STRANDS OF THE WEB
The Short Stories of Harry Stephen Keeler
Edited By Fred Cleaver
Harry Stephen Keeler has a deserved reputation for long intricate novels packed with both plot and frequent plot digressions. He practiced the skills needed to build his elaborate webworks in an apprenticeship writing short stories.
Starting when he was 22 he wrote two dozen short stories in a four year period including 17 stories in 1914. All this time he had his eye on the future. While he was mastering the short story he started writing short novels and serials with a goal of book publication. When the serials started selling to better markets the short work was abandoned.
He didn’t forget the early efforts when he started publishing books. He often incorporated the stories into his novels—many times without regard to the stories’ relevance to the novel. Sometimes there were wholesale changes to the main character or the point of view. He was also able to overcome what he saw as the principle weakness of the work by stretching the length to the edges of a reader’s endurance.
I first learned of Harry Stephen Keeler and his crazed world sometime in the 1970s through the pioneering work of Mike Nevins in The Armchair Detective, a mystery fanzine available at the University of Colorado. The university library was once run by a mystery fan and there were many Keeler novels on the shelves. But an intriguing part of his career that eluded me for years were the short stories that had been cobbled together to make his first books.
I began to find these stories as obscure magazines showed up on eBay. Eventually I found Keeler’s first story in a bound volume of 10 Story Book at the Library of Congress. Other rarities were published by Richard Polt in the newsletter of the burgeoning Harry Stephen Keeler Society.
This book owes a lot to Mike Nevins presentation of Keeler’s writing journal in a year by year list published by Polt. Keeler recorded when the stories were written and how much they sold for. The stories in this book are presented in the order in which they were written according to this journal and with Keeler’s original titles.
The journal doesn’t say who bought the stories and there are a few I know nothing more about. Some of these are in the journal as never having sold although it is possible they were published. At least some of these marketplace failures were published under various pretenses in the Editor’s column of the Chicago Ledger. A few others sold and simply haven’t been found. They could be in any number of obscure and uncatalogued publications.
Keeler made major or minor revisions to most of these stories. I have chosen the earliest version I could find. They also had an afterlife in the decade after their publication when they were syndicated to newspapers and republished in other magazines, mostly magazines edited by Keeler.
Keeler’s first sale, “The Spender,” was to the magazine 10 Story Book and published in the October 1913 issue. 10 Story Book had been published in Chicago since 1901 and paid $6 for each story whatever the length. Editor John Stapleton Cowley-Brown liked Keeler’s work and he became a regular contributor. One version of events Keeler told Writer’s Digest in 1930 is “I wrote two short stories while waiting for an engineering connection. 10 Story Book bought them straight off. Fired with enthusiasm, I dashed off ten others and in self defense they made me editor.” I can’t make those numbers add up and in later years Keeler said he became editor after Cowley-Brown was fired for possibly defaming a litigious department store owner.
Whatever the truth, Keeler became the new editor in 1916. Despite a couple of resignations during the first few years Keeler remained editor until the magazine went out of business in 1941. He didn’t contribute new fiction after 1920 as the magazine redefined itself by mixing the stories with photos of scantily dressed women but his anonymous presence can be seen in occasional bursts of outlandish Keeler humor.
The one exception to the fertile period of 1913-1917 is “A Telescopic Romance.” It was written in 1910, apparently before Keeler’s mother committed him to an asylum for a few years. This story inspired some of the more unusual influences from Keeler’s work. Ken Keeler (no relation) considered using the much longer book version “A Strange Romance” for an episode of his television series Futurama. Two young filmmakers were inspired by Ken’s DVD commentary for that episode to make their Youtube feature of the story without reading it.
“The Hand of God” was contributed to a Mystery Writers of America anthology in 1951. It is apparently based on an early story—I believe it is the lost fragment “Dream Girl” but have found no evidence to back that up.
The obvious influence on the stories are the plot twists associated with O. Henry. The first sale was a story about a tramp named Soapy, one of three featuring a name made famous in the O. Henry story “The Cop and the Anthem.”
Naming the four “most interesting writing men on record” in a 1919 Chicago Ledger editorial Keeler started with O. Henry. What impressed him weren’t the clever stories but the large sums O. Henry could demand for a story. See “A Check for a Thousand” for Keeler’s yearning to make more than $6 a story.
Two other writers Keeler cited were dime novel authors Colonel Prentiss Ingraham and William Wallace Cook. These are men known more for quantity than quality. He admired Ingraham’s speed and Cook’s volume. Cook wrote well into the pulp era and had work published in Top Notch Magazine alongside Keeler. Keeler is famous for keeping large files of newspaper clippings to work into his novels. In his 1912 pseudonymous memoir The Fiction Business Cook goes into great detail about how he organized his extensive clippings.
The other man Keeler admired was Swedish dramatist August Strindberg. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to find the influence of Strindberg on these stories. A hint someone else might find useful: Keeler chose a Strindberg story to feature on the cover of a 1931 issue of 10 Story Book.
There are two items which reach out to stage and screen. I have used the order Mike Nevins gives from the notebook and have placed the short story “The Services of an Expert” before the play of the same title. Some Keeler statements indicate he wrote the play first and the story after his efforts to market the play were unsuccessful. The play was eventually staged in Chicago by a community theatre group in the late 1920s.
I know even less about his photoplay “Soapy’s Trip to Mars.” Short comedy sketches were standard for films of the day and Keeler’s story certainly has more slapstick than logic.
One story is a collaboration. A friend from the days before Keeler’s marriage who we know a little about is Franklin Lee Stevenson. Stevenson moved to Chicago from Wisconsin. He worked on newspapers and had ambitions to write poetry and fiction. The fiction was not successful despite a few pieces his friend Keeler published in 10 Story Book. In a work of anonymous verse about a dinner party of uncertain date chez Keeler:
And there’s Professor Stevenson, a doctor of short-story
At old De Paul. He cures ’em up—insipid, weak, or gory.
Other sources state Stevenson taught journalism at De Paul. He had moved to Michigan when he found his niche in the poetry world in 1924. He built a business selling verses to funeral home directors to pass on as memorial verses to grieving families. His obituary in Time magazine labeled him “the undertaker’s poet laureate.” Keeler credited himself with only 6¢ of the $6 payment for “Sidestepping Ryan.” When he reused the story in a novel Stevenson wasn’t named.
The last story, “Goodbye, Coppers!”, was a bit of therapy that helped break the writer’s block Keeler had after the death of his first wife Hazel in 1960. It helped him to get back to the novels he worked on until his death in 1967.
It should be noted that the racism in some of the novels can be a sticking point for many. It is a strange irony that the most racist story in this book, “Sunbeam’s Child,” is set in Barack Obama’s Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park.
If I had to pick one favorite in this collection it would be “Babes in the Wood.” This tour of Chicago’s red light district from the tawdriness of Dearborn Street to the swanky clubs has realism that matches historical accounts (compare Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott) with a story of pure Keeler coincidence.
I would like to thank Fender Tucker for all he has done to bring Keeler back into print including his patience with this book. Mike Nevins who introduced me to Keeler and still has the enthusiasm to worry over Keeler’s wayward commas. Richard Polt sets the standard for Keeler scholarship with his devotion to the Harry Stephen Keeler Society and the indefatigable Keeler News. Thanks to Chris Mikul for sharing Keeler rarities. Morgan Wallace supplied valuable information on obscure corners of publishing. And my own Mrs. W-H for tolerating Keeler in the house and spending vacations in libraries looking for more Keeler.
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