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THE KEELER KEYHOLE COLLECTION

 

INTRODUCTION: A PRESS CONFERENCE

 

Francis M. Nevins

 

Harry Stephen who? Where did he come from? What did he do for a living?

Pilgrim, you’ve picked up the wrong Ramble House book. For Keelerology 101 the assigned text is A TO IZZARD: A HARRY STEPHEN KEELER COMPANION (2002). If you’re too cheap to buy it, google Keeler’s name and browse the major websites. Then read a few dozen of Harry’s novels and you’ll be ready for the Keyhole Collection.

Been there, done that. So what does this literary doorstop of yours do?

It organizes, categorizes and brings together almost 200 of the Walter Keyholes in which Keeler set down whatever came to his mind. It’s like a blog but you can’t scroll down a computer screen to read it, you have to actually turn pages.

Sounds like work to me.

Ah, but it’s worth the effort!

Why?

Because Harry had one of the most wide-ranging and eccentric minds that ever inhabited a human body. And his writing style was sort of weird too.

Didn’t the guy die before anyone ever heard of a blog?

Yes, yuss and yowsah! On January 22, 1967, if you want to get technical about it.

So if he couldn’t call this stuff a blog, what did he call it?

He didn’t have a name for the sum total of all the Walter Keyholes but each individual issue or installment he liked to call a polychromatic (or sometimes a multitinctorial) cartulary.

And what the hell does that mean?

In simple Angry-Saxophonish it means that each page of a Keyhole was printed on paper of a different color. The issues that consist of only one or two sides were, as Keeler might have put it, unichromatic. For the longer issues, each page would usually be on a different color paper: violet, cerise, mint green, whatever.

My God, why???

Excuse me, what part of eccentric don’t you understand?

How many of these poly—these whatchamacallits were there?

No one knows for sure. I have originals or photocopies of 188 of them if I’ve counted right.

When did he begin writing these things?

Again, no one knows for sure. There are some clues in the Keyholes themselves that suggest it was probably around 1955.

And he kept turning this stuff out until he died?

At least until about five months before. The latest issue we can date seems to have gone out in August 1966.

How can you date them? Did they have volume and issue numbers like the magazines on newsstands?

They had volume and issue numbers but not like anything else in the known universe, and where we don’t have a reliable date I’ve included that information. Just thumb through the book and you’ll see citations like Vol. M, No. 3˝, or Vol. 0, No. 0˝, or No. 414 minus 415, or Volume 8888888, No. 8888888. We can work out rough dates for some of them with the help of clues in the Keyholes themselves, but luckily a man named Harry McEvoy, who was a friend of Keeler’s and received more than a hundred of them, got into the habit of writing the date each one came to him in the mail at the top of the first page. This is why so many items in this book are followed by the letters HKM and a date.

How often did these things come out? Once a week, once a month?

Harry sent one out whenever he felt in the mood. I gather that until 1960 they were relatively infrequent. From mid-1960 till the end of 1963 they came like machine-gun fire. From 1964 through August 1966 they seem to have become infrequent again.

Was that because he was the oddball to end all oddballs?

No, there were good reasons. When he began doing Keyholes he was still married to his first wife, Hazel Goodwin Keeler. They’d been married since 1919. Also, he was still writing tons of novels. He’d lost his American and English publishers but some of these new novels came out as originals in Spain. This, by the way, is why an old socialist like Harry wound up paying such florid compliments in the Keyholes to Generalissimo Franco and his fascist dictatorship.

It was the only country in the world where he was still in print!

Okay, so what happened in 1960?

His world fell apart. Hazel was diagnosed with cancer and died by inches over several months. Harry was so devastated he found it impossible to write fiction any more. But he was a compulsive writer so he had to write something. That was when he began hemorrhaging Keyholes.

Until the end of 1963 you said? Did someone put a tourniquet on him then?

You might say his second wife did. He remarried in December of 1963. She was fifteen years younger than Harry and seems to have gone by two first names and two last names—Thelma and Tertza, Rinaldo and Eaton respectively. You’ll find tons of material on both Thelma and Hazel in the Keyholes. With a new wife in his life he was able to get back to writing novels, like STRANGE JOURNEY and THE SCARLET MUMMY, the last two he completed. I gather he didn’t feel the need to put out Keyholes anywhere near as often as he had during his three and a half years of hell between marriages.

Who bought these demented doodlings anyway?

Nobody. Harry proudly stated several times that no one could buy a Keyhole and no one could subscribe either. He sent them out to whomever he pleased. The mailing list varied from Keyhole to Keyhole. If you believe Harry, some went out to more than a thousand people and others to a small and select group. He found a commercial service that would retype his text, reproduce it on the two-sided colored paper he provided and mail it out to the recipient list he also provided.

He must have thrown away a small fortune on this stuff! What did he get out of it?

Each Keyhole cost Harry at least $50, which was a week’s salary for many people at the time. And Harry was by no means a rich man. In terms of pure economics he got nothing out of it.

Okay, so what motivated and motived him to do it?

Ah, I see you know your Keeler-speak! My best guess is that the Keyholes satisfied one of his deepest needs.

Which was?

To know that he was still being read in his own language.

If I buy this book, am I in for an orgy of loneliness and bitterness and heartache and despair?

Considering the circumstances of his life at the time he wrote the majority of Keyholes, you might well expect just that. What you’re going to find is almost everything but what you expect.

Such as for instance?

Autobiographical reminiscences, high spirited put-ons, oddball takes on everything from religion to cats to current events to journalism to authors living and dead—the list goes on and on.

And it’s all true?

Now I never said that! Harry touched on so many subjects that it would take a small army of experts to verify everything he put in the Keyholes. What I know the most about is his own career as a writer and his own bibliography, and in that area he was wrong so often that I’ve felt the need to correct his mistakes. You’ll find my corrections and a few other comments in brackets. I have a hunch that if experts in other fields were to correct and qualify and amplify what he wrote on their subjects, this book would have another hundred pages of bracketed material.

So what do we get out of this book besides something we can use to jack up a truck with?

What a Keeler Koinkydink! That’s precisely how Harry described one of his own longest novels. What you get out of the Keyhole Collection was best expressed by one of Keeler’s oldest friends, T.S. Stribling. In a letter to Harry he said he was amazed that a man in his seventies, living in lonely desperation, could “turn out every week one of the most rollicking pages in America or, so far as I know, in all the world. How you maintain, amid mental troubles, your amazing flow of Aristophanian humor—I just don’t get it.”

T.S. who? Where did he come from? What did he do for a living?

You again? He’s pretty much forgotten today but in his time he was a best-selling novelist and a Pulitzer Prize winner. His copies of the Keyholes Harry sent him are preserved today in the Tennessee State Archives and are the source of all the material in this book that’s marked with the letters TSS and a date. He was also something of a prophet.

What makes you say that?

Because in the same letter to Keeler he said: “I am somewhat of the opinion your cartularies will be collected someday as a book.” Thank you, no more questions.

 

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