Rediscovered: PulpFest 2015 — On the Whole, I’d Rather Not Be in Philadelphia

PulpFest 2015

Got to the airport predawn on Thursday August 13, plenty of time to fly to Phoenix, catch the connecting flight to Columbus, Ohio, so I’d hit this year’s PulpFest by 4p.m., before they even cracked open the doors of the dealers room.

But the plane left late and the connecting flight to Columbus was gone. I could wait for the next direct-to-Columbus jet, leaving in the 6p.m. hour and rolling in around one in the morning (presuming nothing went wrong). Or, if I flew to Philadelphia and transferred back, I could reach Columbus in the ten p.m. hour.

Okay, give me the boarding pass. . . .

Dropping down over Philly was fun, spotting the old Colonial town next to the river and doping out more or less where the Poe house would be. I hadn’t been on the ground there since NoirCon in 2008, when I made sure I got to the Poe house — in part because H. P. Lovecraft (125 anniversary birthday boy for PulpFest this round) had blurbed the Philly residence as even better than Poe’s Baltimore cottage. HPL had made the visit immediately after the house opened to the public.

While I was wayyy over the mark for Ohio, at least I was adjacent to authentic Lovecraft turf — and doing a pretty good job rationalizing being back in Philly for no good reason.

My group was summoned for boarding. I spotted a guy coming in from the other side of the waiting area and pointed a finger at him.

“. . . Don. . . ?” Mike Chomko said, as if I was the last person on earth he expected to see that day in Philadelphia.

A quick flight west, and a ride to the hotel with Jack Cullers, who’d come to pick up Chomko but had plenty of room for me, too. I dropped my kit in the room on the 18th floor — great view, but looking away from the downtown area and the Arena that had so impressed me during the previous PulpFest I’d attended. For a moment, I hoped there’d be some thunderstorms rolling through, like last time — and then, realizing I was doing my return flight through Chicago, thought, no, please, no thunderstorms. I’ll be sitting in airports forever. . . .

With a vague memory of the hotel, I took the elevator to floor 3 — and spotted the bar in the distance below on the mezzanine level of the enormous atrium. Holding down a table were John D. Haefele and Tom Krabacher, sharpening their knives.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been collaborating with Haefele on one project or another since 2002, but we had never met. That was a major reason for me to hit PulpFest this time. Meet Haefele. Honor HPL for birthday 125. Tie in with other pals I don’t see that often.

Krabacher only drifted into my sphere recently, in the last year or two, though he seems to have been active in pulp fandom for awhile. Since he lives in the Sacramento area, I see more of him than I do of most people. He’s still doing the a.p.a. thing — PEAPS, with Warren Harris who discovered the origins of The Midget Bandit not long ago — Warren was at the last party I went to at Krabacher’s house — and also REHupa, the Robert E. Howard amateur press club where I have pulled a couple of stretches over the years.

And sitting unseen at the table as I pulled up a chair and ordered my first official beer of the convention, Steve Eng. . . . Krabacher reminds me a lot of Steve. Looks more or less like him, has much of the same affect. I told him that when I first met him, and Krabacher said, “Is that a good thing?” I guess he hadn’t heard of or read any material by Steve. I assured him, yes, that’s a very good thing. Pretty much an equation for an instant pal. Not Steve, but some William Wilson variant of Steve.

As for Haefele, I told him years ago that one of the reasons I’m happy to help with his various projects on August Derleth is because Eng was such a big fan of Derleth — so much so that I once inked in on a checklist the title of a prospective book I might do with Steve on the subject. A book or two down the road Haefele plans a biography on Derleth, which he told me he had titled August Derleth.

Man, that title sucks, I told him. Here, I’ll give you the title of the book I was going to do with Steve: August Derleth of Arkham House.

Now, that’s a title.

Haefele slid a manila envelope across the table. He’s been clearing out dupes and stuff he doesn’t need any more, and included one of the items of Arkham House ephemera I had yet to land, plus four chapbooks by Donald and Howard Wandrei I hadn’t picked up yet. Thus, each night during PulpFest I got to savor a pulp crime story — including a sale to Black Mask — by Don Wandrei I hadn’t read before, which is kind of the idea of the whole gathering, I suppose.

As nearby tables swarmed with people in Japanese-style anime masks and costumes, part of an enormous convention swamping the hotel, and maybe some early arrivals for the gay baseball or softball tournament that also swarmed the hallways, we held down the fort — a lone outpost of the pulp jungle — until we wrapped it up near closing time.

First day down.

Friday kicked off with breakfast with Haefele in one of the hotel cafes. I realized if I was going to get maximum jabber time in, it might be better to stay in-house instead of wandering around downtown Columbus too much. When the dealers room opened at 10 I grabbed my registration badge and copy of The Pulpster and made a quick circuit of the room.

A guy with a tableful of Sword-and-Sorcery paperbacks — Dave Weatherley, something like that (I should have picked up a card) — asked if I’d sign some stuff, which included my contributions to the first two issues of the Robert E. Howard zine The Dark Man. And I soon encountered a couple of the REH fans who were around for previous PulpFests, Scott Hartshorn and Jim Barron — others from yesteryear, such as Indy Cavalier, Ed Chapstick, Rusty Burke and more, were nowhere to be seen.

Scott asked if I was looking for anything, and I mentioned that I planned to get Will Murray’s new Doc Savage/Shadow crossover novel and his history of pulp westerns. Scott said, “He’s already sold out of the hardcovers.”

The collectors pounce fast! And serious collectors want the limited hardback states on items like these.

Me, I just wanted trade paperback copies to read, but scurried over to Will’s table in case the Shadow was running low — that would be my Shadow fix for this convention. But when I asked about the western title, Will said he forgot to bring copies, in the heat of packing up various Doc Savages and his new authorized Tarzan novel. However, he had spotted a copy on John Gunnison’s tables and told me where to look.

Wasting no time, I found it — 10% off, at that — and brought it back for a signature. I wanted Wordslingers in particular for airport reading, in case I got stuck for a lot of extra hours. Last PulpFest I attended I got Will’s collection of Doc Savage articles Writings in Bronze and that pulled me through an extended Atlanta connection and the flight home.

I stopped by Paul Herman’s pulp-laden tables, which you can see in some of the pics used here (and from the photographic information, it looks as if Paul hangs with other pulp hawkers after hours). Paul’s been on the tour, and was helping out on a top secret, epic project Terry Zobeck has been thinking about for Up and Down These Mean Streets. But then Terry and I began pondering, What If they just publish the whole thing someday — will the effort be worth it?

Paul instantly killed that line of thought: If Terry doesn’t do it, who will ever do it?

Yeah, right. . . . No one else will ever go through The Whole Thing. Someone else might want to try it, but only Zobeck can do the full and exacting Zobeck Treatment. Right there at PulpFest, the top secret project grabbed a bright green light. And it is maximum, iconic pulp.

At Wilson Warneld’s tables I snoozed-and-loosed on a limited Fritz Leiber signed slipcased edition I was thinking about getting — thought too long, someone else popped for it. But I kept coming back, because he had first editions of Fritz’s Our Lady of Darkness and H. Warner Munn’s The Banner of Joan, each inscribed to Scott Connors. I’ve known Scott since he was 17, and figured, Hey, maybe Scott wants those back. I gave Scott a call but his number had been changed. Then began trying Ron Hilger to see if he could relay the info, getting no answer on the home phone and busy on the cell. As I kept coming back I began trading bookman tales with Wilson, telling him why Avram Davidson’s should have allowed the first edition of The Phoenix and the Mirror to be pulped, but he didn’t, and how Underwood-Miller came that close to going belly-up during the Brandywine Books deal they had with Barnes and Noble or another chain back in chain bookstore days.

Around noon Morgan “The Morgman” Holmes rolled in. He did the circuit quickly and was there when a young guy mentioned he had a copy of the Hammett Tour book for $15. Haefele looked at it and said, “The first edition.” Nope, said I, this is the first state of the second edition. I was about to put it back for some prospective buyer, then thought, jeez, it’s cheap, I may as well buy it. The guys found it funny, me picking up an old edition — but at that price, I figured why not? (It’s already gone.)

Facing starvation after his drive in from Pennsylvania, Morgan enlisted me and Krabacher on a quest for a gyros place he found last year, maybe eight blocks or so from the hotel. Pretty much every time I’ve talked with Morgan on the phone for the last few months, he’s raved about the gyros place. Largest, best gyros ever encountered. Not to be missed.

Haefele had to move some books around, so we were on our own — and after some muggy sightseeing discovered the almost mystical gyros café from Morgan’s memory was no more, so we made the best of the hamburger establishment that holds down the location today, before heading back to full A/C.

Sitting with Haefele off the bar we got to chat with George A. Vanderburgh — Haefele has done a title with the Battered Silicon Dispatch Box press — who decided to enlist me in a Solar Pons fan club, if I’d read some Solar Pons yarns before the next pulp convention. I’d met Vanderburgh at the first PulpFest I attended, going up to his table with my pal John D. Squires. The main reason I hit that convention was the chance to see JDS after many years, and tie in with Morgan Holmes again. And now I’m on the hook to read some Solar Pons, I guess. . . .

At various times I’d glance up to see pulphound John DeWalt charging happily along in a small posse of his pals. Such absolute delight. John pulls a brief cameo in the extras material in my eBook The Dark Barbarian That Towers Over All.

And at some point as Haefele, Krabacher, Morgan and I held down a table in Bar2 the official editor of PEAPS and former OE of REHupa, Brian Earl Brown, passed through briefly, looking completely exhausted from whatever ordeal he’d gone through to get there.

The panel on the Cthulhu Mythos was set for that night at 9:50, and more than once leading up to it — if not constantly — Haefele kept talking about how he dreaded public speaking, he didn’t want to do it but he’d do it. Since I talked him into it, he wanted me on the panel, and I figured I’d sit next to him in case I needed to nudge him to Stop Talking. Off mic Haefele is a complete Chatty Cathy, and I calculated that impulse would surge to the fore. And so it did.

Chet Williamson — Guest of Honor for PF this year — came up after the Mythos panel and adjourned with us to the bar for drinks. I have known of Chet since the 1970s — we were in at least one or two a.p.a.s together in that era — but hadn’t met him before. I think he really enjoyed listening to Haefele go off on some Lovecraftian topic — honest, the panel had merely warmed the Derleth Mythos maven up. Loosened the cork. I said to Chet, “You’re listening to the major Lovecraft critic alive today,” and I meant it. Other people may prefer other critics, but I trust my judgment.

On Saturday, no breakfast — Morgan, Krabacher and I planned to hit Schmidt’s Sausage Haus in German Village as soon as it opened and you want plenty of appetite to do it justice. Paul Herman advised me, “Cream puff.” We parked a few blocks away from the restaurant and absorbed the atmosphere of the historic neighborhood. And maybe worked off some of the cream puffs tromping back to the car.

By the time we returned to the hotel, Haefele was well into his 1p.m. signing at Chomko’s table, moving out copies of the trade paperback of Derleth Mythos. He’d mentioned that he hadn’t had any reason to sign his name in years, and that morning was going to practice up some. Krabacher and I gave him time to get used to the pen again, then handed over our copies of the first edition hardcover — as I always say, rare as rare can be. You had Haefele sitting in the midst of a pulp convention of some 400-plus collectors, some of them arch-collectors, and only those two copies of the hardback got ink.

Haefele is among the arch-collectors, I’m sure — he’s always looking to upgrade copies, talking about the as-new subtle pages of 1960s paperbacks he has in his set, a complete Arkham House and a near-complete run of Arkham ephemera. He told me that people who had bought copies the day before returned with them for the signing — but that some of the copies had bent covers, coffee stains. . . .

Why would you want to get a bent copy signed, Haefele wondered. . . .

“But you signed it, right?” I asked. He said he did. Always sign copies, that’s my motto. If Haefele’s going to hang out with me he needs to sign the books — but the trick is that he’ll just never show up at enough conventions to really build an inventory of signatures, so hold onto that signed read-to-hell copy.

Bob Byrne, the Solar Pons Guy who had asked me to do the Guest Post “Pigeons from Hell from Lovecraft” on the Black Gate blog, told me he’d be at PF on Saturday, and I found him at Bill Maynard’s table — Maynard is the Fu Manchu Guy. And I guess Bob is Solar Pons Guy, Jr., since Vanderburgh clearly is Solar Pons Guy, Sr.

Bob told me he wanted to get a John Hancock in his copy of Willeford, but he couldn’t find it — one box or another, and I know the feeling. But on the other hand, he remembered buying it off Dennis McMillan’s table with me there during the Bouchercon in Austin in 2002, so we figured it probably was signed, anyway. And he dug out a copy of the Hammett Tour book, third edition first printing from City Lights, so I signed that.

I was talking with Bob and Bill, Morgan and others, when I noticed Wilson Warneld beginning to pack up his stock. Not sticking around till Sunday morning. I’d tried to get some kind of message through to Scott Connors about the inscribed books, with no luck, and it was push-comes-to-shove time. Even if Scott didn’t want them back, I guess I can always use another inscribed first of Our Lady of Darkness (I have firsts inscribed to me and to my pseudonym Geo: Knight) and Munn isn’t signing any more books. Wilson and I cut a deal.

At 7:55p.m. the panel Weird Editing at “The Unique Magazine” was set, and we hiked over to it from the bar and put it to bed without any trouble. I haven’t listened to the recording as yet (and probably never will), but to wrap it up I held up my copy of Haefele’s first edition hardcover, telling the audience: You’re not likely to ever see a copy of this book again. I quote a moment from the first that got left out when Haefele juggled stuff around for the trade paperback — Derleth kind of surprised that fan Rah Hoffman had missed an issue of Weird Tales.

I knew Rah, and he once told me — and I thought this would be of interest to current fans of The Unique Magazine — that fans of his era, trying to save money, would subscribe to the magazine, then let the sub run out. After awhile they’d get a notice to re-subscribe, but to make it appealing they’d be offered a discount off the newsstand price. And they could begin the renewed sub with any issue they chose. So they sub, let it lapse, re-sub back to the last issue they’d missed. I think Derleth caught Rah in one of those ebbs, because when he died not long ago at age 93 (I believe it was) Rah still had his complete collection of Weird Tales.

After a couple of drinks in the bar, Haefele — with a long drive home the next morning — bowed out, but Krabacher lured me and Morgan to a room party in 1502. Looking off toward the old Ohio State pen — I thought, you know, this might have been the very room I had during that last convention. . . .

Krabacher had hit the party the night before, too, getting the most out of PF until 4 or 5 in the morning. Really scorching that candle. He’d agreed to have breakfast with Haefele and me at around 7a.m. Sunday, though, so I think he only stayed at the confab till maybe 3a.m. this time. . . .

Believe the guys holding down the fort were named Bill Mann and Bill Thinnes. I hadn’t met them before. The Pulpster editor Bill Lampkin came in for awhile — I was thinking about asking him about an editorial change he keeps making to articles I send in, where he puts book titles in quotes, and of course story titles in quotes. I understand making the names of pulp mags bold, just for the hell of it, but it always bothers me to not have the book titles in italics — or, as sometimes happened in the old days of mimeograph zines, in all CAPS (weirdly, when you mock up an Author Page for Amazon, they won’t allow italics on titles in the main blurb, so you have to put those in CAPS like in the old-timey fanzine days). Just looks bizarre, and I can’t figure out any reason for it.

Bill Mann wondered about a guy he hadn’t seen at cons in awhile, began describing him. Not a lot of detail, but for some reason I said, “Chuck Miller?” — maybe because Chuck died recently. Thinnes looked Chuck up on a tablet and passed it around. Yes, that was the guy Mann was thinking of. This group of pulp fans all knew Chuck from various conventions in the area, and I knew him as half of the publishing concern of Underwood-Miller — did several books with them back in that day. But right there, a round of off-the-cuff memorial tributes to Chuck. He was well liked.

Walker Martin came in talking about how he’d just happened across an orgy and/or riot with police breaking it up, kind of like how he almost got jumped in the elevator last time I was there. “How do you manage to see all this action?” I asked him. “Because,” Walker said, “I’m not sitting in here drinking beer like you are.” But of course he was now in the room where the beer was. . . . An unerring instinct, I’m sure.

I noticed that Walker and Krabacher had on the same T-shirts, with images of the pulp Unknown on them. Some kind of Pulpy Pulp Pulp thing, no doubt. But as more people came into the room, I made my escape so there’d be room for the new arrivals and I could wake up for breakfast with Haefele.

Amazingly, Krabacher showed up too, not too late, and we had the last gabfest for the weekend. I told them my extended Golden Dragon Massacre saga, and Haefele mentioned taking his cat on camping trips, on a leash (real Lovecraft fan, I tell you).

After the adios to Haefele, I circled the dealers room a final time and began chatting at the Sword-and-Sorcery table. I told the guy about how Morgan Holmes was the big expert on the S&S paperbacks of that boom era, while he pointed out various rarities. Yeah, I’ll drag Morgan over here to check on them, I told him — and soon Morgan wandered in.

I’m not sure if the guy believed me when I blurbed The Morgman’s expertise, but as he indicated this paperback or that, Morgan said, Got it, Got it, described the plots in detail. The guy gave me a look of awed wonder, and I waggled my eyebrows at him. When I say expert, I mean definitive expert. It is a tribute to the guy’s stock that Morgan actually found a couple of items he needed on display.

Soon after, we headed out, Morgan dropping me off at the airport before winding his way home, hitting more paperback bookstores. I got to Chicago okay (great views of the city flying over), read some of Will Murray’s Wordslingers — and ended up on a plane that ran an hour and a half late.

But at least I didn’t get routed through Philadelphia again.

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