Return to Ramble House Page
Return to Harry Stephen Keeler Page
INTRODUCTION to HANGMAN'S NIGHTS
Francis M. Nevins
Among the legion of idiosyncracies which make readers either love Keeler or avoid him like the plague was his penchant for creating a new novel out of an unused “chunk” of material from an earlier novel. As Ramble House addicts know, he used this technique several times in his last two decades of life, notably in the Angus MacWhorter circus series. At first glance HANGMAN’S NIGHTS may seem to be yet another book he created along those lines, but it isn’t. The point of origin for what you are about to sink your teeth into—what one critic has called the literary equivalent of sourdough starter!—is not a chunk excised from one earlier Keeler novel but a potpourri of echoes from several.
HANGMAN’S NIGHTS is about men who, just before their execution for murder, are given the chance to tell stories, Arabian Nights style, to an official with the power to pardon them. Instantly we conjure up memories of SING SING NIGHTS (1928), in which three authors in the death house for the same murder pitted their tale-telling skills against each other, with the spinner of the yarn judged best by their uneducated prison guard guaranteed a pardon. There are only two story-tellers in the present book (although, judging from its tentative title FOUR NOOSES AT DAWN, Harry originally planned to have a quartet of convicts in the death cell), and they aren’t professional authors making up “fictional” tales but ordinary people—as ordinary as Keeler Karacters ever get!—trying to explain what they insist was their own innocent involvement in the murder. That aspect of HANGMAN’S NIGHTS instantly evokes memories of Harry’s VAGABOND NIGHTS, consisting of THE DEFRAUDED YEGGMAN and 10 HOURS (both 1937), in which three hoboes hauled up before a drumhead court martial in a Texas border town tried to save their lives in the same way. But when we learn that the murder in question took place on a tiny island in the Mississippi River on which an eccentric millionaire was recently buried in a cockamamie coffin of his own design—an island which, just before the murder, had been inundated by a flood, and which a number of variously motived and motivated people are desperate to reach the moment the waters subside!—we are reminded of Keeler’s Big River trilogy—THE PORTRAIT OF JIRJOHN COBB (1940), CLEO-PATRA’S TEARS (1940) and THE BOTTLE WITH THE GREEN WAX SEAL (1942)—which involved similar antics on an all but identical island. And the climax of HANGMAN’S NIGHTS, which for obvious reasons I won’t attempt to describe here, likewise brings to mind the denouement of Harry’s earlier Death House novel THE PEACOCK FAN (1941). All in all, a smorgasbord of echoes!
The most interesting echo I’ve saved for last. The story of the third prisoner in SING SING NIGHTS was entitled “The Missing Link” and first appeared more than a dozen years earlier as “The Miracle Agent” (Top-Notch, July 1, 1915). That tale had to do with a man whose brain was transplanted into the body of a gorilla. One of the key characters in HANGMAN’S NIGHTS is Alfred Crofts-Hartley, an erudite Londoner with a passion for classical antiquity who—stop reading this introduction now if you don’t want to learn one of the novel’s surprises a bit early!—is the offspring of a female gorilla and a New York millionaire. That aspect of the book taught Harry a bitter lesson in the non-esty-ness of First Amendment freedoms in Spain under the fascist dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
At the time he wrote HANGMAN’S NIGHTS he had already lost his U.S. publisher, the non plus infra Phoenix Press, and was near the end of his long association with the English publisher Ward Lock. He completed the manuscript on May 16, 1951 and, we must assume, sent a copy soon afterward to Instituto Editorial Reus, the Madrid publishing house which had been issuing Spanish translations of his novels over the last ten years. Then the trouble started. In what was perhaps the last of the hundreds of multi-colored “Walter Keyhole” newsletters he sent regularly to assorted friends and acquaintances and total strangers during his twilight years, Harry described “THE FIVE ABSOLUTE ‘MUSTS’ FOR EVERY BOOK PUBLISHED IN SPAIN”:
“(A) The Spanish publisher must accept the script first, but will not pay any advance till the censorship board has given him a ‘license’ to publish it; and to them he sends the script, together with a fee out of his own pocket. (B) There must be no bedroom scenes in the script. (C) There must be no bedroom scenes implied as having happened between chapters, viz, after one chapter has reached its ‘curtain’, and ended, and the next has begun. (D) The Spanish government—the censorship division, thereof—does not accept Mr. Darwin nor Mr. Darwin’s quaint theory; indeed, it accepts, exactly like our American Encyclopedia Britannica, the theory of instant creation of species, viz, the ‘Garden of Eden’ or orthodox version of the Bible; hence, use, in science-fiction novels, of weird characters obtained by evolutions of ‘evolutionary’ kinematics, a la Mr. Darwin, are as ‘out’ as is Mr. Darwin himself. (E) No ar-guments or expressions by the author or any of his characters, emphasizing Communism as being a good way of life. All of the above conditions were decreed by Generalissimo Franco when he first came on duty.”
In all the Keeler Korpus the only “weird character” who fits the description in that paragraph is Alfred Crofts-Hartley from HANGMAN’S NIGHTS.
What happened when those “musts” collided with the original version of the novel that Harry sent to Madrid? He tells us in an earlier Keyhole newsletter dating from 1963.
“HANGMAN’S NIGHTS, written by a Logan Square paper-blackener, was NOT nixed by the 6 black-robed Spanish censors because it was too ‘sexy’, as is reported in this week’s Back Title Finding Company sheet What Book Do You Seek? This particular spewer of penny-dreadfuls does NOT use sex in any of his material. The book-manuscript was ‘nixed’ by Generalissimo Franco’s censorship sextette because its plot set forth, in some of its incidents, the validity of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. And the Catholic Church dictates publishing in Spain. The novel was resubmitted by the author to the censors, in his most humble manner, a manner seldom seen by anybody, with Darwin and his theories excised. Was okayed. Was published. What Book Do You Seek? please copy.”
Now you understand why, in the version you’re about to read—the only one that survives—Keeler turns cartwheels trying to establish that poor Alfred came into being not sexually but as the result of a man-ape blood transfusion that went wrong. You also understand why he tossed in a few irrelevant references to the “scumminists” who controlled mainland China. Anything to placate the six blackrobes!
HANGMAN’S NIGHTS was the earliest Keeler novel never to be published in the English language in any form while he was alive but only in Spain or Portugal if anywhere. It was followed by a host of others, written during the Fifties and coming to an abrupt halt in 1960 when, devastated by the death of his wife Hazel Goodwin Keeler from cancer, Harry stopped writing fiction. (After marrying the former Thelma Tertza Rinaldo Eaton in 1964 he picked up the pieces and, with her collaboration, completed STRANGE JOURNEY and THE SCARLET MUMMY before his death in January 1967.) One by one these surpassingly eccentric books are being dragged out of their coffins and into the light of print by Ramble House. HANGMAN’S NIGHTS, I think and hope you’ll agree, is far from the least eccentric of the crop.
Return to Ramble House Page
Return to Harry Stephen Keeler Page