I came fairly late in life to an appreciation of the unique author Harry Stephen Keeler (1890 – 1967); I heard about him at various times over the years, but never found any of his works in used bookstores. It's difficult to know where to begin in discussing Keeler. He started writing and placing stories in pulps and poverty-row slicks in about 1905, while still a teenager. He got a degree in Electrical Engineering from what is now Illinois Institute of Technology, and much accurate or plausible discussion of technology appears in his later novels. His mother ran a boarding house catering to the theatrical trade, and a fascination with acting, various kinds of stage acts, carnivals and circus freaks is obvious in his literary output. For reasons unknown, Keeler's mother placed him in an insane asylum briefly around 1910; he wasn't there long, but he left with a contempt for the psychiatric profession which shows up clearly in his novels, where when any “expert opinion” is sought from one psychiatrist, a completely opposite opinion is invariably obtained from another. His close encounter with those who were genuinely mentally ill also left marks that are seen very often in his writing, particularly in his clinical and non-committal depictions of various psychopathic characters. There are a large number of constantly recurring themes in his fiction, including human skulls, insurance frauds, pulp magazines, crooked lawyers, Siamese twins, eccentric wills, prisoners awaiting execution, 1920s-1930s newspaper journalism [he was the editor of weekly newspaper The Chicago Ledger from 1919 to 1923], secret codes, optometry, dentistry, drugs with strange effects on mind and behavior, physical anthropology, bizarre dialects, accents and slang, acquisition and trading of stocks to gain control of a corporation, stock swindles and all kinds of con-games [Keeler was a personal friend of famous con-man Joe “Yellow Kid” Weil], Chinese laundries, circuses and carnivals, the unexpected death of a key character in the very midst of the action, various kinds of appeals  to the radio listening audience in the midst of a very popular regularly-scheduled broadcast, the city of Chicago (where Keeler was born and lived out his life) and often-little-appreciated peculiarities of the human anatomy.

The total number of different novels written by Keeler in his career is difficult to estimate, because of his breaking of long novels into sub-novels that were published individually, and his re-use of material, particularly early short stories... but somewhere around 85 seems correct. His first novels appeared in print around 1924. From 1916 to 1941 he served as the editor of a poverty-row pulp, Ten Story Book.  This magazine featured short general fiction and serialized novels, but evolved to feature pin-up photos, cartoons, fiction and articles that would be considered titillating for the day. Despite the contents of his magazine, Keeler's own fiction, throughout his career, invariably avoided the slightest hint of sex or hanky-panky. Keeler boys and girls invariably fall in love at first sight, and their only concern thereafter is getting married or obtaining permission to wed from some ogre-like parential figure. It's a bit rare for Keeler lovers even to kiss, on or between pages. Keeler also edited America's Humor, a low-end imitation of the more popular College Humor magazine, and a number of other small-circulation pulps based in Chicago.  Keeler's very keen sense of humor is on prominent display in all his novels, particularly in character names.

Keeler's early novels come close to being conventional mysteries [The Fourth King (1929) being a typical example], but from almost the beginning of his professional writing career he was fascinated by the so-called “web-work plot,” in which a large number of characters, incidents and situations develop roughly in parallel, with the parallel storylines intersecting at various unlikely points, until central questions raised during the course of the novel, such as the identity of a killer or the whereabouts of a missing person, are answered at the last possible moment, with the solution often involving a plot thread which has never been developed or presented until the moment of revelation.

Other writers accused Keeler of violating all the established tenents of mystery fiction... at least according to Keeler's proud brag.  As his style developed it was not unusual for a character in a novel to read a diary which was then reproduced in full, going on for many chapters; or for two characters to meet and begin a single conversation which went on for many chapters, or even a substantial fraction of the whole novel. He was dropped by his US publisher in 1942, and by his British publisher in 1953. Most of his novels written after 1953 went unpublished in english except for a few lending library editions issued by Phoenix Press; however, quite a number of the novels written between 1950 and 1960 saw print in Spanish and Portuguese translation. While much of Keeler's output could be classified as mystery and detective fiction, he also produced straight “thrillers” in a Keeler version of the Edgar Wallace vein, and even some science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction. His very long novel, The Box from Japan (1932), could be considered a science-fiction thriller, with intercontinental 3D TV, spies, dramatic car chases and much more. The White Circle, written in the late 1940s for science-fiction publisher Lloyd Arthur Eshbach but never issued by him due to the financial collapse of his Fantasy Press company in 1950, involves time travel via what would today be called anchored wormholes.

Keeler might be considered the first of all “bloggers,” because of his amazing publication, The Keyhole. This was initially a one-page mimeographed newsletter, sent out occasionally (and free) to about 100 subscribers; it contained personal information about Keeler, and comments on various people, places and events of the day. After the death of his wife Hazel in 1960, Keeler ceased working on new novels and put more time and effort into his Keyholes, which grew to several pages per issue (each page a different paper color), with print runs of more than 1,000 copies. Considering printing and postage costs of the day, these newsletters must have cost Keeler more than $50 per issue, a very significant sum of money for the 1960s, especially given his very slim income during that period.

One of several pulps edited by Keeler.

There are a number of similarities between Harry Stephen Keeler and another of my favorite authors, H. P. Lovecraft. For example both men loved archaic or obscure words, and wrote in a large vocabulary when allowed to do so. But most notably, both Lovecraft and Keeler had a tremendous love for cats. No hungry and/or cold stray cat was ever turned away from Keeler's door, no matter how low his funds at the time. His love extended pretty much to all living things, and in one of his Keyholes he explains how he found a Monarch butterfly which had obviously “given up” and was patiently waiting to die. Keeler brought the butterfly inside and kept it alive for days, feeding it a mixture of honey and water and then carefully cleaning it so that it wouldn't get stuck and lose a leg. Another literary similarity between Lovecraft and Keeler is frequent and detailed references to an imaginary book, in Keeler's case a compendium of wise Oriental sayings called The Way Out, in Lovecraft's case the famous compendium of forgotten and dangerous ancient lore, The Necronomicon.

At my current, advanced age (70) I don't think there is much hope that I will be able to read all 85 of Keeler's novels, not that I would want to. However, readers who are younger and made of stronger meat will be happy to learn that all of Keeler's literary work, including the Keyholes, has been brought back into print by Ramble House [named for a boarding house that features in four or five of Keeler's later novels]. This is a very small outfit which produces very attractive trade paperback editions of the works of Keeler and other suitably strange authors. Not every book by Keeler is available at any given time, but all titles have been reprinted at fairly regular intervals so far. Philosophy Professor Richard Polt of Xavier University also leads an organization devoted to Keeler and his works. A notable Keeler scholar, familiar with all of his writings, is St. Louis University law professor Francis M. Nevins, whose investigative skills and persistence ferreted out much of the “lost” work of this one-of-a-kind writer.

The latest issue of a newsletter devoted to all things HSK.

This weekly Chicago paper was edited by Keeler.