Shakespeare in Hell is an intriguing title. Think of all it can conjure up – allusions to Milton and Dante, who both had more luck finding stories in the darker realms of the afterlife, and with the villains of their pieces, than with an antiseptic realm of winged creatures playing harps, come to mind; one can imagine Shakespeare choosing Hell as a better stage for his plays and poetry. Or perhaps Shakespeare sinned with his Dark Lady, landing him in eternal flame. Or — well, the possibilities seem endless.
But Amy Sterling Casil has not taken full advantage of the myriad plotlines available to her. We are given no moral structure for this Hell, and no hint of a Deity meting out punishments and rewards. We never do learn precisely why Shakespeare is in Hell, though it does appear to have something to do with the Dark Lady, who is here given the identity of Emilia Bassano Lanier, who lived at roughly the same time as Shakespeare and was the first Englishwoman to assert herself as a professional poet. Nor are we explicitly told why Oscar Wilde is there; Casil apparently does not want to say straight out that being gay will land you in Hell, though she hints at it. There is no explanation for Edgar Allan Poe’s presence there either. Unaccountably, the other major terrestrial character who has a major role in this novella is H.R. Haldeman of Watergate fame, suggesting that God doesn’t forgive (despite the fact that Haldeman publically repented for his role in Watergate at the end of his life).
The moving force in the novel is Beelzebub, who has just consigned Isadora Duncan and Busby Berkeley to the Lake of Fire for failing to provide him with sufficient amusement. He needs something new to amuse him, something meatier. Haldeman, who rides his shoulder, suggests that he could have Julia Child grill a porterhouse (and why is she in Hell? No clue), but Beelzebub corrects him: he wants intellectual meat, a play or a novel. They head for the cave (an allusion to Plato? The author doesn’t follow through on this possibility) where ten thousand writers are all caged together without a single reader. (Don’t the writers ever read each other’s work? Every successful writer I’ve ever read about is an insatiable reader.) Beelzebub waves around three “Get Out of Hell Free” golden tickets, which he offers in exchange for a play. Wilde and Poe volunteer when Sophocles, Pope, Byron, Shelley and Shakespeare refuse to appear in response to Beelzebub’s summons. Beelzebub instructs them that he wants a play that improves on “Hamlet,” and he has some instructions in that regard, including that Hamlet should kill Claudius immediately. Once Beelzebub leaves, the two of them go off to find Shakespeare, as they feel they are not capable of writing a play themselves.
The novella meanders on from there, giving us brief glimpses of many authors, poets and playwrights, and in particular demonstrating how Emilia refuses to be ignored as a possible replacement for the missing Shakespeare. Shakespeare, Wilde and Poe all have their own moments of redemption that seem to come from nowhere and that do not seem to actually redeem them — and if they do, the mechanism of that redemption isn’t made clear. We see no play, no poetry, no writing, nothing that requires that the characters in this novella be masters of the written word. And one more mystery is never solved: what the heck does Bob Haldeman have to do with this?
Small presses, self-publishing, e-books and low prices have given the novella new life in this new digital age. Alas, they have also made it possible for authors to publish novellas that are not ready for the light of day. A good editor might have helped Casil shape something out of this morass of ideas and fragments of ideas. But this novella should not have been published in its present form.