by John A. Keel
In 1947, the editor of Amazing Stories watched in astonishment as
the things he had been fabricating for years in his magazine
suddenly came true!
North America's "Bigfoot" was nothing more than an Indian legend
until a zoologist named Ivan T. Sanderson began collecting
contemporary sightings of the creature in the early 1950s,
publishing the reports in a series of popular magazine articles. He
turned the tall, hairy biped into a household word, just as British
author Rupert T. Gould rediscovered sea serpents in the 1930s and,
through his radio broadcasts, articles, and books, brought Loch Ness
to the attention of the world.
Another writer named Vincent Gaddis
the Bermuda Triangle in his 1965 book,
Horizons: Strange Mysteries of the Sea. Sanderson and Charles Berlitz later added to the Triangle lore, and rewriting their books
became a cottage industry among hack writers in the United States.
Charles Fort put bread on the table of generations of science
fiction writers when, in his 1931 book Lo!, he assembled the many
reports of objects and people strangely transposed in time and
place, and coined the term "teleportation." And it took a politician
named Ignatius Donnelly to revive lost Atlantis and turn it into a
popular subject (again and again and again).1
But the man responsible for the most well-known of all such modern
myths - flying saucers - has somehow been forgotten. Before the
first flying saucer was sighted in 1947, he suggested the idea to
the American public. Then he converted UFO reports from what might
have been a Silly Season phenomenon into a subject, and kept that
subject alive during periods of total public disinterest. His name
was Raymond A. Palmer.
Born in 1911, Ray Palmer suffered severe injuries that left him
dwarfed in stature and partially crippled. He had a difficult
childhood because of his infirmities and, like many isolated young
men in those pre-television days, he sought escape in "dime novels,"
cheap magazines printed on coarse paper and filled with lurid
stories churned out by writers who were paid a penny a word.
became an avid science fiction fan, and during the Great Depression
of the 1930s he was active in the world of fandom - a world of
mimeographed fanzines and heavy correspondence. (Science fiction
fandom still exists and is very well organized with well-attended
annual conventions and lavishly printed fanzines, some of which are
even issued weekly.)
In 1930, he sold his first science fiction
story, and in 1933 he created the Jules Verne Prize Club which gave
out annual awards for the best achievements in sci-fi. A facile
writer with a robust imagination, Palmer was able to earn many
pennies during the dark days of the Depression, undoubtedly buoyed
by his mischievous sense of humor, a fortunate development motivated
by his unfortunate physical problems. Pain was his constant
In 1938, the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company in Chicago purchased a
dying magazine titled Amazing Stories. It had been created in 1929
by the inestimable Hugo Gernsback, who is generally acknowledged as
the father of modern science fiction. Gernsback, an electrical
engineer, ran a small publishing empire of magazines dealing with
radio and technical subjects. (he also founded Sexology, a magazine
of soft-core pornography disguised as science, which enjoyed great
success in a somewhat conservative era.)
It was his practice to sell
- or even give away - a magazine when its circulation began to slip.
Although Amazing Stories was one of the first of its kind, its
readership was down to a mere 25,000 when Gernsback unloaded it on
Ziff-Davis. William B. Ziff decided to hand the editorial reins to
the young science fiction buff from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
At the age
of 28, Palmer found his life's work.
Expanding the pulp magazine to 200 pages (and as many as 250 pages
in some issues), Palmer deliberately tailored it to the tastes of
teenaged boys. He filled it with nonfiction features and filler
items on science and pseudo-science in addition to the usual formula
short stories of BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters) and beauteous maidens in
Many of the stories were written by Palmer himself under a
variety of pseudonyms such as Festus Pragnell and Thorton Ayre,
enabling him to supplement his meager salary by paying himself the
usual penny-a-word. His old cronies from fandom also contributed
stories to the magazine with a zeal that far surpassed their
talents. In fact, of the dozen or so science magazines then being
sold on the newsstands, Amazing Stories easily ranks as the very
worst of the lot.
Its competitors, such as Startling Stories,
Thrilling Wonder Stories, Planet Stories and the venerable
Astounding (now renamed Analog) employed skilled, experienced
professional writers like Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and L. Ron
Hubbard (who later created Dianetics and founded Scientology).
Amazing Stories was garbage in comparison and hardcore sci-fi fans
tended to sneer at it.2
The magazine might have limped through the 1940s, largely ignored by
everyone, if not for a single incident.
Howard Browne, a television
writer who served as Palmer's associate editor in those days,
"early in the 1940s, a letter came to us from Dick Shaver
purporting to reveal the "truth" about a race of freaks, called "Deros,"
living under the surface of the earth. Ray Palmer read it, handed it
to me for comment. I read a third of it, tossed it in the waste
basket. Ray, who loved to show his editors a trick or two about the
business, fished it out of the basket, ran it in Amazing, and a
flood of mail poured in from readers who insisted every word of it
was true because they'd been plagued by Deros for years."
Actually, Palmer had accidentally tapped a huge, previously
unrecognized audience. Nearly every community has at least one
person who complains constantly to the local police that someone -
usually a neighbor - is aiming a terrible ray gun at their house or
This ray, they claim, is ruining their health, causing
their plants to die, turning their bread moldy, making their hair
and teeth fall out, and broadcasting voices into their heads.
Psychiatrists are very familiar with these "ray" victims and relate
the problem with paranoid-schizophrenia. For the most part, these
paranoiacs are harmless and usually elderly.
the voices they hear urge them to perform destructive acts,
particularly arson. They are a distrustful lot, loners by nature,
and very suspicious of everyone, including the government and all
figures of authority. In earlier times, they thought they were
hearing the voice of god and/or the Devil. Today they often blame
the CIA or space beings for their woes.
They naturally gravitate to
eccentric causes and organizations which reflect their own fears and
insecurities, advocating bizarre political philosophies and
reinforcing their peculiar belief systems. Ray Palmer
unintentionally gave thousands of these people focus to their lives.
Shaver's long, rambling letter claimed that while he was welding 4 he
heard voices which explained to him how the underground Deros were
controlling life on the surface of the earth through the use of
Palmer rewrote the letter, making a novelette out of
it, and it was published in the March 1945 issue under the title:
Remember Lemuria by Richard Shaver."
The Shaver Mystery was born.
Somehow the news of Shaver's discovery quickly spread beyond science
fiction circles and people who had never before bought a pulp
magazine were rushing to their local newsstands.
The demand for
Amazing Stories far exceeded the supply and Ziff-Davis had to divert
paper supplies (remember there were still wartime shortages) from
other magazines so they could increase the press run of AS.
"Palmer traveled to Pennsylvania to talk to Shaver," Howard Brown
later recalled, "found him sitting on reams of stuff he'd written
about the Deros, bought every bit of it and contracted for more. I
thought it was the sickest crap I'd run into. Palmer ran it and
doubled the circulation of Amazing within four months."
By the end of 1945, Amazing Stories was selling 250,000 copies per
month, an amazing circulation for a science fiction pulp magazine.
Palmer sat up late at night, rewriting Shaver's material and writing
other short stories about the Deros under pseudonyms. Thousands of
letters poured into the office.
Many of them offered supporting
"evidence" for the Shaver stories, describing strange objects they
had seen in the sky and strange encounters they had had with alien
beings. It seemed that many thousands of people were aware of the
existence of some distinctly nonterrestrial group in our midst.
Paranoid fantasies were mixed with tales that had the uncomfortable
ring of truth. The "Letters-to-the-Editor" section was the most
interesting part of the publication.
Here is a typical contribution
from the issue for June 1946:
I flew my last combat mission on May 26  when I was shot up
over Bassein and ditched my ship in Ramaree roads off Chedubs
Island. I was missing five days. I requested leave at Kashmere
(sic). I and Capt. (deleted by request) left Srinagar and went to
Rudok then through the Khese pass to the northern foothills of the
Karakoram. We found what we were looking for. We knew what we were
For heaven's sake, drop the whole thing! You are playing with
dynamite. My companion and I fought our way out of a cave with
submachine guns. I have two 9" scars on my left arm that came from
wounds given me in the cave when I was 50 feet from a moving object
of any kind and in perfect silence. The muscles were nearly ripped
out. How? I don't know. My friend has a hole the size of a dime in
his right bicep. It was seared inside. How we don't know. But we
both believe we know more about the Shaver Mystery than any other
You can imagine my fright when I picked up my first copy of Amazing
Stories and see you splashing words about the subject.
The identity of the author of this letter was withheld by request.
Later Palmer revealed his name: Fred Lee Crisman. He had
inadvertently described the effects of a laser beam - even though
the laser wasn't invented until years later.
Apparently Crisman was
obsessed with Deros and death rays long before Kenneth Arnold
sighted the "first" UFO in June 1947.
In September 1946, Amazing Stories published a short article by W.C.
Hefferlin, "Circle-Winged Plane," describing experiments with a
circular craft in 1927 in San Francisco. Shaver's (Palmer's)
contribution to that issue was a 30,000 word novelette, "Earth
Slaves to Space," dealing with spaceships that regularly visited the
Earth to kidnap humans and haul them away to some other planet.
Other stories described amnesia, an important element in the UFO
reports that still lay far in the future, and mysterious men who
supposedly served as agents for those unfriendly Deros.
A letter from army lieutenant Ellis L. Lyon in the September 1946
issue expressed concern over the psychological impact of the Shaver
What I am worried about is that there are a few, and perhaps quite
large number of readers who may accept this Shaver Mystery as being
founded on fact, even as Orson Welles put across his invasion from
Mars, via radio some years ago. It is of course, impossible for the
reader to sift out in your "Discussions" and "Reader Comment"
features, which are actually letters from readers and which are
credited to an Amazing Stories staff writer, whipped up to keep
alive interest in your fictional theories.
However, if the letters
are generally the work of readers, it is distressing to see the
reaction you have caused in their muddled brains. I refer to the
letters from people who have "seen" the exhaust trails of rocket
ships or "felt" the influence of radiations from underground
Palmer assigned artists to make sketches of objects described by
readers and disc-shaped flying machines appeared on the covers of
his magazine long before June 1947. So we can note that a
considerable number of people - millions - were exposed to the
flying saucer concept before the national news media was even aware
Anyone who glanced at the magazines on a newsstand and caught
a glimpse of the saucers-adorned Amazing Stories cover had the image
implanted in his subconscious. In the course of the two years
between march 1945 and June 1947, millions of Americans had seen at
least one issue of Amazing Stories and were aware of the Shaver
Mystery with all of its bewildering implications.
Many of these
people were out studying the empty skies in the hopes that they,
like other Amazing Stories readers, might glimpse something
wondrous. World War II was over and some new excitement was needed.
Raymond Palmer was supplying it - much to the alarm of Lt. Lyon and
Aside from Palmer's readers, two other groups were ready to serve as
cadre for the believers. About 1,500 members of Tiffany Thayer's
Fortean Society knew that weird aerial objects had been sighted
throughout history and some of them were convinced that this planet
was under surveillance by beings from another world.
was rigidly opposed to Franklin Roosevelt and loudly proclaimed that
almost everything was a government conspiracy, so his Forteans were
fully prepared to find new conspiracies hidden in the forthcoming
UFO mystery. They would become instant experts, willing to educate
the press and public when the time came. The second group were
spiritualists and students of the occult, headed by Dr. Meade Layne,
who had been chatting with the space people at seances through
trance mediums and Ouija boards.
They knew the space ships were
coming and hardly surprised when "ghost rockets" were reported over
Europe in 1946.5 Combined, these three groups represented a
formidable segment of the population.
On June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold made his famous sighting of a group
of "flying saucers" over Mt. Rainier, and in Chicago Ray Palmer
watched in astonishment as the newspaper clippings poured in from
The things that he had been fabricating for his
magazine were suddenly coming true!
For two weeks, the newspapers were filled with UFO reports. Then
they tapered off and the Forteans howled "Censorship!" and
"Conspiracy!" But dozens of magazine writers were busy compiling
articles on this new subject and their pieces would appear steadily
during the next year. One man, who had earned his living writing
stories for the pulp magazines in the 930s, saw the situation as a
chance to break into the "slicks" (better quality magazines printed
on glossy or "slick" paper).
Although he was 44 years old at the
time of Pearl Harbor, he served as a Captain in the marines until he
was in a plane accident. Discharged as a Major (it was the practice
to promote officers one grade when they retired), he was trying to
resume his writing career when Ralph Daigh, an editor at True
magazine, assigned him to investigate the flying saucer enigma.
Thus, at the age of 50, Donald E. Keyhoe entered Never-Never-Land.
His article, "Flying Saucers Are Real," would cause a sensation, and
Keyhoe would become an instant UFO personality.
That same year, Palmer decided to put out an all-flying saucer issue
of Amazing Stories.
Instead, the publisher demanded that he drop the
whole subject after, according to Palmer, two men in Air Force
uniforms visited him. Palmer decided to publish a magazine of his
own. Enlisting the aid of Curtis Fuller, editor of a flying
magazine, and a few other friends, he put out the first issue of
Fate in the spring of 1948. A digest-sized magazine printed on the
cheapest paper, Fate was as poorly edited as Amazing Stories and had
no impact on the reading public. But it was the only newsstand
periodical that carried UFO reports in every issue.
Stories readership supported the early issues wholeheartedly.
In the fall of 1948, the first flying saucer convention was held at
the Labor Temple on 14th Street in New York City. Attended by about
thirty people, most of whom were clutching the latest issue of Fate,
the meeting quickly dissolved into a shouting match.6
flying saucer mystery was only a year old, the side issues of
government conspiracy and censorship already dominated the situation
because of their strong emotional appeal. The U.S. Air Force had
been sullenly silent throughout 1948 while, unbeknownst to the UFO
advocates, the boys at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio were
making a sincere effort to untangle the mystery.
When the Air Force investigation failed to turn up any tangible
evidence (even though the investigators accepted the
extraterrestrial theory) General Hoyt Vandenburg, Chief of the Air
Force and former head of the CIA, ordered a negative report to
release to the public. The result was Project Grudge, hundreds of
pages of irrelevant nonsense that was unveiled around the time True
magazine printed Keyhoe's pro-UFO article. Keyhoe took this
personally, even though his article was largely a rehash of Fort's
book, and Ralph Daigh had decided to go with the extraterrestrial
hypothesis because it seemed to be the most commercially acceptable
theory (that is, it would sell magazines).
Palmer's relationship with Ziff-Davis was strained now that he was
publishing his own magazine.
"When I took over from Palmer, in
1949," Howard Browne said, "I put an abrupt end to the Shaver
Mystery - writing off over 7,000 dollars worth of scripts."
Moving to Amherst, Wisconsin, Palmer set up his own printing plant
and eventually he printed many of those Shaver stories in his Hidden
Worlds series. As it turned out, postwar inflation and the advent of
television was killing the pulp magazine market anyway. In the fall
of 1949, hundreds of pulps suddenly ceased publication, putting
thousands of writers and editors out of work.
Amazing Stories has
often changed hands since but is still being published, and is still
paying its writers a penny a word.7
For some reason known only to himself, Palmer chose not to use his
name in Fate. Instead, a fictitious "Robert N. Webster" was listed
as editor for many years. Palmer established another magazine,
Search, to compete with Fate. Search became a catch-all for inane
letters are occult articles that failed to meet Fate's low
Although there was a brief revival of public and press interest in
flying saucers following the great wave of the summer of 1952, the
subject largely remained in the hands of cultists, cranks,
teenagers, and housewives who reproduced newspaper clippings in
little mimeographed journals and looked up to Palmer as their
In June, 1956, a major four-day symposium on UFOs was held in
Washington, D.C. It was unquestionably the most important UFO affair
of the 1950s and was attended by leading military men, government
officials and industrialists. Men like William Lear, inventor of the
Lear Jet, and assorted generals, admirals and former CIA heads
freely discussed the UFO "problem" with the press. Notably absent
were Ray Palmer and Donald Keyhoe.
One of the results of the
meetings was the founding of the National Investigation Committee on
Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) by a physicist named Townsend Brown.
Although the symposium received extensive press coverage at the
time, it was subsequently censored out of UFO history by the UFO
cultists themselves - primarily because they had not participated in
The American public was aware of only two flying saucer
personalities, contactee George Adamski, a lovable rogue with a
talent for obtaining publicity, and Donald Keyhoe, a zealot who
howled "Coverup!" and was locked in mortal combat with Adamski for
newspaper coverage. Since Adamski was the more colorful (he had
ridden a saucer to the moon), he was usually awarded more attention.
The press gave him the title of "astronomer" (he lived in a house on
Mount Palomar where a great telescope was in operation), while Keyhoe attacked him as "the operator of a hamburger stand."
Palmer tried to remain aloof of the warring factions, so naturally,
some of them turned against him.
The year 1957 was marked by several significant developments. There
was another major flying saucer wave. Townsend Brown's NICAP
floundered and Keyhoe took it over. And Ray Palmer launched a new
newsstand publication called Flying Saucers From Other Worlds. In
the early issues he hinted that the knew some important "secret."
After tantalizing his readers for months, he finally revealed that
UFOs came from the center of the earth and the phrase From Other
Worlds was dropped from the title. His readers were variously
enthralled, appalled, and galled by the revelation.
For seven years, from 1957 to 1964, ufology in the United States was
in total limbo. This was the Dark Age. Keyhoe and NICAP were buried
in Washington, vainly tilting at windmills and trying to initiate a
congressional investigation into the UFO situation.
A few hundred UFO believers clustered around Coral Lorenzen's
Phenomena Research Organization (APRO). And about 2,000 teenagers
bought Flying Saucers from newsstands each month. Palmer devoted
much space to UFO clubs, information exchanges, and
letters-to-the-editor. So it was Palmer, and Palmer alone, who kept
the subject alive during the Dark Age and lured new youngsters into
He published his strange books about Deros, and ran a
mail-order business selling the UFO books that had been published
after various waves of the 1950s. His partners in the Fate venture
bought him out, so he was able to devote his full time to his UFO
Palmer had set up a system similar to sci-fi fandom, but with
himself as the nucleus. He had come a long way since his early days
and the Jules Verne Prize Club. He had been instrumental in
inventing a whole system of belief, a frame of reference - the
magical world of Shaverism and flying saucers - and he had set
himself up s the king of that world.
Once the belief system had been
set up it became self-perpetuating. The people beleaguered by
mysterious rays were joined by the wishful thinkers who hoped that
living, compassionate beings existed out there beyond the stars.
They didn't need any real evidence. The belief itself was enough to
When a massive new UFO wave - the biggest one in U.S. history -
struck in 1964 and continued unabated until 1968, APRO and NICAP
were caught unawares and unprepared to deal with renewed public
interest. Palmer increased the press run of Flying Saucers and
reached out to a new audience. Then in the 1970s, a new Dark Age
October 1973 produced a flurry of well-publicized reports and
then the doldrums set in. NICAP strangled in its own confusion and
dissolved in a puddle of apathy, along with scores of lesser UFO
organizations. Donald Keyhoe, a very elder statesman, lives in
seclusion in Virginia. Most of the hopeful contactees and UFO
investigators of the 1940s and 50s have passed away. Palmer's Flying
Saucers quietly self-destructed in 1975, but he continued with
Search until his death in 1977.
Richard Shaver is gone but the
Shaver Mystery still has a few adherents.
Yet the sad truth is that
none of this might have come about if Howard Browne hadn't scoffed
at that letter in that dingy editorial office in that faraway city
so long ago.
1. Donnelly's book, Atlantis, published in 1882, set off a 50-year
wave of Atlantean hysteria around the world. Even the characters who
materialized at seances during that period claimed to be Atlanteans.
2. The author was an active sci-fi fan in the 1940s and published a
fanzine called Lunarite. Here's a quote from Lunarite dated October
26, 1946: "Amazing Stories is still trying to convince everyone that
the BEMs in the caves run the world. And I was blaming it on the
Democrats. 'Great Gods and Little Termites' was the best tale in
this ish [issue]. But Shaver, author of the 'Land of Kui,' ought to
give up writing. He's lousy. And the editors of AS ought to joint
Sgt. Saturn on the wagon and quit drinking that Xeno or the BEMs in
the caves will get them."
I clearly remember the controversy created by the Shaver Mystery and
the great disdain with which the hardcore fans viewed it.
3. From Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of the Pulp Magazines by
Ron Goulart (published by Arlington House, New York, 1972).
4. It is interesting that so many victims of this type of phenomenon
were welding or operating electrical equipment such as radios,
radar, etc. when they began to hear voices.
5. The widespread "ghost rockets" of 1946 received little notice in
the U.S. press. I remember carrying a tiny clipping around in my
wallet describing mysterious rockets weaving through the mountains
of Switzerland. But that was the only "ghost rocket" report that
reached me that year.
6. I attended this meeting but my memory of it is vague after so
many years. I cannot recall who sponsored it.
7. A few of the surviving science fiction magazines now pay (gasp!)
three cents a word. But writing sci-fi still remains a sure way to
starve to death.
8. When David Michael Jacobs wrote The UFO Controversy in America, a
book generally regarded as the most complete history of the UFO
maze, he chose to completely revise the history of the 1940s and
50s, carefully excising any mention of Palmer, the 1956 symposium,
and many of the other important developments during that period.
What's This? A Shaver Revival?
by Doug Skinner
Doug Skinner is a Fortean writer/artist/ and Off-Broadway (with Bill
Irwin) performer in The Amazing Stories of Richard Shaver.
Richard Sharpe Shaver died 30 years ago. He was never famous in the
usual sense of the word, but the “Shaver Mystery” and the “rock
books” were once hot topics in certain circles. That was a long time
ago, however, and Shaver ought to be forgotten by now. Surprisingly,
he has remained stubbornly alive, and in an unexpected place—the art
Maybe it’s time to reassess him; maybe we can even clear up a
few puzzles and misconceptions.
Shaver’s Early Life
Richard Shaver (he added the “Sharpe” himself later) was born in
1907; he was one of five children. At least two other members of his
family were writers: his mother, Grace, was a published poet, and
his brother Taylor contributed to Boys’ Life and other magazines.
Dick was a smart and bookish boy, surrounded by writers and readers.
He grew into a rather restless teen, and had discipline problems in
The family moved around a lot; maybe that had something
to do with it.
At any rate, by 1930 he was living in Detroit, intent on a career as
an artist. He enrolled in the Wicker School, where he also worked as
a life model to help meet his tuition. He became a great fan of the
muralist Diego Rivera and dabbled in progressive politics; his
speech at a Mayday rally that year put his picture in the paper.
The Wicker School eventually fell victim to the crumbling 1930s
economy. Shaver married one of his teachers, Sophie Gurivich, and
the two soon had a daughter, Evelyn Ann. Postponing his own artistic
career, he found work as a spot welder at the Briggs Auto Body
Shaver had always been somewhat unstable, but now he began to have
serious troubles at work. He started hearing voices—at first only
when he was welding, then more and more often. His fellow workers’
thoughts rang through his head. Even more disturbingly, he heard
underground beings gloating over horrible tortures.
In 1934, Shaver’s brother Taylor died suddenly, of cardiac
hypertrophy. The two were close, and Richard took the news hard. He
recalled later that he reacted by drinking until he passed out. Only
six months later, he was admitted to Detroit Receiving Hospital. He
insisted that a demon called Max had killed his brother, and was now
after him as well. He was diagnosed as insane, and had to be
Soon after that, Sophie had him transferred to Ypsilanti State
Hospital. He must have responded to treatment, since he was released
to visit his parents for Christmas in 1936. It was there that he
learned of another tragedy: Sophie had been killed, electrocuted
when she moved a heater in the bathtub. Her family took custody of
their daughter. Shaver did not return to Ypsilanti.
He was certain now that devils were persecuting him. Over the next
few years, he wandered aimlessly and compulsively, trying to shake
off the creatures that he believed had killed his wife and brother.
He often reminisced about this period later, but his accounts are
confused and contradictory; he confessed that he had trouble
separating reality from dreams and visions. He tried to stow away in
a ship to England; he was imprisoned a few times; he was tormented
by giant spiders; he returned to a mental hospital at some point.
Max was always after him.
Discovery of the Dero
Later, Shaver would insist that he had discovered an old and
jealously guarded secret during this period. Nydia, a blind girl he
had seen in dreams and visions, “a form as light in its step as the
sea foam that drifted up and touched the beach,” took him down into
the ancient network of caverns built by the giant godlike race that
had colonized Earth eons ago.
There, the halls were still stocked
with their “mech,” machines far in advance of our own: telaugs that
transmit thoughts, stim rays that amplify sexual pleasure,
telesolidographs that beam images through rock. When the sun turned
radioactive, these alien Titans escaped.
The few that remained
devolved into two warring races: the dero, whose brains were so
poisoned that they thought backwards and could only do evil; and the
tero, who tried to fight the dero and to assist surface men. In the
language of the caves, “de” meant “detrimental energy” and “ro”
slave: a dero, then, was a slave to destructive impulses. A tero was
the opposite, a slave to constructive forces. Max was a typical
dero, Nydia a tero.
The details of his story changed at times—Nydia came to him in a
Vermont prison, or from a Maryland fishing shack—but his conviction
that he had visited the caves never wavered. He always insisted that
he had pinched himself when he was there, and that it hurt.
returned to the surface to pick up some of his belongings, and
couldn’t find his way back.
Collaborations with Palmer
Shaver was released from the Ionia State Hospital in Michigan in
1943. He went to live with his parents in Barto, a small town in
Pennsylvania, and found work as a crane operator. A second marriage
foundered after a few months, but his third, to Dorothy Erb, was
apparently a happy one. And then he started writing to Ray Palmer.
Palmer, a prolific pulp writer in all genres, had taken over the
editorship of Amazing Stories in 1938. Its founder, Hugo Gernsback,
had pioneered science fiction—or “scientifiction,” as it was then
called—with stories rooted in scientific accuracy and technological
prophecy. Palmer slanted the magazine more toward fantasy and
adventure. Purists may have preferred Gernsback, but Palmer’s
approach proved far more commercial.
Palmer was always looking for new ideas, new writers, and new
gimmicks. So when Shaver sent in a key to the meaning of the
alphabet, Palmer was willing to try it out.
He printed it, and the
readers had fun with it, so he asked Shaver for more.
June 1947 issue of Amazing Stories
Shaver responded with stories about the caves and the dero, and
Palmer published most of them. Some readers were enthralled, and
some enraged, but the controversy was good for sales: circulation
increased from 135,000 to 185,000, and Amazing Stories went from a
quarterly to a monthly.
Palmer called the affair “The Shaver
Mystery” and it dominated the magazine from 1945 to 1950.
A number of misconceptions have arisen about those years. Palmer was
often accused of perpetrating a hoax by rewriting Shaver’s letters
as fiction. In fact, the correspondence between Palmer and Shaver
(which Palmer later published) showed that the two men worked
together to turn Shaver’s ideas into salable stories. Shaver was a
longtime fantasy fan and was happy for a chance to break into a
profession that promised more than the 83 cents an hour he made at
His early attempts—particularly the first one, “I
Remember Lemuria!”—were thoroughly reworked by Palmer.
was determined to improve, and collaborated with other writers to
polish his output. He conferred with Palmer about style and subject;
he even sent sketches of his characters to the art director. And he
wrote non-cave stories as well: fantasy and adventure yarns for
Fantastic, Mammoth Adventure, and the other pulps that Palmer also
edited for the same publishing house, Ziff-Davis.
Shaver’s main literary model was Abraham Merritt. Merritt isn’t read
much today, but his fantasy novels were quite popular throughout the
’20s and ’30s. Beginning with The Moon Pool in 1919, he produced a
series of novels about underground caverns, lost races, ancient ray
machines, shell-shaped hovercraft, and other marvels.
He was also a
member of the original Fortean Society and the editor of The
American Weekly, a Sunday newspaper supplement that often featured
scientific and historical oddities. Shaver thought Merritt had seen
the caves but could only mention them in fiction. One might also
suspect that Merritt’s novels had influenced Shaver’s beliefs.
Shaver was serious about his mission: the dero were ruining our
lives and needed to be exposed. Palmer was not convinced, but he was
intrigued by Shaver’s unorthodox scientific ideas, wild imagination,
and ingenious interpretations of mythology. He didn’t question that
Shaver had seen strange things, but thought that the caves were
probably astral or ethereal rather than physical. To Shaver, a
staunch materialist, this was “dero wool.”
Thousands of readers wrote in with their own experiences, and Palmer
liked to cite them as evidence for Shaver’s claims. This too has
been misunderstood. Many letters did describe caves and dero—some of
which, I suspect, were written by Palmer himself.
But Palmer lumped
all Fortean, paranormal, and psychic subjects into the Shaver
Mystery; it could all, somehow, be connected to Shaver.
The Birth of Fate
After a few years of this, Amazing Stories became primarily a forum
for these subjects. There weren’t many alternatives back then,
except for a few privately circulated newsletters.
stumbled onto an unexpected audience.
The Mystery peaked in June 1947, with a special issue loaded with
Shaver stories and essays—and a Vincent Gaddis article on spaceship
sightings that presaged the flying saucer craze that was soon to
follow. In fact, when Kenneth Arnold’s sighting made news that
month, both Shaver and Palmer saw it as further proof of the caves.
After all, Shaver’s stories had long sported spacecraft, and Palmer
had been writing editorials about alien visitors and government
cover-ups since 1946.
By this time, many readers—and, more critically, Messrs. Ziff and
Davis—were getting tired of Shaver. He couldn’t prove his claims,
and the stories were getting repetitive. Many were also alarmed by
Shaver’s unbridled sexuality—Palmer once had to snip out a 50-page
bedroom scene. Shaver agreed to stick to straight-ahead fiction, and
the dero were confined to The Shaver Mystery Magazine, a smaller
magazine he started with one of his collaborators, Chester Geier.
Meanwhile, Palmer and another Ziff-Davis editor, Curtis Fuller, had
founded a new digest to cater to this newfound audience for the
paranormal. They called it Fate, and it did so well that Palmer quit
Ziff-Davis to devote himself to it. For some reason, he edited it
under the name of Robert N. Webster. Despite regular ads for the
book edition of I Remember Lemuria, Shaver was never featured in it.
A 1950 article on him was not well received—one irate subscriber
called it “entertainment for morons.”
Fate, though, wasn’t quite what Palmer was after. Within a few
years, he left to start his own line of magazines: Mystic (later
Search), Other Worlds, Flying Saucers, Space World—many of which
changed titles and formats erratically. Shaver wrote for several of
them. Despite spiraling costs and poor health, Palmer kept his
creations afloat, even when he had to print them on remaindered
paper and could no longer afford to pay contributors.
The new editor of Amazing Stories, Howard Browne, didn’t like
Shaver’s work—he once called it “the sickest crap I’d run across.”
With that outlet gone, Shaver’s writing career declined. He sold a
few pieces to other magazines (like If), but mostly appeared in
fanzines and Palmer publications. UFO buffs did their best to keep
the Mystery alive; the idea that the saucers came from underground
was popular in UFO publications and became a regular subject on Long
John Nebel’s nightly radio talk show. Still, Shaver wasn’t selling
He suffered from depression and took to spending long
hours in the bathtub.
Sometime in the ’50s, however, he made a discovery that came to
dominate his life. One day, his wife dumped a handful of stones on
his desk, remarking that they seemed to have pictures on them. After
studying them, he decided that they weren’t just stones, but the
books of an ancient race of sea people. He had found the evidence
that had always eluded him: physical proof of the elder races.
These rocks, Shaver believed, were the records of the giant mermaids
and mermen who had developed a rich civilization eons ago, before
the moon fell and bounced off the earth. They made books by
projecting images into rock as it hardened. These images were
complex and variable; there were pictures that changed from
different perspectives, and pictures under and inside one another.
Shaver concluded that these “rock books” must have been projected,
like movie film, by some long-lost machine.
Shaver worked tirelessly to publicize his rocks. He photographed
them, wrote about them, and tried to sell them through the mail. He
made very few converts.
Eventually, Shaver turned to painting to show the pictures that
nobody else seemed able to see. His method was somewhat unusual. A
sheet of cardboard or plywood was first coated with a variety of
chemicals, chosen to simulate the texture of rock and to “respond
easily to the minute light forces.”
Shaver had no set mixture, but
experimented with different combinations of laundry soap, wax,
Windex, glue flakes, dye, and diluted paint. He also tried fixative,
but abandoned it when Dorothy complained about the smell. A rock was
then sawed open and set on an opaque projector. Once the image was
focused onto the cardboard, he sprinkled water over it and gave the
picture time to form. Only then did he get out his paints to
carefully touch it up clarify it.
The resulting paintings were fluid and hallucinatory: distorted
dream-like visions of faces, battles, mermaids, and strange
creatures. And, always, naked women.
“Oh yes, they were sexy, these
voluptuous ancient sea people!” Shaver explained.
He insisted that
the paintings weren’t his own creations, but strictly documentation.
The mythical realms of Agartha and Shambala
Shaver devoted most of his later life to painting and to promoting
the rock books. Palmer published a hardcover book, The Secret World,
that preserved many of the paintings and rock photos (as well as an
installment of Palmer’s memoirs), and a 16-volume series, The Hidden
World, that collected both early and late Shaveriana.
revealed in an interview that Shaver had been confined to a mental
hospital for much of the time that he claimed to have spent in the
caves, which didn’t help either of their reputations.
planned a long treatise on the rocks, The Layman’s Atlantis; he
printed a few chapters as booklets in 1970.
Reborn as Outsider Artist
Shaver’s writings have been largely ignored since his death. Many of
them, I would suggest, deserve a better fate. Some are just standard
space opera, but others are not quite like anything else in
“Erdis Cliff” (Amazing Stories, September 1949), for
example, manages to combine heretical physics, a talking purple pig,
atheism, Greek mythology, excerpts from the channeled Bible OAHSPE,
and an orgy led by Satan—who, we learn, is actually a harmless but
lusty cave alien. Nor, for that matter, is there anything quite like
the disturbing and hallucinatory memoir “The Dream-Makers”
(Fantastic, July 1958).
I also enjoy Shaver’s articles for Palmer’s
Forum, which treat environmental and social issues from Shaver’s own
soulful, quirky perspective.
Shaver’s rock art, however, has found a wider audience.
organized an exhibit at the California Institute of the Arts in
1989, and at Chapman University in Orange, California, in 2002. The
LA Weekly wrote about the latter show that Shaver’s work “ranks with
the Surrealist paintings of Max Ernst and Jean Dubuffet.”
work has also been shown at the Curt Marcus Gallery in New York City
in 1989 and at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco
in 2004. Norman Brosterman exhibited some of his collection at the
Christine Burgin Art Gallery and at the Outsider Art Fair in New
York City. Rock photos have been published in recent issues of
Cabinet and The Ganzfeld.
Posterity will have to decide whether Shaver’s art is to be
remembered. I can only add that I have one of his paintings, and
like looking at it.
Meanwhile, some of Shaver’s fans continue to
keep his memory alive—particularly Jim Pobst (to whom I’m indebted
for his research into Shaver’s early years) and Richard Toronto,
whose indispensable website can be found at
Our Own Worst Enemies
There’s a hidden message in Shaver’s work, one that’s often
overlooked by both enthusiasts and detractors.
Quite simply: We are
To Shaver, we have virtually unlimited potential. Within us is a
huge untapped capacity for wisdom, strength, vitality, and beauty.
We could be like gods. Instead, we’re a stunted, perverted bunch: we
kill one another, poison our planet, stultify ourselves with
mindless jobs, cut down forests to put up ugly boxlike cities,
vilify intelligence, and condemn sexuality. We think backwards and
embrace everything that’s vile, nasty, and foolish.
Shaver may have been overly optimistic about our capabilities, but
he did have a point.
We can do better.
And if it takes a Shaver
revival to get that into our little dero heads, we might as well