I don't go to flea markets very often anymore because they remind me too much of home. But back in the day I've traipsed through many of the dank and dusty repositories of other people's junk. One of my primary interests in those rats' nests of refuse and rubbish was always the shelves of old books. I have one bookcase in my home today that is filled with these fragile, and often moldy, treasures.
Now that I have retired, a condition that suggests a bit of free time - though that is rarely the case, I have begun pulling some of those old books from the shelves and enjoying bits of the popular literature of bygone times - stuff that never quite made the leap from popular to classic.
Over the past few days I have worked by way through a fictional guide to the underworld. Gentlemen in Hades: A Story of a Damned Debutante was undoubtedly somewhat of a "hot" novel when it was written by Frederic Arnold Kummer back in 1930. The book, a follow-up to an earlier Kummer novel entitled Ladies in Hades, tells the story of a young, gold-digging debutante from New York City, Lavinia McGann, who is trying to ensnare a rich boyfriend. Unfortunately, the young man wrecks his car one night while they are out partying, an accident which leaves him with a broken arm and her quite dead with a broken neck. She wakes up in Hell - not just in Hell, but in one of the poorest sections of Hell.
Lavinia doesn't relish the idea of living among the riffraff, so she sets out on a plan to establish herself among the high society, a group calling itself Hell's Four Hundred. Her journey to the top of the infernal social order involves convincing Satan to give her money for a new wardrobe, securing a job with Benjamin Franklin, and sleeping her way to the top. After a brief dalliance with Franklin, she hooks up with a bootlegger by the name of Cain, the Cain, because Hell "is as hot as Washington, D.C. in the summer, only dryer," and then has quick affairs with Noah (a drunkard who now runs the ferry service across the River Styx), Hercules, Don Juan, Casanova, Louis the 14th (who runs an antique shop in Hell along with Louis the 15th and 16th), Richard the Lionhearted (who has been sentenced by Satan to stay trapped inside of his suit of armor), Henry VIII (whose six wives are also in Hell, making his afterlife particularly agonizing), Nero, Adam (Cain's daddy), and finally Satan himself.
Although it is obvious from the author's clever dialogue and double entendres (a la Mae West) that Lavinia is bed-hopping her way to the top, there is no overt sex described in the pages of this book. The author does paint a fascinating picture of Hell, a place with cars, cigarettes, bootleg gin, and some very interesting characters. This Hell, in fact, seems to draw in all of the "best" people.
Gentlemen in Hades entertains as it gives a tour of one man's idea of the underworld. I suspect it is a book that Mark Twain would have enjoyed - and I'm surprised he wasn't in it!