In a mystery novel from the 1940s* by the Chicago paper-blackener Harry Stephen Keeler (1890–1967), the greedy children of an eccentric moneybags receive instructions to light a candle and contemplate, for twenty minutes, a hideous self-portrait in the sitting room. One by one they pay the required visit, but finding the demand preposterous and the painting unsettling, each blows out the candle and leaves long before the requisite span. The sole exception—the one child with enough filial piety to hang out for a bit and attempt to commune with the spattered canvas—is rewarded. For at twenty minutes, the wax of the candle has melted enough to reveal a cylinder, in which reposes the codicil of a will. Our persevering viewer inherits everything.
I like this story as a metaphor for understanding Keeler’s project. All but forgotten for decades, Keeler is best known today for his excess. He conjured hyper-intricate “webwork” plots, pushed the absurdities home with dash-driven prose, and indulged a fetish for skulls, outlandish dialect, and all things Chinese. His rep is that he’s so bad he’s good. But who gets to make those definitions? At his best—in at least a dozen of his mind-blowing books—Keeler is delivering sensations unique to his oeuvre. The story of the lone viewer who can bear looking at the strange painting says something about the rewards of “bad” art.
by Ed Park
*The title of which I shall not reveal, and the details of which I am fudging, so as to preserve the delight of the potential reader.