The Greatest Bad Writer aka the Awfulest Who Ever Lived

Jeanne Matthews 2Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at

Imagine my delight when I learned that I could download online and for free the first and best known novel of the worst writer who ever lived.  I had my own short list of likely candidates, but the winner surprised me.

Jeanne Matthews Edward Bulwer-LyttonIt wasn’t Edward Bulwer-Lytton, although he remains the most celebrated bad writer in the English language.  His work has been relentlessly parodied and has even inspired a competition in which thousands take pen in hand to create the most dreadful opening sentence to a novel.  The winning entries are collected and published in It Was A Dark And Stormy Night and Son of Stormy Night.  Bulwer-Lytton coined another famous phrase: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  It takes a mighty pen to produce a true masterpiece of mangled prose, and Bulwer-Lytton can’t hold a candle to Harry Stephen Keeler.

Stephen Keeler wrote eighty-five astonishingly bad mystery novels, almost all of which featured a human skull.  His plots were convoluted and his conclusions left readers scratching their heads.  He doesn’t bother to mention the guilty party until the last page, or the main character never appears or speaks, but is merely alluded to by other characters.  His own publisher praised his books with not-so-faint damns.  “One jaw-droppingly unlikely coincidence after another…clangorous similes and characters spouting loony dialects.”  A typical blurb blazoned on the dust jacket read, “A story such as only Keeler could write.”

Here’s a line from Chapter 1 of his most famous novel, The Riddle of the Traveling Skull:

“It must be remembered that at the time I knew quite nothing, naturally, concerning Milo Payne, the mysterious Cockney-talking Englishman with the checkered long-beaked Sherlockholmesian cap; nor of the latter’s ‘Barr-Bag’ which was as like my own bag as one Milwaukee wienerwurst is like another; nor of Legga, the Human Spider, with her four legs and six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, ex-convict, and son of Dong Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigge; nor of the Great Simon, with his 2163 pearl buttons; nor of – in short, I then knew quite nothing about anything or anybody involved in the affair of which I had now become a part, unless perchance it were my nemesis, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwumpel – or Suing Sophie.”

Jeanne Matthews Henry Stephen KeelerWith sentences like that, it wouldn’t seem that he needed much padding to get to 500 pages.  But he liked to extend the length of his novels by inserting the verbatim text of an entirely different story, often one of his wife’s short stories.  He would simply have his protagonist pick up a magazine or book and begin reading at random, leaving the original story behind – possibly for the better, depending upon one’s tolerance for Suing Sophie or – my personal favorite, the naked corpse with a Chinese top half and an African bottom half glued together by green gum.

Jeanne Matthews Amanda McKittrick RosWhile plausibility was not his strong suit, Keeler has become a cult figure.  As Otto Penzler says, he is to literature what Ed Wood is to film – so stupefyingly bad that they’re good.  You’d think that Keeler would own the title of “Worst Ever.”  But no, The Oxford Companion to English Literature has awarded the distinction of “World’s Worst Novelist” to Amanda McKittrick Ros, an Irish novelist whose awfulness exceeds anything previously considered.  Now, thanks to Project Gutenberg, her first and most atrocious novel, Irene Iddesleigh, published in 1897, is available online for all to marvel at and enjoy.

Here is her opening sentence:

“Sympathise with me, indeed!  Ah, no!  Cast your sympathy on the chill waves of troubled waters; fling it on the oases of futurity; dash it against the rock of gossip; or, better still, allow it to remain within the false and faithless bosom of buried scorn.”

It doesn’t exactly sing, but it has fewer semicolons than Keeler’s sentence and on the basis of just those two examples, I’d give the edge to Keeler in a Bulwer-Lytton matchup.  It becomes a harder call as Amanda launches into her second and third sentences:

“Such were a few remarks of Irene as she paced the beach of limited freedom, alone and unprotected.  Sympathy can wound the breast of trodden patience, – it hath no rival to insure the feelings we possess, save that of sorrow.”

Where the Bones are BuriedTruth to tell, I don’t think I’ll be able to finish Irene Iddesleigh, in spite of its superlative achievementPerhaps a smaller dose of Amanda will do me.  In addition to her three novels, Amanda published two volumes of poetry, “a lot of which rhymes,” according to the website “Pity the Readers.”  The critics savaged Amanda, but you needn’t waste your sympathy upon that breast of trodden patience.  She savaged her detractors right back, assailing them as “evil-minded snapshots of spleen” and “talent-wipers of a wormy order.”  And anyway, who remembers the critics?  Away out there in the oases of futurity, immortality is its own sweet revenge.