A Gnome's Ponderings

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Bangsian fantasy had a silly beginning

Lowell Kempf
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Bangsian Fantasy is a genre where the setting is primarily in the afterlife and people from different periods of history interact, usually in a light-hearted way. The term is probably only reason anyone remembers who John Kendrick Bangs was.

While Bangs didn’t create the idea, he popularized it with his Associated Shades books, the first and probably most famous being A House-Boat on the River Styx. The books are about a social club of the elite of the dead. Famous dead people like Samuel Johnson, Socatres, William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Confucius, Sir Walter Raleigh, George Washington and Samuel Johnson appear. (Seriously, Bangs apparently loved using Samuel Johnson as a character)

I had read about the books and their influence many years before I’d ever actually found a copy and read it. And the books were not what I had been expecting.

You see, Bangs didn’t use the different historical figures as themselves. Instead, it was a setup for him to satirize contemporary 19th century society. The great figures of history become whiny, sarcastic club members. Which, to be fair, is the point. I don’t think you can hold it against Bangs for not writing a completely different book. And Philip Jose Farmer wrote that book anyway with Riverworld.

The Associated Shade books are light, amusing works to read so I do go back and reread them periodically. And it is really amusing that the later books feature Sherlock Holmes since they were written in between the Final Problem and The Adventure of the Empty House so Holmes was dead at the time (I have read that Doyle was cool with Bangs use of the character)

The high concept of the Associated Shades is so much bigger than the actual execution. Again, to be fair, that was kind of Bangs’ point. However, it is still odd to see the concept of afterlife society codified by such silliness.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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