|Harry Stephen Keeler himself|
The Adventure of the Haunting that led to the Riddle of the Travelling Skull
It was obvious, when I was stopped by the Russian, that no good would come of our encounter. For what good has ever come from a Russian stopping a person on the street, especially one of Polish descent? The person that is, not the street. But the Russian did stop me, and a conversation did take place. For I was not expecting anything out of the ordinary. Alas! At that time I knew nothing about Harry Stephen Keeler, nor the Dutchman, nor the mysterious Ramble House and the strange goings-on in the blogosphere.
I knew the Russian. Sergey, I believe his name was, and an informant he had become for everyone over the last several years. For he seemed to know everything. All one had to do was to stop him and ask him a question, and answer it he would. And over time, as these things tend to happen, people began to call him "the Russian" or "the Gogol." I knew not the reason for this nickname, but it seemed to fit him.
“Well,” I replied, “I suppose I could spare some time. For I wasn’t doing anything in particular. As a matter of fact, I was heading back home to read my brand-new book, The Purple Parrot by Clyde B. Clason. But if you want something, I suppose my literary endeavours can wait.” And with that, I tucked Mr. Book back under my coat.
“Hit eess datt veech hi veesh to chalk to yew habout,” replied the Russian. “He eess baak!”
“Who is back?” I was puzzled. For surely the Russian could not mean—but alas! He did mean it!
“Keeler!” came the answer. “Heez goast eess baak! The Doochmaan, he hass beetin yew to yewer book!”
“Thanks,” I replied perfunctorily. And with that I walked off. The Russian muttered: “Nasodm sgoierlt zoijwelrknm, lkns lox$zq nops are twu!!!” The rudeness of his language shocked me, and confirmed that I I had no desire to extend our conversation. The news was not of the sort with which I wished to be greeted. For it meant one thing and one thing only: the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler was back to haunt the blogosphere.
Perhaps I should explain. For you might not be a citizen of the Internet, and this might all be new to you. For I run a blog entitled At the Scene of the Crime where I produce the finest reviews of mystery novels on the planet. In fact, I had just secured a contract from someone in my neighbourhood to purchase a box of 81 Erle Stanley Gardner novels within the next week, all due to be reviewed in good time. With my spirits high, knowing the future reading material for my blog to be secure, I had gone to the bookstore and purchased The Purple Parrot. But upon finding out that I had been beaten to the punch by the Dutchman, who himself is a blogger, I wished nothing more than to throw Mr. Book out of my sight and never to gaze upon him again!
But of course, why should the Dutchman choose to review the very book I had just purchased? There was only one reasonable, sane, and utterly logical explanation to it all—the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler had told him to do so! This thought was maddening. For I thought that I had dealt with Keeler’s ghost before. And he had been banished! But in my pride I must have failed to take some loophole into account, and now the ghost had returned to haunt the blogs, perpetually seeking wild coincidences, and creating them when he could not find any to satiate his thirst!
But I did not lose all hope right away. For I knew that time was on my side. The Dutchman had only just reviewed my book – surely I could squeeze some information out of him and find out what the ghost of Keeler was up to! I must find out! And so I went knocking at the door of the estate of the Dutchman, the Baron Ferdinand Christiaan van Aalsmeerderbrug tot Zwammerdam, which was luckily just down the block. The estate, I mean, and not the Baron Ferdinand Christiaan van Aalsmeerderbrug tot Zwammerdam. For the Baron Ferdinand Christiaan etcetera was not at home. For when I opened the door, I was greeted by a leering human skull, its eyes ablaze!
I instantly recognized the glare as belonging to Keeler, and I lunged at the skull. But I, alas, was too late! Keeler had recognized me and had fled. I was left holding Mr. Skull by what had once been the jawbone. The red glare I had noticed before was nowhere to be found, and when I examined Mr. Skull I could not see any mechanical trickery by which the glow could have been achieved. Truly, this skull had been something of a campfire for Keeler’s ghost until he had vacated the premises a few minutes ago.
That was when the Baron (Etcetera) walked in. I recognized him immediately as the Dutchman and stared accusingly at him. “What is this doing here?”
The Dutchman leered at me. “You’ll never get me to tell you!”
“Tell me what?” replied I. “That Keeler is back?”
He shrank away in terror. “So you know?”
“Yes, and I will rid the blogosphere of his presence once and for all.”
“You shall not!” cried the Baron Ferdinand Christiaan van Aalsmeerderbrug tot Zwammerdam. “You will never reach the Ramble House alive!”
The Dutchman knew that he had betrayed Keeler’s location. And there was nothing he could do about it.
“The Ramble House?” I asked. “Is that where he’s hiding out?”
The Dutchman nodded somberly. I decided not to press the matter further and abandoned him, heading to the Ramble House. It was a large and terrifying building on the west side of the Internet. Its architecture was gloomy and Gothic, and whenever lightning flashed, the house seemed to be leering evilly. It was like a—like an evil omen of doom, rising from the shadows to swallow you up. But I rather liked the place.
But this was no time to admire the structure. Inside I went, shutting the door softly behind me. I attempted to turn on the lights. Nothing. But a voice whispered out to me:
“Are you here for the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler?”
I gulped before replying. “I am indeed. For it is my duty to rid the blogosphere of Keeler’s ghost!”
There came a cackle. “And how do you think you will accomplish this? The Ramble House is a veritable fortress for Keeler! This is a sanctuary for his work, all being preserved for posterity. How do you propose to destroy him?”
I pursed my lips. “There’s only one way to do it, I suppose. I must read one of his books.” And with that, I reached my hand out blindly, sinking it into the dark, feeling for a book. My hand resurfaced with The Riddle of the Travelling Skull. I could not see the title due to the darkness, but somehow I knew from feel alone that this was the book that I had picked up.
“I’m afraid I can’t allow you to do that.” My interlocutor was adamant.
“Who are you?” I retorted.
“I am the keeper of Keeler. Well, one of them. It’s my shift right now, but Nevins is due here in an hour to replace me.”
“And how are you going to stop me?” I asked.
“Simple.” Another laugh. “I will simply refuse to turn on the electricity. Without any source of light, how could you possibly read a single word?”
I grinned. Now was the time to play my ace of spades. “Ah, but you forgot one very important detail. This book I hold in my hand is undoubtedly The Riddle of the Travelling Skull… But it is on my Kindle Paperwhite!” With that, I turned on the screen. The comforting light caressed me, while Mr. Voice, whoever he was, shrieked. The cries became dimmer and fainter, and I surmised that he had fled out of fear.
And thus I began to read! I read of a skull with a bullet hole through it, stuffed with torn papers and with the bullet inside. It was inside of a bag, and a German had mixed up two similar-looking bags. One contained innocent travelling gear, the other carried Mr. Skull. Our hero, Clay Calthorpe walked away with the wrong bag, the one with the skull in it, and only made the grisly discovery back at home.
Before long, Clay had been assaulted by a Chinaman and robbed of the skull. To recover it, he went on a merry little goose chase throughout Chicago, searching for a poetess named Abigail Sprigge and trying to win the hand of his true love back, for his future father-in-law had suddenly forbidden the marriage! All the while, his friend was due to have a throat operation, and Clay kept interrupting the story in order to bring us more of Abigail Sprigge’s poems, which somehow tied into the whole story.
Here, at last, was a master of language, one who realized that grammar was only a set of guidelines. For far too long, it had kept authors in its steel grasp, but Keeler had finally outwitted the hand of Fate and had mastered a style of his own! Some might call it incomprehensible gibberish, but such Philistines cannot know the true nature of art! Indeed, I might call it the best, most revolutionary novel I have ever read.
Below, Keeler faithfully transcribes the dialogue of a black man named (of all things) Sandy MacDougall. He has just managed, in 20 minutes, to put a torn-up letter together:
“Huh—didn’ need to do all dat. Dem whut had typenwritin’ on dem wuz kinda blue-white papah—whilst dem odders widout no typenwritin’ was white-white papah. Des pluck ’em all out by de colah—lak mah Grandaddy he pick cotton.”
Or how about after Clay discovers the travelling skull (which has a plate inside of it, labeled with the number 82)? He extracts papers stuffing the skull’s brain, and then proceeds to go into bat-shit crazy mode:
“'Number 82,' I said, 'I don’t exactly relish that look on your face. But I can’t help but wonder what kind of look will be on your master’s face—when he gets you back—your master who was reading Deuteronomy—or Genesis—on a Broadway car! For undoubtedly,' I went on to the leering skull, 'if he doesn’t get my handbag open tonight, with a bundle of extra keys of his own from some cabinet or closet or tool drawer, and find those 7 or 8 cards of mine, with that rubber band about ’em, and "The Essex" printed on ’em, he’ll put an ad in the paper about you. So back you go—paper stuffing and all. For you can’t sit on my chiffonier, baby—not for a single minute. Back you—' (…) However, I forgot my feelings. For the time being. For I had to make up a new brain stuffing for No. 82. Which was not very difficult.”
Keeler was also a master of the colourful expression:
“Within two shakes of a lamblet’s tail, we had drawn up to a curb off from an arched stone doorway over which hung two purple lights that reminded me, somehow, of two great Julu berries.”
And for that matter, a master of names. Keeler certainly knew how to name his characters. We have a black man named Sandy Macdougall. We have a Chinaman named Ichabod Chang. We have a brain specialist named George McBean. We even have a missionary to the Philippines named Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel!
What a maestro!
But Keeler did more than just revolutionize the language of the mystery story. He anticipated the future of the genre when he realized that plots are not meant to be logical. But his solution was unique. He required a complex webwork of plots that kept interrupting each other so that they flowed into each other and it became impossible to distinguish where one plot began and another ended. Everything made perfect sense in the peculiar universe created by Keeler, but only because it was Keelerland, where the story of an attempted murder could be interrupted by a physics lecture!
What an artist! I read on, amazed at what had been created. This elevated the genre to a whole new level. It truly transcended the genre, offering heights of absurdity never before imagined and never since matched. And somehow, all this wildly absurd inventiveness, a veritable hodge-podge of elements, managed to rekindle in me a spark of enthusiasm: the same spark that had caused me to start my blog. The same spark that kept me reading mysteries even through the depths of overrated mediocrity. Keeler had created something unique!
And then I saw it. What a fool I had been! For the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler has never intended to take over the blogosphere. He has had only one goal in mind: to take over my blog, to force me to review his books. Fool that I was, I had walked right into the gilded honey-trap like a ball in a roulette wheel, unable to change my destiny!
But when I closed the book, I knew that Keeler had won. For I knew that one thing remained, and it is now that I finish. My adventure with The Riddle of the Travelling Skull had shown me the light, and now it was time to spread the luminescence around to other blogs. As we well learned in high school physics, light must shine through even the deepest dark.
Notes: Harry Stephen Keeler is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating people to ever pen a mystery novel. In Gun in Cheek, an affectionate chronicle of the worst mystery stories ever written, Bill Pronzini describes Keeler as “the once-popular ‘wild man’ of the mystery, who seems to have been cheerfully daft and whose plots defy logic and the suspension of anyone's disbelief”. To put it simply, Keeler couldn’t write. His grammar breaks free from the iron grip of English 101 instructors all over the world, and the logic of his tales is… well, porous, to put it nicely. But there is a lively energy to The Riddle of the Travelling Skull, and no matter how insane it gets it somehow makes for a terrific reading experience. This is one of those rare books that are so bad they are actually very fun to read. I had an uproarious time reading it and laughed out loud several times. If you have a sense of humour and want to dip yourself into something that is bat-shit crazy, you really can’t do much better than Keeler.
You can buy much of Keeler’s work online through Ramble House. They offer print editions, but can also do e-editions. I purchased a few books to read on my Kindle, including this one. As e-books go, it’s perfectly fine, and was sold to me at an extremely reasonable price. Ramble House also offers other books for sale (many of them by very good authors): click here to go to a complete list.
Many thanks to Barry Ergang for looking over this review, shaking his head, and then wading through the landmines of crappy grammar, trying to distinguish the deliberate errors from the typos. Barry also has a website full of books for sale – whether or not you’re a mystery fan, you’ll probably find something interesting to purchase, and Barry’s a reliable seller, one who doesn’t jack up prices like some sellers do (I name no names). I’ve bought several books from Barry in the past and have nothing but good stuff to tell about his books.
Finally, a very big thank you to Bill Pronzini, who recommended Keeler to me. I’m delighted to report that Keeler offers all the delights that are advertised in Gun in Cheek, and for the reader willing to wade through his prose, it offers a goldmine of entertainment. It isn’t the same type of entertainment that you will find in a good book, but that shouldn’t make it any less valid as entertainment.