JOHN KEEL: NOT AN AUTHORITY ON ANYTHING

October 30, 2009

“Love That Spy!”

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Love That Spy! was published by Lancer Books in 1968.  According to John’s half-sister Cheryl, John wrote it, under the name T. A. Waters.  However, Waters was a real person with several books to his credit; and, according to Jim Steinmeyer, who knew him, wrote them himself.

So who was responsible for Love that Spy!?

I found a copy through an online book service, and sat down with it.  It didn’t take long to read.  It’s a generic spy-and-sex adventure, 141 pages long, and obviously modeled on the James Bond books, then at the height of their popularity.  In it, secret agent Sean Patrick travels from London to Greenwich Village to Berlin, battling bad guys, bedding women, and brandishing gimmicky gadgets.  It could have been written by any professional writer in 1968.

John and Waters might have known one another — both were regulars at L.A.’s Magic Castle.  Maybe they worked on it together; maybe John helped Waters.  I have no idea.  But I’ll mention it here, anyway; I think John would have enjoyed the confusion.

Keel Calling Cards (1)

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John printed up many different business cards over the years, most of them with a distinctive Keelian twist.

Visitors to this site who haven’t read Jadoo may be puzzled by the subtitle affixed to John’s name above.  Let me quote from page 159, where our author is trying to get a visa extension from a hostile bureaucrat in Delhi:

“Suddenly there was a bellow of deep, booming laughter in another office.  The young man reappeared.

“‘Follow me please.’

“He took me into a narrow, dimly lightly room where a huge man with sparkling eyes sat with his feet on the desk.  He jumped up and shook my hand.

“‘You are the American who does the rope trick?’ he asked, grinning.

“He picked up my card from his desk — calling cards are much in vogue in India — read it over again, sat down with a crash, and rocked with mirth.

“I had a hundred of these cards printed up for two rupees bearing the legend:  John A. Keel — Not an authority on anything.

“‘Wonderful!  Wonderful!’ he cried.  ‘You’re the first American I’ve ever met who wasn’t an ‘expert’ on something!'”

That broke the ice, and the visa was extended.

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In later years, John had these cards made up, and liked to hand them out.

October 22, 2009

The French Edition of “The Mothman Prophecies”

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The movie of The Mothman Prophecies inspired many new editions of the book.  Not only was it republished in the US and the UK; it was translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese, and other languages.  John was particularly amused by the Bulgarian edition; “I’m very big in Bulgaria,” he liked to say.

Most of them were simply translations of the text; some included a few film stills.  The French edition (Presses du Châtelet, 2002) was more ambitious: it was the first volume of a projected Bibliothèque des prodiges (Library of Wonders) that intended to “do for occultism and ‘pseudo-science’ what others had done previously for erotica: to confer upon them the status of a literary genre, and to recognize their place in our cultural history.”  It was a promising idea, but short-lived: the second and last entry in the series was Gray Barker’s They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers.

The French title is La Prophétie des Ombres (The Shadow Prophecy).  The literal translation — Les Prophéties de l’Homme-Phalène — would have been cumbersome, to say the least.

The translation (by Benjamin Legrand) seems fine to me, but what makes this edition noteworthy is the critical apparatus added by the editor of the series, Pierre Lagrange.  It comprises a 19-page foreword, 40 pages of notes, a 9-page bibliography (by George Eberhart), and a 9-page index.  The notes add much supplemental material on the many ufological personalities that pass through the book, and provide French readers with a thumbnail guide to the colorful UFO scene of the time.  Lagrange’s bio describes him as “a sociologist of the sciences, specializing in the study of controversies about the paranormal, and a researcher associated with the Laboratory of Anthropology and History, Institute of Culture.”  He’s published “numerous academic articles,” and two histories of ufological controversies.

I summarized the foreword for John, who didn’t speak French, and was naturally curious about it.  He liked it so much that he wanted to use it as the introduction to his last book, The Best of John Keel.  This idea didn’t pan out, for a number of reasons: it was too long, he didn’t have the rights to it, and didn’t know how to contact Lagrange, to name a few.  It’s worth reading; it’s a perceptive study of John’s ideas, particularly in The Mothman Prophecies and The Eighth Tower, and of his relations with the rest of ufology.  And it ends with a glimpse of what it was like to try to set up an appointment with John (here in my translation):

“In fact, I haven’t told you under what circumstances I made the acquaintance of John Keel.  In 1987, my laboratory sent me to the United States to inquire about UFO enthusiasts.  I wanted to meet Keel.  When I announced my intentions to ufologists in Paris, they looked at me in astonishmant, and told me that Keel had died.  Unhappy news!  But, according to other sources, he was indeed still alive.  When I arrived in New York, I tried to call him.  He was not at home, so I left a message on his machine.  No news.  I called again, and this time found him at home.  He explained that he had called my number, and spoken to a woman who had promised to give me the message.  But there was no woman in the apartment where I was staying.  “Well, well, that’s curious,” remarked Keel, who insisted on asking for the details of this event, which he found extremely strange.  I told him that he must have dialed a wrong number, but he denied this, and claimed that the person seemed to know me.  I ignored this event, which, to me, was not one, and proposed a meeting.”

October 14, 2009

“Visitors from Lanulos”

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LANULOS

One of the most puzzling and arresting characters in The Mothman Prophecies is Woodrow Derenberger, the sewing-machine salesman who met Indrid Cold one rainy evening on the Interstate. (Those who know Mothman only from the movie may not realize that Mothman and Indrid Cold were conflated for filmic purposes: Cold was not the “winged weirdie,” but a pleasant, telepathic ufonaut.) Derenberger and Harold W. Hubbard told their own version of the story in Visitors From Lanulos, published by Vantage Press in 1971.

It’s a slender volume, filled with Derenberger’s implausible tales of saucer rides, planets peopled by pious nudists who drink decaffeinated coffee, and feathered humanoids in pink spaceships. It’s illustrated with detailed saucer plans, and the “Intergalactic Alphabet” used on the planet Lanulos. Vantage is a well-known “vanity press”; I assume the book was sold at personal appearances by Derenberger or Hubbard, a UFO investigator in Ohio.

And it has a Foreword by John A. Keel, although that interesting fact is not publicized on the cover. John’s Foreword is dated Oct. 12, 1968; the book seems to have been in production for a while.

John makes it clear that he doesn’t believe Derenberger, but thinks he deserves a hearing. It’s a sensible standpoint; and all too rare in the simplistic polemics of believers versus mockers.

Since Visitors From Lanulos is also rare nowadays, here are a couple of excerpts from John’s Foreword:

“There are many who will scoff at this book and reject it entirely. Woodrow Derenberger will be called a liar, a psychopath and many other unpleasant things. He has already suffered considerable ridicule and condemnation, even from those who believe in “flying saucers” but do not wish to believe that someone is actually riding around in them. I cannot endorse his story but I do feel I know the man well enough to give him a character reference. The important thing is that he seems to be telling the truth as he knows it. He sincerely believes that these things happened to him. And he is willing to expose himself to ridicule and condemnation in order to make himself heard.”

“I have talked to ‘contactee’ claimants who are doctors, lawyers, newspapermen, police officers and pilots. Woody has a lot of company; sane, reputable people. Perhaps we are the ones who have been insane for ignoring them for so long. Strange, unbelievable things are now happening to people all over the world. By listening to the handful of courageous ones, like Woodrow Derenberger, we may at last gain some real insight into what is really behind the UFO phenomenon.

“I’m not asking you to believe any of it. But I am asking you to listen to what he has to say. Incredible though it may seem, it is very possible that these very same things could happen to you tomorrow.”

October 7, 2009

“On Exhibition” and “A Day at the Fair”

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John A. Keel: film comedian? Well, not professionally; but he did make some memorable appearances in independent films.

One of John’s friends for many years was Ed Lord, a bass player who worked and taught in NYC. I don’t know much about his career, except that he played at one time with the Glenn Miller band. Like John, Lord was a member of the Metropolitan Motion Picture Club, an organization of 8mm film-makers. Many members just shot simple vacation and home movies. Others, like Ed Lord (and, most conspicuously, George and Mike Kuchar) made more ambitious narrative films, often with sound.

John made a few films with Lord; I don’t know how many. Two I do know of are “On Exhibition” and “A Day at the Fair.” In the first, John, in a rumpled suit and a few days of beard, is thrown out of a number of bars, only to stumble into the Museum of Modern Art, where he blearily confronts the exhibits. In the second, he waits in line at the 1964 World’s Fair; and repeatedly loses his place, tries to cut in, and scuffles with other patrons. He wears a striking outfit for this role: Bermuda shorts, black socks and sneakers, sunglasses, a pipe, and a bright red and white cap with a long blue feather. It certainly makes him easier to spot in long shots. I’m happy to report that John turns in funny, relaxed performances as both stumblebum and boor.

October 2, 2009

“Three Women”

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John wrote a couple of novels, under his favorite pseudonym, Harry Gibbs.  He had a particular affection for Three Women, and happily signed the copy I found.

It was published in 1965 by Midwood Books, a company that churned out paperbacks like Taboo, Wild and Wicked, Jailbait, The Swap Set.  They all had their quota of sex scenes, but were never graphic enough to break the smut laws.  Today, they don’t even seem daring; but are often entertaining for their period flavor and flashy covers.

John generally remembered them for the fun he had with them, dropping in private jokes, friends’ names, and bits of satire.  Three Women is the story of Brad Phillips and his complicated love life: which, in fact, revolves around five women, not three.  Brad must have lost count in the “dark fuzziness enveloping his brain as he sank into a whirlpool of sensation.”  And that’s only on page 7, with much “numbness and lust that was destroying his sense of reason” ahead.

Among Brad’s conquests is Shelley Burnside, “the rich, beautiful, demanding artist who wanted him to pose nude for her during the day and cater to her whims during the night.”  Shelley and Brad attend a few Bohemian parties in Greenwich Village, which gave John a chance to poke fun at the mid-’60s scene there.

Brad’s patience is sorely tried, for example, by an experimental film he sits through on page 127:  “It was four hours long and consisted of an endless series of blurred images which flashed across the scene in a confused jumble.  There were no actors in the picture, just a maze of moving trees and telephone poles and now and then a sudden close-up of a wilted flower.  Brad would have fallen asleep if he had been more comfortable.  The film broke several times and there were interminable pauses while the proud film-maker tinkered with the projector.”  Here, one senses, Harry Gibbs has called upon his real suffering for his fiction.

One funny — and personal — detail surfaces with a Village artist, Ben Benjamin, who has a unique gimmick.

“‘Ben is a worm painter,’ Shelley explained.

“‘A worm painter?’ Brad’s eyebrows shot up.  ‘Do you paint worms?’

“‘Nawwww,’ Ben sat down in the sling chair and took a swig of his spiked coffee.  ‘I paint with worms…  Like, I dip worms in paint and drop ‘em on the canvas.  Dig?’  Ben explained patiently.  ‘They crawl around and make abstract designs.'”

John had actually enlisted 35 worms to create a painting for “Play Your Hunch,” one of the game shows he wrote for in the ’60s.  It appeared on the show on November 8, 1960; John recalled that the art critics summoned to pass judgment were baffled by it, and pronounced it “mindless.” You can see it hanging proudly behind him in this snapshot from 1967.

JAKWITHPAINTING

October 1, 2009

“The Lunarite”

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John published a science fiction fanzine, The Lunarite, in 1946.  As he recalled, he was then contributing a column to the local paper, the Perry Herald, and was able to get it printed on their presses.  The first issue appeared on a postcard; the second was a single sheet on light pink paper.  They were modest, but they were typeset; which made other science fiction fans (or, in the jargon of the time, “scientifiction fen,” or “stfans”), with their smudged mimeographs, jealous.

A couple of notes: Keel fans may be intrigued by his early mention of the “Shaver Mystery”  in that first issue.  A BEM was a “Bug Eyed Monster,” a cliche scorned by true stfans. In the second issue, Lena the Hyena was a cartoon of a hideous woman, drawn by Basil Wolverton for a contest in “Li’l Abner.”  Sarge Saturn was the fictional letters editor for the Standard line of pulps.  And the Weird Tales cover John mentions can be pondered here.

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John never sent Sarge Saturn his copy.  Maybe he decided it was time to put fandom behind him, and turn professional.

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