A Forgotten 1897 Novel About Smoking Keef Has Been Republished

T.W. Coakley's semi-autobiographical book, 'Keef: A Story of Intoxication, Love & Death,' is a rare gem of vintage drug lit.

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Jan 8 2018, 3:18pm

The Favorite of the Emir by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, 1879. All images courtesy of Feral House. 

Keef smoking originated in North Africa and the Middle East. In the Rif region of Morocco, for instance, people have been smoking it for hundreds of years. Derived from the Arabic word kayf, which means “pleasure,” it is sometimes written in English as kif or kief. All of these terms refer to the sticky THC crystals that make your buds look frosty AF. Apparently, keef has been a big thing with Western stoners for quite awhile, too. Look no further than T.W. Coakley’s semi-autobiographical novel, Keef: A Story of Intoxication, Love & Death. The book chronicles the New England author’s experiences smoking the stuff to attain “keef wisdom” back in 1897.

Drawing comparisons to Edgar Allen Poe’s work for its supernatural flair, the book was listed as one of the most important publishing events in that year's edition of Appleton’s Annual Cyclopaedia and Register of Important Events. (Other novels that made the list include H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man and Rudyard Kipling’s Captain Courageous.) Had it been lost to time, we might not know that people once saw keef as both a “wonder-working-weed” with the power to accelerate the cognitive processes and a “witching drug” that could be used to search for a love that transcended even death.

Thankfully, Keef was re-released by Process Media in 2017 through a collaboration with RKS Library, which houses the second largest collection of drug lit in the world. The library was founded by Dr. Ronald K. Siegal, a respected writer on drugs, drug literature, and pharmacopeia. He insisted that this book be heavily researched so that its updated edition could provide deep context, contemporary reviews, background information, and extra illustrations.

Keef is the third book in the RKS Library Editions series. It follows Hashish the Lost Legend: The First English Translation of a Great Oriental Romance and Priestess of Morphine: The Lost Writings of Marie-Madeleine in the Time of Nazis. VICE talked to Stephen J. Gertz, who worked on the books and was a colleague of Dr. Siegal, to find out why drugs have always been in our lives, what the concept behind “keef wisdom” is, and what modern marijuana smokers can learn from Keef.

"An Ambrosial Night," an original illustration for Keef by GWH Ritchie

VICE: Who was Timothy Wilfred Coakley?
Stephen J. Gertz: Born in Cambridge, MA in 1865 and trained as an artist, Coakley studied the law and was admitted to the bar in 1886, but very soon devoted himself to writing full-time as a newspaper and magazine journalist. Keef was Coakley’s first and only novel, inspired, it appears, by his attraction to the oriental-themed paintings of Benjamin Constant and Rudolph Ernst. Which were, in turn, inspired by those painters’ travels to Morocco.

Why did he write and publish Keef?
Much of the story takes place in New York, where Coakley had lived and worked for years. It was during this period that real hashish houses and Turkish smoking parlors were popular. They had been attracting crowds of customers since the early 1880s. It is highly probable that Coakley either visited such an establishment for research purposes, or enjoyed a visit as a patron.

The original publisher announced the book thusly: "Charles E. Brown & Co. have just issued a romance entitled Keef: A Life Story in Nine Phases, by Timothy Wilfred Coakley, of the Boston Bar. It is the story of a Jewish painter, who in search for higher inspiration finds that the Oriental herb gives him the exaltation for which he is pining. The form of a beautiful woman at last appears before his vision. And the story tells how he finds the original of his ideal and how her life is associated with his. It is cleverly written. Curiously enough, just about as the book was put on the market, Mr. Coakley was called upon to give professional advice to a client who bore the name of Keefe.”

Smoking the Hookah by Rudolf Ernst, 1885

What is the concept behind “keef wisdom” and how does one attain it?
As Dr. Siegal notes in the preface,"Cannabis wisdom involves some consumption of cannabis itself, usually keef, never forbidden in the Islamic moral codes. It draws heavily on memories, themes, and everyday conversations derived from being under the influence. The storyteller must then weave such experiences with characters, settings, and plots that create meaning in a world which might otherwise reject the significance of keef or other cannabis preparations. The best illustrations of this wisdom are found in the keef literature discussed in the introduction. The novel by T.W. Coakley was the first in this genre, appearing in the century before the work of other writers like Paul Bowles and Jean Genet."

How did a book about smoking keef get compared to Edgar Allen Poe?
Keef’s often eerie spiritual dimension is definitely inspired by Poe. Coakley was born 16 years after Poe’s death and, as Dr. Siegal notes, it’s as if Coakley discovered an unpublished manuscript by E.A.P. Keef is simply a masterful imitation of Poe's style. It’s both writers’ exploration of the inner landscape of the human mind that draws favorable comparisons. Ultimately, however, readers will have to decide, which should be a pleasant decision to make indeed.

Riding a Flying Carpet by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1880

Hookahs, flying carpets, and Arabia—keef has a lot of wild images associated with it. Can you explain?
Chalk it up to Oriental Romanticism, the West's fascination with the exotic mysteries of the East, which began in the late 18th century and took off during the 19th. Female sexuality played a role; the erotic was never far in the background. It provided subtext—those mysteriously alluring and tempting women behind veils. Oriental Romanticism was, obviously, a wishful and gross distortion of reality and remains a bane to true understanding of Eastern cultures.

Do you think it’s safe to say that drugs have always been a part of the human experience?
Yes. Dr. Siegel’s research has firmly established that mammals are attracted to plants that will alter consciousness. Little children spinning in circles to make themselves drunk-like dizzy is an example of humans deliberately altering their mental state to enjoy the results. It begins at a young age.

The original, 1897 cover of Keef by T.W. Coakley

Why?
The drive to alter consciousness represents a human instinct beyond sex, hunger, and sleep. It is, I believe, the drive to transcend quotidian reality. Transcendence can be achieved via religion or any activity that takes the individual out of their sense of temporal existence. Any activity that promotes flow, the ability to get lost in your head and/or in what you’re doing and lose all sense of time and ego, can lead to transcendence.

What was it like working with Dr. Siegal putting together the RKS Library?
Dr. Siegal’s joy in discovering lost books is contagious. He’s like a little kid with a new toy. He cannot leave it alone. And he needs to know everything that can be known. He’ll often call or write with some new tidbit he’s unearthed. It’s fun to play in the literary sandbox with him.

What can modern marijuana smokers learn from this book?
That today you can buy cannabis at your local dispensary with an equal or higher THC count than keef, but you will not experience the enticing visions associated with keef in literature. Mindset and physical setting highly influence how a psychotropic drug will be experienced, and the user’s native culture will provide context. You may have waking dreams but, rather than being rapturously transported to an exotic world featuring veiled and alluring women of the East during an ecstatic hallucination, you’re more likely to keep keef-inspired company with barmaids from Hooters imagined within curls of smoke, perhaps crave a Snickers candy bar, and/or simply zone-out in front of the TV watching reruns of Lost in Space.

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