Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Marvelous Mirthful Maddness of Harry Stephen Keeler

If you've never heard of Harry Stephen Keeler -- and frankly, there's no earthly reason why you should have --the best place to start learning about him is this introductory essay by William Poundstone. You may want to go read the entire thing, but just for context on what I'm about to quote, here's a bit of it:
In his time, [Keeler] was pegged as a mystery novelist who also wrote some science fiction. Today, if you've heard of him at all, it's as the Ed Wood of mystery novelists, a writer reputed to be so bad he's good.... his work bears no more relation to Christie or Hammett than does the phone book of Idiot's Valley. Although much of Keeler is steeped in the tradition of classical puzzle mysteries, woe to the reader who thinks he is going to guess the denouement... in X. Jones of Scotland Yard, the guilty party is not mentioned until the last sentence of the last page of this 448-page story....

Keeler created, and was seemingly the sole practitioner of, a genre he called the "webwork novel." This is a story in which diverse characters and events are connected by a strings of wholly implausible coincidences.... Keeler's narrative style is no less incredible than his plots. Indeed, the two can scarcely be distinguished, for his writing is essentially all plot. Characterization, description, dialog, and use of language hardly exist in the conventional sense. Every paragraph hits you over the head with new and implausible information. There is little room for anything else. In many of his later works, Keeler takes this daft aesthetic a step further. Despite this total concentration on plot, almost nothing happens within the time-frame of the narrative. It's all digressions about what happened off stage!...

In Agatha Christie at her sharpest, everyone is a suspect. In Keeler, everything is a McGuffin, that is to say, an essentially meaningless token that drives the plot. Because the webwork novel is so fundamentally phony, everything is, sooner or later, revealed to be irrelevant. A typical Keeler plot is a fractal shaggy dog story, filled with digressions, and digressions within digressions, that are themselves shaggy dog stories. As in a shaggy dog story, the truest synopsis of a Keeler plot is: Never mind.

...Much of Keeler's writing is genuinely hilarious. You are never given the luxury of being sure it is supposed to be.
Despite this rather odd approach to fiction, Keeler managed to publish a lot -- well over 50 novels, which just got stranger and stranger. (Some of his later work was published as trilogies just because it was too damn long to fit in a single volume.) Eventually his work stopped coming out in English; for a while his novels were first published in Spanish and Portuguese translation.* He left 16 complete unpublished books at his death. But fear not -- due to the magic of print-on-demand technology, nearly everything Keeler ever wrote is now back in print, for $18 a pop.

I haven't read any.

But in small bits, the man is absolutely, utterly hilarious. Here, for instance, are a few plot summaries, stolen once again from William Poundstone's essay:
A man is found strangled to death in the middle of a lawn, yet there are no footprints other than his own. Police suspect the "Flying Strangler-Baby," a killer midget who disguises himself as a baby and stalks victims by helicopter. (X. Jones of Scotland Yard, 1936)

Because of a clause in a will, a character has to wear a pair of hideous blue glasses constantly for a whole year. This is so that he will eventually see a secret message that is visible only with the glasses. (The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro, 1929)

A poem leads the protagonist to a cemetery specializing in circus freaks and the grave of "Legga, the Human Spider," a woman with four legs and six arms. Legga was born in Canton, China, and died in Canton, Ohio. (The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, 1934)

Every resident of "Idiot's Valley" is mentally retarded and packs a gun.** (Several novels; Idiot's Valley is Keeler's Yoknapatawpha County.)
[Footnote mine, not Poundstone's (or Keeler's).]

But somehow, those just seem to scratch the surface of Keeler's utterly luscious lunacy. Here, via a blog post by Roger Ebert, is a list of characters from Keeler's novel, The Iron Ring. Oh, and this is not some fan's summary; it's from a xerox of pages from the book. (Update: according to an anonymous but authoritative-sounding comment, this is wrong; this did start as a fan's summation, not Keeler's own character list. Ah well. Still fun.) This is pure Keeler, names, descriptions (and missing ones) and all:
  • Margaret Annister (awaiting execution in 24 hours for murdering her sister Joline with a batch of poison fudge)
  • Big Bella O'John (the prison matron)
  • Mrs. Yerxa Indergaard (wealthy socialite)
  • Orcutt Buffevant (hotel owner)
  • Canace Procunier (comely blonde receptionist)
  • Father Clanawly of the Church of the Inception (crooked priest)
  • John Very-Bad-Man-Makes-All-White-Men-Tremble (Indian chief)
  • Professor Adrian Summrescales
  • Beany Rylander (professional age-guesser)
  • Lettie Sydeaham (romance authoress)
  • Barnaby Gundelfinger (owner of a chamber of horrors)
  • Katy Miller (742 lb. woman)
  • Harry the Pinhead
  • Queenie, Tiniest Woman on Earth
  • John and Simon May (Siamese twins joined at the thumb)
  • Rodriguez, King of Sword Swallowers
  • Bakerby Butterfant (lawyer in the London law firm of Butterfant, Birthwhistle and Thurnbwood)
  • Nigel Wimpress (Junior lawyer in the firm of BB&T)
  • Moses Gubb (ancient Negro)
  • Roul de Sherbinin, Count le Mair
  • Bessie Guth (old maid)
  • Frank Welso (a crooked weasel)
  • Rose Welso (the weasel's mother)
  • Bull Buckdavis, Trigger Tatrini, Clubfoot Tatrelli, Guns Considine, Trigger Bozarth, Hoot Ivanjack (assorted gangsters)
  • Ms. Hannah Ivanjack (Hoot's mother)
  • Hurok Orcutt (handwriting expert)
  • Ruth Alberta Frisbee, R.A.F. (glamour photo model)
  • Mrs. Gerier (cleaning lady for mastermind criminal known only as "The Brain")
  • Ichabod Tsung (popular Chinese radio xylophonist)
...and that's only about half of them (I plucked out my favorites). Go look at Ebert's site if you want the full list.

And, it turns out, the first chapter of The Iron Ring is online for free! Here's the first paragraph:
Margaret Annister, waiting death in the gas-execution chamber of Nevada City prison, yet innocent completely of the cold-blooded murder for which, within but a half-dozen hours now, she was to inhale deadly cyanide gas, had little hope whatsoever that her last desperate appeal to the governor for reprieve or commutation would succeed. For since it had failed utterly in the hands of her attorney—and why not, in view of her unanimous conviction on the very first ballot of that mixed jury!—and their unanimous decree of death on their second ballot?—and, even more, the refusal of the State Supreme Court to find any error whatsoever in that trial!—how else could this last and final appeal fare in the hands of her only friend, Yerxa Indergaard? But she would know soon now, Margaret realised—with Yerxa’s return and admittance to this place—so very soon!—any minute, in fact—and then—

If you haven't seen by now why I'm quoting all this, then you never will: it's not for everyone, certainly. Personally I find it so literally laugh-outloud funny that at some points I had tears in my eyes. But I will admit that I rather prefer Keeler concentrate -- the plot summaries, the character list, the selected sentences (below), then the actual paragraph just cited; once you add the water of actual writing it starts to seem slightly less funny and slightly more just, well, bad. But in desiccated form, it's pure genius.

All of which leads up to the following revelation:

Harry Stephen Keeler has a twitter feed.

Yes, some noble soul is posting select sentences from Keeler's work as tweets (plus updates on reviews, new publications, and so forth -- I suppose I can't begrudge them that, although the truth is I do). Here, stripped of the announcements and so forth, are the tweets currently on the front page of the feed:
It’s not me, b’God, who intends to worry another eleven years about a striped tom cat and a banana.

The train station was like an exploded atom--containing 3,491 electrons--scurrying around to prevent themselves being fused into uranium x.

A wonderful man, that old Socialist John Jones the first, considering that he lived in such a dark era as the twentieth century.

Well, she had to tap them on the head with an ax, and cut their heads off--to bring her love to a rounded and satisfactory conclusion.

As the fattest worm always covers the sharpest hook, so do many words in a letter always cover the worst news!

Corpses did not ever rise from their graves and accidentally leave festoons of their spiritual vertebrae hanging on trees or bushes!

The fact might have come out if Dr. Harrowell, an old shark in hangings, had been on the case, instead of that raw youngster Dr. Farxx.

"What does Mrs. Sprudelganger think of my hibernation?"

Not that white prynose, nay. For when he sniffs about, there is, rest assured, within some verdant bush about, a most mouldy bone.

The world of vagabondia must necessarily contain queer human flotsam, if not queerer!

That blooming, blinking, bloody, blatant Monte van Tine has tipped over the receptacle containing the legumes.

A mouse, drinking its fill from a river, gets as much as the elephant--doing the same.

"I know not the 7 and 70 Classical Fables," rasped Kung Mee.

The gal was bleary-eyed when she drooled it forth, but baby, here, had his ears as wide open as the end of the old LaSalle Street tunnel.

My chow dog hath eaten up thy hen.

It takes money to make a marriage happy; not love--nor brats--nor--nor even chickens!

Jesus, but you count your chickens before the rooster has even winked at the hen who's to lay the eggs from w'ich them chicks is to hatch.

Just now, you're nothing but a journalist, which means a newspaperman out of a job.
It disturbs me more than I can possibly express that I think that one of the above is actually a good sentence, and that one other is a sentence that, as a quote from a character in a novel, could easily be a good sentence (depending on the context).

If you find those half as funny as I do, you can find more by going to Keeler's twitter page and clicking "more" at the bottom, or (if it's been a while since I posted this) there might be new ones up top.

Because damn, he's funny.

Anyone got $18 they want to give me? Because I may need to buy a copy of X. Jones of Scotland Yard.

* Poundstone comments:
Did Keeler strike some responsive chord in the Iberian soul? Probably not. Keeler had been published in Spain and Portugal during his salad days. [A biographer] speculates that Keeler continued to be published there mainly through editorial inertia.

** No jokes about the Republican National Convention, please: it's important to respect our political opponents.


Anonymous said...

You really must read a Keeler novel, but X. Jones wouldn't be the best one to start with. "Popular" choices include The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, The Skull of the Waltzing Clown, The Case of the Ivory Arrow, or The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro.

That list of character names was in fact created by a fan and published years ago in Keeler News, the newsletter of the HSK Society.

Stephen said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I put an update in the past about the character list -- thanks for correcting me on that!