Magazine article The American Conservative

Pulp Paranoia

Magazine article The American Conservative

Pulp Paranoia

Article excerpt

Pulp Paranoia by JESSE WALKER The Man From Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey, Fred Nadis, Tarcher, 289 pages

One winter day in 1943 an odd letter arrived at the offices of the sci-fi pulp magazine Amazing Stories. The author, a steelworker named Richard Shaver who had spent some time in mental institutions, claimed to have uncovered "an immensely important find": the ancient alphabet of a "wiser race" that preceded humanity on Earth. An amused staffer read some entertainingly weird bits of the correspondence out loud, and dropped the document into the trash.

His boss immediately retrieved it. "You call yourself an editor?" he asked. The man who salvaged and then published the papers was Ray Palmer, the Milwaukee-bred subject of Fred Nadis's new biography The Man From Mars. Palmers editorial instincts turned out to be sound: Shavers letter may have been ludicrous, but it inspired a lot of reader interest. And it made Shaver a part of the Amazing Stories stable, an association that proved very profitable for Palmers magazine.

Shaver followed up with a 10,000word manuscript he called "A Warning to Future Man," a purportedly true account of the ancient beings who lived beneath the ground. Palmer rewrote this into a 30,000-word story called "I Remember Lemuria," and started promoting it heavily. "For the first time in its history," he wrote in the May 1944 issue, "Amazing Stories is preparing to present a true story. But it is a story you will not find in the newspapers." The piece finally appeared at the end of the year: a wild account of aliens who had come to Earth long ago, then retreated to a subterranean world when they learned that the Suns rays could kill them. Eventually most returned to the skies, but the remnants they left behind became two grand forces, the evil "deros" and the good "teros," who between them were responsible for virtually everything that happened in our world.

Palmer arranged for an expanded print run of that edition of the magazine. It sold out and prompted about 50 times as many letters as an ordinary issue. The episode known as the Shaver Mystery had begun. Shaver kept sending his visions to Palmer, and Palmer kept polishing them into pulp fables and publishing the results as true. In Palmers hands, Shavers worldview became a sprawling, immersive tale that deliberately blurred the boundary separating fact from fiction. (Even within the stories themselves, it wasn't always clear what was supposed to be revealed truth and what was just a pulp flourish.)

"While the Shaver stories amused some as good yarns and infuriated others as outrageous nonsense," Nadis recounts, "Shaver's paranoid vision beckoned to many as genuine." Some readers started searching caverns for the dero and tero technology they read about in Shaver's tales.

You can see three streams flowing together in the Shaver/Palmer mythos. One is simple madness. Shaver had suffered a rupture with reality after his brother died in 1934, a death he blamed on a demon called Max. From there a larger worldview grew, with its ancient extraterrestrials and subterranean cities. The writer later claimed to have been kidnapped and imprisoned underground for eight years, where he witnessed the deros' tortures firsthand. In fact, he spent this time in mental hospitals and living as a homeless tramp. His first wife died during one of his stays in a psychiatric ward, and he lost custody of his daughter, who was told that her dad was dead. He spent a little time in a regular jail, too. It's not hard to see how those experiences might be reimagined as captivity among the deros.

The second stream is mysticism- the cultural strains that today are widely known as the New Age. There is a long tradition of allegedly true tales of lost continents, pre-human intelligences, and benevolent and malevolent conspiracies based beneath the soil. (Mount Shasta in California is a particularly popular location for the manipulators' supposed headquarters. …

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