Release Date: November 5, 1999
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- One of his favorite pulp writers might describe George Kelley as "just one dirty guy doing a seedy job in a miserable world."
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 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 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 beliefs.
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 time."
In either case, Schmid notes that 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," 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 moment.
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 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 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 librarian!'"
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. Obviously."
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 oxidation."
"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 all."
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. 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 "swamp-book" series.
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, scarlet lips.
"Print my name," she hissed, "and I'll write your epitaph in hot lead."
Patricia Donovan has retired from University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, call 716-645-6969 or visit our list of current university media contacts. Sorry for the inconvenience.