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Adventures in Unhistory
Avram Davidson
Tor, 308 pages

Adventures in Unhistory
Avram Davidson
Avram Davidson's first published SF work came in 1954 with "My Boy Friend's Name is Jello" in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and continued to sell stories to such magazines as Asimov's SF until his death in 1993. His novels include Masters of the Maze, Rogue Dragon, and The Phoenix and the Mirror. The Adventures of Dr. Eszterhazy, a group of tales about an investigator of the supernatural set in an imaginary Central European empire of the late 19th century is perhaps his best-known collection. Davidson was editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from 1962 to 1965.

ISFDB Bibliography
Avram Davidson Tribute Site
SF Site Review: The Avram Davidson Treasury

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Avram Davidson's heyday probably stretched from the late 50s to perhaps the early 70s. By the time of his death in 1993, however, his star had slipped from the SF firmament. He was a writer's writer, indeed right to the end other authors would extol his work, but for the last twenty years or more of his writing life he made little substantial impact on the reading public. Since his death, however, Tor have made sterling efforts to bring his work back to public attention. The latest stage in which is the republication of Adventures in Unhistory.

There are several things that are unfortunate about this.

Most visibly, Tor seem to have settled for reusing the plates from the original small press edition from Owlswick Press which came out just before Davidson's death. This allows them to retain the charming little illustrations by George Barr which appear at the top of every right-hand page. But that plus is offset by the minus of a heavy, blocky typeface and narrow margins which make the book look unattractive and feel difficult to read.

They have also retained the enthusiastic, not to say gushing introduction by Peter S. Beagle. Without having been updated, this has the rather sad side effect of making it seem as if Davidson is still very much alive and active. In fact, you would only realise this is not the case if you read the perfunctory author bio on the inside back cover flap.

But the most unfortunate thing about this reissue is that most of it isn't really very good. Davidson's cavalier use of language, extravagant and atmospheric in his fiction, becomes mannered and off-putting in what purports to be non-fiction. "Yonder," for example, is the sort of faux-medievalism that tends to be used nowadays only for rather coy effect; Davidson uses it all the time. And though it may be strictly correct to refer to The Lord of the Rings as a "romaunt," there is in the context absolutely no reason why he could not have used any of a host of more straightforward terms to describe the book; it is, after all, no more than an aside. This is writing for swagger and gesture, not for clarity and access. Which is a pity, because this is meant to be an accessible book, a rationalist explanation for many of our most pervasive and persistent myths, though Davidson's style and manner are more suited to someone espousing the myth over the rationalism.

The book is made up of fifteen short pieces originally published in various magazines (Asimov's, Amazing) or anthologies (Unicorns!, Mermaids!) between 1981 and 1990, during what I suppose Davidson might well have called the gloaming of his career. This approach to old myths and legends isn't exactly new for writers of the fantastic, there are works of a similar character from writers as varied as Jorges Luis Borges, L. Sprague de Camp, John Sladek, Eric Frank Russell and a host of others, many of whom are quoted extensively by Davidson, not to mention a plethora of less respectable and authoritative authors also quoted extensively by Davidson. Davidson has nothing new of any substance to bring to the feast, so his main selling point has to be style.

You would not expect someone of such extravagance of vocabulary to put it to the use of a restrained and sober style. You would be correct. Davidson's style is discursive, digressive, allusive, maddening. He cannot stay on the subject for more than five consecutive sentences without throwing in an anecdote, elaborately pointing up some geegaw of vocabulary, making an aside about something else entirely, or simply heading off down some other by way that has just caught his fancy. He will start to talk about dragons breathing fire which somehow becomes a discussion of whether they are based on worms or crocodiles, which comes back to fire-breathing as an allegory for volcanoes which in turn gives rise to a funny story about when he was a child which seems to refer to dragons hoarding treasure; from this he will leap to noxious effusions used to ward away monsters and this takes us back to fire. It's not even that he can't stay on track for any appreciable length of time; when you get the chance to unravel it, his argument is dodgy also. He might suggest that fire-breathing dragons are an allegorical reference to volcanoes then say, hold on, there's also this other idea that it might be related to noxious effusions, and then a page or two further on you'll find that all at once it's both volcanoes and effusions. This is exactly the sort of exegetical sleight of hand he would otherwise condemn.

Which is not to say that the book has no value. There is a lot of solid sense buried under the florid manner. Anyone with more than a passing interest in which bird inspired stories of the phoenix, what were the origins of the werewolf, and so forth is likely to have all this information elsewhere. But for the rest of us it is interesting to discover what nuggets of fact might be hidden among those oft-told tales. And then, part way through the book, the tone suddenly changes. There is a chapter on Aleister Crowley which is a model for what the rest of the book should have been. The stylistic élan is still there, but more controlled, more focussed; he actually keeps his argument going for pages at a time rather than scant paragraphs. It helps that the subject is neither as diffuse nor as ancient as most of the other topics, and Crowley was colourful enough that Davidson's account really needs no extra razzle-dazzle. And Davidson makes a suggestive (though, in the end, not convincing) case that Crowley was the "rough beast" of W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming."

This chapter is followed by one on Prester John. There is less solid, factual information to go on here, but there is still enough and the topic is still narrow enough, to make one wish that Davidson could have confined his attention to such historical topics rather than the fairy tales of unicorns and Hyperborea.

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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