We are drawn to the unescapable conclusion that Mr. Keeler writes his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy.
--The New York Times, 1942
Felt any undisciplined urges for creative joy lately? Ever wonder about the forgotten chambers of the American psyche? Can you appreciate literature that tenaciously disregards convention to form its own bizarre criteria of excellence? The rich and dreamlike world of Harry Stephen Keeler awaits you.
Keeler (1890-1967) lived all his life in Chicago, a city lovingly rendered, warts and all, in his scores of novels. In the teens and twenties Keeler published a stream of short stories and serials in the pulps. His first hardcover novel, The Voice of the Seven Sparrows, appeared in 1924. Keeler's early work developed and perfected the concept of the "webwork plot," in which several strings of outrageous coincidences and odd events end in a surprising and utterly implausible denouement. (Download our volume On Webwork to read HSK's theoretical account of the webwork technique.) Keeler is also fond of the Arabian Nights device (used in such early novels as Sing Sing Nights and Thieves' Nights): he tells stories about people telling stories--a great opportunity to reuse that early pulp fiction! The result is intricate, verbose, thoroughly entertaining, and quite imaginative. In The Matilda Hunter Murder (1931), a novel of over 700 pages, an atom bomb is a main plot device. The Box From Japan (1932), an even more massive opus, is set in 1942 and features intercontinental 3-D color television.
By the mid-thirties, Keeler had reached some popularity (in 1934 Sing Sing Nights inspired two bottom-of-the-barrel movies from Monogram Studios, one starring Bela Lugosi as a Chinese bad guy). Keeler continued to produce some of the oddest and most original mystery novels of all time. The first two volumes of one Keeler tetralogy (The Marceau Case, X. Jones--Of Scotland Yard, The Wonderful Scheme of Mr. Christopher Thorne and Y. Cheung, Business Detective) are "documented novels," collections of items such as telegrams, cartoons, poems by madmen, Chinese jokes, and photographs, including one of Keeler himself. A two-volume Keelerganza consisting of The Mysterious Mr. I and The Chameleon is narrated by an enigmatic protagonist who assumes 50 false identities.
In the late thirties, Keeler's style began to depart even further from normal prose. His books were dripping with outré elements (such as bordellos of freaks) and twisted into supremely convoluted webwork plots--but in many works, he removed almost all of the action from the immediate scene and presented it through dialogue. And often this dialogue consists of page after page of thick, artificial dialect. In The Man With the Magic Eardrums (1939), a bookie and a safecracker run into each other in a house in Minneapolis and spend the night talking. Oh yes, there are two phone calls, and another character comes into the house and talks for a while. This takes hundreds of pages. The direct action of The Portrait of Jirjohn Cobb (1940), which has to be one of the most astoundingly unreadable novels ever written, consists of four characters, two of whom sport outrageous accents, sitting on an island in the middle of a river, talking and listening to a radio, again for hundreds of pages. And these novels were only the first volumes of two multi-novel sequences! What do these people talk about? Well, it would really take hundreds of pages to explain. These works are the Waiting for Godot of the Keeler canon, drawn out to the length of Finnegans Wake. Oddly enough, a dramatic adaptation of the same story that formed the basis of The Man With the Magic Eardrums was used in one of the earliest television broadcasts, a program experimentally televised to 200 people in New York in 1940. Despite his exploration of television in The Box From Japan, this was the most TV exposure that Keeler ever got.
Keeler's U.S. publisher, Dutton, dropped him in 1942, not long after publishing The Peacock Fan, which includes a vicious satire on the publishing industry but which Dutton was contractually obligated to print. Harry now resorted to the obscure Phoenix Press, which published a series of relatively short Keelers such as The Case of the Barking Clock and The Case of the Transposed Legs. Keeler's beloved wife, Hazel Goodwin Keeler, a more conventional writer herself, was now playing an increasingly important role in Harry's work: her short stories were inserted into his novels on the flimsiest pretext. Faced with the unmarketable weirdness of this stuff, even Phoenix Press--which had already been cutting Keeler's novels ruthlessly--abandoned him in 1948, and his British publishers, Ward Lock, printed their last Keeler in 1953. But Harry struggled on, publishing his works in Spanish and Portuguese translations. His novels published in Madrid by Reus include El Cubo Carmesí (The Crimson Cube, completed 1954, published 1960) and La Misteriosa Bola de Marfil de Wong Shing Li (The Mysterious Ivory Ball of Wong Shing Li, completed 1957, published 1961).
When Hazel died in 1960, it looked like Keeler was ready to give up. But in 1963 he was remarried, to his former secretary Thelma Rinaldo, and made a comeback--in spirit, if not in reputation. The ancient typewriter started clattering away once again, and Harry even collaborated with Thelma as he had with Hazel. Many HSK creations of the fifties and sixties, such as The Case of the Two-Headed Idiot and The Scarlet Mummy, were never published in Keeler's lifetime (though they are now available on demand from Ramble House). He hoped they would appear in print, but the fact is that he was working, indeed, "merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy." Keeler is a true rarity: a man devoted to the end to his unique vision of art.
Keeler died in 1967 and is buried in Chicago's Rosehill Cemetery. See a film of his grave here (and yes, there is some action!).
Was Keeler a hack, a lunatic, or a genius?
Decide for yourself by reading some of his prose.
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