Who is Harry Stephen Keeler?

Clearly I’m not up on the trendy revived types – so maybe everybody else reading this already knows the answer to the question.

Maybe the very name of the early book by him we have says it all:

The Green Jade Hand: In which a New and Quite Different Type of Detective unravels a Mystery staged in Chicago, Bagdad on the Lakes, London of the West!

At the very least an oddball who spent some time in his youth in a lunatic asylum – whether this was warranted or not isn’t clear to me – he is responsible for the most hilarious characters I’ve seen in print.

The Chiseler puts it like this:

Marry a moustachioed alcoholic and erstwhile magician to a Welsh-American beauty shortly before the World’s Columbian Exposition. When their son is born, widow the mother. Widow her again—twice. Put her in charge of a boarding house for vaudevillians. Make her son a prankster and give him a degree in electrical engineering. Bake him in the Kankakee mental asylum for a year. The result: the one and only Harry Stephen Keeler.

Indeed.

Here are a few of his plots as reported in Spectacles:

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)

The Chiseler has a lovely discussion of Keeler, doesn’t this put a smile on your face?:

Ignoring the pleas of his editors, HSK churned out huge, multivolume creations that tried his readers’ brains and now seem boldly postmodern, as if they had been dreamed up by Pynchon or Oulipo. To mention a few:

The Box from Japan (1932) is set in 1942 and runs to over 700,000 words, with extensive digressions on intercontinental 3-D television, a Nicaraguan canal, and the Japanese emperor’s love of Virginia ham.

The Marceau Case and X. Jones of Scotland Yard (1936) are “documented novels” that consist of newspaper stories, telegrams, photos (including one of a topless woman and one of Keeler himself), astronomical charts, cartoons, a Bible verse, two ten-page long footnotes, and much more. The premise is a twist on “locked room” mysteries: a man was strangled on an open croquet lawn, with only a few small footprints in his immediate vicinity. Was he garroted by a Lilliputian in an autogyro? The case is given a three-dimensional solution by an American in the first volume, and a four-dimensional solution by an Englishman in the second.

Not only do we have this extremely strange man, who has utterly devoted fans now trying to do things like get a Keeler stamp made, but as it happens I understand he lived just a few blocks from another very odd but talented US artist/writer Henry Darger who was writing/illustrating Vivian Girls as Keeler was dreaming up his crazy fiction. I wonder if it is coincidence that they had similarly unhappy childhoods and developed into the sort of creative spirits they became?

There is any amount on the web now about these cult figures, it’s well worth taking the time to explore them.

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