Marry a moustachioed alcoholic and erstwhile magician to a Welsh-American beauty shortly before the World’s Columbian Exposition. When their son is born, widow the mother. Widow her again—twice. Put her in charge of a boarding house for vaudevillians. Make her son a prankster and give him a degree in electrical engineering. Bake him in the Kankakee mental asylum for a year. The result: the one and only Harry Stephen Keeler.
Keeler (1890-1967) was, in his own words, one of the most obsessive “paper-blackeners” ever to inhabit Chicago—“London of the West, Bagdad on the Lakes.” In this regard he is not wholly unlike Henry Darger, the janitor and outsider artist who spent his life a few blocks away creating the 15,000-page chronicle of the Vivian Girls. One difference is that Keeler got published.
When he was out of the asylum and working as a steel mill electrician, Keeler started frenetically punching away at his L. C. Smith, turning out surprise-twist short stories and, soon, complicated serial mysteries in a whimsical vein. He also landed a job as editor of 10 Story Book, a pulp featuring humorous tales and half-naked girls. With Find the Clock (Dutton, 1927), he achieved U.S. hardback publication. Keeler was to publish 37 volumes with Dutton until he exhausted his publishers’ patience in 1942. He published 48 books with the British publisher Ward Lock (1929-53), nine with the fourth-rate Phoenix Press (1943-48), and a dozen or so further novels written directly for Spanish or Portuguese translation at $50 a pop, in addition to several manuscripts that never saw the light of day.
That’s a story of decline—and even at the early peak of his mild popularity, Keeler struggled to sell more than a few thousand copies of his novels. The Great Depression was part of the problem, but so was Keeler’s prose. Over the course of the ’30s, Keeler transmuted his early style—convoluted “webwork” plots and somewhat Victorian diction—into screwball concoctions where the narrator and characters sink into morasses of dialect and ludicrous phraseology, as the reader is challenged to sift through layers of implausible interpretation to uncove an even more implausible solution. Ignoring the pleas of his editors, HSK churned out huge, multivolume creations that tried his readers’ brains and now seem boldly postmodern, as if they had been dreamed up by Pynchon or Oulipo. To mention a few:
The Box from Japan (1932) is set in 1942 and runs to over 700,000 words, with extensive digressions on intercontinental 3-D television, a Nicaraguan canal, and the Japanese emperor’s love of Virginia ham.
The Marceau Case and X. Jones of Scotland Yard (1936) are “documented novels” that consist of newspaper stories, telegrams, photos (including one of a topless woman and one of Keeler himself), astronomical charts, cartoons, a Bible verse, two ten-page long footnotes, and much more. The premise is a twist on “locked room” mysteries: a man was strangled on an open croquet lawn, with only a few small footprints in his immediate vicinity. Was he garroted by a Lilliputian in an autogyro? The case is given a three-dimensional solution by an American in the first volume, and a four-dimensional solution by an Englishman in the second.
The Mysterious Mr. I and The Chameleon (1938-39) trace the Chicago peregrinations of a narrator who keeps us and everyone around him guessing as he switches identities no fewer than fifty times (once posing as a professor of philosophy who provides yet another solution to the Marceau case).
The Man with the Magic Eardrums (1939) is an all-night dialogue between two mysterious characters who discuss interracial marriage, telephone technology, and a laundry list of other Keelerian obsessions. It was followed by three sequels.
The exhausting, quasilunatic plots of HSK’s novels are larded with gems of Keelerian writing: awkward, preposterous, and hilarious. The laughter is always uncertain, though, because you are never sure just how much of the effect is intentional. (I have come to believe that most of it is.) Contemporary Keelerite Edward Bolman has recently started tweeting some of these gems (twitter.com/harryskeeler). Here’s a small selection.
“I—I thank you, Governor,” he said with dignity, “on behalf of the Great Science of Mathematics and Joe the Duck.”
For all’s not gold that glitters; and everything that makes an inky black aqueous solution isn’t the pure oxyrhodomate salt of platinum.
“I—I don’t want any women,” Joe managed to ejaculate.
Real estate law oozed out from all over him.
“I’d like to be Hong’s gold watch in his pocket—but able to listen, like as if it were my own ear—yeah, a gold ear-shaped listening watch.”
“Nuts!” exploded Monk Onderko. “Bull,” came from Pox in the rear.
His conscience was invariably an amoeba hypertrophied to the size of behemoth and capering about, centipedal with a hundred elephant legs!
Unlikely as it may seem, Keeler got a small taste of Hollywood in 1934, when Monogram Studios put out two films based on his Sing Sing Nights. In the movie of that name, three murder suspects are tested by a lie detector. (In the novel, the three men shot their victim nearly but not quite simultaneously—so two of them are guilty of no more than pumping a bullet into a corpse. One shooter espouses the theory that racism will eventually be overcome thanks to interbreeding, plastic surgery, and international air travel. None of this makes it into the film.) In The Mysterious Mr. Wong, a film based on a story told by one of the characters in Keeler’s Sing Sing Nights, Bela Lugosi plays Wong, a tepidly creepy Oriental who is stalked by a feebly wisecracking reporter. These movies have some interest as period pieces, but retain little of the distinctive Keeler touch. Extensive research has not supported Keeler’s claim that Sing Sing Nights inspired yet a third film, titled The Gorilla’s Brain.
Nearly forgotten by the end of his life, Keeler has experienced a small posthumous revival thanks to the Internet (which he would have adored). The Harry Stephen Keeler Society, founded in 1997, publishes a newsletter. All of Keeler’s books can be printed on demand by Ramble House. In 2005, McSweeney’s republished the 1934 novel The Riddle of the Traveling Skull. Keeler’s confessed fans include Neil Gaiman and Roger Ebert. Now we await a truly Keelerian film—a movie that somehow captures the erudite, juvenile, loquacious, gleefully unrealistic world of a Harry Stephen Keeler novel.
by Richard Polt