Friday, January 4, 2013

The Jelly-Fish

David H. Keller (1880–1966)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Illustrations of Periphylla (crown or helmet jellyfish) from Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel. (The image has been rotated 90 degrees.)
Following World War I, America’s pulp magazines increasingly published science fiction alongside their usual fare of Westerns, fantasy, and horror. Editors were on the lookout for new writers in this burgeoning market, and by the end of the 1920s “there were a few writers capable of producing quality science fiction,” writes British literary historian Mike Ashley. “The best in those early years were Miles J. Breuer and David H. Keller, both, intriguingly, physicians.” Both authors also spent World War I in the Army Medical Corps; during his service, David H. Keller (a neuropsychiatrist) helped pioneer the treatment of shellshock victims.

Keller wrote fiction for six decades while working at his various medical jobs: as a physician or superintendent at mental institutions in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Louisiana, and Tennessee; during military service in both world wars; and while in private practice. His career as a writer began early. At the age of fifteen, in 1895, he published a story in a local magazine; during college he submitted a dozen stories and poems to a small literary magazine. Yet for the following three decades, while he continued writing voluminously, he wrote almost entirely for himself. Prompted by his wife, he began sending out his stories in the late 1920s and found that the market had caught up to his own personal tastes; his first submission to a national magazine was accepted immediately and appeared as “The Revolt of the Pedestrian” in the February 1928 issue of the recently founded Amazing Stories. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to date Keller’s work with accuracy; many of his pieces had been written years or even decades earlier. In addition, a lot of his writing has vanished because he was famous for sending pieces (free of charge) to fanzines, amateur magazines, and obscure periodicals. In any event, his new career allowed him to set up a small private practice as a psychiatrist, which left him enough hours in the day to be a “full-time” writer.

In spite of the ubiquity of his byline in the pulps (not to mention his numerous book-length publications), the bulk of Keller’s fiction is now forgotten and out of print. Nevertheless, a small handful of stories still appear frequently in anthologies. Among his best-known works are psychological thrillers (including “The Thing in the Cellar,” perhaps his most famous tale) and fantasias that offer a cynical look at the hubris of scientists (such as “The Jelly-Fish”). An appraisal of Keller’s career by science-fiction editor Everett F. Bleiler summarizes, “Keller had considerable reservations about technological and scientific ‘progress,’ and his work was unusual, almost unique, in considering the impact of such ‘progress’ on individuals and society, usually negatively.”

Note: Although there is a common sea snail known as the Papal Mitre (or Bishop’s Mitre) in the seas of the South Pacific, the microscopic jellyfish of that name seems to be purely Keller’s invention.

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“All space is relative. There is no such thing as size. The telescope and the microscope have produced a deadly leveling of great and small, far and near. The only little thing is sin, the only great thing is fear!” . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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