In 1897, T.W. Coakley published 'Keef: A Story of Intoxication, Love & Death,' one of the first known novels in English to explore the wonderful and weird world of cannabis. The book was re-published this fall by Feral House, one of our favorite publishers here at MERRY JANE.
In the extra-illustrated and annotated version of the original, edited and compiled by Dr. Ronald K. Siegel, readers get a vantage into the history of "Kif Literature," as it's come to be known, including a myriad of vintage illustrations that are downright wild. On top of his work on the revamped version of 'Keef,' Dr. Siegel is famous for being one of the first academics to explore 'psychopharmacology," and he's also notorious for teaching monkeys to smoke crack cocaine.
Our excerpt begins with a brief history of 19th-century marijuana-focused literatury from Dr. Siegel, and continues will a short section from "Phase IV" of the novel, in which the narrator details how his experiments with smoking keef influence his work on a painting. Take a deep, deep inhale and enjoy this trip into the past!
The original 1897 cover of 'Keef' by TW Coakley, courtesy of Feral House
Keef is the first known English novel in a genre best described as "Kif Literature." Other kif novels and stories appeared in the following century when expatriate American writers like Paul Bowles were attracted to the magic of Morocco and kif. They settled in the most bewitching city of Tangier (a.k.a. Tangiers) for long visits. Several early French and later English memoirs of travels in North Africa had mentioned the drug in passing, at times referring to it as Moroccan hashish but describing a product that is clearly kif. Others passing through stayed only long enough to sample the kif — sometimes unaware of its "magic."
For example, Nick Flynn's memoirs of a 1986 trip to Morocco describes a grapefruit-sized ball of bright-green pollen (called "unprocessed hashish" in the book) that he learns to make into cigarettes and smoke before getting out of bed in the morning:
….[kif ] dulls and simultaneously focuses, reduces the day to a pinpoint, to a voice inside laughing, a board strapped to your back to keep you standing—all you are now is high. Two joints and the doors close, you don't have to go out today.
Coakley refers to "kif" with several telltale phrases such as "a wonder-working weed" and a "witching drug" that suggest he was familiar with the literature of tobacco, marijuana, and hashish that frequently used "weed" and "witching" in their descriptions. Indeed, "weed" is almost synonymous with both tobacco and marijuana. And "witching" has been used in both tobacco and hashish literature. In the 1889 temperance booklet A Weed That Bewitches, tobacco is the evil culprit. In The Hasheesh Eater, one of Coakley's sources, hashish is referred to as the "witch plant." While Coakley remains the only author to apply the "witching" word to kif and describe its effect as "witchcraft," the translated Arabic stories that form the foundation of modern kif literature (discussed below) use equivalent words, found in any thesaurus, to describe kif effects: "sorcery" and "magic."
A 1909 postcard image by Cobb Shinn, courtesy of Feral House
Other novels that mention kif (either by name or as distinguished from hashish in preparation, potency, use and effects) are found among crime, detective, and mystery books where the drug is mentioned in passing but is not a central theme. Sensational stories and articles about the mysterious attraction and ravages of kif first appeared in French pulp magazines or books during the early 1900s. This was followed by a few English novels. In The Laughing Peril an "oriental demon" attempts to destroy the entire white race by exercising hypnotic control after spreading kif (spelled "kiff" in the book and sometimes referred to as hemp) throughout the entire world. Like novels of the mystery genre, Gates' kif is used as just another narcotic, like opium, to seduce and control behavior. These books reflect little information about the unique properties of the drug except its potency.
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From the novel 'Blondel,' courtesy of Feral House
Here it is interesting to note that present-day kif growers in Morocco only sell their lower-quality kif (the second or third sifted batches of crushed leaves) in the world market because the best quality kif, that which is from the first sifted batch, would "blow your head open." The growers in both Morocco and Algeria reserve such potent kif for themselves and use tiny amounts with learned caution. They have been doing this for over eight hundred years. Deaths among browsing herbivorous animals have been reported and accidental deaths among chronic human users have been linked to confusional delirium and the secondary effects of hypothermia, malnutrition, and dehydration.
The long historical use of kif in North Africa found its way into native folklore and stories transmitted as oral lore and cultural tradition. Since English translations were not available before 1897 it seems unlikely that Coakley had access to the material as most Moroccan literature was written and/or told in Arabic, Berber, or Moghrebi. He may have been equipped to read those few tales that appeared in Spanish (others in Italian) but no English translations were available. The Moroccan kif literature flowered in the twentieth century when Paul Bowles (1910–1999), an American expatriate author who, like Coakley's narrator, lived in Tangiers and not only wrote in English but translated other authors such as Mohammed Mrabet, perhaps the most prolific writer of kif stories, as well as the author of Earth the only known play featuring kif.
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'Smoking the Hookah' by Rudolf Ernst (1885), illustration courtesy of Feral House
Paul Bowles, Mrabet's translator, wrote his own collection of stories based on kif intoxications including a story about one kif smoker who is swept away by his kif dream and begins to act it out in reality. The same thing happens to Coakley's narrator, Leon Abecassis, who has kif dreams about his "spirit bride," the love of his life whom he pursues for the rest of his own.
Initial reviews were favorable, calling the book a "supernatural story," but none cited the obvious similarity to an Edgar Allan Poe tale. As a novel, Keef was eventually listed as one of the most important publishing events of 1897. Other novels that made the list that year included Joseph Conrad's Nigger of the Narcissus, H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man, and Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous.
Coakley's novel was written as a memoir told by a narrator who was chronically under the influence of kif, again which Coakley called "the witching drug." It was the first, and remained the only, full-length novel devoted to the drug kif itself until the twentieth-century flowering of Moroccan kif literature. Nonetheless, it remains a literary masterpiece.
Even if you have read the 1897 edition of Keef or perhaps a print-on-demand copy, an entirely new adventure awaits you up ahead, just around the corner on the next page. It is a magic carpet ride into the world of kif, now in full color and with full disclosure of its makings as the pioneering novel of the genre. Imagine flying high over the green fields of "Morocco Cannabis" known as kif, beyond the peaks of the surrounding Rif mountains, and into the clouded twilight zone of a psychopharmacological romance. You will be guided through never-before-revealed events hiding behind the curtain of the text.
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~ Dr. Ronald K. Siegel
'Favorite of Emir' by Jean-Josesph Benjamin-Constant (1879), courtesy of Feral House
Below we’ve excerpted a short section from a chapter of the novel titled, “PHASE IV: Phantasm and Flesh."
Just how the keef trance merged into waking consciousness I cannot say. Certain it is that there must have intervened a period of unremembered activity, for I was startled to find a new canvas on the easel, and, on that canvas, sketched roughly in with a touch which I recognized as my own, the outlines of a new painting. Imagine my delight on finding that I had unwittingly obtained a sitting from the fair lady of my vision. I was jubilant at the prospect. Here was the promise that my loved one would brighten even my waking moments with her beauty. While the recollection of her charms was vivid enough to enable me to proceed with the work, I preferred to trust to the inspiration of the wonder-working drug, and I lost no time in renewing its influence.
I applied myself to my pipe, and again that perfect face and frame took unto themselves their subtle substance. My spirit bride approached and laid her hand upon my brow, as though sealing it with the signet of the genius that beamed from her majestic eyes. Again I experienced that ardent communion of souls which poets have inadequately sung, and which the mass of mortals have faintly imaged forth as the bliss unattainable of perfect love. Again there came the blank of unconsciousness, and again, on waking, I was overjoyed to find that notable progress had been made on the new painting. Thus matters went on for several weeks until the picture had grown, under my unconscious brush, into a flawless and completed work. Then it was that I could have fallen down and worshipped my own handicraft. Surely such a vision of human loveliness, whether in the flesh or on canvas, was never before vouchsafed to man.
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The picture — or shall I not rather call it portrait — was scrupulously faithful, in coloring and outline, to the incomparable original; and faithful, too, not in the formal, photographic way but with that higher fidelity which seizes upon and reproduces character and life. There, definitely fixed, palpably present on the canvas, was the slender, queenly grace of my angel love. The exquisitely moulded head was wreathed with silken hair that took its hue from the sun’s own rays, and now glistened yellow as gold in the high light, now glowed in the shadow with somber glories of bronze. Her eyes, luminous and inspiring as when in phantom worlds they flashed their message of love to me, were counterfeited on my canvas. Blue were they, a dark blue, deep and rich, and, through the shadowy growth of their luxuriant lashes, they shone with a mystic, gem-like fire. Their splendor was vibrant now with passionate expectancy, and the lips, red-ripe and firm, yet delicate were faintly parted in aspiration. So looked she when she gave me greeting to the kingdom of the spirit.
To me this picture was at once a memento and a pledge. When my health threatened to break down utterly under the stress of too frequent indulgence in keef, I sought and found comfort in the contemplation of the canvas, while restoring my wasted frame. Then, too, there were times when, after several days of rigorous abstention from the drug, I became moody and skeptical, when I caught myself doubting the reality of my dual life and wondering whether I was the victim of a hallucination. The sense of loss and disenchantment which overwhelmed me on these occasions might have driven me mad, but for the possession of my previous canvas. I had but to step into my keef chamber and draw the silken hangings from the niche where I had mounted the painting, as a devotee might enshrine a Madonna, and I had before me the tangible and indisputable evidence of the truth of the higher existence and the love that sweetened it. Miracle or mystery it might be, if you will, but mistake—never. The most materialistic of men could not but admit that the picture, in conception and artistic treatment alike, was inspired in a nobler sense than any canvas given to the world by the masters of old. Sanzio the Divine himself, never in his happiest touches approached the perfect beauty of my spirit bride...
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~ T.W. Coakley
'Riding A Flying Carpet' by Viktor Vasnetsov (1880), courtesy of Feral House
For more on the re-issued version of "Keef," order a copy on Feral House's website
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