Harry Stephen Keeler
August 18, 2002 3:47 PM   Subscribe

Harry Stephen Keeler has been called one of the strangest writers who ever lived. He has also been called the Ed Wood of Mystery Writers. His plots are labyrinthine, convoluted, insane, built on coincidences. There's a Harry Stephen Keeler Society. His works are now being re-printed. And, if you're feeling brave, you can read many of his works on-line. 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
posted by vacapinta (20 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
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

I challenge that remark, citing as evidence the New York Times bestseller list. :)

Nice links, I'm busy reading them now. Thanks.
posted by Hildago at 3:50 PM on August 18, 2002

The direct action of The Portrait of Jirjohn Cobb (1940), which has to be one of the most astoundingly unreadable novels ever written, consists of four characters, two of whom sport outrageous accents, sitting on an island in the middle of a river, talking and listening to a radio, again for hundreds of pages. And these novels were only the first volumes of two multi-novel sequences! What do these people talk about? Well, it would really take hundreds of pages to explain.

LOL! I think I've got a new favorite author.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 3:55 PM on August 18, 2002

  • Every resident of "Idiot's Valley" is mentally retarded and packs a gun. (Several novels; Idiot's Valley is Keeler's Yoknapatawpha County.)
Keeler's plots are so go-to-hell weird, they sound like a certain type of "serious" literature. But they're not!

that rocks! i also like this bit :)
Another part of Keeler's "method" was recycling. Many Keeler novels are shamelessly padded with undigested inclusions of short stories or novellas that, not surprisingly, Keeler had sold to the pulps long before he started working on the novel (classic advice to free-lancers: sell your material to more than one market!)

This happens in more than story: A character turns out to be a writer and asks another character to read this story he's written to tell him if it's worth publishing. Sure, I'll take a look at it, he says. And the next chapter is the story.
kinda reminds me of david porush's review of william marshall's roadshow (but more funny :) also why does the link to the webwork plot diagram not show the plot diagram?
posted by kliuless at 4:44 PM on August 18, 2002

Wonderful! This is the stuff I come to MetaFilter for.
posted by MrBaliHai at 6:18 PM on August 18, 2002

It doesn't go to the plot diagram, true...but did you read that synopsis? I'm scrambling for Advil after working my way through it.

I may have to dig one of these up: c'mon, freak bordellos? Flying midget serial killers? Screamo the Clown? Great link.
posted by umberto at 7:27 PM on August 18, 2002

And the next chapter is the story.

Reminds me a little of Kilgore Trout.
posted by jaronson at 7:55 PM on August 18, 2002

This is really fascinating; it's almost as if he were a fictional character in someone else's work. Like Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout, maybe. The pulp and SF angles are definitely there. The absurdity of the names reminds me of some of Phillip K. Dick's stuff in a way, and his obsession with identity is spoken to nicely by this: "The Chameleon is narrated by an enigmatic protagonist who assumes 50 false identities." Plus, Dick did publish in some pulp magazines. I even find myself thinking of Borges, though I can't put my finger on the reason at the moment. Maybe simply because "The Garden of Forking Paths" is a detective story with an Asian characte
posted by trondant at 7:56 PM on August 18, 2002

r. Jaronson, I missed it by that much!
posted by trondant at 7:59 PM on August 18, 2002

Holy cow.. last time Neil Gaiman was in town he was quite enthusiastic about this guy. I made a mental note to look him up, then totally forgot.
posted by slipperywhenwet at 8:29 PM on August 18, 2002

posted by crasspastor at 10:44 PM on August 18, 2002

Sounds amazing! Any recommendations on where to start? The list of Keeler novels available for purchase is intimidatingly long...
posted by Rebis at 11:33 PM on August 18, 2002

Fantastic. I did a little digging because, like trondant, I felt that this guy should be fictional. A hoax, perhaps? Instead I found some excellent and odd photos, more documents, and a Village Voice piece on him.

This 1942 NYT quote sums him up very nicely: "We are drawn to the unescapable conclusion that Mr. Keeler writes his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy."

Undisciplined urge for creative joy! Gun-toting idiot midgets! So what if the prose is godawful? How could you not love this guy? Thanks for pointing him out, vacapinta.
posted by muckster at 12:49 AM on August 19, 2002

very cool stuff.
posted by juv3nal at 3:59 AM on August 19, 2002

Balhatchet Barkstone and Hutchcock McDolphus - two of the best character names ever. I'm reading 16 Beans right now and thoroughly enjoying it. As usual, damn good post, vacapinta.
posted by iconomy at 4:08 AM on August 19, 2002

Beautiful post. Iconomy, are you reading the print editon of 16 Beans? How's the quality on the Ramblehouse editions? I've ordered stuff like this in the past only to receive a grainy photocopy in a crappy cardstock cover (I'm looking at you, Kessinger Publishing).
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 9:28 AM on August 19, 2002

I just sent an email to Ramble House asking about recommendations for beginners and book quality and received a prompt and long response which I am excerpting here:

I recommend A to Izzard: A Harry Stephen Keeler Companion. In fact I created the book this summer for just that reason: to introduce people to Keeler. Some of his books are difficult, unintelligible, or just plain boring and it's not a good idea for a potential Keelerite to start with one of them. My wife helped me type in The White Circle from the manuscript from Columbia University and she has sworn to never read another Keeler again for the rest of her life. Which is fine since one Keeler nut per family is almost too much.

My preferences after A to Izzard are, in order: The Sharkskin Book, The Marceau Case/X. Jones, Mr. Cagliostro, Thieves Nights, Transposed Legs, Mr. I/Chameleon, Sing Sing Nights, Travelling Skull, 16 Beans, and the Skull in the Box Tetralogy (Magic Eardrums, Crimson Box, Wooden Spectacles, Lavender Gripsack). Marceau Case is almost done and X. Jones is slated for late September. All the other books are available.

Ramble House books are handmade paperbacks, using acid-free paper and bound with hot glue in a perfect bind. Their size is A6 (approximately 4.125" x 5.75") with incredibly nice dust jackets designed by Gavin L. O'Keefe. The books are unique; no other publisher is making books like them. Each book takes me about an hour to print and bind and if I were a real businessman I'd have to charge about $50 a book to make a real living. But I'm not and I want to keep the price at $20 per book. Get them while you can. I'm the only one making these books.

One of these days, my friend Jim Weiler (who developed the bookmaking techniques I use) and I will publish a book detailing how to make quality paperbacks at home using a PC, a laser printer, an electric clothes iron and a glue gun, but for now we're keeping it to ourselves. But don't worry, I doubt if anyone in his right mind would really want to make books by hand as we do. It's way too much work. I just happen to have a Keeler obsession and have embarked on a five-year mission to bring everything he wrote (76 novels) into print. So far Ramble House has about 50 of his novels done. I've printed and bound about 1250 books in the past three years. I am a masochistic lunatic.


Keeler was a pure writer. He knew exactly what he was doing when he broke all the rules. In fact, I think S.S. Van Dine's rules for mystery novels were written with Keeler foremost in mind. Van Dine simply stated that whatever Keeler liked to do was verboten. Anthony Boucher later
relegated Van Dine into irrelevance -- and at the same time, stated his perverse liking for Keeler's novels. Read a Philo Vance novel, then read a Keeler. It'll be obvious which author was an obnoxious snob and which was an imaginative inkslinger who loved what he did and wanted to give his readers a big guffaw at the end of each book

But then I'm biased. In the past three years I've read fifty Keelers four times each. God help me.

Fender Tucker
Ramble House

posted by vacapinta at 1:03 PM on August 19, 2002 [1 favorite]

I downloaded 16 Beans in a rich text file format from here, PinkStainlessTail - it's a hoot. I really want to order one, though - the cover art is great, and I too am curious to see the quality of the inking and whatnot.
posted by iconomy at 4:57 PM on August 19, 2002

I very much appreciate the mentions that Harry Keeler and Ramble House have received here. That's what Keeler and RH need: attention and water-cooler mentions. People also need to know that the Harry Stephen Keeler Society is the real nexus of Keelerdom. Lotsa brilliant literary minds hanging out in that Society.

Also, I will be out of town for the next week: Wednesday the 21st through the 28th and may not be checking e-mail. I hope to have a few orders (or questions) and only a few thousand spams awaiting me when I get back. I'll answer the orders and questions Thursday the 29th.

Fender Tucker
Ramble House
posted by Fender Tucker at 11:02 PM on August 19, 2002

This is so interesting - I feel as if I've discovered some secret society, courtesy of vacapinta. Which leads me to ask: vacapinta, how did you come across the HKS? Had you read any Keeler before or did you just discover him recently?
posted by iconomy at 4:20 PM on August 20, 2002

Read 16 Beans this weekend. Beautifully horrible. Some of the more improbable bits of coincidence reminded me of Raymond Roussel.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 2:49 PM on August 27, 2002

« Older "Do loose numbers do more harm than good?"   |   Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments