David H. Keller

D.H.Keller in Science Wonder Stories July 1929 Stories

Portrait published in Science Wonder Stories, July 1929

David Henry Keller (1880-1966) was one of the most important science fiction writers to publish in the American pulp magazines between the Wars. He was a qualified doctor (his stories were almost invariably published as by “David H. Keller, M.D.”), and worked as a psychiatrist: he served as a military psychiatrist in both World Wars. John Clute starts the entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by saying:

US writer, 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).

Stableford quotes a line from Keller’s story “The Metal Doom” (Amazing Stories, July 1932), which illustrates this perfectly. It is a disaster story: all metals rust away, returning the world to the Stone Age.

In thinking it over, it seems to me that civilisation was sick; and it was a rather unpleasant illness. There was something about it that just seemed as though it had grown so fast that its elemental parts could no longer function and that it was bound to decay. Something had to happen, and it did (Stableford, 121).

Keller was deeply conservative, anti-feminist, and racist, and some of his stories are difficult to read these days. Clute instances “The Feminine Metamorphosis” (Wonder StoriesAugust 1929), in which some ruthless women, frustrated by their inability to get promotion in a male-dominated world, inject themselves with testosterone obtained from the severed genitals of thousands of Chinese men, and turn themselves into equally ruthless men. Stableford comments (p. 121): “This is perhaps Keller’s most nasty-minded story, though many readers may fail to understand it because of the coy medical jargon in which is crucial paragraphs are couched.”

Not much is known about his life, or about his service in the First World War. I take what I offer from Sam Moskowitz, who published his introductory piece about Keller during Keller’s lifetime and therefore, presumably, with Keller’s approval. He spent most of his life in Pennsylvania, being born in Philadelphia, and later living in a “spacious home”: “Underwood”, in South Stroudsburg PA.

As a small child he spoke a private language, which could only be understood by his sister, who was eighteen months older than he. She died at the age of seven, and David lost all ability to communicate verbally. He was sent home from school on his first day, as being language-deficient. His mother home-chooled him for three years, and when he went back to public school again, his vocabulary was larger than that of his fellow-students. It was at Central High School in Philadelphia, which he entered at the age of 14, that he wrote his first sf novel. As a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania he continued to write, and some of it was published, including a volume of poetry. But much of what he wrote remained in manuscript form, and Moskowitz says that he had seen the two shelves of unpublished novels and stories in Keller’s house. He struggled for some ten years as a “horse-and-buggy” doctor, but in 1915 accepted a position as Junior Physician at Anna State Hospital in Illinois, and from then on concentrated on psychiatry. His unpublished autobiography Through the Back Door (read by Moskowitz) talked about the impact that “this close observation of, and association with, the abnormal mind with its indelible background of sheer terror” had on him (Moskowitz 19).

Keller first appears in a science fiction magazine in 1928, with “The Revolt of the Pedestrians” (Amazing Stories, February 1928): he published seven more stories in Gernsback’s magazines that year: it is about how automobilists in the far future, who think they have annihilated pedestrians , are suddenly faced with their own destruction. As Moskowitz wrote (23): “While others wrote of rocket ships, ray guns, bizarre monsters, interstellar flights, and fourth dimensions, he wrote only of ordinary people and the problems they might conceivably encounter in the more highly specialised, scientific world of the future.”

Keller worked in various mental hospitals between the Wars, and continued writing, publishing around 50 stories by 1935, and also publishing “all told, over seven hundred scientific articles” (Moskowitz 27), a fair number of them being about sex: between 1933 and 1938 he edited the journal Sexology. His science fiction general fell out of favour in the late 1930s, and his own production slowed, although he did still publish the occasional story. He also achieved some literary success in France, having his work published in translation; Régis Messac, when asked who the greatest living science fiction author was, named David H. Keller, and not H.G. Wells.

Keller served the military again in the Second World War, with the rank of Colonel. Moskowitz says that he

was asked by the Army Medical Corps to organise the first school for illiterates and foreign language speaking soldiers. Feeling the need for adequate training literature, he wrote a primer and first reader, using a basic English vocabulary of 370 words. It was not until two years later that Winston Churchill, in his address atHarvard, proposed the adoption of a similar basic vocabulary. He felt that the adoption and use of this would promote harmony among the peoples of the earth (27).

In 1947, Keller told Moskowitz that he would probably write no more after he had finished The Abyss; a thought that Moskowitz (rightly) suspected to be unlikely. Moskowitz ended his piece by  quoting what Keller said in an interview published in Science Fiction Dialogiues in July 1933

I look forward to death as the Great Adventure. If after death comes nothingness, what a wonderful rest it will be, for I have been tired for many years. And if there is another life, I will go further, see more, spend less, than I have on any trip so far. The first thing I will do is to hunt up a good library. I am afraid that the Heavenly one is rather well censored, and I may have to go to the asbestos library of Gehenna to get the books i want to read. Then I am going to start writing. My idea of Heaven is to have every story accepted by an appreciate editor (32).

I have used Brian M. Stableford, “David H. Keller, 1880-1966”, in E.F. Bleiler, ed., Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Ninetenth Century to the Present Day (New York: Scribner’s,1982), 119-123; and Sam Moskowitz, “Introduction”, Life Everlasting, and Other Tales of Science, Fantasy and Horror, by David H. Keller, M.D. (Avalon Co.: New York, 1947),  reprinted by Hyperion (Westport CT) in 1974, pp. 9-33.