HARRY STEPHEN
KEELER
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It was like trying to think about the square root of minus zero.

--Harry Stephen Keeler


HARRY STEPHEN KEELER (1890-1967) is one of the strangest writers who ever lived. In his time, he was pegged as a mystery novelist who also wrote some science fiction. Today, if you've heard of him at all, it's as the Ed Wood of mystery novelists, a writer reputed to be so bad he's good. Actually, no genre, nor "camp," can much suggest what Keeler is all about. Take some typical Keeler situations:

  • A man is found strangled to death in the middle of a lawn, yet there are no footprints other than his own. Police suspect the "Flying Strangler-Baby," a killer midget who disguises himself as a baby and stalks victims by helicopter. (X. Jones of Scotland Yard, 1936)
  • Someone killed an antique dealer just so he could steal the face -- only the face -- from a surrealist painting of "The Man from Saturn." (The Face of the Man from Saturn, 1933)
  • A woman's body disappears while taking a steam bath. Only her head and toes, sticking out of the steam cabinet, remain. (The Case of the Transparent Nude, 1958)
  • Because of a clause in a will, a character has to wear a pair of hideous blue glasses constantly for a whole year. This is so that he will eventually see a secret message that is visible only with the glasses. (The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro, 1929)
  • A poem leads the protagonist to a cemetery specializing in circus freaks and the grave of "Legga, the Human Spider," a woman with four legs and six arms. Legga was born in Canton, China, and died in Canton, Ohio. (The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, 1934)
  • A disgruntled phone company employee calls every man in Minneapolis, telling him the morning papers will name him as the secret husband of convicted murderess Jemimah Cobb, who runs a whorehouse specializing in women with physical abnormalities. (The Man With the Magic Eardrums, 1939)
  • Every resident of "Idiot's Valley" is mentally retarded and packs a gun. (Several novels; Idiot's Valley is Keeler's Yoknapatawpha County.)

Keeler's plots are so go-to-hell weird, they sound like a certain type of "serious" literature. But they're not!

Biography

Who was Harry Stephen Keeler? After modest commercial success in the 1930s, Keeler all but vanished from the literary universe until his rediscovery by mystery novelist, critic, and attorney Francis M. Nevins, Jr. Starting in 1969, Nevins wrote an excellent series of articles on Keeler in the Journal of Popular Culture. These articles (to which this discussion is much indebted) were virtually the only sources on Keeler's life and oeuvre until recently. Nevins wrote of Keeler:

His universe is full of the grotesque, the deformed and the rotten, but is not less amply stocked with the wildly hilarious. His targets -- the military, the state, capitalism, racism -- and his special interests -- the occult, Eastern philosophy, science fiction -- make him specially relevant to the nightmarish Sixties and Seventies which have forgotten him, while his meticulous crafted and joyously zany stories render him at the same time delightfully irrelevant to the mess and horror of the real world. Engage and escapist at the same time, a gray mouse to the public world but an outrageous exuberant maniac behind the typewriter, he was always his own man, there was never anyone like him before or since, and I doubt that the planet could produce another to match him. He was the sublime nutty genius of American literature, and as long as boundless creativity is cherished, so will Harry Stephen Keeler be.

Largely because of the Nevins articles, Keeler acquired a cult following among those who could find his books. That was no given, for everything Keeler wrote had been out of print for years. Editions issued by E.P. Dutton and Phoenix Press are prized collector's items among the few who know, or care, who Keeler is. Only about 2,000 of the later Phoenix Press titles were printed. Only a fraction survive. Keeler never made it into paperback. Many of the Keeler books you find are hardcover reprints for the commercial lending library market (way back when, people paid to rent books the way they rent videos now).

Harry Stephen Keeler was born the same year as Agatha Christie (1890) and lived in Chicago most of his life. His mother committed him to an insane asylum when he was a child. This experience doubtless accounts for his affection for insane asylums, mental illness, and characters who are unjustly committed to an asylum in his fiction. Keeler went to work as an electrician for a steel mill at the age of 22. He began selling stories to the pulp magazines and edited one such publication (10-Story Book). Eventually he published novels (first in Britain, then in the U.S.) He churned out over 70 novels, plus many shorter pieces.

Keeler cannot easily be pigeonholed as an "outsider." He was published by big houses internationally, and he was a pulp magazine editor as well. Keeler is usually called a mystery writer. He did write plenty of sure-enough mysteries. Be warned, though, that his work bears no more relation to Christie or Hammett than does the phone book of Idiot's Valley. Although much of Keeler is steeped in the tradition of classical puzzle mysteries, woe to the reader who thinks he is going to guess the denouement. The Ace of Spades Murder is a whodunit in which the character who will be revealed guilty is introduced, for the first time, on the third-to-last page of the book.

Incredibly, Keeler tops that in X. Jones of Scotland Yard. The guilty party is not mentioned until the last sentence of the last page of this 448-page story. The culprit is . . . well, to "play fair," I'm going put it in a footnote.* But face it, X. Jones of Scotland Yard is out of print -- permanently. Unless you're planning to haunt libraries and rare book stores until you find it, you might as well read the footnote.

Keeler wrote other genre fiction: thrillers, historical romances, and science fiction. In the latter category is a remarkable short story, "John Jones' Dollar." The premise is that a guy puts a dollar in a savings account where it grows, through compound interest, to such a fortune that, centuries later, it is used to found a socialist utopia. This is possibly Keeler's best-known story and would rate extensive anthologization if the writing wasn't so bad, even by stiff Keeler standards of badness. I don't know enough about the history of science fiction to say if this clever idea was original with Keeler, but he wrote it in 1914 and the idea is now a sort of s-f cliche (Douglas Adams spoofs it in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe).

Even Keeler's publishers didn't know what to make of him. The jacket copy of most of his books is not much different from that of any mid-list detective novel. They certainly didn't try to sell Keeler as being camp. The only concession to Keeler's extreme strangeness is occasional language to the effect: "a story such as only Keeler could write." Amen.

Keeler created, and was seemingly the sole practitioner of, a genre he called the "webwork novel." This is a story in which diverse characters and events are connected by a strings of wholly implausible coincidences.

That's interesting because, well, you're not supposed to do that. Most Western literature avoids coincidences. The author is permitted a single unlikely premise, and then everything is supposed to follow inevitably from that. Keeler's stories are coincidence porn. Coincidence is very much the raison d'etre.

Towards the end of the novel, all the subplots mesh together to produce a stunning surprise ending. In order to that achieve that effect, Keeler throws plausibility out the window. He uses what amount to plot "wild cards." A crazy clause in a will requires a character to [fill in the blank!] in order to inherit a fortune. An obscure religious cult believes such and such. A nutty law requires something else. Now don't think that Keeler worried himself about whether there really was such a law or belief, or whether the will could stand up in court.

Keeler took the webwork novel seriously enough to turn out a detailed manual on webwork plotting, complete with insanely confusing diagrams. Did anyone actually read this and try to use it?

Keeler's narrative style is no less incredible than his plots. Indeed, the two can scarcely be distinguished, for his writing is essentially all plot. Characterization, description, dialog, and use of language hardly exist in the conventional sense. Every paragraph hits you over the head with new and implausible information. There is little room for anything else.

In many of his later works, Keeler takes this daft aesthetic a step further. Despite this total concentration on plot, almost nothing happens within the time-frame of the narrative. It's all digressions about what happened off stage! Again, that's not something they advise you to do in writing courses. The effect is so baroque that it goes way beyond usual notions of "bad writing." It is more in the spirit of Oulipo than commercial fiction, good or bad.

Keeler's characters are mechanical contrivances. I mean that not, particularly, in a pejorative sense. It is simply the way a Keeler story works. Each character is a compressed spring poised to serve its role. Free will hardly exists. The perfect Keeler character is a clockwork automaton; the perfect Keeler plot is a pinball machine.

In one novel, there's a character named Suing Sophie. Sophie goes on transpacific cruise ships, striking up an acquaintance with a single man on board. When the ship gets into port, Sophie bids her male friend farewell by loudly exclaiming, "Yes! I'll marry you!" then rushing off. Now the man has not proposed marriage. But Sophie has made sure that there are plenty of witnesses to her farewell. Soon afterward, the man is greeted with a breach of promise lawsuit for failing to marry Sophie. In the settlement, Sophie collects a huge award, which she then uses to travel to the cannibal isles of the South Pacific; specifically to islands whose inhabitants have recently been converted by Christian missionaries. There Sophie convinces them of the errors of their recent conversion, and reconverts them as practicing Jews.

You know all this and more about Sophie; before it's over, Keeler probably gets more plot mileage out of Sophie than Flaubert does out of Emma Bovary. The difference is that Sophie does not appear in the action of Keeler's novel at all. Other characters just allude to her.

In Agatha Christie at her sharpest, everyone is a suspect. In Keeler, everything is a McGuffin, that is to say, an essentially meaningless token that drives the plot. Because the webwork novel is so fundamentally phony, everything is, sooner or later, revealed to be irrelevant. A typical Keeler plot is a fractal shaggy dog story, filled with digressions, and digressions within digressions, that are themselves shaggy dog stories.

As in a shaggy dog story, the truest synopsis of a Keeler plot is: Never mind.

These webwork novels tended to be long. The Box from Japan is 765 pages, and it's set in awfully small type. Some novels were so long that his publishers insisted on breaking them into more manageable chunks. What was originally a 350,000-word novel was issued in three volumes as The Marceau Case (1936), X. Jones of Scotland Yard (1936), and The Wonderful Scheme of Mr. Christopher Thorne (1937). In The Matilda Hunter Mystery, the publisher inserted a coupon the reader was supposed to fill out his guess as to the guilty party and return. The coupon appeared toward the end of the book, after all the necessary clues had been revealed. Dutton did that for all its mysteries back then. The difference was that, in Matilda Hunter, there was still a couple hundred of pages after the coupon.

How did Keeler create such a volume of densely plotted fiction? According to Nevins, Keeler was an avid collector of newspaper clippings of bizarre events. When he started a story, he would grab a handful of clippings at random and try to figure some way of linking them all together. That sounds like something the Dadaists might have talked about doing, and maybe tried once. Who knew that in Chicago Harry Keeler was turning out novel after novel that way?

Another part of Keeler's "method" was recycling. Many Keeler novels are shamelessly padded with undigested inclusions of short stories or novellas that, not surprisingly, Keeler had sold to the pulps long before he started working on the novel (classic advice to free-lancers: sell your material to more than one market!)

This happens in more than story: A character turns out to be a writer and asks another character to read this story he's written to tell him if it's worth publishing. Sure, I'll take a look at it, he says. And the next chapter is the story.

Possibly the oddest thing about Keeler's writing is the odd subject matter. In novel after novel, skulls keep cropping up -- human skulls -- which are not incidental but are rather the center of gravity of the plot. It's one thing to use a skull once. Then you'd figure, all right, I'll find something else for the next book. Not Keeler. Skulls are so important that they end up in some Keeler titles: The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, The Skull of the Waltzing Clown.

Trepanning -- the obsolete practice of drilling holes in the skull for supposed therapeutic purpose -- well, that keeps cropping up, too. It makes you wonder if Keeler had the procedure done (as far as I know, he didn't).

Bizarre racial themes are another of Keeler's obsessions. The Case of the Crazy Corpse begins with the police dredging a coffin out of Lake Michigan. Inside is a nude body, the top half of a Chinese woman, the bottom half of a black man. The two halves are joined with a green gum. In The Ace of Spades Murder, a black man is stabbed to death with a jeweled dagger on which is impaled the ace of spades. The detective has to solve the crime before a law placing a statute of limitations on the murder of a black person takes effect. Interracial marriages are a great deal more frequent in Keeler's world than in the America of the 1930s, and Keeler has a positive mania for linking a black person to an Asian (by marriage, green gum or otherwise).

Incredibly, there are political passages in Keeler's writing. These make it clear enough that Keeler was a critic of racism. Perhaps he even thought of these screwball race plots as having a "message." That said, Keeler shared his contemporaries' politically incorrect affection for dialect.

Mainstream fiction limited dialect to minor, Step 'n' Fetchit characters, who provide comic relief and then surrender the stage to the white people. In Keeler, one is aghast to find that a character who talks like this --

Yassuh, Ah ca'ied a boxed telumscope to de 'spress comp'ny fo' de man whut usta fix 'em in dah.

-- will be narrating a substantial portion of a very long novel. Any reader mad enough to attempt to guess the murderer in a Keeler story has to sift "clues" from Keeler's guaranteed inauthentic versions of Harlem jive, dialect-comedian Yiddish, and flied-lice Chinese.

I suppose the quintessential Keeler obsession is freaks, and especially, the whorehouse of freaks. There is hardly a Keeler novel that does not have at least one character who is a circus freak or a civilian with a notable physical abnormality. A couple of stories share the specific element of a bordello specializing in a multicultural assortment of hunchbacks, bearded women, and polydactls. It is not much of a stretch to imagine a literary writer using such a motif today. But again and again and again? In the Keeler universe, it would seem, these bordellos are common.

Much of Keeler's writing is genuinely hilarious. You are never given the luxury of being sure it is supposed to be. Take some of his character names:

  • Criorcan Mulqueeny [corrupt political boss]
  • Screamo the Clown [dead clown]
  • Scientifico Greenlimb [science-fiction writer]
  • Wolf Gladish [evil circus impresario]
  • State Attorney Foxhart Cubycheck
  • Or try this one [name of a "man of the future" in a time travel story]:

These are funny in a subtle way: You get the impression that if a stupid person was trying to come up with "funny" names, he might come up with these names -- which are funny because they fail to be funny. You're laughing at the idea that someone would think these names are funny, rather than at the names themselves.

Of course, in a larger sense, these names are funny, for the reason above. The question is whether Keeler is the true naif, or the comic impersonating a naif. It's hard to say, and the answer may not be 100 percent either way.

Keeler sometimes supplies detailed road directions or family histories and has the characters recite them in full several times during a novel. Often this ends up being marvelously funny. That's tough to pull off, and I suspect that the humor must be intentional.

I am pretty sure that Keeler did not see himself as being in the business of turning out parodies of the mystery genre, though. He took his writing seriously enough. Some of what strikes us as funny (skulls in novel after novel) almost surely wasn't intended as such. Likewise numerous memorable passages of bad writing:

Pardon me, my son, if I use the shenjiji dialect, almost as different from regular Japanese as Welsh is from English.

Redwayne TerVyne, known to the Chinese of America, because of his passion for Chinese items in his nationally syndicated column, as "The Great White Prynose," and to New York in general as "The Keyhole," hopped out of his luxurious $10,000 purple car in front of the row of de luxe art shops on Fifth Avenue.

And Angus MacWhorter, left alone with his colourless ascetic furniture, and his diorama, stroked his chin in helpless futility.

Yet another part of Keeler's charm is his unmitigatedly bad titles: Finger, Finger!, The Yellow Zuri, The Amazing Web, Find the Clock, and The Face of the Man From Saturn.

Keeler collaborated with both his wives. His first wife, Hazel Goodwin (married in 1919) was a professional writer, a competent purveyor of pulp fiction. Keeler adored Hazel's writing. Many of his books incorporate short stories of hers.

There is always a note telling you which chapters are Hazel's and which are Harry's, but you don't need it. For us Keeler fans, the story stops dead when Hazel takes the baton.

Coroner Bowers was a stocky man in a wrinkled brown suit, and his face was ruddy and seamed. He had hair like sifted ashes . . .

(This from Hazel's first full page in the collaboration, The Strange Will.)

There's nothing at all wrong with Hazel's writing. It's easy to see why some critics preferred her to her kooky husband. It's just that lots of people did what Hazel Goodwin did, and some did it better. Harry was the only one who's ever wanted to do what he did.

One of more unaccountable obsessions of Keeler's life was Hazel's short story, "Spangles," (originally published 1930). Keeler liked it so much that he built six novels around the story's eminently forgettable central character, circus owner Angus MacWhorter. Now if you read "Spangles" (which, for ease of reference, is included as a chapter in two of the six novels), it's perfectly ordinary. From this unlikely beginning, Keeler constructed a series around MacWhorter (who, in Keeler's hands, is every bit as paper-thin a character as everyone else in Keeler).

Most critics didn't like Keeler much. A New York Times critic once said "All Keeler's novels are written in Choctaw."

Two Z-movie versions of Keeler's work were produced. Bottom-of-the-line Monogram Studios made Sing Sing Nights, based on Keeler's novel of the same name, in 1934. The Mysterious Mr. Wong (based on a story from the same novel) appeared the year later and starred Bela Lugosi. I found the latter on videocassette. It's awful -- not amusingly awful the way Keeler might be said to be, just plain awful awful.

Some of Keeler's books were dedicated to pet cats. One is dedicated to one of his own fictional characters.

For a Typical Keeler Plot, Click on the Webwork Plot Diagram!

Keeler's Last Years

In mid career, Keeler's readership dried up and blew away. His relationship with Dutton deteriorated. Conceivably, part of the reason was The Peacock Fan (1941), which might be considered Keeler's Pierre, with its fantastically paranoid depiction of the publishing industry. Publishers Simon and Dolliver Vinnedge not only write trick clauses into their authors' contracts but actually impersonate various characters in an attempt to get one of their authors sent to the gallows. The Peacock Fan was Keeler's last book with Dutton.

Keeler moved to Phoenix Press, now remembered as a publisher of last resort. But even Phoenix dropped him in 1948.

Keeler was publishing in Britain until 1953. Stand By -- London Calling was the last Keeler book to appear in English. Keeler's later works were published only in Spanish and Portuguese translation (!) -- or finally, not at all.

Why was Keeler published in Spain and Portugal? Did Keeler strike some responsive chord in the Iberian soul? Probably not. Keeler had been published in Spain and Portugal during his salad days. Nevins speculates that Keeler continued to be published there mainly through editorial inertia. Under Franco, novels published in Spain had to pass a censorship board. In that regard, Keeler's lack of sex may have been a plus.

Thus such gems as The Case of the Crazy Corpse saw print only as O Caso do Cadaver Endiabrado.

Hazel died in 1960. Keeler was so devastated that he stopped working. He took all or most of his books to a used book dealer to sell.

Keeler bounced back in 1963, when he married Thelma Rinaldo. Thelma had been his secretary years earlier, and in fact Keeler had once contemplated leaving Hazel for her. Keeler began writing again,, even though American publishers were no longer interested in his work. He left 16 complete unpublished manuscripts at his death, and a dozen in various stages of completion.

By the accounting of Nevins, the completed but unpublished-in-his lifetime works of Keeler amount to 1.3 million words, enough to fill about 20 average-sized mystery novels. The later works published in Spanish or Portuguese translation account for another 1.1 million, or about 16 volumes. In his later years, Keeler also published a mimeographed newsletter for a very small circle of friends. It contained biographical notes, philosophical musings, and cat lore. Keeler died in 1967.

My Search for Keeler

I'm not at all sure what it would have been like to meet Harry Stephen Keeler. A photo which appears in one novel show him as a pale, fiftyish, blonde man, looking like a high-school shop teacher.

Keeler was long dead by the time I heard of him, but a few years back, I found a "Thelma Keeler" in the Chicago phone book. I told the friend who had first told me about Keeler. We got in touch with Thelma. She was living in Chicago, in a housing project according to Nevins. We corresponded for a couple of years. Thelma was almost blind by then and had to have another person answer her letters.

My friend and I told her we had founded a "Harry Stephen Keeler Appreciation Society." This was a white lie. We had tried to interest friends in Keeler, but no one was. We voted another friend in as treasurer of the "Society." She hated Keeler.

It turned out that Thelma had a library of Harry's books and was willing to sell them. My friend purchased them. These weren't Keeler's original copies of his books (which he had sold after Hazel's death) but books he had acquired since. Some were signed with a dedication to Thelma. Many were in Spanish or Portuguese. Thus my friend acquired what has to be the finest Keeler collection on the West Coast.

We learned a few biographical facts from this purchase. Based on dedications, "Chirp Chirp Chirp" was Harry's "pet" name for Thelma. One dedication mentions "John Barleycorn" with the implication that Harry had had a battle with the bottle.

Harry's books included a clipped ad for a catalog of marital aids. This read: "Complete mutual satisfaction for men and women/Enjoy complete and fulfilling martial pleasures. There's no need NOW to lose out! True satisfaction for both men and women." This advertised a 12-page catalog of Universal Sales of Hollywood, Calif.

Thelma mentioned that she still had some manuscripts of Harry's and asked if we wanted to see them (!!!) She sent them to us. They included a rough manuscript and notes for an unpublished novel titled "Murder of a Giant." We promised to try to write a treatment for a screenplay -- in fact this was one of our society's goals -- but we never got around to it.

The manuscript package included a letter, or maybe a script, in which Harry was trying to convince his wife (the first wife, Hazel?) to contribute material for "Murder of a Giant."

My friend and I tried our darnedest to promote Keeler. Bill Pronzini had just written a popular book, Gun in Cheek, about "bad" detective writers. Keeler rated a short mention. It was practically the first time Keeler had been mentioned anywhere since the Nevins articles. So we sent off a letter to Pronzini. He responded with a very nice letter. He said he would direct any queries about Keeler to our society. We got one. It was from a guy who said he had tried to interest publishers in a biography of Keeler. No takers.

We corresponded with Francis Nevins, and met him when he was in Los Angeles. He said he had tried to interest publishers in reprinting Keeler's works with no luck. He doubted that Keeler would ever be published again.

We asked Nevins if he had been influenced by Keeler in his own writing. His answer was a slightly shocked, "I hope not."

I wrote letters to several members of Congress, trying to get support for a postage stamp commemorating the centennial of Keeler's birth (HSK 1890-1990). Not that it would ever happen, of course, but I thought it would be swell to read their responses. It was. Several wrote back -- all favorably. One was Jesse Helms. (Piss Christ, no. Keeler commemorative, yes!) Another was Alan K. Simpson. The Simpson letter was particularly good because he said quite a bit about Keeler, calling him a "great American author."

No Keeler commemorative stamp has been issued -- so far.

We nonetheless gave a party to celebrate the Keeler centennial on November 3, 1990. About forty people came. Only a few had read Keeler, and no one besides my friend and I liked him. To get people to come, we told them that it didn't matter that they hadn't read Keeler, and the party really wasn't about Keeler. Of course, this was a lie worthy of Suing Sophie.

We took pictures of groups of people holding up Keeler books and pretending to read them. The plan was to send these photos to Thelma to show her that, yes, today's young people still read and discuss Keeler. We never got around to sending them. We were afraid that she would ask what ever happened to that screenplay treatment.

Anyway, I thought that Keeler, as master of the webwork novel, ought to have his own web page. So here it is, Harry.

The Keeler Revival

A Keeler revival, of a scope that would have seemed fantastic just a few years ago, is underway. It started with the founding of a Harry Stephen Keeler Society by Richard Polt in 1997. Thanks to the Web, the membership spans the globe. Members receive a subscription to a handsomely produced Keeler News. The Society's website includes links and cover art from nearly all of Keeler's published works.

Even more incredibly, Keeler is back in print. Ramble House, run by Keeler aficianado Fender Tucker, has issued paperback editions of dozens of Keeler titles, including those left unpublished at Keeler's death. (A downside of the Keeler "rediscovery" is that used book dealers often ask outrageously high prices for the old hardcovers.)

In recent years, Keeler has been profiled in the Village Voice and The Wall Street Journal.

Keeler's papers are at Columbia University.


(c) 1996, 2002 by William Poundstone info@williampoundstone.net


Harry Stephen Keeler