Saturday, November 17, 2012

Book Review: 'Strange Seas and Shores' by Avram Davidson

3 / 5 Stars

‘Strange Seas and Shores’ was first issued in hardcover in 1971 by Doubleday / SF Book Club. This Ace paperback edition (219 pp) was published in August 1981; the cover artist is uncredited.

The 17 stories in this anthology all first saw print in various sf magazines and digests in the interval 1958 – 1967.

In his Introduction to ‘Strange’, Ray Bradbury notes that Davidson (1923 – 1993) crafted his short stories in the mode of the renowned Saki, O. Henry, and Chesterton. That is to say, Davidson employed surprise or trick endings in his short fiction, preferring to withhold the background detail of his plots at the outset, letting these details unfold along with the narrative, with the revelation / punch line coming in the last paragraph or sentence.

Many of the entries in ‘Strange Seas and Shores’ are five or fewer pages in length, so providing synopses of these tales is essentially the same thing as disclosing spoilers. Therefore, I will provide only broad outlines of the contents.

Some tales use quirky or satiric humor for their revelations: ‘Sacheverell’, ‘Take Wooden Indians’, ‘Paramount Ulj’, ‘A Bottle Full of Kismet’, ‘The Goobers’, ‘Dr Morris Goldpepper Returns’, ‘Yo-Ho, and Up’,  ‘Apres Nous’, ‘Climacteric’, ‘The Power of Every Root’, and ‘The Source of the Nile’.

Others take a grimmer tone: ‘The Vat’, ‘The Tail-Tied Kings’, ‘The Certificate’ (the best story in the collection), ‘Ogre in the Vly’, ‘The Sixty-Third Street Station’, and ‘The House the Blakeneys Built’.

Some of these stories have a ‘New York City’ sensibility to them, Davidson’s home throughout most of his life. In this manner they represent a sort of alternate approach to John Cheever’s examinations of NYC life in the postwar period. 

It’s interesting to observe that Davidson steadfastly adhered to the classical, or traditionalist, format for his short fiction, even as the New Wave movement overtook sf publishing. His writing is clear and unambiguous, devoid of stylish affectations, although this being Davidson, readers will need to prepare for an expanded vocabulary: ‘circumambulation’, ‘nostra’, and ‘ratiocination’, among others.

In summary, ‘Strange Seas and Shores’ is dedicated reading for Davidson aficionados; those others, who appreciate short stories in the ‘classical’ mode, may also want to seek it out.

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