Madness in His Method

The unparalleled universe of Harry Stephen Keeler

As cultural studies widens its net and critics look to the previously lowbrow and untouchable for their subjects, pulp fiction has been seen with a new set of eyes. Pulp — magazines and books, generally of the prewar era, that showcased fiction that was fantastic, sensational or otherwise disreputable, and churned it out fast on the cheap paper that gave the genre its name — is finally transcending its reputation as the literary equivalent of grindhouse cinema, and its creators are now thought fit for assessment by genuine highbrows, academics, and tastemakers. While it can’t be denied that most pulp fiction was justifiably thought of as disposable trash, the reappraisal has rescued the good name of a handful of writers that don’t deserve to be forgotten. Raymond Chandler is rightly thought of as a major figure in American letters nowadays; Jim Thompson is enjoying a pleasing critical and popular revival; Mickey Spillane and Daishell Hammett are thought of, if not as great writers, as at least the creators of great characters; and while the jury is still out on the relative genius of other writers who toiled in the pulp market (like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft), if nothing else, they have not been forgotten.

And then there’s Harry Stephen Keeler.

Keeler was born in Chicago in 1890 and lived there until his death in 1967. Starting in his early 20s, he began editing and writing for several pulp magazines, and, in 1924, Hutchison Press published his first novel, The Voice of the Seven Sparrows. Never tremendously popular, he nonetheless maintained a steady following until the 1940s, when his books — always idiosyncratic, to say the least — took a hard left into the realm of total lunacy. Dropped by Dutton, his longtime publisher, he was picked up by a tiny house called Phoenix Press and produced some of his most famous (or infamous) work before finally getting so abstract that he could no longer find an American publisher. He continued to produce novels which were published only in the U.K., Spain or Portugal, often for so little money it can’t have been worth the massive investment of time it took to turn out the frequently lengthy books. His audience had all but disappeared, his success was a thing of the distant past, and the commercial lending library (the market for which many of his books were produced) was long gone. After his death, it seemed as if he’d be forgotten forever; indeed, original versions of his later novels are exceptionally rare.

In the late 1960s, however, just a few years after Harry Stephen Keeler’s death, a series of articles about the novelist appeared in The Journal of Popular Culture. Written by the critic and author Francis M. Nevins, the articles were the genesis of a mini-cult that grew up around the man and his work; those who were able to find his books snatched them up and evangelized for them at every opportunity, and those who couldn’t talked about them as if they were some kind of demented Holy Grail of pulp literature. Since then, other pocket revivals of the incredible Mr. Keeler have come and gone. William Poundstone, author of the Big Secrets series, wrote an excellent article on Keeler and helped get a new generation of fans interested in his work. Ken Keeler (no relation), the veteran television writer, is a devotee of HSK’s work and mentions him in the audio commentary of an episode of “Futurama.” In 1997, the Harry Stephen Keeler Society was founded by Richard Polt (the membership includes renowned comics writer Neil Gaiman and sci-fi novelist Philip José Farmer). And still later, a computer-aided micropublisher called Ramble House began reprinting Keeler’s novels, making them easily available to the growing number of HSK devotees for the first time in a generation.

It’s obvious that, despite his marginal cultural status, something about Harry Stephen Keeler strikes a chord with a small but dedicated group of fans. What is it? What kind of a writer was he? What about his 70-plus novels is so appealing and yet so alienating?

Keeler wrote a smattering of science fiction, fantasy, and straightforward fiction, but he, like many pulp writers, was primarily known as a crafter of detective fiction and mysteries. His books, though, are mysteries only in the loosest possible sense: there is a crime, often a murder (and usually under particularly unusual circumstances). There is a hero, sometimes a detective, who arrives on the scene to solve what appears to be an insoluble case. And at the end, a number of clues, scattered throughout the course of the story, come together to finger the perpetrator. But beyond these essential elements, none of the rules of detective fiction — for that matter, none of the rules of fiction of any kind — apply. Keeler’s books are completely insane. His work occupies a universe all its own, a self-contained world with a perfect, inexorable and completely incomprehensible logic that bears no relationship to the world as it is. HSK’s books violate every tenet of mystery writing: while standard detective stories are allowed one or two unlikely plot points, Keeler’s have dozens or even hundreds. (William Poundstone calls them “coincidence porn.”) While standard detective stories present you with red herrings you must sort through in order to arrive at the solution, Keeler’s are books in which literally everything is a red herring. And while standard detective stories at least make the pretense of playing fair by giving you the information you need to try and solve the mystery, Keeler’s don’t even give the most attentive reader a fighting chance — impossible amounts of extraneous information are poured into the story, complicated subplots are introduced and then completely forgotten, and the guilty party often doesn’t even appear until the final few pages of the book.

But Keeler wasn’t just pulling these absurdly convoluted plots, nonsensical digressions and total betrayals of the basic structures of the genre out of thin air: he had a theory. A former engineer, he had an entire system he devised called “webwork”; he was its foremost champion, and, as far as anyone can tell, its only practitioner. “Webwork” consisted of creating a huge, intricate design (resembling a spider’s web, hence the name) upon which dozens of characters — all linked by the most implausible coincidences and tenuous connections — connected into a veritable orgy of happenstance. These characters were then strung together using an equally large number of unlikely plot devices, which Keeler often drew from unusual news stories, personal anecdotes and recycled stories from the pulp magazines he wrote for. It all comes together, somehow, in an impenetrable chain of circumstance that gets you from Point A to Point B via Points Z, Q and M13.47EX3-Ω. A typical HSK novel is self-contained, meticulous, and with an implacable logic; it’s just not a logic that makes any sense whatsoever except in Keeler’s own personal universe. Even something as simple as the likely motive for a murder quickly veers into an outré Keelerian alternate reality in no time at all:

… Marceau had literally invited his own death from the hands of some particularly demented member of a group of people little known to the world, either in the motivation of its members, or the personalities thereof, we brought out by an astonishing discovery made some 24 hours after his death. The discovery was made in a search of his private papers, and consisted of an old yellow news paper clipping representing obviously a letter he had written to some London paper in the long ago, and which had been published, signed with his name and former address, in one of its readers’ columns. Inspector Allan Jamison, a typographical expert at Scotland Yard, identified the type as being London Times type of 1910. And a search of the old Times files revealed, indeed, the original column containing the letter. As for the item itself, it occupied but a few hundred words, and lay in a most obscure position in the column, being sandwiched between the annual letter from the enthusiastic reader who sees the first robin of the season in St. James Park, and the customary letter advocating the return to England of the good old Tory Party. The letter had evidently been published by the Times editor, in spite of its condemnatory advocations, because of the bizarre theory its words set forth. It stated, in brief, that the writer advocated and urged strongly an international law which would provide that all cretins, dwarfs and midgets be put out of the way at birth — or as soon thereafter as they showed evidences of being diminutive — because they represented a powerful effort on the part of Nature to create a genetic groundwork for drawing down the entire race of mankind to near-microscopic size — and thus give the insect world, in which Nature was tremendously more interested, the ascendancy; that unless all midgets were cancelled ruthlessly from the human breeding equation, Nature would suddenly up some day and — in concatenation with some temporarily fortuitous natural condition — throw forth, in the form of course of newly-born infants, millions of such people, who by further interbreeding would snuff out the regular-sized man and then, in turn, in the form of its offspring produced by subsequent breedings, proceed to decrease in size till a cockroach — to one such individual — would be a veritable and terrifying and dangerous dinosaur … the significant thing about Marceau’s letter, however, in view of the rationale of his own murder, was that in its last line it modestly set forth that the most painless form of legal euthanasia, for such small people, would be strangling.

Such — the only ascertainable illumination as to the motive for the bizarre murder of André Marceau: insane resentment on the part of a single member of a group of curious people — the heterogeneous world of Lilliputia — flaring into existence after 25 long years — a group which comprises members of every race and blood, which numbers among itself hundreds of new recruits gained by births since that letter was written — insane resentment against a man who, himself generously endowed with size by Nature, had urged their extinguishment from the scheme of things — by the most painful of all deaths — strangling!

Overwritten, awkwardly phrased, swimming in extraneous detail, crammed with bizarre elements, and every word of it a red herring — and, of course, taking place entirely “offscreen.” The excerpt above (from The Marceau Case) is a perfect encapsulation of the Keeler style; and yet almost any page from any book by HSK could do the job just as well.

Harry Stephen Keeler was devoted to the webwork technique. He used it in all of his writing; he even wrote a few magazine articles and a how-to book for anyone interested in learning it themselves. It seems highly unlikely that anyone ever did, of course; lest you think that the ludicrously complex diagrams that Keeler designed to keep track of the endless plot threads in his webwork novels would somehow render the books easier to understand, rest assured that the diagrams are as impossible to follow as the stories themselves. It’s been remarked that the only way to fully enjoy Finnegans Wake is if your name is James Joyce; likewise, the only way to truly follow the ins and outs of a webwork novel is to be Harry Stephen Keeler. Of course, Keeler was no Joyce. His dialogue is stilted, to say the least; his characters are usually tissue-thin, existing only as gears that move the webwork machine forward; and the plots, while incredibly intricate and admirably ambitious, make no sense whatsoever. Plots and subplots come and go; characters appear and disappear; entire chapters of already-lengthy novels are little more than an excuse for Keeler to drop in-jokes, inchoate character sketches, or entire short stories he’d already published in pulp magazines and which had little or no bearing to the book. More than this, many of his novels have no action. Sure, things happen; in fact, too much happens. A typical Keeler novel has enough plot for a dozen books by a more conventional mystery writer. But almost nothing happens in real time; everything is told in flashback, in conversation, in reference, in passing. The action of entire chapters, almost entire books, are communicated in a story one character tells another character. Everything seems to happen “offstage.” In the first Keeler novel I ever read, The Man with the Magic Eardrums, the story begins with a man getting the drop on a burglar who has broken into his home — and it ends in the exact same place, almost 300 pages later. The story, which is so convoluted that no summary could begin to express its hyperactive complexity, is told almost entirely in conversation between the homeowner and the burglar. Dozens of plot twists and hundreds of characters cross the pages, but we never actually “see” any of them; they’re simply referred to by the two protagonists.

Oh, that’s another thing: Keeler’s novels are long. The aforementioned book is part of a four-part series known as “The Adventures of a Skull”; it’s 1,258 pages in its entirety. The “Big River” trilogy, which puts four men and three lifejackets on tiny Bleeker’s Island during a devastating flood, spans almost a thousand pages and rarely leaves the main setting. The Ace of Spades Murder was so huge that Keeler broke it up into five separate books. And HSK’s “masterpiece,” the so-called Marceau Series, not only covers four books by itself, but alternate solutions to the central mystery (in high HSK fashion, the identity of the culprit is revealed on the very last page of the second book after not having appeared in the previous 1,000 pages) appear in other novels with no apparent relationship to the series. This is another of Keeler’s hallmarks; he not only created an alternate universe of his own in which different rules of writing applied, but also an alternate universe in which the writing was set. Certain characters appear in one novel and reappear in another, certain fictional settings are visited again and again, and certain mysteries are never solved while others are solved a half-dozen times in a half-dozen ways.

As if all that wasn’t enough to make you realize why Harry Stephen Keeler will never be the next Raymond Chandler (as well as why he has his own small band of rabid fans), there’s more. For many people who decide to take the plunge, it’s not so much the demented style of HSK that stands out as it is the demented content. It’s hard to know where to begin with Keeler’s myriad quirks. There’s the deranged plot hooks (a French art dealer is found strangled on his lawn and police suspect a murderous midget piloting a one-man helicopter; an inveterate trickster carrying around a skull assumes 50 identities in 24 hours in order to win the hand of the Mother Superior of a charity hospital; a defense attorney tries to give an accused man some drugged chewing gum that makes people tell the truth, while the DA tries to replace it with a different drugged gum that makes you lie compulsively). There’s the hilarious names given to characters (Yoho TenBrockerville, Sheriff Bucyrus Duckhouse, State’s Attorney Foxhart Cubycheck, Crystal Armswayne, Captain Lucifer Zull). There’s the absurdly overblown ethnic dialect, which often continues for dozens of pages. There’s the settings (Idiot’s Valley, home of heavily armed, dull-witted hillbillies; and Old Twistibus, the most winding road in the world). There’s the peculiar thematic obsessions (racial mixing, circus freaks, skulls, whorehouses, insane asylums, midgets, Chinese culture, deformities, trepanning, clowns). And perhaps best of all, there’s the absolutely unforgettable titles of Keeler’s novels:

The Case of the Barking Clock
The Skull of the Waltzing Clown
The Defrauded Yeggman
Finger! Finger!
The Case of the Lavender Gripsack
The Case of the Two-Headed Idiot
I Killed Lincoln at 10:13!
The Mysterious Ivory Ball of Wong Shing Li
The Riddle of the Traveling Skull
The Mystery of the Fiddling Cracksman

Just one of these elements alone makes Keeler worth reading for the sheer novelty value; but any one of his books contains all of them, often many times over.

All of this raises the question: is Harry Stephen Keeler any good? Well … yes and no. He was not, to say the least, an elegant stylist. His characters were usually only memorable for their colorful names, his settings relied on their novelty value rather than his descriptive power, and, again, the stories make no sense at all. Even his simplest books are almost impossible to follow to their conclusion without making extensive notes, and it’s not worth it in the end, because you don’t have a prayer of figuring out where it’s all headed. (After all, if even Keeler himself couldn’t keep track of all the loose ends, why should you?) Francis Nevins described him as “the sublime nutty genius of American literature,” but the truth is, he was more nutty than genius.

And yet, Keeler was so nutty, his work so maniacal and meticulous, his novels so elaborate and unconventional, that it gave them a kind of genius. There was a method to his madness, even if the method was just a different variety of madness. He created an entirely new and entirely different way of writing fiction — a way that was self-contained, implacably logical and intricately constructed. So sophisticated was the webwork technique that to carp about it being utterly misguided and unreal seems mean-spirited. This is doubly true when you consider the passion with which HSK wrote; his books are original, inventive (the Marceau Series in particular, which tells its story through a clever if incomprehensible series of letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, jokes and other documents) and told with an obvious sense of joy and intelligence. Indeed, it’s not too much of a stretch, given their formalist sensibility, unique structure, and finely attuned sense of the bizarre, to say that Keeler’s novels were a curious precursor to postmodernism. At times they read like failed experiments, aborted heralds of an art form not yet born. Finally, the books are often terrifically funny, and whether or not Keeler intended them to be so hilarious (a subject that’s still hotly contested by his fans) is beside the point. With a little more skill and a lot more self-control, Keeler could have been a great writer; but he wouldn’t have been Harry Stephen Keeler. And the world would be a lesser place without the boundlessly entertaining Keeler in it.

In an interview in Bizarre magazine, the television writer and producer Ken Keeler describes the moment when you hear a plot twist or a bit of dialogue or a character development so unusual, so out of the blue, so completely at odds with the rational progress of the story, that it leaves you “feeling like your head is going to explode.” Ken Keeler says that as much as he personally enjoys these moments, he tends to hedge his bets and use them sparingly, since most audiences have a very limited tolerance for that sort of thing, no matter how creatively it’s done. Harry Stephen Keeler, though, had no such governor: he either didn’t know or didn’t care about whether the reader would be bewildered or jarred by his ridiculous plot twists, his beyond-plausible coincidences, his absurd dialogue and crazy characters. “As a result,” says Ken Keeler, “there’s not a single novel of his that does not make my head explode at least three times.” HSK’s novels aren’t conventional pulp fiction. They won’t leave you feeling clever because you solved the mystery; it’s all but impossible to do so. They won’t leave you dazzled by his mastery of prose; his style is idiosyncratic at best and flat at worst. But they’ll leave you thinking you’ve read someone completely original, intermittently hilarious, and utterly inimitable. Let the critics rescue Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson from pulp obscurity; they deserve it. We’ll always have Harry Stephen Keeler, too weird to be great, and too great to be forgotten.