BUFFALO, N.Y. -- One of his favorite pulp writers might describe
George Kelley as "just one dirty guy doing a seedy job in a
Kelley's life-long pursuit of cheap -- sometimes even cheesy --
paperbacks may seem a peculiar hobby to some, but it has the
librarians at the University at Buffalo doing handsprings.
That's because Kelley, a good-natured, witty and highly-educated
iconoclast who teaches English literature at Erie Community
College, has made a gift to the UB Libraries of 25,000 pulp-fiction
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 that its
greatest value 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, Ruth Millar (Ross MacDonald's wife) and Ellery Queen (who
is really two cousins, neither one an "Ellery" nor a "Queen") to
relatively unknown writers like "Jack Woodford" who have long since
disappeared from the pop-literary scene.
The books that comprise the collection are among the hundreds of
thousands of popular novels printed between 1930 and 1980 on cheap
"pulp" paper, sometimes for fly-by-night publishers, and
distributed regionally or nationally. For 50 years, they sold at
about a quarter a pop in five-and-dime stores and other outlets
from Caribou, Maine, to Armadillo, Texas.
Formulaic, sensational and easy-to-read, the books titillated
and horrified readers with exotic locales and characters in big
trouble. Charles D'Aniello, who coordinates collection development
for UB's Lockwood Library, says that at the same time, the stories
reassured their audience by mirroring prevailing attitudes and
He says the authors eschewed high-toned prose, employing clipped
street talk that expressed the "real dirt" on what went on in
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.
In fact, by its very definition, pulp fiction draws readers into
marginal realms thick with testy cowboys, sex-crazed aliens,
grannies who'll sew your lips together before they shrink your
head, hard-bitten private eyes and the chesty, out-of-control babes
who love 'em all.
Austin Booth, UB librarian and humanities subject specialist who
has worked on the Kelley collection, says that 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, at a particular time, is considered appropriate and perverse,
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." Besides that, she says that whatever the plot or genre, the
books consistently document attitudes toward the ruling elite held
by those working the bottom of the ladder.
David Schmid, Ph.D., UB assistant professor of English, teaches
courses in popular literature and culture at the university and
agrees with Booth.
"Pulp fiction is a primary source for information on the
American zeitgeist from the 1930s through the 1970s," he says.
"Whether sci-fi, westerns, erotic stories, horror,
action-adventure or detective fiction, this material is written
quickly, according to a formula," he says. "Some of the authors are
hacks but many are quite talented and their work has held up over
In either case, Schmid notes that the author uses the pulp
formula to express values held -- sometimes privately -- by the
"These books actually document our changing tastes and social
mores," he 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
The UB librarians point out that the George Kelley Pulp Fiction
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, for instance, pulp
females 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 1950s' pulps, but many of the stories are more explicit
and depict "good" women as figures of erotic attention as well.
UB librarian Donald Hartman, an expert on the penny detective
novels of fin de siecle 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.
"In the '50s," Kelley says, "stories begin to appear that are
written from the point of view of the criminal himself, often a
psychopath, instead of his pursuers. 'The Killer Inside Me' is a
good example -- there's an internal dialogue going on there --
dark, really frightening. The character is criminally insane and
worse, he could be your neighbor! How could you know? In this case,
the marginal arena in which issues are worked out isn't a criminal
subculture, but the mind of a psychopath."
Judith Adams-Volpe, director of UB's Lockwood Memorial Library,
which houses the Kelley collection, 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-a-likes (Liz Taylor, Susan
Hayward, Jane Russell are faves of the '50s), menaced by the
shadows of unseen killers. Others are eroticized Amazons who
comprise a popular Western archetype of dangerous women.
Kelley says that sometimes the provocative scenes depicted on
the cover had nothing whatsoever to do with the book's content.
"It didn't matter," he says. "The pictures sold the books."
Schmid says that the pulps were usually read once and tossed
out, which is why it's rare to find so many in one place in such
good condition. In fact, Kelley's home had to accommodate so many
boxes of books that he says his wife couldn't even get to the
washing machine without tripping over them. That led to an
ultimatum, and Kelley was compelled to find a new home for his
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 and 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 flack from collectors
across the country.
"But I tell them, 'Hey, what do you expect? I'm a
In fact, Kelley holds a number of degrees from UB, in addition
to a master's degree in library science. He has received
bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in English over the
years, as well as an MBA. He's also a dissertation away from a
second doctorate -- in library science -- from the University of
Wisconsin, although he's abandoned that effort.
"What can I say?" he laughs. "I've always liked to read.
Kelley worked for many years as a computer consultant and
traveled extensively, collecting books wherever he went, often by
the box or bag from flea markets and used-book stores in small
towns and big cities across the U.S.
UB 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 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 that were
distributed only in a few regions or published in one edition or
produced in very limited runs.
"I've got to say," notes Quinlivan, "that the detectives in
these books have one thing in common: They drink like fish. Well,
actually, many characters drank a lot, often enough to qualify as
alcohol abusers. So did many of the authors. "
Despite having survived lives often rougher than the ones they
describe, all of the books are in excellent condition.
"The Kelley collection is no doubt the best-preserved collection
of its kind in the country," says Adams. "They are in absolutely
mint condition. The Library of Congress pulp collection, in
contrast, is in pretty bad shape. Most other university collections
are falling apart as well.
"Ordinarily," she says, "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
"Dumb luck," says Kelley. "When I started collecting, I didn't
know exactly how to protect the books, but it seemed to me that the
Ziplocs might be a step in the right direction. So I bagged them
Kelley began saving pulp science-fiction books as an adolescent
after his mother threw out his comic-book collection while he was
"I tease my mom that today it would be worth a lot of money," he
says. Like his wife, however, his mother was intransigent when it
came to falling over the stuff.
"I started saving the sci-fi because I was a kid and I loved it
-- still do," he says. "The detective and western fiction came
later. I've read nearly all of the ones in the collection.
"At first, I saved the books because they were published as
series and, like a lot of kids, I liked to save the whole series. I
didn't learn about collecting until I was in my late teens. Then I
started picking up all kinds of stuff, reading it, trading it and
keeping track of what I had.
"The erotic paperbacks weren't so much a preference. I picked up
most of those later, along with some books in the 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
She has class, a list of credentials longer than my arm and a
body that screamed "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,
"Print my name," she hissed, "and I'll write your epitaph in hot