The Weird Tales of David H. Keller

Today — another physician cum weird tales author: neuropsychiatrist David H. Keller. Dr. Keller is kind of the opposite of my last physician-writer, Silas Weir Mitchell. Dr. Mitchell was fairly well-known as a doctor in his lifetime (and is still known for some of his medical contributions today), but is no longer so well known as an author. Dr. Keller, on the other hand, is primarily known today for his science fiction and fantasy, although he apparently did make some early contributions to the treatment of shell-shock (or PTSD, as we would call it today) during World War I. The only evidence I could find of his medical career is a list of articles he wrote for something called the Charles Atlas Sexual Education Series, here.

Believe it or not, Dr. Keller actually became a writer because he couldn’t support himself as a doctor! That seems so strange, given the relative income levels of doctors and writers these days. Dr. Keller spent many years as Assistant Superintendent of the Louisiana State Mental Hospital at Pineville, before losing the position, primarily for political reasons (the Hospital’s Superintendent had been a open supporter of one of Governor Huey Long’s opponents in the election of 1928). That same year, Dr. Keller submitted his first story — he had been writing as a hobby for years — to Amazing Stories. Editor Hugo Gernsback gave him a contract for twelve more stories, at sixty dollars each. Just in time, too.

Dr. Keller cycled through several more medical positions — Western State Hospital in Tennessee, Jacksonville State Hospital in Illinois, and a brief stint in private practice, before finally landing a stable position at the Pennhurst State School for mental defectives in Pennsylvania. Throughout this period, his writing supported his family, and he wrote a LOT, for just about every pulp magazine in the Gernsback portfolio. Naturally, getting paid was more important to him than art during this period, and it shows in the up-and-down quality of even the few stories of his that I’ve found online.

The Library of America recently posted his short story, The Jelly-Fish, from 1929. It includes the most bitter view of the teacher-student relationship I’ve ever read — and I’ve been to graduate school.

We, chosen scientists, university graduates, hailed him as our master and hated him for admitting his mastery.

We hoped some evil might befall him, and yet we admitted that the success of the expedition depended upon his continued leadership. It was vitally necessary for our future: we were struggling young men with all life ahead of us, and if we failed in our first effort there would be no other opportunities for fame granted us.

[…] The only thing in which we were agreed was ambition, our sole united emotion was hatred of the professor.

Makes you wonder what his medical school experience was like.

The story itself is about the dangers of hubris. I thought at first it was going to be an example of what I’ve called the “other kind” of science fiction — fiction about the natural sciences, rather than technology and the physical sciences — but it’s more strictly fantasy or weird tale. If you were to consider it science fiction at all, it would be more like the sci-fi that Poe wrote, rather than, say, Larry Niven. The ending was easy to foresee, and the setup of the story was more interesting than the climax. All in all, the beginning was also interesting enough for me to look around for more.

Possibly Keller’s best known story is The Thing in the Cellar, from 1932. It’s the story of a house with a cellar “entirely out of proportion to the house above it,” and of a little boy who is terrified of the cellar. His parents don’t understand his phobia, and don’t approve of it, either. On the advice of the family doctor, the boy’s father tries to cure little Tommy of his fear by locking Tommy in the kitchen (where the cellar door is located) for an hour, with the cellar door nailed open. This turns out not to be a shining example of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Again, we get a little glimpse of Keller’s life experiences. Remember, he tried to go into private practice as a psychiatrist, without much success. As he later wrote, “All the local physicians treated their mental patients till the families’ money was gone. Only then did these patients come to me.” In The Thing in the Cellar, a psychiatrist colleague of the family doctor hears of this attempted cure, berates the family doctor for such a cruel and emotionally harmful tactic, and tries to undo it. Too late. The Thing in the Cellar is a much better story than The Jelly-Fish, and it’s a cautionary tale about exceeding the limits of one’s own knowledge. I’m sure that’s how Keller felt about the family doctors of his impoverished patients.

NewImageTiger Cat was featured on the October 1937 cover of Weird Tales
The illustration is actually appropriate to the story.
Image: Project Gutenberg

Over at Project Gutenberg, I found Tiger Cat, from 1937. It’s a creepy little story about yet another house (an Italian villa, actually) with a disproportionately sized cellar. I rather liked it. Parts of the narrative didn’t entirely make sense, but the piece had a nice rhythm, pleasantly suspenseful, like a good, cheesy B-movie.

In the kitchen two peasants sat, an old man and an old woman. They rose as I entered.

“Who are you?” I asked in English.

They simply smiled and waved their hands. I repeated my question in Italian.

“We serve,” the man replied.

“Serve whom?”

“Whoever is the master.”

“Have you been here long?”

“We have always been here. It is our home.”

His statement amused me, and I commented, “The masters come and go, but you remain?”

“It seems so.”

“Many masters?”

“Alas! yes. They come and go. Nice young men, like you, but they do not stay. They buy and look at the view, and eat with us a few days and then they are gone.”

“And then the villa is sold again?”

The man shrugged. “How should we know? We simply serve.”

Don’t think too hard, treat the story as a mood piece, and it’s a fun ride.

Unfortunately, The Rat Racket, from 1931, is really not very good. But it wasn’t a total waste, at least not for a folklore geek like me. A mysterious gang has all the businesses in New York City paying into their protection racket. Those who don’t pay have their businesses overrun by rats. This upsets the civic pride of a rich blue-blood New Yorker named Winifred Willowby. Willowby hires a rat biologist, a rat psychologist (really!) and an expert on rat-related folklore to help him figure out how to defeat the protection racket gang.

Naturally, the scientists make fun of the folklorist — and naturally, it’s the folklorist who figures it out. One point for a Liberal Arts education! It’s that scientific hubris thing, again. The story makes reference to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but also to the legend of Hatto, the abbot of Fulda. I’d never heard the legend of Hatto before, so that was a bonus. I’ll be writing about it, soon, I expect.

Of the four stories, I recommend The Thing in the Cellar, without reservation. The Jelly-Fish isn’t bad. It has a bit of the flavor of sea-going stories from earlier times, say by William Hope Hodgson, and its fable-like nature has a nineteenth-century vibe to it, too. The other two stories on Project Gutenberg aren’t great, but they’re kind of fun, especially Tiger Cat. I can’t say I’m too surprised that Dr. Keller’s work mostly faded into obscurity, but I’m also glad that I stumbled upon him, as well.

Enjoy.

UPDATE: I just found another one: The Dead Woman, I think from 1939. (It’s a scan from Strange Stories, vol. 1 #2). This one is GOOD.

7 thoughts on “The Weird Tales of David H. Keller

    • I read somewhere that Sherlock Holmes was based on one of Doyle’s medical school professors. It would have been fascinating to see him (the professor) in action.

      Also one of these days I might write about W.F. Harvey, who was also a doctor, and wrote a pretty good series of supernatural stories with a nurse for the heroine.

      • Yes Doyle based Holmes’s deductive reasoning upon that of Dr Joseph Bell to whom Doyle worked as a clerk in Edinburgh as a medical student. David Pirie (who wrote the definitive guide to the British Horror movis up to 1975 A Heritage of Horror, recently revised as A New Heritage of Horror) has penned a few fictional accounts of Bell and Doyle as detectives which I really must get around to reading some time. the first is called Murder Rooms I think. The BBC made a couple of TV films based upon the books with the great late Ian Richardson as Bell and they were pretty good fun.

  1. The good doctor is not entirely off base with respect to the fact that some therapists treat you until your money (or your insurance company’s money) runs out.

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