My Trip to Columbia University To Discover the
Unknown Works of Harry Stephen Keeler

Wow! Wow! Wow! High quality paperback reprints of Harry Stephen Keeler novels (complete with color dust jackets) NOW BACK IN PRINT due to the renegade vision and basement presses of one Fender Tucker at Ramble House in Louisiana! Viva Revolución! Click here to browse his growing collection.

On Thursday June 15th, I and a handful of other brave souls embarked on an expedition to Columbia University to explore the last remaining documents of author Harry Stephen Keeler. The collection is stocked, catalogued, categorized and inventoried inside 33 mysterious boxes, and was donated to Columbia by his second wife Thelma sometime in the early 1980's (after no one wanted to buy it). These boxes are housed (off-site) at the University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The boxes contain Harry Keeler's unpublished manuscripts, notes, documents, correspondence, news clippings (Keeler was an avid fan of bizarre news stories), photographs, utility bills, weird promo items, odd personal stuff that he thought no one would probably ever see, a few skulls (maybe) and nobody knows what else. These boxes have rarely, if ever, been looked at.

Chris Wheeler (a prolific Keeler-head who is taking great pains to transcribe Keeler's unavailable works to the web) and I were the first two to arrive on 6/15/00 (the rest of the bunch coming the next day), and were the first to carefully peruse through the contents of boxes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 15, 20 and 23. Chris looked through boxes 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 20 - while I looked at boxes 4, 15, 23.
Now for the good stuff:

Click here to see highlights of the Harry Keeler photographs I found.

Click here to see to see a copy of Harry's medical discharge form from the mental hospital! Yep.

Click here to see my transcription of Harry's unpublished
Impressions of Hashees Drunk In Retrospect Written Day After, With Effects Still Somewhat On
- a rambling essay by Harry that's title should be taken literally.

Coming as soon as I finish transcribing the damn thing:
Click Here to see a full report on the notes I scribbled while there.

"Mark, who in the Hell is
Harry Stephen Keeler?"you ask?

Why I'm glad you did! He was only one of the most fascinating American writers who ever lived! Harry Keeler was born in 1890 and lived until 1967. He wrote novels such as The Man With the Magic Eardrums, Finger! Finger!, The Barking Clock, The Skull of the Waltzing Clown and The Case of the Transposed Legs.

Haven't heard of those?

Well, he published countless other colorfully titled books all over the world during his "heyday". He wrote mystery novels or, more specifically, "whodunits" - or, well... he liked to call them "webwork" novels. Remember that never failing writing device from literature class? No? Well, a "webwork plot" makes a story by taking characters that should have nothing to do with each other and events that are completely unrelated and then somehow connecting them by using totally implausible coincidences. Sound like a headache? Sometimes it is! Oh but a really FUN headache! And the characters and events he came up with were either brilliant or just ridiculous, depending on where you're coming from. Take a look at this great list of 6 plot devices I completely ripped off from William Poundstone's great Harry Stephen Keeler Home Page (check it out!):

                                            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)

                                            Someone killed an antique dealer just so he could steal the face --
                                            only the face -- from a surrealist painting of "The Man from
                                            Saturn." (The Face of the Man from Saturn, 1933)

                                            A woman's body disappears while taking a steam bath. Only her
                                            head and toes, sticking out of the steam cabinet, remain. (The Case
                                            of the Transparent Nude, 1958)

                                            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)

                                            A disgruntled phone company employee calls every man in
                                            Minneapolis, telling him the morning papers will name him as the
                                            secret husband of convicted murderess Jemimah Cobb, who runs a
                                            whorehouse specializing in women with physical abnormalities.
                                            (The Man With the Magic Eardrums, 1939)

Harry Keeler had an overly colorful imagination that was perhaps a little to creative for his own good, especially when it came to coming up with names for characters and places. Check out this list of character names:

Philodexter Maximum (a poetry publisher)
Screamo the Clown (a dead clown)
Scientifico Greenlimb (a science fiction writer)
Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel (husband-baiting temptress)
Marchbank, Marchbank and Marchbank (a law firm)
Kinkella MacCorquodale (a mafia boss)
Furbelly Wavetail (a cat)

 His hyper-drive brain often got ahead of him when trying to set "mood" or establish a character's personality. Take the following passage from The Man With the Wooden Spectacles:, in which Harry is introducing a young female attorney named Elsa Colby.  Elsa has a shy disposition and is about to find herself blackmailed by a crooked judge into representing a peculiar criminal in a fixed trial:

    Elsa Colby was so small--at least as compared to the giant quilt cover which, on it's slightly inclined rack, covered almost one wall of her cramped office--and which office, fortunately for it's own size, was never crammed with clients and seldom with even a client!--that at times she had to mount a small stubby stepladder stool to ply her skillful needle. The bright red of Elsa's hair--made even brighter, seemingly, by its contrast with the knitted mouse-grey one-piece dress that she wore--was of the exact color as the great scarlet poppies which lay at each corner of the quilt; her blue eyes were precisely the blue of the pond which lay at it's middle--at least of the one experimentally completed ripple on that pond; and the freckles on her face--and most particularly on her nose--were like--but no, they were not like anything on the quilt proper at all, but were like the spattering of brown ink from an angry fountain-pen on a sheet of white paper.
    Her quilt, it might be said, lay exposed in entirety upon it's huge rack for the simple reason that it held, here and there, throughout its entire area, certain flecks which must be done in green; and Elsa, having been able to pick up a huge amount of green silk thread--but green only!--at a discount, had to do that color first, and fully, just as independent shoestring movie producers, with little or no money to rent locations or put up settings, have to complete, in one rented setting, all the scenes for two or more "quickies,"--before negotiating a new setting!
    Elsa, this day, had just completed a single leaf of those several million green leaves yet to be done, and had climbed off her stool to survey it from a distance--when her phone rang.
    She did not answer it immediately, however, for her point of surveyal of her quilt happened to be alongside her one broad window and her surveyal thereof had transferred itself instead fascinatedly to the street far below where some kind of local political parade was going by, the band music coming up almost thread-like through the glass pane of the window, the obviously green-coated musicians seeming, from above, like small green rectangles mathematically spaced apart, and all flowing onward in unison--and a real elephant!--Republican, therefore, that parade!--looking from above, like some grey wobbling paramoecium--and scarcely any bigger! From the old-fashioned windows of the 9-story Printography Building across the way, ink-smeared printers' devils were leaning out and gesticulating to each other--and Elsa, who loved elephants passionately--even when shrunken a hundredfold as was this one!--was assuredly just now torn between love and business!
See how his brain seemed to almost be leaping ahead of his typewriter-bound hands, daring them to keep up? Harry seemed to go off on all kinds of irrelevant tangents and inappropriate analogies without once looking back. Take a gander at this humdinger of a "sentence" from The Steeltown Strangler:
Now, local-colourist, we can eat up-town at an air-cooler place--rather half-way de luxe, too, for a town like this--or we can eat at a joint outside the gates where a hundred sweat-encrusted mill-workers, every one with a peeled garlic bean laid alongside his plate, will inhale soup like the roar of forty Niagras, and crunch victuals like a half-hundred concrete mixers all running at once. Which--for you?

Or look at this sentence (OK, I promise, only one more) from The Man With the Magic Eardrums. Even though I have barely dipped my toe in Keelers immense body of work, this is, so far, my favorite Keeler-ism to date:

For he was to become now, as I was shortly to find, as coldly calculating as an adding machine
sitting on the North Pole!
Harry Keeler also had a fondness for writing in phony foreign dialects or, more specifically characters who spoke english but who's heavy accents left no mystery to their ethnic origins. This allowed Keeler to go hog wild with commas, apostrophes and hyphens as he took full liberty as to the spellings and phonetics of ahh-soo-solly Chinese and  "Harlem jive"' African American-isms. Take this passage from The Man With the Wooden Spectacles, where Aunt Linda is reciting an important story (titled 'The Kidnapping of Wah Lee') to Elsa Colby that reveals a clue as to one of the other character's motivations:
    "On'y aftah de gang dey has stringed him along wid fish-sto'y aftah fish-sto'y as to w'y de boy ain' retuhned. An' finally he sees he is gettin' stringed by--by expuhts!--an' so den he tell de po-leece. An' de po-leece, investigatin', fin' ev'dences dat Wah Lee's convuhsation wid his papa, dat day, wuz listen' in on. An dat de gang knew dat way dat Wah Lee wuz goin' into de pahk 'roun' dusk. And so lay fo' him. A' dat wuz de end ob dat chapter. Boy gone! Moneh gone! All ovah! Not one man cotched."

Try and guess what nationality this character from The Riddle of the Traveling Skull is:

    "Well, wot' the bloomin' idea back o' all this confab, anyw'y? You shoot me--an' you've shot yoursel, your pop-in-law an' your woming all into the p'ypers. For this 'ere w'ite silk badge wot I'm wearin' says as 'ow I'm a delygyte from Lime'ouse to th' British H'Isles an' Colonial Possessings Convenching o' Skyte-an'-Chips an' Jellied Eeels Purveyors, to be 'eld in Vancoover, British Columbiar, three weeks from tomorrer. An' seein' as oo' I am, shootin' me wouldn't be good-like. No! For I've left a few notes in me 'otel drawer--an' me delygyie's pypers--in case o' accident like wot. So wot's keepin' us from gittin' down to business? You s'y you got that twenty tousand dollars? Orl right. P'y it over--like as 'e towld you you was to do."
Sometimes Keeler would write entire strings of chapters in this thick, cliche'd dialect. Sometimes whole novels would be written in it! In The Portrait of Jirjohn Cobb, which Harry Stephen Keeler Society founder Richard Polt calls " of the most astoundingly unreadable novels ever written", the "action" is portrayed in long, drawn-out yarns told between four characters - two of whom sport page after page after page of impossible-to-decipher accents.

And there's another device Keeler loved to use; the Arabian Knights method of telling stories about people telling stories. Entire novels could take place in one room of a house between two characters telling each other what they had done that day and who they had talked to and what those people had said about others (The Man With the Magic Eardrums), or maybe between four characters sitting on a island while talking and listening to the radio (The Portrait of Jirjohn Cobb), or a protagonist coming across news clipping after news clipping in a person's secret drawer and reading the contents out loud. But, the stories that the characters would tell, or the news items they would read to get to the real story that Keeler was trying to tell were never boring. It's just a delightful mystery as to why Keeler liked to work this way.

Harry's writing was so strange that it often crossed into the territory of science fiction. Though he did write many short stories and a few novels that were officially classified as such, his strange "mysteries" often blurred the lines between the two genres. A few of his books were some of the most mind-bending metaphysical stuff this side of Phillip K. Dick. But where as Dick's speculative fiction about alternate realities was trippy and often contained sophisticated, satirical humor, Keeler's version of another space-time was more "kooky" or, "wacky" for lack of a better phrase.  Check out this exposition of the detection theories of Xenius Jones, hero of Keeler's mad, multimedia opus X. Jones--Of  Scotland Yard (1936) that Richard Polt highlighted on his Harry Stephen Keeler Society  home page:

    So, Jones says, for all practical purposes, in a world of space and "time," the "wrinkles" resulting from the "crime-stress" appear, in reality, as "deviations." Deviations in human conduct: deviations from normal habit, custom, and  be likened to an explosion, or concussion, the force of which radiates out in all directions--not just into the future, he cautions--but also into the past!--definitely deviating the paths and conduct not only of the chief actors--but of all those who have intimate contact with them--and who, by that very relationship, are thus displaced in 4 dimensions from the chief actors. The maximum possible "deviation" in a murder is, Jones points out, that of the murdered man--whose course is deviated, for the first time, from living to being dead!

Harry Keeler had a brilliant, fire-brained and creative mind that was mixed with a child-like, OK I'll say it, an almost insane way of wrapping words around an idea. Despite their migrane-inducing complexity and complete disregard for plausibility, Keeler's "webwork" plots do indeed make sense (well, for the most part they do). It's kind of hard to peg him into any genre - or even into the "good" or "bad" categories. His work is certainly like no other. Although he has been dismissed by many as a hack it must be said that it takes an intelligent mind to untangle one of his novels. His immense body of work, though long out of print and very hard to track down (in more ways than one), is inarguably worthy of further study, speculation and enjoyment.

I could go on for hundreds of pages and take up tons of bandwidth talking about Keeler, but why go on and on when others have explained his work so well? Absolutely check out William Poundstone's excellent introduction essay to Keeler and his work at the Harry Stephen Keeler Home Page  then, plunge into Richard Polt's awesome Harry Stephen Keeler Society (of which I'm a member - heh heh). Founded in 1997, Polt has been valiantly uniting Keeler fanatics (whom are sprouting in ever growing numbers) worldwide and striving to "...maintain the memory of a man whose tangled dreams are part of the American heritage--whether America knows it or not!"

Check back to this page for updates!!!

back to webcam