Absurdity, keeler, webwork and NIS

Until recently I was unaware of Harry Stephen Keeler who, to quote wikipedia directly, was prolific but little known american author. During one of my random google searches on “worst writers of all time” I stumbled upon a random comment, which for now I can’t seem to find, that pointed me to this web page. The author of the piece William Poundstone does an incredible job of introducing keeler to the unacquainted.

You are probably thinking “why would I want to know about this Keeler?” That is as good a question as any. I will try to answer it by jotting down the observations that I made during my “research” of Keeler and maybe it will prompt you to read more about him.

  1. Keeler was one of the most prolific modern writers with over 70 novels and even more short stories.
  2. He was famous for his webwork plot of which most people say that he was the inventor and the only practitioner (with this article I intend to prove otherwise).
  3. He had a troubled childhood. His mother sent him to a mental asylum at an early age for unknown reasons. Consequently most of his works feature characters that are twisted either mentally or physically or both.
  4. His works were not appreciated during his lifetime and he was largely ridiculed by everyone. Even his own publishers did not know what to do with him. But this did not stop him and he continued to pump out one book after the other. He either really believed in his work or was truly insane.
  5. Modern critics, fans and basically anyone who has anything to say about Keeler are divided in their opinions. Was he a comical genius who purposefully wrote the absurd to entertain? Was he a maniac who wrote whatever he pleased with no regard for prose, style or even the reader?

Regardless of what the critics and the fans think of him it is hard not to get curious about Keeler. If you are curious about him then besides the aforementioned article by william you might also want to read this piece by Leonard pierce.

Keeler’s defining trait, in writing, was his webwork plot. In his universe characters were connected together by a set of coincidences. Circumstance was used to drive the story further. There was no logic. Now you might say that this does not sound that strange. But if you consider the genre for which he wrote (mystery), you will understand that he basically broke every rule of mystery writing.

Sample a quote notice the naming of characters.

“For it must be remembered that at the time I knew quite nothing, naturally, concerning Milo Payne, the mysterious Cockney-talking Englishman with the checkered long-beaked Sherlockholmsian cap; nor of the latter’s ‘Barr-Bag,’ which was as like my own bag as one Milwaukee wienerwurst is like another; nor of Legga, the Human Spider, with her four legs and her six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, ex-convict, and son of Dong Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigge; nor of the Great Simon, with his 2,163 pearl buttons; nor of — in short, I then knew quite nothing about anything or anybody involved in the affair of which I had now become a part, unless perchance it were my Nemesis, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel — or Suing Sophie!”

Sample the titles of his works

  • The Case of the Barking Clock
  • Finger! Finger!
  • The Man with the Magic Eardrums
  • A Copy of Beowulf
  • The Case of the Two-Headed Idiot

If one was not familiar that keeler wrote these titles as mysteries then one would mistake them for spoofs and humor pieces. We can summarize what we know of keeler as follows.

  1. Wrote absurd
  2. Wrote it in large quantities.
  3. Took liberties with the expectations of the reader.
  4. Had a cult following.

This brings me to the purpose of this article. Finding parallels to the ‘keelrism ‘ in modern entertainment. If you read my blog (thank you!) then you will probably know that I play a lot of video games. And it is in video games that I find keeler best represented. Especially in the works of one of my favorite developers. Nippon icchi software

Much like keeler fans, the fans of NIS revel in the absurd scenarios they generate for their games. They are most well known for their SRPGS. But even in other genres this absurdity is well represented. Consider the titles of NIS games

  • Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger VS Darkdeath Evilman
  • Soul Nomad & the World Eaters
  • Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero?
  • Prinny 2: Dawn of Operation Panties, Dood!
  • Holy Invasion Of Privacy, Badman! What Did I Do To Deserve This?

The eccentricity transcends the naming of their titles and makes way into gameplay. For instance prinnies are penguin like creatures, with legs of wood ,wings and a penchant for saying dood, that were first introduced in disgaea. They are actually humans who have been sent to hell to atone for their sins. The curious fact about them is that if you disturb their composure, say by throwing them, then they will explode.

Much like the works of keeler though NIS keeps breaking the rules that they themselves create. The aforementioned prinnies, that exploded when thrown, are given their own game in Prinny Can I really be the hero? in which they can jump and slide and do other things that might have been considered dangerous before. How is this made possible? It is quite simple really. Etna the valet to the demon lord have given the prinnes a magical scraf. Any prinny that wraps this scarf around it’s neck can perform all these feats un harmed. But why is Etna, a cruel master, so benevolent on these prinnies? Simple, because she has a sweet tooth and wants the prinnes to retrieve a cake that was stolen from her.

The plot of NIS games follow a webwork pattern. In Disgaea games before fighting the “ultimate boss” you have to beat a spectrum of characters that have no place in the story. Cameos from other games are quite common and when story tellers can’t figure out a logical way to explain it they throw the logic out of the window and resort to anything to tie the plot together. You know opening of portals, dreams etc. This has led them to create some of the most lovable characters in jrpgs. Like Asagi a demon girl who is looking for starring role in a game or Midboss who is just that, a difficulty spike in the middle of the game with helpful intention of making the players stronger by forcing them to grind and so on.

NIS is not the only one that create absurd scenarios. Patchwork heroes has a group of intrepid warriors assigned the task of cutting down enemy battleships midair before they have a chance to attack their home town. In Rayman origins you have to battle against the onslaught of anti toons that have been unleashed because their master found Rayman’s snoring annoying.

These games may sound strange. But they are fun. I can not say if keeler is fun to read, for I am yet to read him. But maybe keeler never wrote to be analyzed. Maybe his works have nothing to decipher. Maybe he broke the rules just cause they could be broken. All I can say is that there is at times a strange comfort that can be found in the weird, silly and absurd.


  • On September 14, 2013