely functional and pokes a finger in the eye of the government the farmer detests.

“Dr. Bumbo Singh” is the proprietor of a typical magical shop.  The story Davidson tells, however, is not typical of the appearing and disappearing magical shop story.  Both Dr. Bumbo Singh and his customer, Mister Underhand, have had long dealings with each other and, to a certain extent, have built up a trusting relationship.  In the end the story takes a strange twist which results in the disappearance of the shop, but knowledge of the fate of both customer and shopkeeper.

Davidson turns his attention to the ecological with the story “The Peninsula,” about logging in a remote region.  He focuses on Mary Blennerhassett and Victor Olauson, whose fates are intertwined because of their grandfathers' ownership of a wooded area.  Mary is in desperate need of money and willing to sell off the lands to a logger who would exploit them without restoring them, while Victor desires to see the area kept pristine.  

“Summon the Watch” is one of Davidson's flat out detective stories.  It looks at a time when eccentrics could still cling to the nineteenth century, as is done by two sisters in Brooklyn.  When they are visited by a couple of newspaper men who want to write a story about their eccentricity (which they see as perfectly normal behavior), that very eccentricity and the newspapermen's hold on the present, rescues the sisters.

Davidson traveled to many places around the world and frequently used exotic locations for his stories.  “Dragon Skin Drum” is set in China just prior to Communist Rule and is a deft display of the feelings of Chinese about their country's history.  On the one hand, they are trying to forget the past in favor of a New China, but at the same time, they can't completely let that Old China go.  One of the interesting devices in "Dragon Skin Drum" is the culture clash between Old and New China as well as between the Chinese and Americans.

“El Vilvoy de las Islas” is not only the story of a wild boy in the South American country of Ereguay, but also a story about how legends can grow in a world dominated by science and investigative journalism.  Throughout the story, the legend of el vilvoy remains intact for the characters, but it quickly becomes obvious what the real story is to the reader.  Written with Davidson's usual digressions, these help make the clues he leaves for the reader less obvious. 

”Mickelrede; or, The Slayer and the Staff:  A Ghost-Novel” was a novel fragment which Michael Swanwick reworked to a short story following Davidson's death in 1993.  While the story of multiple timelines never quite works in this form, Swanwick has done an admirable job attempting to imitate Davidson's inimitable writing style.  The story gives in indication of some of the work which never managed to see publication.


O Brave Old World! Great Is Diana
One Morning with Samuel, Dorothy and William Traveller from an Antique Land
The Man Who Saw the Elephant Pebble in Time (with Cynthia Goldstone)
The Singular Incident of the Dog on the Beach The Engine of Samoset Erastus Hale, and One Other, Unknown
Buchanan's Head The Odd Old Bird
The Deed of the Deft-Footed Dragon The Montaverde Camera
What Strange Stars and Skies The Lineaments of Gratified Desire
The Account of Mr. Ira Davidson Twenty-Three
Business Must Be Picking Up Dr. Bumbo Singh
The Peninsula Summon the Watch
Dragon Skin Drum El Vilvoy de las Islas
Mickelrede; or, The Slayer and the Staff:  A Ghost-Novel  

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