A House Boat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs
John Kendrick Bangs (1862-1922) was an American humorist who edited some popular American magazines such as Harper’s Weekly and Puck. His satirical novella A House-Boat on the Styx (1895) is responsible for the term Bangsian Fantasy, which refers to stories about famous people in the afterlife (e.g., Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series).
In A House-Boat on the Styx, Charon the ferryman is dismayed to discover that he’s got some competition in the transportation business — a posh new riverboat has appeared on the Styx and there’s no way his craft can compete. His fears of bankruptcy are relieved, though, when he’s asked to be the janitor of the new boat which belongs to an exclusive men’s club run by Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh and his colleagues spend their time playing cards and pool, smoking tobacco, and hosting fights (e.g., Goliath vs. Samson) and debates (Noah vs. P.T. Barnum: Which animals should have been saved from the flood?). They also have occasional business meetings in which they discuss agenda items such as whether or not there should be a Ladies’ Day on the boat (yes, but Lucretia Borgia and Delilah are not invited) and whether poets should have their own Poets’ Corner (yes, because then they won’t be lounging across all the chairs, scribbling drafts on the pool tables, and boring everyone else with their recitations).
There’s almost no action in A House-Boat on the Styx and no need for characterization since all of the characters are already known to us. The story is almost all dialogue as, for example, Shakespeare defends the authorship of his plays, Solomon’s Proverbs are called a hack-job, Confucius complains about the poets, the logistics of all of Henry VIII’s wives attending Ladies’ Day is discussed, Baron Münchausen is accused of making up stories, Sir Walter Raleigh is discovered to be setting up his witticisms so his biographer can record them, Jonah insists that his whale is copyrighted, and Eve laments that she never gets invited to Queen Elizabeth’s parties because she has no pedigree.
Much of this dialogue is very funny, but it occasionally comes off as a stand-up comedy routine when the jokes are transparently set up:
Sir Walter Raleigh: …Queen Elizabeth could have married a hundred times over if she had wished. I know I lost my head there completely.
John Dryden: That shows, Sir Walter, how wrong you are. You lost your head to King James. Hi! Shakespeare, here’s a man doesn’t know who chopped his head off.
Of course, it will be helpful to be familiar with these pre-20th-century characters and their “issues,” but most adults will understand most of the allusions and the others can be easily investigated on the internet. I enjoyed the banter, but it was non-stop, so I was ready for it to end when it did. However, at the very end of A House-Boat on the Styx, some action finally did occur when Captain Kidd showed up. So now I’m eager to read the next installment, The Pursuit of the Houseboat.
A House-Boat on the Styx and The Pursuit of the Houseboat are available on Kindle in the Halcyon Classics edition, which contains 48 works by John Kendrick Bangs for (at this writing) only $1.99. Both books are rather short and easily read in an afternoon.