They were an odd pair. Richard Shaver, of Pennsylvania farming stock, was brawny and ruggedly handsome. Raymond Palmer was a city boy from Milwaukee, whom a spine-shattering childhood accident had turned into a spindly-limbed, hunchbacked dwarf. They were both exceedingly tough guys, though not in the biff-bam-pow mode. (Shaver, in particular, was known for his gentleness.)
Together—Shaver as writer, Palmer as editor of a science-fiction pulp called Amazing Stories—they created in the middle and late 1940s a cultural phenomenon known as the “Shaver Mystery,” notorious in its time, which may have served as prelude to the grander drama of the UFO.
Of the two books on the Dick-and-Ray team that came out last year, Richard Toronto’s seems to me the superior. It’s the more thoroughly researched, more profound, more alive to the deep tragedy of its tale. It’s also better if more densely written, and the synergy of the two men a more appropriate central theme than Palmer alone. But they’re both fine and absorbing books, from which this reader at least came away with more questions than he’d had to start with. Not necessarily a bad thing.
Given that they cover nearly identical territory, it’s amazing how much you learn from Fred Nadis that you don’t learn from Toronto, and vice versa. If I hadn’t read Nadis, I wouldn’t know about pulp-editor Palmer’s crusades to raise funds to save the Navaho people from starving, to support a summer camp for blind children. (“Close your eyes and imagine that you are a boy who will never open them again! Now do you know what to do with that nickel?”) I would never have heard about his sensitive exchange of letters with an embittered African-American reader who signed himself simply “A. Human.”
On the other hand, if I hadn’t read Toronto, I wouldn’t know how Palmer turned the lake on his farm at Amherst, Wisconsin, into a wildlife refuge, or how he and his wife Marjorie spent their time there teaching local kids how to swim. I came away from each book with the sense: This was a good man!
That’s not exactly the feeling I expected to have about Ray Palmer. I’d always thought of him as a soulless promoter, an opportunistic hack ready to do anything, write anything, betray anything in order to make a buck. All of which he was, in some measure. But when the real test of integrity came, he passed with flying colors.
By the mid-1950s it had become clear that the real publishing money was to be made, not in Palmer’s beloved science-fiction or the “true mysteries” he loved even better, but in soft-core porn—the stuff published in the now-forgotten magazine Rogue by Palmer’s friend and close associate William Hamling, or in the all-too-unforgotten magazine of a Hamling acquaintance named Hugh Hefner. Be smart, Hamling urged Palmer; come into the skin business and get rich. Palmer refused and stayed middling poor. He wasn’t averse to sexy magazine covers that pulled the browser’s eye toward what was inside. (The cover of Toronto’s book, taken from the December 1945 Amazing Stories, will illustrate that.) But it was the itches of the mind, not those of the flesh, that it was Palmer’s destiny to cater to.
The “Shaver Mystery” had its beginning late in 1943, when Palmer went diving into the wastebasket in the Amazing Stories office to retrieve a letter to the editor which his assistant had just tossed there. The letter came from Barto, Pennsylvania, and was signed “S. Shaver.” (Why “S.” and not “R.”? I don’t know.) It contained what purported to be an “ancient language,” but which was in fact a series of highly imaginative interpretations of the 26 letters of the English alphabet.
The letter T, for example, stood for “te,” which Shaver explained as “integration force of growth” and identified as the true origin of the Christian cross. D, by contrast, was “de,” “detrimental or rather disintegrant energy.” Put these meanings together, and you had startling new explanations for the root significance of many English words—explanations that weren’t to be found in any edition of Webster’s dictionary.
“This language,” Shaver wrote, “seems to me to be definite proof of the Atlantean legend. … It is too deep for ordinary man—who thinks it is a mistake. A little study reveals ancient words in English occurring many times. It should be saved and placed in wise hands. I can’t, will you?”
Palmer had no idea who this “S. Shaver” might be. He didn’t know that Shaver had been in and out of insane asylums for the past ten years, confined for his persistent hearing of sinister, disembodied voices. Nor that while Shaver was on leave from one of these institutions, living on his parents’ farm, his wife Sophie had been electrocuted in a freak accident and his daughter taken away to be raised by Sophie’s parents, who regarded their son-in-law as a dangerous lunatic. Palmer’s instinct told him this was a letter that needed to be published.
And so it was.
It came out in the January 1944 issue of Amazing Stories. Palmer’s intuition had been right—reader reaction was overwhelming. Thousands of letters poured into Palmer’s office, some ridiculing Shaver’s etymological fantasies, some quarreling with them. But most declared Shaver to have been right on the money.
Palmer had challenged his readers to “apply the formula to more of these root words, and let us know the percentage that make sense. … Our own hasty check-up revealed an amazing result of 90% logical and sensible!” They took up the challenge, in droves. A truly amazing response, to a modest (if preposterous) little essay on philology, which stirred up a mass excitement that no tale of interstellar adventure could have matched.
That excitement can only be called intellectual. Not the kind of intellectuality that would cut much ice in the established centers of higher learning–but that made it all the more thrilling. Palmer knew what he was tapping into by publishing Shaver’s letter. Bill Hamling and Hugh Hefner were later to make their fortunes peddling the pseudo-mystery of what a pretty woman looks like when unconcealed by clothing. Ray Palmer peddled the possibly genuine mystery of what truth looks like when unconcealed by textbook orthodoxies.
Richard Shaver was about to become his partner in that enterprise. Also his friend. Also his neighbor.
The Shaver Mystery had made its debut. Much, much more was to follow.
by David Halperin
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