The Wild Imagination of Harry Stephen Keeler
by Jon Michaud
January 22nd marked the 50th anniversary of mystery and sci-fi writer Harry Stephen Keeler's death. In this month's Book Drop, Jon Michaud talks about Keeler’s work and legacy with Ed Park and Richard Polt. And check out our Author Picks section to read Park and Polt's list of Keeler favorites.
Red herrings galore, dizzying plot structures, unreliable narrators, arcane knowledge, bizarre scenarios, and surprises at every turn: these are the hallmarks of Harry Stephen Keeler’s unclassifiable novels. The prolific author of more than seventy books published from the 1920s to the 1960s, Keeler is today almost completely forgotten. But his legend lives on in the stacks of the Center for Fiction (where some forty of Keeler’s titles can be found), and in the hearts and minds of a small but passionately devoted readership. This month, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Keeler’s death on January 22, 1967, I interviewed two of those devoted fans, Richard Polt and Ed Park, about Keeler’s life and legacy. Polt is a professor of philosophy at Xavier University in Cincinnati, editor of Keeler News, and author of The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century. Park is a novelist and editor in New York. He will be leading one of the discussions of the Knausgaard reading group this spring at the Center for Fiction.
If the discussion piques your interest, Polt and Park have also provided us with an annotated list of some of Keeler’s notable books.
How did you first discover Keeler’s writing and what was it that made you a fan?
Richard Polt: In 1996 I ran across William Poundstone’s web page about HSK, and immediately got an electric thrill from the sheer strangeness of the lines he quoted and the plots he summarized. It seemed that I’d discovered a corner of American culture that traveled along forgotten byways and expressed bizarre facets of our collective psyche. I tracked down some Keeler novels, and they did not disappoint.
Ed Park: Almost 20 years ago, I came across a tantalizing piece in the New York Press about Keeler, which led me to Poundstone’s fan page. The books sounded impossibly weird and great—and elusive. (The New York Public Library had no circulating copies, and the few Keelers available online, at sites like Abe Books and Bookfinder, were priced too steep for me.) On the Harry Stephen Keeler Society’s website, there were downloadable versions of a couple of Keeler novels, which I enjoyed, but it would be at least another year, possibly two, before I held one of his books in my hand.
This long wait—a kind of slow-motion hunt—certainly whetted my appetite. It was joining the New York Society Library and especially the Mercantile Library [the precursor to the Center for Fiction] that really let me experience the wild imagination of this American original. Discovering my first batch of brilliant Keelers—The Mysterious Mr. I, The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, The Box From Japan, The Marceau Case and its sequelae—was one of the most electrifying reading experiences of my life. And writing about Keeler—beginning with a piece for the Keeler News (back in 2000)—was an important private milestone; it was as though writing about such a prolific writer made me write more, too. It set my synapses sparking.
Please discuss Keeler’s notion of the “webwork” novel. How did he create such intricate plots?
EP: Webwork is a complicated-sounding method that Keeler developed in his early years, in which each character and incident is represented by a strand, and their crisscrossings form the weave of the plot. He actually diagrammed one of his novels this way, and at least visually it’s a thing of beauty, like a subway map that’s gone dreaming. His published explication of the webwork method has some almost comically technical language, but there’s in fact a lot of useful lessons for a writer—one of which is the distinction between “motivation” and what he calls “motiving”: the way a character is inclined to act, and how this influences the way s/he will act when encountering a motiving force (an encounter with a certain person or object). There’s a legend that Keeler would keep a cabinet full of odd newspaper clippings, from which he’d pluck a few samples around which to generate a webwork plot. This seems apocryphal to me, but who knows—maybe he did it on occasion.
What other qualities distinguish Keeler’s work from those of his contemporaries?
EP: The plots are so intricate that they can only be called artificial. But that is their beauty. Only Keeler would expend so much effort into putting forth a theory that a wealthy man was strangled in the middle of his lawn by a little person flying an autogyro, or explaining a foolproof circulation strategy devised by a cunning…poetry magazine publisher. Though his books often start with both feet on the ground, by the end of his best works, the reader has entered some other dimension.
It’s also interesting to compare him to Agatha Christie, his exact contemporary. I recently read a non-series Christie that I was really enjoying: great voice, realistic atmosphere of doom. I was knocked out. But then I got to the twist, and I felt absolutely cheated by a nonsensical revelation. Certain ground rules had been set and then blithely ignored. Well, with Keeler, there’s a whiff of laughing gas right from the start, so that when, say, a climactic courtroom scene ends with the joint affidavit of…two cats, you feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth.
Is it true Keeler was committed to an insane asylum when he was young?
EP: Yes—only briefly when young, at the behest of his mother. As William Poundstone writes, “This experience doubtless accounts for his affection for insane asylums, mental illness, and characters who are unjustly committed to an asylum in his fiction.”
How was Keeler seen during his lifetime? Was he a popular writer? Critically acclaimed?
EP: It’s tempting to see him as an “outsider artist,” but he was published by Dutton for many years; his books were reviewed (often favorably) in the papers; he was a busy magazine editor at two Chicago-based periodicals, America's Humor and Ten Story Book, where he often wrote, sometimes pseudonymously, and sometimes worked this piecemeal material back into his novels. (The photos and illustrations in The Marceau Case draw from graphics used in America's Humor.) His most famous work might be the brisk science-fiction short story “John Jones’s Dollar,” in which simple compound interest on the titular greenback undoes centuries of capitalism.
But he also suffered from a sort of voluptuous neglect: Dutton dropped him in the 40s, his work was brought out by a low-rent outfit called Phoenix, that put a stop to his mountainous word count; in due time, he had no American and then no English-language publisher, and was only read in Spain and Portugal. Then even this stopped, and in the years before his death—which we commemorate this week—his novels went unpublished, and his only creative outlet that reached an audience was The Keyhole, an idiosyncratic newsletter that he sent to friends.
When and how did the Keeler Society begin? What activities does the Society organize and administer?
RP: The Keeler Society was founded in 1997 after I discovered William Poundstone’s web page on HSK and was bitten by the bug. Through its occasional journal, Keeler News, the Society presents new discoveries about Harry’s life and writings. Members have met in a number of cities, but we are pretty widely scattered around the world. On our website we offer materials such as dustjackets for Keeler novels, cover images from 10 Story Book (a risqué pulp magazine that Keeler edited for decades), and Keeler’s treatises on the techniques of webwork plot.
Are there writers working today that you see as influenced by Keeler’s work?
RP: William Gillespie used HSK’s webwork plotting techniques in creating his apocalyptic novel Keyhole Factory. A few other writers are Keeler readers, including Spanish novelists Manuel de Lope and Julián Hernández. Neil Gaiman is an enthusiast. Although there is no evidence that Thomas Pynchon read Keeler, his ultra-complex plots in which coincidences link paper-thin characters with absurd names are strongly reminiscent of some Keeler novels. The genre sometimes known as “hysterical realism,” pioneered by Pynchon, can be said to have been anticipated by HSK.
EP: I have a crackpot theory that when Nabokov in “The Vane Sisters” alludes to a “novel or short story (by some contemporary author, I believe)” containing a secret acrostic, he’s talking about one very specific book by HSK that has an acrostic solution.
Other than that—I don’t know about influence. Certainly not in the mystery field—he’s the opposite of hard-boiled, and his books are outré with hardly any gore and even less sex. He’s an absurdist, a maximalist, a proto-Oulipian, a chatterbox with a degree in engineering. (At the risk of self-promotion, it’s dawned on me over the years that the conclusion of my novel Personal Days, with its ninth-inning eureka by way of prolix narration, is clearly indebted to Keeler.)
I like that he’s off the radar, perhaps perpetually unfashionable, but always there to be discovered and savored by the discerning few. (For a wonderful academic treatment, see Columbia professor and novelist Jenny Davidson’s book Reading Style: A Life in Sentences, who provides a rather wizardly analysis of the irrepressible Keelerian voice.)
Are there unpublished Keeler novels and is there any chance they will ever see the light of day?
RP: Ramble House has rescued nearly all of Keeler’s works, including several novels that remained unpublished during his lifetime, and made them available on a print-on-demand basis. The Sign of the Crossed Leaves (1959) has never been published, even by Ramble House. Keeler connoisseur Francis M. Nevins assures us that this is no great loss.
Fifty years after his death, what is Keeler’s legacy?
RP: In recent years, Keeler has enjoyed a lively afterlife, inspiring comics, short films, music, and a committed cadre of fans. One of his most enjoyable novels, The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, was reissued by McSweeney’s in 2005. We’re still hoping for the release of a feature-length movie or a series based on a Keeler tale. His books remain a source of great fun and thrilling oddity for adventurous readers.
EP: I named one of my kids after him.
The Book Drop is a monthly column of thoughts, trends, and tidings from the desk of our librarian, Jon Michaud.
Jon Michaud is the author of the novel When Tito Loved Clara, named a best book of 2011 by the Barnes & Noble Review. He was Head Librarian at The New Yorker from 2003 to 2012. Prior to that, he worked in libraries at Time Inc. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A regular contributor to The New Yorker’s Page-Turner and Culture Desk blogs, Jon also reviews books for The Washington Post. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife and two sons where he is at work on a new novel.
You can find him on twitter @jonmichaud