eDiscover is a new series on Tor.com that highlights sci-fi/fantasy titles recently brought back into print as ebooks.
For me, Avram Davidson’s The Other Nineteenth Century is a true rediscovery: When I was a young SF/F fan in the mid-1980s, I kept up my subscriptions to Asimov’s, Amazing, and Fantasy & Science Fiction with a completist’s enthusiasm, so based on the publication dates given for the short stories in this collection, I must have read “The Engine of Samoset Erastus Hale, and One Other, Unknown” and, quite possibly, “El Vilvoy de las Islas” when they first came out. And though this is the first time I’ve stumbled upon “The Odd Old Bird,” I had seen a few other stories about Dr. Englebert Eszterhazy and the mythical empire of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania—it was those that had stood out most in my memory, and made me jump at the chance to read this anthology when it was offered.
The Other Nineteenth Century is a grab bag of unusual stories, and not easily classifiable. It starts off with an alternate history in which George II’s son Frederick doesn’t die in youth and embraces the American colonies, who embrace him with equal ardor (“O Brave Old World”), then segues to an outlandish traveler’s tale (“Great Is Diana”). A cheeky take on Coleridge’s writing of “Kubla Khan” (“One Morning with Samuel, Dorothy, and William”) is followed by a barely disguised account of the death of Shelley, propelled by an intriguing theory (“Traveller from an Antique Land”)—then there’s “The Man Who Saw the Elephant,” a comic vignette about a Quaker who chases down a traveling circus to catch a glimpse of “the great beast which the Lord hath made.” And that only accounts for about the first third of the collection… which does, eventually, work its way up to the 20th century, but even then the stories retain a marvelous (and largely unforced) Old World vibe.
Davidson’s literary voice had a fantastic range, with a keen ear for dialects and personality. There’s a panache to his stories, so elegant you’ll be prepared to go along with even the hoariest of genre clichés, like the curiosity shop with a supernaturally bizarre inventory or the discovered manuscript, just for the pleasure of spending time in the worlds of “The Montavarde Camera” or “The Account of Mr. Ira Davidson.” (That last, by the way, is one of the most unsettling bits of metafiction I’ve read.) Henry Wessells and Grania Davis (Davidson’s widow) did an excellent job of pulling together stories that hadn’t previously been anthologized in An Avram Davidson Treasury; this is one case where “the best of the rest” is anything but sloppy seconds.