Harry Stephen Keeler

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Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967) wrote mystery novels so bad they’ve been called “coincidence porn.” In The Ace of Spades Murder he introduces the guilty character on the third-to-last page; in X. Jones of Scotland Yard he explains on the last page that Napoleon Bonaparte is the culprit.

And his gifts extend beyond plotting. His characters are called Criorcan Mulqueeny and Screamo the Clown and Scientifico Greenlimb and Wolf Gladish and State Attorney Foxhart Cubycheck, and he writes titles like Finger, Finger!, The Yellow Zuri, The Amazing Web, Find the Clock, and The Face of the Man From Saturn.

Even at the level of simple prose, he’s entirely helpless. Here’s a typical passage from The Case of the 16 Beans:

The door now opened, revealing, as it did so, a strange figure — a half-man, no less, seated on a “rollerskate” cart! — framed against the bit of outer hallway. But no ordinary half-man this, for he was a Chinaman; quite legless, indeed, so far as the presence of even upper leg stumps went; but amply provided with locomotion, of the gliding kind, anyway, in the matter of the unusually generous rubber-tired wheels under the platform cart.

There’s even an appreciation society now, which is fortunate, because most of Keeler’s numerous works are now out of print. In 1942, the New York Times wrote, “We are drawn to the unescapable conclusion that Mr. Keeler writes his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy.” Amen.

The First Blast of the Trumpet

The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558) may be the most misogynistic screed ever written:

For who can denie but it is repugneth to nature, that the blind shall be appointed to leade and conduct such as do see? That the weake, the sicke and impotent persons shall norishe and kepe the hole and strong? And finallie, that the foolishe, madde and phrenetike shal governe the discrete and give counsel to such as be sober of mind. And such be al women, compared unto man in bearing of authoritie. For their sight in civile regiment is but blindness; their strength, weaknes; their counsel, foolishnes; and judgment, phrensie, if it be rightlie considered.

That’s ironic, because the author’s real beef was religious: John Knox opposed female sovereigns like Mary, Queen of Scots, and Mary Tudor because of their Catholicism. When Elizabeth Tudor succeeded Mary, his plan backfired — she was sympathetic to his cause, but offended at his words. Hell hath no fury.

Voynich Manuscript

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Some writers seem to crave anonymity. None more so than the author of the Voynich manuscript, who invented a mysterious language and an unknown alphabet that has been defying scholars for 500 years.

To judge from the illustrations, the text deals with astronomy, biology, cosmology, herbs, and recipes. Handwriting experts say that the glyphs were written with speed and care, as if the author were facile with them. Statistical analysis seems to show that it’s a natural language, but the vocabulary is unusually small, and in some ways it seems to resemble Arabic more than European languages.

Because no one knows precisely what the 240-page book is, it’s hard to guess who wrote it. Suspects include a who’s who of Europe in the Middle Ages, Roger Bacon and John Dee among them. The cipher has resisted even the National Security Agency, leading some to think it’s a hoax, but even that is hard to prove conclusively.

There’s a great irony at the bottom of this. The mysterious author was one of the most successful cryptologists in history — so successful, in fact, that we may never know who he was.

“I Find You to Be the Only Fool!”

Excerpt from The Eye of Argon, a famously bad fantasy novella written by Jim Theis in 1970:

Utilizing the silence and stealth aquired in the untamed climbs of his childhood, Grignr slink through twisting corridors, and winding stairways, lighting his way with the confisticated torch of his dispatched guardian. Knowing where his steps were leading to, Grignr meandered aimlessly in search of an exit from the chateau’s dim confines. The wild blood coarsing through his veins yearned for the undefiled freedom of the livid wilderness lands.

At science fiction conventions, fans try to read it aloud with a straight face. The “grandmaster challenge” is to read it with a squeaky voice after inhaling helium.

I Think …

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Squashed Philosophers is like Reader’s Digest with a Ph.D. Glyn Hughes takes the high-calorie tomes of 41 world-class thinkers, from Plato to Popper, and squeezes them into tasty little capsules, without losing the flavor of the originals.

René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, for instance, fits into 6,488 words — or even, in the “very squashed” version, into six simple assertions — but they’re all stated in the author’s own words, and nothing essential seems to have been lost.

That’s a tribute to Hughes’ editing skill, but it’s also a pretty scary commentary on the original works. Kant is notoriously unreadable in the original, but Hughes estimates that his 5,700-word condensation of the Critiques of Pure & Practical Reason can be read and understood in 23 minutes. If that’s true — if that’s even close to true — then I don’t see how Kant’s original can be called a great book.

“On The Bear-Fac’d Lady”

In Search of the World’s Worst Writers is, well, self-explanatory. Excerpts:

  • “Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!” (Amanda McKittrick Ros)
  • “Her mouth was set with pearls adorned with elastic rubies and tuned with minstrel lays, while her nose gracefully concealed its umbrage, and her eyes imparted a radiant glow to the azure of the sky.” (Shepherd M. Dugger)
  • “We’rt thou suspended from balloon,/You’d cast a shade even at noon,/Folks would think it was the moon/About to fall and crush them soon.” (James McIntyre)

“There are those who think that John Wesley only founded Methodism as a way of saying ‘sorry’ for his father’s poetry.”

Loup-Garou

http://www.sxc.hu/index.phtmlMythologyWeb has the full text of Sabine Baring-Gould’s Book of Werewolves, one of the creepier reference works of the 1860s.

In America we think of lycanthropes as turning into wolves, but legends actually vary throughout the world. People tend to turn into the most important carnivore in the area: dogs in Greece, tigers in India, bears in Northern Europe, foxes in Japan, leopards in Africa, and jaguars in South America. In Polynesia there are even were-sharks.

Correspondingly, there’s a psychiatric syndrome called clinical lycanthropy, in which people think they’ve turned into animals. Here, too, though, wolves are in the minority. Clinicians have reported patients who thought they’d become cats, horses, birds, tigers, frogs, even bees.

Baring-Gould’s vision was quite a bit darker, but he was a weird guy himself. A Victorian hagiographer, antiquarian, novelist, and scholar, he used to teach with his pet bat on his shoulder. His book wanders from lycanthropy down into grave desecration and cannibalism — kind of an odd area for the guy who wrote “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” To each his own.

Self-Defense With a Cane

Here’s a little light reading before you go strolling downtown: “Self-Defence With a Walking-Stick: The Different Methods of Defending Oneself With a Walking-Stick or Umbrella When Attacked Under Unequal Conditions.” It originally ran in Pearson’s Magazine in January 1901.

Apparently those things were pretty deadly: If you use your wrists and swing from the hip, “it is possible to sever a man’s jugular vein through the collar of his overcoat.”