Rediscovered: Stabbed in the Forehead! (and Other Pulp Thrills)

How about a postmortem on PulpFest before something else ripping Up and Down These Mean Streets distracts me? It’s always something — latest is juggling a date and time to do a walk for a Private Eye convention in October. (Tours for PIs are usually good, because they know how to shadow a guy around, their gumshoes always in tiptop condition.)

I decided to hit PulpFest again this year because convention honcho Mike Chomko specifically asked me to be on the panel celebrating the creation of Conan eighty years ago. Why not? The panel could serve as the latest token in a long line of tokens to the Texas pulp fictioneer Robert E. Howard. See some of the REH guys I haven’t seen in awhile. . . .

Plus I realized I could do some touristy stuff on the side, since I suddenly tied in with the Jim Tully crew and had access to local guides for his childhood haunts. I asked Brian Leno if he wanted to join in on the action — and he mentioned that if we’d be in Ohio, in addition to lit sites we might as well check out Serpent Mound. The German Village district in Columbus. And — back to lit sites — a James Thurber house. Thurber’s grave.

The hotel this time was much more upscale than the last one — tied in to the Columbus convention center, a gathering of 400 or 500 pulp collectors barely made a ripple in the warren of wide hallways and epic foyers. One grand ballroom for the pulp displays, one conference room for the talks — with what seemed like dozens more stretching away into the distance, entire buildings unexplored.

Big on seeing the sights, my favorite angle with the new hotel was the view I got from the fifteenth floor room, looking out over Nationwide Blvd and downtown — especially nice when a thunderstorm or two rolled through the city. I could see the Arena, which didn’t mean much to me until I got to St. Marys after the convention and the guys showing me the Tully sites mentioned that the Arena is built on the location of the old Ohio State Pen, where Tully’s boyhood pal Fat Charley Makley — one of the guys who taught Dillinger how to rob banks — was shot down by the bulls in an escape attempt in 1934. And then I tumbled to the info that the same prison was where O. Henry served his time. And I just finished Buz Howard’s book on Fat Charley, which reminded me that the same prison incarcerated hard-boiled great Chester Himes for many years — Himes was still an inmate as some early stories began appearing in Esquire, such as “To What Red Hell” in 1934, where he wrote about the 1930 fire he had witnessed, which killed 322 prisoners — the deadliest prison fire in U.S. history.

The current view was nice enough, but the view into the past — wow.

My only “complaint” about PulpFest, the same complaint others have voiced, is that there was no hospitality suite. Rusty Burke of the Robert E. Howard Foundation came prepared to stock the suite with beer and soda and snacks, just like he did a couple of years ago, but here was the Achilles’ heel of having a big, modern hotel — the suite where people could hang out and chat over free drinks would have cost $350 or so, plus they’d have had to use a hotel bartender to serve each and every item, and all the drinks would have had to come from the hotel stock. A lot of loot for a small convention just to provide “free” drinks, so they opted for the hotel bar as a forced substitution. I don’t blame them at all. Simple economics.

But the idea of the hospitality suite, aside from free beer, is that you may meet someone you otherwise might not have talked with, the various cliques break up and mingle more. I probably wouldn’t have talked that much with Walker Martin the last time I went except for randomly sitting at the same table in the hospitality suite — but since I had, he would play a big role in this year’s visit.

As predicted, I didn’t buy a single original wood pulp magazine — but I did purchase five more double Shadows for my reserve stockpile, against the day I get that urge to haul out the twin automatics and terrorize gangdom alongside good old Lamont Cranston. Publisher/editor Anthony Tollin encouraged me to get #44 in the series with Atoms of Death, where Shadow scribe Walter B. Gibson predicted the atomic bomb in 1935 and got a visit from worried state department officials. Yeah, what did The Shadow Know about what they knew. . . .

And I picked up a few items of Arkham House ephemerae, stocklists and brochures, to keep that hobby nudging along. I think I already had the stuff I purchased, but this ought to keep them clear of the landfill for awhile.

I also plucked a double Spider off the free table near registration, just in case I ever get a Spider urge. I read one once. Plus three double novels from Stark House Press, which generously provided huge stacks of six or seven of their books, which collect 1950s and 60s noir.

I could have grabbed everything, yes, but there’s only so much room in the garment bag, only so much weight I want to lug around — which means I’m not a typical PulpFest guy. I didn’t look through each and every box filled with pulps and digests, but the typical PulpFest guy did.

You want a convention report from a guy who inhales pulp dust day in, day out, then check out the coverage by Walker Martin — that’s what real PulpFest attendees do. I told Brian Leno, a serious autograph hound, about the stockpile of cheques Walker had for sale from pulp publishers, made out to and endorsed by various pulp writers, and we went by his dealers table several times to find it empty — but I could see Walker sitting on the floor digging through boxes of digests at another dealer’s table across the hall! A real collector. Fortunately for Leno, he got a chance the next day to riffle the cheques and buy the ones that caught his eye.

If you read deep enough into Walker’s report, by the way, you’ll find the most exciting incident to happen during the convention that I’ve heard of, as Walker almost got jumped by a couple of drunks on an elevator. I think it was the T-shirt he had on that set them off — from one of the Terror Tales sort of pulps, which typically feature bound, almost naked women being menaced by the demented and deformed. Really, probably not the sort of thing you’d want to wear out in public — and in a venue like the Hyatt Regency Convention Center, PulpFest just isn’t big enough to take over the place and provide safe passage for guys sporting weird menace T’s.

I happened to be chatting with Walker at his table just as Terry Zobeck got to registration. I wasted hardy a moment saying hello, before bringing Terry over and introducing him to Walker — “Terry, this is one of the three or four guys I’ve heard of who ever assembled a complete collection of Black Mask.” To say Terry was impressed, well, we can skip that part — you’ve followed his posts here covering pure text Hammett from Black Mask, and his efforts to track down the last few copies he needs — brutal, and he’s just trying to get all the Hammett and Chandler in Black Mask, not every single issue of the Mask!

Walker gave a quick recap of how he assembled his collection, beginning in the late 60s or early 70s. One story I’d forgotten was that he and a rival completist both had found all but one last issue — and they both needed the same issue! And they both found copies of the issue! Right there, the essence of PulpFest.

Also, if you remember my review of the recent Big Book of Black Mask where I mention that before this book came out it would have cost you thousands of dollars to assemble and read the original Black Mask text for The Maltese Falcon, Walker told about how he sold the complete collection to Nick Certo, another longtime dealer in such things. Certo tried to keep the set intact, but eventually sold it off in parts, and the issues containing the Falcon went for $4000 — which today sounds pretty cheap to me. The trick with that sale was that the guy who bought them didn’t pop thousands for the installments of Hammett’s most famous novel — he was a rabid Erle Stanley Gardner fan who needed those specific issues for the appearances of some Gardner short stories about Ed Jenkins the Phantom Crook, or something like that.

Just as I didn’t buy any pulps or even that many reprint items, I also skipped most of the panels. I’d rather hang out in the bar and talk with people, just as a matter of personal preference. But I did catch the presentation about the influence of French literature on the pulps, a slideshow done by Rick Lai (pronounced Lay, like the potato chip). Yeah, no question that Dumas, especially with the Count of Monte Cristo, and Fantômas were bedrock for the pulp heroes such as Doc Savage and The Shadow. But Lai got much deeper in than that, delivering his talk in a deadpan rhythm — and suddenly he came up with the catchphrase I liked best for the 2012 PulpFest. Some more obscure French writer (I wasn’t taking notes, I was just there letting it roll over me) had a character who developed a super-secret fencing move, where suddenly, finally, he would STAB HIS OPPONENT IN THE FOREHEAD! From the droll deadpan delivery to STABBED IN THE FOREHEAD! It got my attention.

And then some other French writer also had a character who would use a move to, yes, STAB the swordpoint into someone’s FOREHEAD! Rick suggested that this specific bit may have influenced the red death mark the Spider leaves on the foreheads of the fallen. I don’t know, but I ran around to everyone for the next couple of days saying, “And then, he STABBED THEM IN THE FOREHEAD!”

I might have caught other panels, except they fell opposite the times when Leno and I were out looking for other stuff, getting lost (you really want to get lost looking for something, I recommend Green Lawn Cemetery). Still enthusiastic from this year’s John Carter movie, I did catch the video of the efforts by cartoonist Bob Clampett to do a series of John Carter of Mars animated movies in the 1930s — what was it? — The Air Factory of Mars, and others?

And I caught some of the panel with slideshow on illustrating Robert E. Howard on Saturday night, since it fell just before the Conan panel I was on, where we decided to do only thirty minutes instead of the full hour. The guy on the Argonotes blog (like Walker’s report, probably a more truly PulpFest experience than mine, more boxes looked into) wanted the full hour, but here’s what happened: the PulpFest business meeting apparently ran late, pushing into the illustrating REH time. The illustrating guys had their slideshow planned out for an hour and apparently didn’t realize that the Conan panel was up against a hard deadline — or what Rusty Burke and I agreed was a hard deadline — the start of the annual auction.

Since we started a half hour late, if we’d done the full hour the auction, set for a 9:30 launch, wouldn’t have begun until 10 or after — and as it was, it ran until 1:30 or 2 a.m. I figure a lot of attendees are there for the auction, to buy stuff — and as your typically courteous REH guys, we weren’t going to stand between a fan and his acquisitions.

Before Leno and I headed out on Sunday to hit Ohio Caverns and get closer to St. Marys for the Tully tour, we made a last pass through the dealers room. Walker Martin showed me the issue of Smart Set he had for sale (which he hadn’t had on his table through the entire convention, as far as I know — his sales methods are arcane, but they apparently work for him) with Hammett’s very first appearance in print, priced at $2000. He had another issue of Smart Set with the second or third story for merely $700 (it’s those firsts that bring in the big bucks, always has been, and I suspect always will). I told him I’d tell Terry Zobeck about them (hey, Terry, if you’re interested. . .), but I think Terry is saving his dimes for the better Black Mask appearances. Hammett’s first few appearances are half-page or one-page vignettes — but if you’ve got to have the original printings of everything, yeah, you need them.

For me personally, I just can’t see jumping wildly into pulp collecting, at least not at this late date. I kind of admire the guys who do, sure, but I guess if I shelled out $2000 for a single issue of a magazine, with dozens more magazines to go before I had everything, I’d feel as if I just stabbed myself in the forehead.

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