Before I began reading The Spectacles of Mr Cagliostro, one of Harry Keeler’s earliest novels, I was warned by several Keelerphiles that it not only was rather good, but genuinely scary. This is true. Yes, there are a few eccentricities here and there, but nothing like those the later books will feature, and Spectacles really does feel personal, emotional, like its author was frightened by his own material.
He had good reason. For much of the novel, Keeler writes about his own experiences, in a way; as a 20-something, he had been thrown into an Illinois insane asylum by his mother, for reasons which are strangely unknown, and there he lived the nightmare of a perfectly sane man trying to persuade his captors that he did not belong. Recent psychological studies have discovered that this problem, though not actually pervasive, is common enough to be a worry: in 1973, David Rosenhan launched a legendary experiment in which various perfectly healthy people claimed to “hear voices” and then languished in mental hospitals, waiting for somebody to realize they were actually sane. Rosenhan himself was trapped in an institution for two months.
Jerome H. Middleton, the hero of Stephen Keeler’s novel, is trapped for a shorter time than Rosenhan, but in truly harrowing circumstances. In a delicious catch-22, he is the victim of an elaborate, indeed byzantine conspiracy to make him look paranoid. He witnesses a staged meeting of assassins and is committed to an insane asylum, where one of the employees really is trying to kill him. Brilliantly, Keeler has the asylum staff reply the only way they can: “That’s exactly what they told us you’d say.”
Jerry is like a fish trying to flop out of a tight net. Eventually, I started squirming, too. If you’re stuck in a nuthouse, how exactly do you get out? Jerry knows he’s the victim of a plot, but the plot has made him look paranoid already. Meanwhile, the schemers are about to sucker him out of his $10 million inheritance (this is 1926; after inflation, that’s $122 million).
There are a great many downright terrific scenes in the asylum. Somebody (Francis Nevins?) wrote that the scene where Jerry is strapped down for a spinal tap is the scariest, most intense moment in all of Keeler, and it is genuinely frightening. One has to conclude Keeler himself suffered this indignity and wanted to impress his readers with the horror he, too, had felt. Another great scene has Jerry finally learning the sad truth about another man in the place who appears just as sane as he is.
Best of all is the moment when Jerry sits down for a shave–in the barber’s chair of a hired killer with a nice, sharp razor blade. I would have actually gone farther than Keeler there, though: there is room for some really terrific dialogue, with sinister undertones. It would work especially well on a movie screen, the barber in a slow, leisurely walk around his new victim, asking innocuous questions (“sideburns?”) fraught with all sorts of cruel subtexts which the victim slowly begins to understand. It would be like the madhouse Sweeney Todd. There are a couple other cinematic moments, too, like when the chief conspirator lies in wait for Jerry at a boarding-house, revolver in hand, and finally hears his visitor arrive.
But of course, it wouldn’t be Keeler without some silliness. In this case, there’s an unlikely love story, and a pretty serious plotting issue, rare for Keeler: Jerry has lived in Australia all his life, yet no characters remark on his Australian accent. Weirder, nobody believes in him when the conspiracy replaces him with a double from England. In fact, a celebrated psychoanalyst named Herr Meister Doctor von Zero analyzes his dreams and decides he is from Canada!
Another absurdity is the title spectacles: a set of dark blue goggles which were allegedly once property of Cagliostro, an actual mystic (or con artist) from the 1700s. Jerry is supposed to wear them for an entire year to satisfy his father’s crazy will, although this plan is aborted when he gets thrown in the insane asylum.
It’s a pity that Keeler decided to forge a career writing the “spectacles” kind of story, rather than the “sane man trapped inside” kind of story. Of course, other authors did that well, and nobody else could achieve the kind of deliriously imaginative, perverse stuff Keeler did pursue. But The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro is a surprising look at Keeler the genuinely accomplished suspense writer, and Keeler the man. Forget all that stuff about goggles and loving nurses and Chicago being “the Land of Heart’s Desire,” and forget silly dialogue like “‘Do you mind speaking just a little louder, Jerry,’ Fortescue interrupted, cupping his ear with his hand. ‘I got my ears full of water in the swimming tank at the Chicago Athletic Club to-day, and you’re competing with a miniature Niagara Falls just now.'”
No, what really matters is this: how do you escape a perfectly-laid trap? If the whole world thinks you’re crazy, how do you know you’re sane? If there’s a plot to say you’re paranoid, how do you know you’re not? This is the scary, impressive meat of the book. And it’s a sign of Keeler’s fidelity to his set-up that when Jerry tries to go Shawshank and hacksaw his way to freedom, even that doesn’t work. The most strongly fortified prison is the mind.