Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Davidson, Avram

(1923-1993) US writer and editor. His first nationally published story – some earlier fiction had appeared in English-language Jewish publications – was "My Boy Friend's Name is Jello" (1954) in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which magazine he edited 1962-1964. His work was plainly fantasy more than sf, as exemplified by Or All the Seas with Oysters (coll 1962), collecting his early stories. AD's fiction was immediately popular; he was frequently anthologized in the late 1950s, and "Or All the Seas with Oysters" (1958) won a Hugo Award.

The mannered, witty, rather baroque style of AD's prose recalls the arch and whimsical fiction of Lord Dunsany and Lafcadio Hearn, but his early tone, in addition to being contemporary in cast and distinctly US, lacked the affectation of the lapidary Edwardian fantasists. In later work he explored other modes, including Sword and Sorcery, Alternate Worlds and Horror.

AD's first novel, Joyleg (1962) with Ward Moore (1903-1978), displays an uncertainty with longer forms, but the series of solo novels that he began publishing in 1964, although all at least nominally sf, show him employing his skill at evoking exotic locales with commercial competence and more panache than his markets required. Of the half dozen novels he published over the next few years, Rogue Dragon (1965) and Clash of Star-Kings (1966 dos), which use sf rationales to dramatize Dragons and Toltec Gods respectively, come closest to fantasy.

The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969), which AD worked on for most of a decade, is plainly his magnum opus. His dense and sombre tale of how the sorcerer Vergil (> Virgil) makes a speculum majorum (a virgin Mirror, in whose face the first to gaze into it may see his heart's desire) possesses the imaginative force of only the most powerful fantasies: we believe in the cosmos of the novel, that its existence continues beyond the edge of the page. The Phoenix and the Mirror was envisioned as inaugurating a sequence of nine novels concerning Vergil Magus, but AD published only one more, Vergil in Averno (1987), a darker and more focused work set during Vergil's early manhood and involving a commission to the "very rich city" of Averno, a pre-industrial inferno of hellish manufactories. A third Vergil novel exists in draft, but AD's plans for "a trinity of trilogies" may have been foredoomed, given his preference for short forms.

Despite this, in the immediately succeeding years AD began several other series with The Island under the Earth (1969) and Peregrine: Primus (1971) both being announced as the first volumes of trilogies. The Island under the Earth seems to take its inspiration from the metope of the Parthenon, depicting the war between the centaurs and the Lapiths, although it is set not in the mountains of Thessaly but in a fantastic cosmology whose nature has not been made clear by novel's end. Peregrine: Primus, a Picaresque set during the disintegrating Roman Empire, is broader in its effects and more casual in its structure; a sequel, Peregrine: Secundus (1981), was eventually published.

AD's other sequences of note include The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy (coll of linked stories 1975; exp vt The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy 1990), set in a tiny Ruritanian country (> Ruritania) soon to be swept away in World War I. Engelbert Eszterhazy, the emperor's Wizard, who drives about the cobbled streets of the capital in a steam runabout, is an obvious Vergil figure, although the tales show the high spirits of AD's short fiction rather than the grave wonder of the Vergil novels. In the mid-1980s AD returned to this venue with a series of eight longer tales about Eszterhazy in his youth (rather as he had lately done with Vergil). By now AD's style had changed: his prose became less tight, more discursive and sometimes prolix. The five Cornet Eszterhazy stories are longer than the eight earlier ones, and should be considered as a separate sequence.

AD wrote a second sequence of novelettes concerning young Jack Limekiller and his strange encounters in the former colony of British Hidalgo. This series, begun in 1976 and continued the rest of AD's life (with "A Far Countrie" published posthumously), shares the exotic sense of place and love of strange incident that characterize the Vergil and Eszterhazy stories.

AD never ceased writing short fiction; although as yet uncollected, the stories of his last decade retain the learned sportiveness of his early work, and some (e.g., "The Slovo Stove" 1985) can be counted among his best. Although he had difficulty finding commercial publishers for his books during the last years of his life, he continued to publish in magazines and anthologies; his last two books were issued by a Small Press, where (like R A Lafferty) he retained an enthusiastic audience. Nevertheless, at the time of his death almost all of his large body of work was out of print. Accordingly, during 1995-1996 his widow, Grania Davis, organized the Avram Davidson Award, to be given occasionally to the "best beloved" work by any author that was, at the time of voting (by professional writers, fans and others), out of print. [GF]

other works: Crimes and Chaos (coll 1962), nonfiction; The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, 12th Series (anth 1963), 13th Series (anth 1964), 14th Series (anth 1965); What Strange Stars and Skies (coll 1965); Strange Seas and Shores (coll 1971); And on the Eighth Day (1964) and The Fourth Side of the Triangle (1965), detections as by Ellery Queen; Ursus of Ultima Thule (fixup 1973); The Redward Edward Papers (coll 1978); The Best of Avram Davidson (1979) ed Michael Kurland; Collected Fantasies (coll 1982) ed John Silbersack; Magic for Sale (anth 1983); Marco Polo and the Sleeping Beauty (1988) with Grania Davis; Adventures in Unhistory (coll 1993), spoof essays.

Avram James Davidson

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This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.