(This is the conclusion of my two latest posts, a review of the books The Man From Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey by Fred Nadis, and War over Lemuria: Richard Shaver, Ray Palmer, and the Strangest Chapter of 1940s Science Fiction by Richard Toronto, both published in 2013.)
They’re called “dero,” and they dwell in caves deep within the earth, degraded survivors of a departed, inconceivably ancient civilization. They’re dwarfs, hideous in their appearance, perverted and fiendishly sadistic in their character. They delight in kidnapping people from the surface and subjecting them unspeakable pain.
As you read these words, a man or woman like yourself is very possibly being tortured to death by the dero, a mile or so beneath your feet.
Even if they haven’t yet caught you, your life is being influenced by the rays they emit from their caves. Remember your stage fright in the school play, or “the many other times when your emotions seem to have gone awry without sufficient reason”? It was the dero who caused it.
Welcome to the world of the “Shaver Mystery.”
The Shaver Mystery erupted in 1945 on the pulp pages of Amazing Stories magazine. For the next three years it entirely dominated the magazine and the limited but substantial world of science-fiction enthusiasts to which Amazing Stories catered. Hard-core science-fiction fandom, a miniscule minority among the readers, loathed it. Almost from the beginning, they waged a shrill, half-hysterical campaign against it. S-F was supposed to be fiction, for God’s sake! It wasn’t supposed to be a mythology, the revelation of some paranoid counter-prehistory of the human race!
But for a wider audience, the Mystery had deep resonance. They sent the circulation of Amazing Stories soaring past the quarter-million mark. They flooded the mail room with letters insisting that Shaver’s revelations were true–they knew it from their own experience.
Ray Palmer, the editor who’d staked his career on Richard Shaver’s fantasies, pounded his chest and preened. Stories by Ray Bradbury were bumped from the magazine to make room for more Shaver. The June 1947 issue was entirely devoted to the Shaver Mystery. (That was the same month that a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold spotted nine silvery flying objects “skipping like saucers” amid the peaks of the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, and “flying saucers” were born.)
Then it all collapsed.
For reasons that remain obscure–I finished reading the two books that appeared last year on Palmer and Shaver and the Mystery, by Fred Nadis and Richard Toronto, without any sense that I’d really understood what happened–the highest echelons at the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, which put out Amazing Stories, put the kibosh on the Shaver Mystery, lucrative as it was. By the end of 1949 Shaver was gone from the magazine’s pages, Palmer from its editorial offices. Palmer had already graduated to UFOs, as we’ll see shortly.
It’s possible to exaggerate the importance of the Mystery, as a cultural phenomenon. A quarter-million fans is a lot of readers. But that constituted something under two-tenths of one percent of the US population in the years just after the Second World War. Did the other 99.8% ever hear of the Shaver Mystery? How many remembered it five years afterward?
Yet it remains true: a quarter-million is a lot of people. Any mythology that could provoke assent from so many, and active engagement from such a large chunk of them–you need only read the “letters” columns in Amazing Stories to be persuaded of that–must have had something going for it.
Doubly remarkable, in that the Shaverian mythos was singularly bleak.
In essence it was a myth of Hell-on-earth, or of an Earth that was itself Hell, dominated by a clique of devils. Shaver, never one for subtlety, pounded this across in the place-names in his stories. The one that appeared in the September 1945 issue was entitled, “Cave City of Hel.” The story “Quest of Brail” (December 1945) was set on an imaginary planet called “Helgo,” distinctly similar to Earth, ruled by vicious sybarites called the “Fat Ones” who are plainly a stand-in for the dero. “Helgo” = “go to Hell”; get it?
A paranoid’s fantasy. Or maybe not.
If there was ever a year that thrust the hellish dimensions of human existence into humanity’s face, it was 1945. Hitler’s evil empire, with its dero-esque death camps, had been brought tottering to its destruction at unimaginable cost in blood and suffering. Stalin’s seemed rock-solid, destined to endure forever. Nightmare weapons had already devastated two cities; no one knew where and when they would strike next. Monstrous evil was a permanent reality that could be checked and contained, as it was at the end of each Shaver story. Never eliminated.
We don’t get very far, though, trying to read the Shaver Mystery as an allegory of its time. The equivalences are too rough. There’s something deeper, more primal going on. Take, for example, the name “Lemuria.”
Since the 1830s, “Lemuria” had been used–first in scientific discourse, later in occult writings–for a sunken continent somewhere in the Pacific, counterpart to Plato’s “Atlantis.” According to a long-discarded scientific hypothesis, it had been the original home of the lemurs. Hence the name.
By giving the name “Lemuria” to Earth’s primordial civilization, Shaver and Palmer evoked that age-old myth of a lost continent, with all that it meant for the human psyche. They evoked the image of the lemurs themselves, those night-prowling creatures with their enormous spooky eyes. Still deeper in the shadows lurked the beings who gave the lemurs their name, the lemures of the ancient Romans: rootless, homeless, borderline malignant ghosts who needed to be banished from the realm of the living by a midnight ritual called … “Lemuria.”
(Are Shaver and Palmer likely to have known about the Roman lemures? Probably. Neither was highly educated by today’s standards, although Shaver, unlike Palmer, did finish high school. But both were voracious readers, especially of history and mythology.)
One curious fact may serve as clue to the deep subtext of the Mystery, although I admit that I don’t fully understand its implications. Palmer saw the continuation and fulfillment of the Shaver Mystery in the newly blossoming mystery of the UFOs. Just as significantly, Shaver didn’t.
Palmer has been called “the man who invented flying saucers.” He might be called, more correctly, the man who prophesied their advent.
In the June 1946 Amazing Stories–that’s 1946, the year before Arnold saw his nine flying objects over the Cascade Mountains–Palmer had written: “If you don’t think space ships visit the earth regularly … then the files of Charles Fort [the famed collector of anomalies, who’d died 14 years earlier] and your editor’s own files are something you should see. Your editor has hundreds of reports (especially from returned soldiers) of objects that were clearly seen and tracked which could have been nothing but space ships.”
“Within a few years,” Palmer predicted in the April 1947 issue, “we will be visited from outer space by a ship that will be seen all over the earth as it circles the planet, but such a ship as no one could have imagined even in our pages up to now.”
A few months later Arnold saw his silvery “saucers,” and Palmer was ecstatic. “A portion of the now world-famous Shaver Mystery has now been proved! On June 25th [actually June 24] … mysterious supersonic vessels, either space ships or ships from the caves, were sighted in this country” (Amazing Stories, October 1947).
It was the following spring that Palmer, already planning his exit from Amazing Stories, published–under a pseudonym, and in partnership with another editor from Ziff-Davis Publishing–the first issue of a new magazine called Fate, a pulp dedicated to true or allegedly true stories of the strange and unknown. The star of that first issue? Pioneer saucer-spotter Kenneth Arnold, with whom Palmer was later to collaborate on a book entitled The Coming of the Saucers.
And so began a new partnership. The Palmer-Arnold team didn’t exactly replace Palmer-Shaver. Ray and Dick remained friends and, after both families moved to farms near Amherst, Wisconsin, next-door neighbors. (Toronto’s book has a fine photo, posted to the Web on the French “Shavertron” website, of the two men absorbed in one of their frequent chess games.) But there’s no question that, as the music of the Shaver Mystery died away in the late 1940s, Palmer began dancing to the fresh tunes of the flying saucers.
It’s possible to see this as a purely pragmatic, indeed cynical move on Palmer’s part. The Shaver Mystery had yielded up all the cash it was going to; UFOs were ready for milking. Possible–but, I’m pretty sure, wrong.
The quotes I’ve given above, and others in Nadis’s and Toronto’s books, suggest to me that Palmer genuinely believed the two mysteries were connected, the goings-on under the earth bound up with those in the skies. So intimately connected, that the coming of the saucers could serve as proof (in some manner never specified) of the truth of Shaver.
Just how Palmer understood this link is less clear to me. It seems to me highly significant, as I’ve said, that Shaver saw no connection at all. Although he lived until 1975, far into the UFO era, there’s no reason to think Shaver ever took the smallest interest in UFOs. His only recorded involvement with Kenneth Arnold was when he invested in a uranium mining company of Arnold’s, which Arnold had promised was a sure thing. (Shaver never saw that money again.)
The Shaver-saucer bond surely lies somewhere in Palmer’s conception of mystery. Toronto points out that it was Palmer, not Shaver, who coined the term Shaver Mystery, for something which at first sight seems more like a mythology to be believed in than a mystery to be solved.
“A mystery, [Palmer] said, is something that should never be solved because it encourages thoughtful curiosity. A mystery makes one think, he said. Speaking at a 1977 conference on flying saucers a few months before his death, [Palmer] discussed the flying saucer enigma as if he were talking about Shaver’s mystery: ‘If we knew exactly what the flying saucers were … we would have solved the mystery, returned to boredom, and stopped thinking again. I hope we never really solve the mystery of the saucers…'”
“Some call it education,” Toronto quotes Palmer as having said; “I call it mental enchainment. We believe too much. We believe Einstein, we don’t understand him! We believe the textbooks, when we should constantly question them. If they are right, our questions won’t destroy them. If they are wrong, their wrongness will destroy us!
“I see so many of you asleep, hypnotized by ‘facts’ and by ‘knowledge.’ There is only the mysterious horizon beyond which lay unborn facts, and unresearched and unproved knowledge. If you don’t see that, you are hopeless.”
This is not the talk of a scientist, for whom mysteries–without any capital M, please–exist only to be solved. But neither is it the talk of a dollar-chasing huckster. The Gospel said: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Palmer would have amended this to: “Ye shall seek the truth, and that search shall make you free.”
Shaver brought to the table a dark vision of a world that was Hell, Palmer a glowing faith in redemption through Mystery. Together they were dynamite. Together they were the Shaver Mystery.
by David Halperin
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