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Keller, David H, M D

Entry updated 11 September 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1880-1966) US author, physician and psychiatrist, deeply involved in the last capacity in World War One and its consequences, his work focusing on shell shock; he was one of relatively few American sf writers to have anything like the direct experience of War That Will End War that marked so many British authors, a fact that may help explain his abiding cultural pessimism (see Optimism and Pessimism), often expressed in stories where a thin, almost literal veneer of civilization is peeled off to reveal the excrescence within (see Horror in SF). As a psychiatrist, he remained professionally active in Louisiana until 1928, and returned to the US Medical Corps during World War Two; this may be thought of as his central career.

As a writer, he published occasionally in amateur journals from an early age, his first published story being "Aunt Martha" (1895 Bath Weekly) as by Monk Smith, and in his prolific years as an sf author – beginning with "The Revolt of the Pedestrians" for Amazing in February 1928 – he may have drawn upon a supply of unpublished material. The stories of Keller's early prime – with their heavily foregrounded concepts and Inventions and with their endemic indifference to plausible narrative follow-through – made him an ideal writer for Hugo Gernsback, who published most of his output during these years, as well as his first book, The Thought Projector (1929 chap), in the Science Fiction Series of pamphlets; Gernsback also engaged him to edit Sexology from 1934 to 1938 (see Eugenics) and other nonfiction journals. "The Revolt of the Pedestrians" may be the most remarkable of Keller's stories for Gernsback; it is certainly one of the strangest. It is one of the relatively few sf tales before around 1970 to treat the hypertrophy of automobile culture in the twentieth century as Dystopian (see Prediction; Transportation); after centuries, "automobilists" have become almost organically tied to their Pollution-emitting cars, have lost the use of their legs, and have made pedestrianism a fatal offence. After the leader of a band of pedestrians turns off all electricity, legless automobilists die helplessly in their millions; the description of the death of twenty million New Yorkers attempting to flee Manhattan is extremely vivid (see New York). In the end, two elite pedestrians (see Adam and Eve) meet and prepare to breed, far from any despicable City (see Survivalist Fiction).

Similarly, Keller's first novel, The Human Termites: A 1929 Science Fiction Extravaganza (September-November 1929 Wonder Stories as "The Human Termites"; 1979 chap), begins as a relatively calm-minded development of the speculative element in La Vie des termites (1926; trans Alfred Sutro as The Life of the White Ant 1927) by Maurice Maeterlinck [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], but soon leaves behind the commonplace supposition of a termite Hive Mind, moving into an almost delirious account in which both termites and humans are seen to be governed by totalitarian central intelligences. The novel's exorbitance caused considerable stir in 1929 Fandom, but in retrospect can be understood as comprising – at least in part – a Dystopian extrapolation of the horrors (see Horror in SF) of mass combat in World War One; the introduction to the 1979 book edition, by Patrick H Adkins [see also The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], is illuminating. In the book-length The Conquerors (December 1929-January 1930 Wonder Stories; 2012 dos), a dwarf race, separated Underground from human stock for millennia (see Evolution), conquers part of America; eventually, the race decides to colonize Venus. In the sequel, "The Evening Star" (April-May 1930 Wonder Stories), Venus turns out to be dominated by radiant human Masters, and the Utopia they inhabit is invulnerable to the tiny invaders, who are now suffering a very sudden Devolution. In The Metal Doom (May-July 1932 Amazing; 2011 dos), advanced civilization ends when all metal begins to rust. Stories by Keller of this sort, almost all of which start strongly but dwindle into inconsequence, appeared widely in the Pulp magazines of the period.

Typical of his corrosive attitude toward both science and civilization, and justly criticized for anti-feminist, racist tendencies (see Feminism; Race in SF), is the Taine of San Francisco sequence beginning with the dismaying tale of racial Paranoia "The Menace" (Summer 1928 Amazing Stories Quarterly). Further individual stories were published up to 1947; except for Wolf Hollow Bubbles: A Taine of San Francisco Story (1934 chap), they have not been collected. This series comprises tales that generally conceal, rather than expose, the truth behind things (see Horror in SF). The sexual sadism of such a Taine story as The Feminine Metamorphosis (August 1929 Wonder Stories; 2023) both repels and confuses with its punitive rendering of female-to-male sex change (see Transgender SF), in which ruthless women inject extracts from the severed genitals of Chinese men, which transforms them into male entrepreneurs until syphilis kills them off. Keller had only months before published the ten separate volumes of nonfiction texts about sexual matters making up the Sexual Education Series, separately published but distributed by the Charles Atlas company [for titles see Checklist], where his views are mostly humane and moderately put; he later (1933-1938) edited the journal Sexology. But his sf continued to expose his harsher side: for instance, in Life Everlasting (July-August 1934 Amazing; 2017 dos), which appears in Life Everlasting and Other Tales of Science, Fantasy and Horror (coll 1947), the human race must choose between a sane and sanitary Immortality and fertility; and chooses the latter. The second (and considerably longer) title in The Solitary Hunters; and The Abyss (coll 1948) again demonstrates, by detailing the terrible consequences of any removal of human repressions, Keller's sense of the fragility of the psychic order; in the second title, Drugs injected into chewing gum cause humans to degenerate (see Decadence; Devolution).

Over all, at least fifty sf stories, some of considerable length, were published by 1935, after which point his production became erratic, and he focused more on fantasy and horror, much of which is superior to his sf, though "The Red Death" (July 1941 Cosmic Stories) is a strong Disaster novelette, in which a Pandemic wipes out New York and perhaps the rest of the world; the Illustration accompanying the tale shows a vast traffic jam – rarely if ever depicted in Genre SF (see Prediction) before the end of the 1960s – but in this case is intended solely to dramatize the panicked evacuation of Manhattan. A more typical later tale like The Thing in the Cellar (March 1932 Weird Tales; 1940 chap), for instance, works with power and concision as a hydraulic metaphor (in the Freudian manner) of the relationship between the upstairs daylight of consciousness and the blind tide of unconsciousness beneath our floors (see Horror in SF). But work of this sort did not sustain his popularity, though he became popular in France, publishing some individual tales there, and The Sign of the Burning Hart: A Tale of Acradia (coll of linked stories 1938; exp vt [with "Arcadia" spelled correctly] The Sign of the Burning Hart: A Tale of Arcadia 1948), which is Utopian fantasy. In America he fell out of wide public notice with the onset of the Golden Age of SF, whose optimism about the workability of the Universe he clearly did not share, as exemplified in The Devil and the Doctor (1940), where Satan is a Hero-figure (one of the first novels by a recognized author of Pulp sf and fantasy to be released by a trade publisher). Keller did remain active in Fandom, however, and – it is rumoured – wrote a large number of stories, some of which appeared in the 1940s; others were published in the 1970s in response to the continuing appeal of his apparently primitive fiction, much of which was assembled, late in life, in such collections as Tales from Underwood (coll 1952), an ample volume which assembles Keller's own choice of his best work, The Folsom Flint and Other Curious Tales (coll 1969) and The Last Magician: Nine Stories from "Weird Tales" (coll 1978 chap).

It is clear enough that Keller's conceptual inventiveness, and his cultural gloom, are worthy of more attention than they have received; it is also clear that he fatally scanted the actual craft of writing, and that therefore he is likely never to be fully appreciated. [JC]

see also: Air Wonder Stories; Automation; Biology; Machines; Medicine; Psychology; Robots; Small Presses and Limited Editions; Technology.

David Henry Keller, M D

born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 23 December 1880

died Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania: 13 July 1966


collections and stories



The Sexual Education Series


previous versions of this entry

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