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The George Kelley Pulp Fiction Collection


George Kelley's collection of 25,000 sci-fi, detective and action tales deemed best preserved of its kind.

ne of his favorite pulp writers might describe UB alum George Kelley as "just one dirty guy doing a seedy job in a miserable world."

    Kelley's lifelong pursuit of cheap--even cheesy--paperbacks may seem a peculiar hobby to some, but it has the librarians at UB doing handsprings.

    That's because Kelley, a good-natured, witty and highly educated iconoclast who teaches English literature at Erie Community College, made a gift to the UB Libraries of 25,000 pulp-fiction titles.

    The George Kelley Pulp Fiction Collection is a remarkably well-preserved assemblage of books illuminating 40 years of subterranean social attitudes and behavior.

    Because of its breadth, depth and superb physical condition, the collection is worth a great deal of money--millions of dollars, according to one source. The librarians, however, say the greatest value of Kelley's 1994 gift is in the enormous contribution the books make to research and scholarship in mid-20th-century popular culture.

    The collection is a groaning board of detective stories, science fiction, action-adventures, westerns and erotic tales of "swamp brats" and promised "orgies" on Fire Island. The authors represented range from Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, Raymond Carver, Kenneth Millar (who is really Ross MacDonald) and Ellery Queen (who is really two cousins, neither one an "Ellery" nor a "Queen"), to lesser known writers like "Jack Woodford" who have long since disappeared from the pop-literary scene.

    The books that make up the collection are among the hundreds of thousands of popular novels printed between 1930 and 1980 on cheap "pulp" paper, sometimes by fly-by-night publishers, and distributed regionally or nationally.

    Formulaic, sensational and easy-to-read, the books titillated readers with exotic locales and characters in big trouble. Charles D'Aniello, who coordinates collection development for Lockwood Library, says one of the attractions of the stories is that they reassured their audience by mirroring prevailing attitudes and beliefs.

e says the authors eschewed high-toned prose, instead employing clipped street talk that expressed the "real dirt" on what went on in the kinds of places their readers would never see--sleazy backwater dives, the underwater lair of blonde vixens five stories tall, the "Marmot" galaxy or the Montana outback in 1875.

    Librarian Austin Booth, humanities subject specialist who has worked on the Kelley collection, says scholars value pulp fiction because it is a trove of popular tropes, culture traits, political trends and idiomatic speech. It's also a barometer of what is considered appropriate and perverse at a particular time, and by whom.

    "By studying pulp fiction," Booth says, "researchers can identify the unconscious and conscious fears, beliefs and common scapegoats of an era. They can study attitudes toward everything from homosexuality and women, to drinking, drug use and guys from Yale."

    Assistant professor of English David Schmid, who teaches courses in popular literature and culture, agrees with Booth. "Pulp fiction is a primary source for information on the American zeitgeist from the 1930s through the 1970s. Whether sci-fi, westerns, erotic stories, horror, action-adventure or detective fiction, this material is written quickly and according to a formula. Some of the authors are hacks, but many are quite talented and their work has held up over time."

    In either case, Schmid notes, the author uses the pulp formula to express values held--sometimes privately--by the readers. "These books actually document our changing tastes and social mores," Schmid says. "They present some of the stuff boiling up from beneath the veneer of civilized behavior through anti-heroes who expose corruption in unlikely places."

    The hero might be suave (Nick Charles) or brutal (Mike Hammer), drink like a fish (both of them), expose criminals in unexpected places (Fire Island, Long Key) or ridicule ethnic minorities and "lavender boys"--whatever the traffic would bear at the moment.

    The librarians point out that this collection marks the changing definitions of "masculine" and "feminine," for instance, and illustrates provocative gender roles played out by men and women in "unusual" situations.

    From the troublesome-but-classy women and low-class-but-suggestive gun molls of the 1930s, pulp females, for example, evolved during World War II into self-motivated, frightening and often sexually rapacious characters. At this time, there were widespread, if subliminal, fears about the changing social and economic power of women. Sensual women continue to hold sway in the pulps of the 1950s, but many of the stories are more explicit and depict "good" women as figures of erotic attention, as well.

    Librarian Donald Hartman, an expert on the penny detective novels of fin de siècle America, notes that even our notion of what a criminal is has changed over the years, and that this evolution is well documented in the pulps. He says the escapades of bootleggers, kidnappers, killers, "Jap spies" and commies galloped through the '30s and '40s, and that the 1950s introduced a new kind of criminal--one best examined through a psychiatric lens.

    Judith Adams-Volpe, director of Lockwood Library, where the Kelley collection is housed, is well versed in pop articulations of cultural themes. She and Kelley point out that a cult following has developed around the pulp book covers alone. Vividly colored, and lurid in subject matter and design, they were painted in the realistic style and featured such subjects as bizarre futuristic characters and places, cattlemen in dire conflict and many, many terrified or terrifying babes in low-cut blouses. Some are movie-star look-alikes (Liz Taylor, Susan Hayward, Jane Russell are faves of the '50s), menaced by the shadows of unseen killers. Others are eroticized Amazons--a popular Western archetype of dangerous women.

ften the provocative scenes depicted on the cover had nothing whatsoever to do with the book's content, Kelley says. "It didn't matter. The pictures sold the books."

    The pulps were usually read once and tossed out, Schmid says, which is why it's rare to find so many in one place and in such good condition. In fact, Kelley's home was packed with so many boxes of books that he says his wife couldn't walk down the hall without tripping over them. That led to an ultimatum, and Kelley was compelled to find a home for his collection.

    He could have sold it for a fortune.

    "There's a big market for these books," he says, "and when they're held in collections, they're out of circulation, so they can't be bought or sold. People looking to buy, say, a rare title that only I own, are out of luck. So when I decided to give the books to the university, I got a lot of flak from collectors across the country. But I tell them, 'Hey, what do you expect? I'm a librarian!'"

    Kelley holds a number of degrees from UB in addition to his master's in library science. He has earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in English over the years, as well as an MBA.

    Librarian Kathleen Quinlivan is becoming a minor pulp expert while establishing a database of the collection that will help people locate material in the collection by subject. She says that Kelley's travels--he worked for many years as a computer consultant and traveled extensively, collecting books wherever he went--are one reason his collection is unusually well-rounded and deep. It contains book series and a number of titles by the same author, for instance, plus rare books.

    "The Kelley collection is no doubt the best-preserved collection of its kind in the country," says Adams-Volpe. "They are in absolutely mint condition. The Library of Congress pulp collection, in contrast, is in pretty bad shape. Most of the university collections are falling apart, as well.

    "Ordinarily," she explains, "books of this kind disintegrate very quickly because the high acid content of pulp paper causes it to break down in the presence of oxygen. In this case, however, each book was sealed in a plastic Ziploc bag, which prevented oxidation."

    Kelley began saving pulp science-fiction books as an adolescent after his mother threw out his comic-book collection while he was at camp. "I tease my mom that today it would be worth a lot of money," he says. "I started saving the sci-fi because I was a kid and I loved it--still do. The detective and western fiction came later. I've read nearly all of the ones in the collection.

    "The erotic paperbacks weren't so much a preference. I picked up most of those later, along with some books in other genres to round out the collection," he says. That may be, but at least one librarian is reputed to have spent an unusual amount of time cataloging the collection's titillating "swamp-book" series.

    She has class, a list of credentials longer than your arm, and a body that screams Pilates. But she's as cold as a meat locker and mean as an adder.

    When queried about her pulp preferences, the dame hid her well-worn copy of Swamp Brat inside a hollowed-out volume of Kant? Sure You Can!! Then she sucked down the rest of her double latte and spun around to face me, a sneer distorting her pouty, scarlet lips.

    "Print my name," she hissed, "and I'll write your epitaph in hot lead."

Patricia Donovan is senior editor for University News Services.

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