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The Boston Globe: A Reading Life

Harry Stephen Keeler: A prolific, erratic, idiosyncratic world-builder

Born in Chicago in 1890, Harry Stephen Keeler continued his career into the Sixties, his life a few years longer. In his teens he began publishing a stream of stories and serials in the era's pulp magazines, that great training ground for writers. He wrote more than ninety novels, edited a popular magazine, had movies made from his books.

Now he is all but forgotten, gone beneath the waves. Were it not for a handful of deep-divers like Francis M. Nevins and philosopher Richard Polt, not to mention the extraordinary devotion of commando publisher Ramble House, both Keeler and his books soon would have become unsalvageable.

Here are some of the titles: Sing Sing Nights, The Man with the Magic Eardrums, The Case of the Transposed Legs, The Face of the Man from Saturn, The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro, The Riddle of the Travelling Skull.

And here, a few character names: poetry publisher Philodexter Maximum, science fiction writer Scientifico Greenlimb, temptress Sophie Kratzenscneiderwumpel.

On the list of America's literary mavericks — a very long list indeed — Harry Stephen Keeler may well deserve first place.

I've a decided taste for literary mavericks, mind you. Give me Chester Himes over Ralph Ellison anyday. Caring little for standard-bearers, in my enthusiasm for French literature I skipped lightly past Stendahl and Proust to settle with a mosquito's avarice on Cendrars, Queneau and Vian. Norman Mailer? Forget it. I'll suck my vitamins from the like of Jim Thompson and David Goodis. Bellow's great, but so are Leigh Brackett, Joseph McElroy, Tom Disch, Richard Powers, Carol Emshwiller, Matt Ruff.

Hunting and gathering: physically, intellectually, it's in our genes. Always I felt I was working my way up along some kind of lifeline. I'd come across a new writer, read everything I could find, add another merit badge to my sash. Two or three months ago I discovered Harry Stephen Keeler.

Is he a great writer?

No.

A good one?

I'm not sure any of us knows how to answer that. At times he is incredibly good. At other times he is just incredible. By turns he can be brilliant, tedious, inspiring, enervating, intimidating, embarrassing. Or he can work himself up to just plain awful, churning out page after page of unreadable, incomprehensible dialect, dropping his old pulp stories into novels to snore away there like drunks found passed out in your doorway.

What he always is, is fascinating.

Keeler's first novel, The Voice of the Seven Sparrows (1924), is a fairly standard comic novel about Chicago newsmen searching for a publisher's missing daughter. Intimations of Keeler's future, ever more idiosyncratic work appear in the character of Ng Chuen Li Yai, a Chinese millionaire who bets he can walk across the whole of South America in a year and a half; and in Peter Zeller, a shipwreck survivor who mails out 14,257 identical deuce-of-spades cards in order to trap a single man.

After that, difficult as it may be to believe, the books got curiouser and curiouser.

The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro (1926): the heir to a patent-medicine fortune is tucked away in a mental hospital where he's pursued by a contract killer who's also had himself committed and befriended by the actual madmen.

Sing Sing Nights (1927): Three authors set to be executed, with only one pardon on the table, agree that each will tell a story to a death-house guard, and that the pardon will go to the one whose story the guard likes best.

Then The Amazing Web (1930, 532 pages), The Matilda Hunter Murder (1931, 741 pages), The Box from Japan (1932, 765 pages). Keeler's novels grew ever longer, wilder, out of control. 1936 saw the first of his two-volume meganovels, published as The Marceau Case and X. Jones of Scotland Yard: hundreds of pages of letters, telegrams, newspaper columns, photos, cartoons, poems by madmen, ads, and courtroom transcripts.

From the first novels, Keeler had been working his way towards what Richard Polt identifies as "the webwork plot, in which several strings of outrageous coincidences and odd events end in a surprising and utterly implausible denouement."

A woman disappears while taking a steam bath. Only her head and toes, protruding from the cabinet, remain.

A man is found strangled in the middle of lawn, with no footprints about other than his own. Police suspect the Flying Strangler-Baby, a killer midget who disguises himself as a baby and stalks his victims by helicopter.

Police dredge a coffin from Lake Michigan. Inside is a nude body. The top half of the body is that of a Chinese woman, the bottom half that of a black man; the halves are joined by a green gum.

"For more than half a century Keeler stomped through the staid precincts of mystery fiction like King Kong crossing a country churchyard," Francis M. Nevins writes. "His more than 90 novels form a self-contained world at once farcical and dead serious, a firestorm of radical social criticism and a labyrinth in which he hid himself. He invented the webwork novel, in which the bizarre events that explode like cigars in the white-knight hero's face turn out to be mathematically interrelated, with every absurd incident making blissfully perfect sense within the cockeyed frame of reference."

An alternate universe all his own, Nevins concludes.

Those intrigued by that universe should proceed directly to Go with A to Izzard: A Harry Stephen Keeler Companion, edited by Fender Tucker. Tucker is the force behind Ramble House, from whom tickets for further carnival rides — dozens of Keeler's novels, printed on demand — may be purchased. Ramble House is at www.ramblehouse.com. The newsletter of the Harry Stephen Keeler Society, edited by Richard Polt, is at polt@xavier.xu.edu.

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