Earlier this year, I read The Autobiography of Methuselah by John Kendrick Bangs. I enjoyed it very much. I knew he had a series of books set in the underworld that would be PERFECT for R.I.P reading.
Thanks to an amazing college professor (who was a wee bit obsessed with Samuel Johnson and James Boswell) AND Horrible Histories, I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this collection of short stories. The first story starring Charon sets up the rest. This ferryman is asked to run or manage a houseboat, the other shades use this houseboat as a club. The 'associated shades' are famous historical and/or literary figures: Dr. Johnson, James Boswell, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Demosthenes, Blackstone, Confucius, Sir Francis Bacon, Nero, Cassius, Diogenes, Mozart, Napoleon, Homer, Ptolemy, Baron Munchausen, Noah, Adam, etc. The book is humorous, full of lighthearted gossip and teasing among ghosts. The book has a surprising cliffhanger ending.
Here is a bit from chapter two. It will give you a taste of what to expect. I can't promise that you'll find it as giddy-making as I did. But I just LOVED, LOVED, LOVED the banter and spirit of it.
How are you, Charon?" said Shakespeare, as the Janitor assisted him on board. "Any one here to-night?"Other quotes:
"Yes, sir," said Charon. "Lord Bacon is up in the library, and Doctor Johnson is down in the billiard-room, playing pool with Nero."
"Ha-ha!" laughed Shakespeare. "Pool, eh? Does Nero play pool?"
"Not as well as he does the fiddle, sir," said the Janitor, with a twinkle in his eye.
Shakespeare entered the house and tossed up an obolus. "Heads-- Bacon; tails--pool with Nero and Johnson," he said.
The coin came down with heads up, and Shakespeare went into the pool- room, just to show the Fates that he didn't care a tuppence for their verdict as registered through the obolus. It was a peculiar custom of Shakespeare's to toss up a coin to decide questions of little consequence, and then do the thing the coin decided he should not do. It showed, in Shakespeare's estimation, his entire independence of those dull persons who supposed that in them was centred the destiny of all mankind. The Fates, however, only smiled at these little acts of rebellion, and it was common gossip in Erebus that one of the trio had told the Furies that they had observed Shakespeare's tendency to kick over the traces, and always acted accordingly. They never let the coin fall so as to decide a question the way they wanted it, so that unwittingly the great dramatist did their will after all. It was a part of their plan that upon this occasion Shakespeare should play pool with Doctor Johnson and the Emperor Nero, and hence it was that the coin bade him repair to the library and chat with Lord Bacon.
"Hullo, William," said the Doctor, pocketing three balls on the break. "How's our little Swanlet of Avon this afternoon?"
"Worn out," Shakespeare replied. "I've been hard at work on a play this morning, and I'm tired."
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," said Nero, grinning broadly.
"You are a bright spirit," said Shakespeare, with a sigh. "I wish I had thought to work you up into a tragedy."
"I've often wondered why you didn't," said Doctor Johnson. "He'd have made a superb tragedy, Nero would. I don't believe there was any kind of a crime he left uncommitted. Was there, Emperor?"
"Yes. I never wrote an English dictionary," returned the Emperor, dryly. "I've murdered everything but English, though."
"I could have made a fine tragedy out of you," said Shakespeare. "Just think what a dreadful climax for a tragedy it would be, Johnson, to have Nero, as the curtain fell, playing a violin solo."
"Pretty good," returned the Doctor. "But what's the use of killing off your audience that way? It's better business to let 'em live, I say. Suppose Nero gave a London audience that little musicale he provided at Queen Elizabeth's Wednesday night. How many purely mortal beings, do you think, would have come out alive?"
"Not one," said Shakespeare. "I was mighty glad that night that we were an immortal band. If it had been possible to kill us we'd have died then and there."
"That's all right," said Nero, with a significant shake of his head. "As my friend Bacon makes Ingo say, 'Beware, my lord, of jealousy.' You never could play a garden hose, much less a fiddle."
"What do you mean my attributing those words to Bacon?" demanded Shakespeare, getting red in the face.
"Oh, come now, William," remonstrated Nero. "It's all right to pull the wool over the eyes of the mortals. That's what they're there for; but as for us--we're all in the secret here. What's the use of putting on nonsense with us?"
"We'll see in a minute what the use is," retorted the Avonian. "We'll have Bacon down here." Here he touched an electric button, and Charon came in answer.
"Charon, bring Doctor Johnson the usual glass of ale. Get some ice for the Emperor, and ask Lord Bacon to step down here a minute."
"I don't want any ice," said Nero.
"Not now," retorted Shakespeare, "but you will in a few minutes. When we have finished with you, you'll want an iceberg. I'm getting tired of this idiotic talk about not having written my own works. There's one thing about Nero's music that I've never said, because I haven't wanted to hurt his feelings, but since he has chosen to cast aspersions upon my honesty I haven't any hesitation in saying it now. I believe it was one of his fiddlings that sent Nature into convulsions and caused the destruction of Pompeii--so there! Put that on your music rack and fiddle it, my little Emperor."
Nero's face grew purple with anger, and if Shakespeare had been anything but a shade he would have fared ill, for the enraged Roman, poising his cue on high as though it were a lance, hurled it at the impertinent dramatist with all his strength, and with such accuracy of aim withal that it pierced the spot beneath which in life the heart of Shakespeare used to beat.
"Good shot," said Doctor Johnson, nonchalantly. "If you had been a mortal, William, it would have been the end of you."
"You can't kill me," said Shakespeare, shrugging his shoulders. "I know seven dozen actors in the United States who are trying to do it, but they can't. I wish they'd try to kill a critic once in a while instead of me, though," he added. "I went over to Boston one night last week, and, unknown to anybody, I waylaid a fellow who was to play Hamlet that night. I drugged him, and went to the theatre and played the part myself. It was the coldest house you ever saw in your life. When the audience did applaud, it sounded like an ice-man chopping up ice with a small pick. Several times I looked up at the galleries to see if there were not icicles growing on them, it was so cold. Well, I did the best could with the part, and next morning watched curiously for the criticisms."
"Favorable?" asked the Doctor.
"They all dismissed me with a line," said the dramatist. "Said my conception of the part was not Shakespearian. And that's criticism!"
"No," said the shade of Emerson, which had strolled in while Shakespeare was talking, "that isn't criticism; that's Boston."
"Who discovered Boston, anyhow?" asked Doctor Johnson. "It wasn't Columbus, was it?"
"Oh no," said Emerson. "Old Governor Winthrop is to blame for that. When he settled at Charlestown he saw the old Indian town of Shawmut across the Charles."
"And Shawmut was the Boston microbe, was it?" asked Johnson.
"Yes," said Emerson.
"Spelt with a P, I suppose?" said Shakespeare. "P-S-H-A-W, Pshaw, M- U-T, mut, Pshawmut, so called because the inhabitants are always muttering pshaw. Eh?"
"Pretty good," said Johnson. "I wish I'd said that."
"Well, tell Boswell," said Shakespeare. "He'll make you say it, and it'll be all the same in a hundred years."
The first guest to arrive was Confucius, and after him came Diogenes, the latter in great excitement over having discovered a comparatively honest man, whose name, however, he had not been able to ascertain, though he was under the impression that it was something like Burpin, or Turpin, he said.
"You ought to be up-stairs in the lecture-room, Boswell," said Shakespeare, as the great biographer took his seat behind his friend the Doctor. "Doesn't the Gossip want a report of the debate?"
"It does," said Boswell; "but the Gossip endeavors always to get the most interesting items of the day, and Doctor Johnson has informed me that he expects to be unusually witty this evening, so I have come here."
"Excuse me for saying it, Boswell," said the Doctor, getting red in the face over this unexpected confession, "but, really, you talk too much."
"That's good," said Cicero. "Stick that down, Boz, and print it. It's the best thing Johnson has said this week."
Boswell smiled weakly, and said: "But, Doctor, you did say that, you know. I can prove it, too, for you told me some of the things you were going to say. Don't you remember, you were going to lead Shakespeare up to making the remark that he thought the English language was the greatest language in creation, whereupon you were going to ask him why he didn't learn it?"
"Get out of here, you idiot!" roared the Doctor. "You're enough to give a man apoplexy."
"Hullo! here's Hamlet."
As the Doctor spoke, in very truth the melancholy Dane appeared in the doorway, more melancholy of aspect than ever.
"What's the matter with you?" asked Cicero, addressing the new-comer. "Haven't you got that poison out of your system yet?"
"Not entirely," said Hamlet, with a sigh; "but it isn't that that's bothering me. It's Fate."
"We'll get out an injunction against Fate if you like," said Blackstone. "Is it persecution, or have you deserved it?"
"I think it's persecution," said Hamlet. "I never wronged Fate in my life, and why she should pursue me like a demon through all eternity is a thing I can't understand."
"Maybe Ophelia is back of it," suggested Doctor Johnson. "These women have a great deal of sympathy for each other, and, candidly, I think you behaved pretty rudely to Ophelia. It's a poor way to show your love for a young woman, running a sword through her father every night for pay, and driving the girl to suicide with equal frequency, just to show theatre-goers what a smart little Dane you can be if you try."
"'Tisn't me does all that," returned Hamlet. "I only did it once, and even then it wasn't as bad as Shakespeare made it out to be."
"I put it down just as it was," said Shakespeare, hotly, "and you can't dispute it."
"Yes, he can," said Yorick. "You made him tell Horatio he knew me well, and he never met me in his life."
"I never told Horatio anything of the sort," said Hamlet. "I never entered the graveyard even, and I can prove an alibi."
"And, what's more, he couldn't have made the remark the way Shakespeare has it, anyhow," said Yorick, "and for a very good reason. I wasn't buried in that graveyard, and Hamlet and I can prove an alibi for the skull, too."
"It was a good play, just the same," said Cicero.
"Very," put in Doctor Johnson. "It cured me of insomnia."
In all the clubs I have known the house committees have invariably taken the ground that the complaint-book was established to guard them against the annoyance of hearing complaints.
An Authors' Club, where none but authors are admitted, is a good thing. The members learn there that there are other authors than themselves. Poets' Clubs are a good thing; they bring poets into contact with each other, and they learn what a bore it is to have to listen to a poet reading his own poem.
© 2013 Becky Laney