Fred Nadis. The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey. Tarcher Penguin, 2013.
Ray Palmer was hailed by John Keel as ‘the man who invented flying saucers’ through his exploitation of the subject in the science fiction magazines he published in the 1940s and ‘50s. Some have challenged Keel’s assessment, calling it ‘fatuous’. This book goes a good way to presenting a more balanced viewpoint.
Palmer grew up as an outsider. Just over four feet tall and with severe spinal curvature as a result of a crippling road accident when he was a child, he would sometimes play on his appearance, telling children that he was from Mars, before giving them a sharp road safety warning.
He feared that his accident made him “a lone wolf, a bitterly determined, stubborn man”, and worried that he would never marry or lead a normal life. In fact he had a long and happy marriage which gave him three children.
But as a young man he found in science fiction and the science fiction fandom scene which he helped develop, a secure refuge which gave him a launching pad for a remarkable career. His first publication was a fanzine called The Comet, which after three issues changed to Cosmology. His first published work in a news-stand magazine was a story, 'The Time Ray of Jandra', which appeared in the June 1930 issue of Hugo Gernsback’s Science Wonder Stories.
However his growing involvement in science fiction publishing and fandom was interrupted when his deformed spine became infected with a form of tuberculosis, and he was sent to a sanatorium where after two years, and the doctors’ convictions that he would not survive, he was cured and the infected area of his spine re-grew. Returning to his day-job in a sheet-metal firm he re-immersed himself into the science-fiction fandom scene with Science Fiction Digest, where he wrote a column, ‘Spilling the Atom’ and adopted the nom-de-plume ‘RAP‘, from his initials.
At this time he was also writing for other titles in his publisher’s pulp stable, including Scarlet Adventures, Spicy Adventure and Scarlet Gang Stories - ‘Scarlet’ being code for sexual content.
In 1937, on the recommendation of fellow SF writer and editor Ralph Milne Farley, Palmer became editor of Amazing Stories magazine, published by the Ziff-Davis group in Chicago. He took over the ailing magazine and broadened its scope, making it more appealing to younger readers, and brightened up the cover art with voluptuous heroines wearing as little as the artists thought they could get away with.
Although these populist moves were deprecated by some of the purists, Palmer kept up the magazine’s connections with fandom through his editorials and active encouragement of new writers.
But his next move really did split the world of science-fiction pulps, when he retrieved a letter that his assistant had tossed contemptuously into the waste-paper basket. This was the letter from Richard Shaver which started the so-called ‘Shaver Mystery’ with its stories of deros, malevolent subterranean dwellers, the remnants of a civilisation that had long departed earth. The first Shaver story, ‘I Remember Lemuria’ boosted the magazine's circulation but was received with disgust by many hard-core fans. Gradually the Shaver stories took up more and more space in Amazing Stories, culminating in an all-Shaver issue in 1947.
There later grew up a feeling that Palmer had in some way exploited Shaver, a man who clearly had mental health problems (he was incarcerated for some time in an asylum for the ‘criminally insane’ whilst leading a hobo/bohemian existence) but it is clear from this book that their relationship was on a much more equal and collaborative basis, and Palmer saw Shaver as someone who was making a genuine contribution to both the magazine and science-fiction in general. The two men became great friends, as did their families.
Whether or not Palmer actually believed Shaver’s stories is another matter, and Nadis discusses the ambiguous nature of his presentation of the ‘Mystery‘, at times he seemed to be saying that they should be read literally, sometimes he treated them as being in some way allegorical, at other times signalled that they were definitely fiction.
The Shaver stories marked Palmer’s move into a more fantastic, occult tinged direction. Amazing began publishing articles on topics like Agharta, mystery airships, or the ‘Mystery of the Peruvian giants’. Eventually Palmer parted direction with the world of science fiction altogether to the relief of some of its adherents, as was demonstrated by the fanzine Towards Tomorrow, a 1945 number of which opened with an otherwise blank page inscribed “AMAZING STORIES R.I.P” and in smaller type: “Dedicated to the fond memory of a good magazine … dead for twelve years and buried by Ray Palmer in March, 1945”.
But unknown to most Amazing readers, Palmer was already publishing a magazine which would determine his future trajectory. Under the pseudonym Robert N. Webster (one of numerous names he used for his written works) he had created and was editing Fate magazine, along with Curtis Fuller.
It was Fate’s first issue featuring Kenneth Arnold’s account of his historic saucer sighting which set the template for future issues. Other articles in that first issue included ‘Mark Twain and Halley’s Comet’, ‘Invisible Beings Walk the Earth’, and ‘Twenty Million Maniacs’. Later Palmer commissioned Arnold to investigate the infamous Maury Island case. Nadis points out that at this time, from his desk in the Fate office Palmer was at the centre of three interlocking rings in a publishing Venn diagram: science fiction, the occult underground and flying saucers.
After Palmer’s split from the Ziff-Davies organisation, he and his family moved to Wisconsin, to a smallholding next to where his friend Shaver had moved with his family a couple of years earlier. Here he set up the Amhurst Press, which published a number of the early contactee accounts as well as Kenneth Arnold’s [ghost-written?] Coming of the Saucers, and Orfeo Angelucci’s Secret of the Saucers. He also published Other Worlds Science Stories, where he attempted to restore his reputation as a publisher of ‘serious’ science fiction. Other Worlds eventually turned into Flying Saucers from Other Worlds, and eventually just Flying Saucers. At this time he sold out his share in Fate to Fuller.
In Wisconsin Palmer continued his association with Shaver helping him promote his ‘rock art’ paintings, supposedly based on images found in stones, and publishing Shaver’s sixteen volume opus Hidden Worlds, This led to a very public falling out between the two men, but Nadis hints it might have been a fabricated dispute to publicise the books, typical of Palmer’s promotional techniques.
As his publishing business began to wind down - Flying Saucers was never a mass-market production - he became involved in a number of crusades and campaigns -food aid for Navajos; anti-pesticides, years before Rachel Carson. He wrote fiercely against atomic testing, which led to him being suspected of Communist sympathies, which brought him briefly to the attention of the FBI. He also came under attack for his peripheral association, through Richard Shaver, with a publisher of smut paperbacks with titles such as Pads are for Passion - “Anita was a virgin - till the hipsters got hold of her!”
In his later years he became fascinated with the counter-culture and its optimistic ‘peace and love’ message and opposition to the Vietnam war, although he later fell into believing classic paranoid conspiracy theories of a One-World government trying to impose its rule on the US. This may have been triggered by his own battles with Federal officials over the management of his Wisconsin property.
Palmer may not have been the man who invented flying saucers, but through his involvement in the investigation of the Maury Island case he was certainly the man who invented 'ufology'. He may well also be the man who invented ‘fortean’ publishing. By effectively splitting science fiction publishing into two threads he was crucial in developing the whole genre of paranormal and ‘strange phenomena’ books, magazines and TV shows we have today.
This is a fascinating study, it is meticulously researched, and sympathetically recounts the complex life and thoughts of an important and intriguing character, and the author is clearly familiar with the milieu in which Palmer, his associates and his readers lived. Essential reading for all Forteans and Magonians. -- John Rimmer.