John died five years ago today. After he died, I wrote a piece on his final years for the Fortean Times. Some readers, especially American, may not have seen it, so I’ll post it here. RIP, John!
JOHN A. KEEL, 1930-2009
“One score and one year ago a father brought forth upon this continent a red-faced, bare-footed little organism so conceived and so dedicated that no one could long endure him. At the age of ten this mewing little monster read the writing on the backhouse wall and made the first important decision of his fascinating and disgusting life. He decided that he would one day become a writer and spread his wisdom to the far corners of every comfort station in the country.”
That’s how the young John A. Keel saw himself back in 1951 (in an unfinished sketch, “Skunks Aren’t the Only Stinkers”). And quite a life it turned out to be, until his death, on July 3, 2009.
Most of that life was, of course, spent writing. At one time, he had cards and stationery made up that simply read “John A. Keel. He writes.” His “wisdom” was probably spread most widely to the comfort stations of Forteans. Most of his books were on those troublesome topics; and he brought to them his own particular spin. I suppose we’d have to call it Keelian: outrageous, scary, mischievous, dramatic, funny, and a bit dodgy. Even if you didn’t believe all of his tales, or agree with all of his interpretations, he kept you engaged. His ideas were a major (and, in my opinion, healthy) influence on all of us poor souls who puzzle over the unexplained. I still find The Mothman Prophecies, among its other qualities, one of the best caveats to the perils of rooting about in the shadowlands.
Some fans may be unaware, however, of how much John wrote on other subjects. In his 20s, he produced a steady stream of testosterone-fueled stories and articles for the men’s adventure magazines (a genre he called “blood, bosoms, and baloney”). Much of it went into his first book, Jadoo: still a wonderfully entertaining memoir of a farm boy in a pith helmet, romping through the Orient in a very different time. But he also wrote poetry, light verse, radio and TV scripts, and magazine articles on whatever subject might turn a buck. He wrote jokes for Jackie Gleason and Merv Griffin, and game show ideas for Goodson and Todman. He wrote continuity for “Superman” and “Captain Marvel.” As “Harry Gibbs,” he cranked out quickie sleaze paperbacks; as “Thornton M. Vaseltarp, Ph.D.” and “Maynard Gibson,” he confected filthy humor pieces for “Screw.” He wrote a travel series for the Armed Forces Network (“Take a Trip”), slapstick comedy for kids’ TV shows like “Mack and Meyer for Hire” and “The Chuck McCann Show” – even a sci-fi pilot for German TV (“The Outer Space Explorers”).
But my own experience with John was as a friend; and that’s perhaps what I should concentrate on here. Too, I was one of the few left near the end, and I’d like to quell some of the rumors of those final years.
I met John in 1990. A friend of mine was writing a piece on séances, and asked me for leads. I called a magician I knew, Ben Robinson, who suggested that I call John. Soon after that, I was a regular at his “N.Y. Fortean Society,” and we were cooking up entertainments for the FortFests that the International Fortean Organization held down in Virginia. For one of them, I did a ventriloquism routine in which my dummy used his psychic powers to find a dollar taped under one of the chairs. John and I had previously affixed rubber snails to many of them; the squeals as forteans discovered something gelatinous were quite satisfying.
The years went by, as years do, and John and I became friends. We talked often, and frequently met for lunch (he hated going out for dinner; he said everywhere was too crowded). He was by no means reclusive: he often went to the movies, and never missed a meeting of the New York Stereoscopic Society, at the Museum of Natural History. He loved to chat about show business, insult everyone (including me), and reminisce. Since neither of us spent holidays with family, we often spent Thanksgiving or Christmas together, wandering around Manhattan or shooting abysmally incompetent games of billiards.
So much rumor and speculation has been tossed around about John’s last years: that he was a recluse, that he’d been abandoned by his friends, and who knows what else. The truth is somewhat more prosaic: he was simply getting older, often ill, and not always sociable. He suffered from diabetes, anemia, and congestive heart failure. His diet was appalling – he could have lived happily on packaged snacks from the drugstore – but he took enough care of himself that he was spared the worst effects of diabetes. Many of his friends had died along the way; others grew exasperated at his relentless negativity and stubbornness. He could indeed be someone “no one could long endure.” But many of us still hung in there. In particular, Ben Robinson, Jack Scaparro, Anthony Matt, Larry “Ratso” Sloman, and I helped him when he grew sick and weak, and could no longer fully care for himself. He drove us nuts; but we found, to our surprise, that we enjoyed complaining about him as much as he enjoyed complaining about everything else.
Even in his prime, John flaunted the full-throttle waywardness of a born trickster. On a few road trips, I read the map as John drove. He routinely did the opposite of whatever I said (“That doesn’t look right,” he’d say), got lost, and then accused me of incompetence. His friends grew used to his stock contrarian complaints: that there were no restaurants in Manhattan; that the large grocery store on his corner carried nothing but “ten kinds of mustard.” He lived in a spacious apartment in a well-kept building in an affluent neighborhood. He insisted, again and again, that it was a tiny studio in a condemned building in a slum.
His apartment was indeed a horror, however, cluttered and filthy. An old girlfriend of his simply called it “THAT apartment.” It was piled high with books, boxes, gadgets (mostly still unopened), stationery supplies, Mothman memorabilia, piles of clean and dirty laundry. The floor was littered with papers, water bottles, magazines, and unmatched shoes. It looked like a place where a slovenly teenager had been moping for decades – which, in a way, it was.
In the last couple of years, his behavior grew crankier. He stopped paying his rent and phone bill, and pulled out his front door buzzer. He insisted that all of his food was spoiled and inedible, all doctors were charlatans, and all his medications were useless. Although he was growing too weak to live alone, he refused to consider assisted living, or even to admit visiting nurses into his apartment.
He settled into somewhat of a cycle, repeatedly checking in and out of hospitals. When hospitalized, or recuperating in a nursing home, he groused that it was like a prison. Once at home, he lasted a few weeks, or days, collapsed again, and was rushed back to the hospital.
Larry and I were his health-care proxies; and also poured time and energy into working with city agencies to prevent his eviction, meeting with social workers about his future, and making sure he was well treated in the hospital. I saw him at least once a week: when he was at home, I checked in with him, and helped him carry out garbage and shop for groceries; when he was in the hospital, I brought him his mail and things he wanted from his apartment.
On one occasion, I checked up on John at home, and found him on the floor, unable to move or to speak coherently, and called an ambulance. Emergency Medical Services reported the condition of his apartment, and a cleaning was ordered by the city. Larry and I oversaw the operation, as men in hazmat suits carted out rubbish and scrubbed the floors; we made sure none of John’s papers or valuables were tossed. I don’t think he ever forgave us for that – particularly the loss of his moldy shower curtain.
John was home for his last birthday, on March 25. Anthony Matt and I took him to lunch, and gave him little gifts: a UFO painting by a street artist, a deck of WW2 aircraft spotter cards (he was a life-long aviation buff). Not long afterward, a caseworker for Adult Protective Services visited him, and found him so weak that, once again, she called an ambulance.
He was admitted to a hospital for transfusions and tests, then to a nursing home for sub-acute care. As usual, I held onto his keys and wallet, and brought him his mail. At the nursing home, however, his food fixations became more serious. He continually complained that he was starving, but wouldn’t eat. He grew weaker and weaker. Eventually, he had to be readmitted to a hospital. Larry and I visited him on July 1; he was confused and had trouble swallowing, but was still cogent.
On July 3, I got a call from his doctors. John had been found in the early morning with no pulse or blood pressure. He had been resuscitated and placed on a respirator, but had suffered serious and irreversible brain damage, and could no longer breathe on his own. I hurried over, and met with his doctors; we agreed that, at this point, he should be allowed to die peacefully. We contacted Larry, who also talked with the doctors, and also gave his consent. The treatment was terminated.
And so this was it, the end of that “fascinating and disgusting life.” Somehow, I was the one left by the deathbed. I knew he couldn’t understand me, but I had to say something. So I told him that we’d done all we could for him, that we’d miss him, and that we’d keep reading his crazy books. I said goodbye. He died soon after.
I’m sure many of you will miss him too, and I hope that you too will keep reading his crazy books.