Think of Claiborne Davis, who taught at St. Alban’s for 44 years, as a Mr. Chips who isn’t ready to say goodbye yet. Since retiring from academia in 1986, Davis has dedicated himself to the written word, publishing first a collection of essays and now a book of short stories, Demon-Queller’s Journey.
Considering that the author is a quiet, white-haired, well-connected Washingtonian living in the National Cathedral’s shadow, Davis’ fictions are surprisingly shocking, spurting the kind of vitriol you expect from angry, and much younger, writers. In “A Mating of Mantises,” for instance, a man, furious that he is dying of AIDS, rapes a thief who breaks into his house.
Of course, the fact that the irreverent Gore Vidal (who also wrote Demon’s foreword) mentored the ex-pedagogue’s writing at least partly explains the dark slant Davis’ stories take.
“I owe Gore a great debt, because he started me on this
whole business of writing fiction,” Davis says. “The book’s first story, ‘The Master of San Pancrazio,’ the one about demonic possession, is really the genesis of the whole book. It’s set in Gore’s house in Ravello, where he had this wonderful white catkinda skinny, with one green eye, one blue eye.
“Once,” Davis continues, “I put my hand down to pet it, and the damn thing scratched the hell out of me! I thought it was possessed, and Gore said, ‘You know, she’s got the devil in her.’” Davis shrugs and smiles. “Well, I had a lot of fun with that.”
Clearly, Davis is having a ball, even though his stories are populated with a rogue’s gallery of demonsfrom the cat-shaped devil stalking “The Master of San Pancrazio” to other, more personal ones. “Each of us has various obsessions, even gentle ones,” he says. “And so many of these obsessions I’ve had to quell in myself. I mean, we’ve all had to. We all try to adjust to society andsince we tend to be odd shapesit takes some wearing down, some smoothing over.”
Come this Christmas, Davis hopes to have another collection of short stories ready, and once again his meditations will be firmly rooted in the dark side of human experience. Bear witness as a Washington politician’s illegitimate son takes revenge on his father. Observe as a man is haunted by the genetic memories he has absorbed from his ancestors. Watch as Davis, one of the oldest dogs around, proves he’s still got a couple of new tricks in him. All this and more, in the upcoming First-Person Plural.Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Demon-Queller’s Journey is available at Chapters.