The Riddle of the Traveling Skull (Harry Stephen Keeler, Paul Collins) Review
The Riddle of the Traveling Skull (1934) is an incredible book and my sixth favorite novel of all time.* At the beginning of this story, the protagonist comes upon an oddly adorned human skull in a travel bag, and what follows is the wildly twisting investigation of the aforementioned cranial artifact.
After reading eighty pages of this work, I ordered a couple of other books by Harry Stephen Keeler, and before I had reached the end of the novel, three (not inexpensive) first editions where en route to my apartment. (The last time I was so enormously impressed by an author was when I discovered the impassioned and unhinged works of the versatile lunatic Norvell W. Page, who is my favorite writer.)
The midnight fever dream that Keeler builds in this novel is a confluence of magnificent coincidences, passionate asides, heaped minutiae, idiosyncratic characters, and blindsiding twists, where shocking plot revelations are followed by amazingly complex explanations.
The author's aptitude at setting expectations, inverting them, and then twisting them again and again (and yet again) is worthy of accolades, and what is most commonly discussed about his work, though he has other serious talents besides his notably convoluted plotting. The Riddle of the Traveling Skull often proves to be exceptionally moody-- Chapter XXIII is absolutely masterful in this regard. And in addition to his abilities with atmospherics, Keeler's humor is terrific and sharp, reminding me a bit of Mervyn Peake-- surprising exclamation points and odd diatribes burst from mouths of many of the characters of this richly realized world.
This book is recommended to people who savor creativity, humor, oddity, and invention, and it is not recommended to pretentious/insecure people who use horrible phrases like "so bad, it's good" or "guilty pleasure" to defend liking something that is dated or unrealistic or perhaps not deemed "sophisticated" by the intellectual elite. Really, don't people have better things to do with their lives than read things that they think are genuinely bad? (And if the book succeeds at what it's trying to do--as this one does spectacularly--then it isn't "bad" or "cheesy" and readers should enjoy the eccentric success, without such pretentious qualifications.)
The Riddle of the Traveling Skull is from another era and is not an attempt at realism, but a wild, engaging and brilliantly implausible crazy mystery told by an exceptionally distinct craftsman who has no known peers. This superb novel is the first of many Harry Stephen Keeler novels that I will read.
*My Top 6 books
6. The Riddle of the Traveling Skull (Harry Stephen Keeler)
5. The Three Imposters (Arthur Machen)
4. Diaspora (Greg Egan)
3. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
2. Gormenghast (Mervyn Peake)
1. Titus Groan (Mervyn Peake)