Richard Toronto. War Over Lemuria: Richard Shaver, Ray Palmer and the Strangest Chapter of 1940s Science Fiction. McFarland, 2013.
Recent books by Aaron John Gulyas and Fred Nadis have cast new light on the earliest years of the development of the UFO legend, revealing many aspects which later ufologists have been keen to paper over. Nadis has shown that the contactees, far from being an occult-tinged dead end in ufology, were in fact central to its development.
The links in the early years between science fiction and ufology were similarly downplayed, with a number of UFO historians strongly denying that characters such as Ray Palmer had any significant influence. Gulyas has helped to put Palmer back into his predominant position in the earliest days of the UFO phenomenon.
Now Richard Toronto attempts, and succeeds, in a radical reassessment of Richard Shaver’s role, not so much in ufology as such, but in the complex of beliefs and personalities which surrounded the occult/SF/UFO nexus of pulp magazines and SF fandom, and his equally complex relationship with Ray Palmer.
Up to now, I have largely accepted the mainstream view that Shaver was a classic schizophrenic, his stories of ‘deros’ and ‘Lemuria’ originating from voices in his mind, the ‘influencing machine’ view of the illness. Toronto references James Tilley Matthews and the ‘air loom’ as an example of this. But this book is not intended as some sort of diagnosis of Shaver’s condition. Instead it is a sympathetic description of Shaver’s life, and provides an insight into how the ‘Lemurian’ belief system arose.
Having read this account I must say that if I had gone through even a few of the experiences that Shaver endured, I too would likely believe that some cosmic force was working against me and using ‘tamper’ to harass me at any opportunity.
Growing up in the hardest years of the Depression, Shaver’s family moved from town to town in a search for work. After working for a while in a landscaping company, an outdoor job which he enjoyed and progressed in, he moved with his family to Detroit.
In Detroit, Shaver worked in an auto factory, notorious for its oppressive and dangerous working condition. It was here, amongst the unbearable noise of metal-hammering, dodging the lethal machinery which killed many of his fellow workers, that Shaver first began to hear the voices which controlled the rest of his life.
But he was also able to find another life in the big city, where he started studying art and met Sophie Gurvitch, a teacher at the art school where he enrolled. From a left-wing, artistic Jewish family, Sophie and Richard were soon involved in leftist politics, which probably brought him to the notice of a number of agencies.
Richard and Sophie married in 1932, to the disapproval of both their families. Their daughter Evelyn was born in 1934. By this time the strains of the family relationships, the death of Shaver’s brother, and the constant uncertainty of employment for both people was placing massive strains on the couple. The voices were becoming more and more intrusive in Shaver’s mind, causing further strains with the Gurvitches. Sophie’s father, Benjamin was determined that Shaver should have no further part in the life of his daughter and grand-daughter, and eventually had Shaver committed to the Ypsilanti State Mental Hospital. This in Shaver’s eyes was clearly the result of dero activities.
Ypsilanti was by the standards of the time a progressive institution, and Shaver became a trusted inmate and was allowed leave facilities to visit his family. This was to be the last time Shaver saw his daughter. Shaver’s belief in malevolent dero must only have been confirmed when he heard that Sophie had been killed in an accident with an electric heater.
Now determined that Shaver should have no part in young Evelyn’s life, her grandfather petitioned for her to be formally adopted, and for a ‘trustee’ to be appointed to manage Shaver’s affairs. This seemed to be the final straw for Shaver and he took advantage of one of his home visits from Ypsilanti to escape completely from his situation. At first he fled to Canada, making his way as a hobo on the midnight trains, eventually arriving in Newfoundland.
He attempted to stow away to Liverpool, but an accident as he boarded the ship through a cargo hatch brought him again to the attention of the authorities. Deported back to the US he was eventually locked up in the Ionia Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Michigan. It is unclear why he ended up here, as his previous ‘misdemeanours’ would not normally have warranted such an incarceration.
Ionia was noted for the great difficulty which inmates found in ever being released, and psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl used the institution’s records for a critique of the mental health system. It was here that Shaver began to refine his theories on dero, tero, and the variety of mind-altering rays that they beamed at humanity and which he felt were following him at Ionia.
Possibly as a result of family representations, Shaver was unexpectedly released, and returned to the family home in Pennsylvania. Another brief marriage followed, via an advert in a lonely-hearts magazine, ending after a few months when his wife discovered that he had lied on the marriage certification by declaring that he had never been in a mental institution.
By this time he had got a steady job with the Bethlehem Steel company, and used the slack hours on the night-shift to make notes for stories based on his experiences with the dero.
After his divorce, he married for a third time, and this time successfully and for life. By now, although still feeling that all his troubles were the fault of alien forces, he began to settle down to a regular family life, channelling his energies into writing, and breaking into the pulp science-fiction market. Where he met Ray Palmer.
From then on Shaver’s and Palmer’s lives were inextricably linked. You can argue forever whether Palmer exploited Shaver, or whether he saw him as a madman or a genius. Was Palmer eventually convinced by Shaver’s story? Who knows.
Toronto writes about these complex relationships, and writes as an insider about Palmer’s wars with organised UFO fandom. He covers in detail Palmer's gradual move from science-fiction publishing to what we now call forteana. We get more information about Palmer and Shaver’s disastrous involvement in the porno paperback field - which seemed to rebound more on Shaver than Palmer - and Shaver’s eventual discovery of ‘rock-art’ and the resurgence of his artistic career.
This is a sympathetic look at a man who has too often been dismissed as ‘paranoid‘ or even as a ‘nutcase’. Shaver may have heard voices that were not there, may have felt he was being tormented by beings of his own imagination, but he never let them totally control his life as another person might. This book reveals a far more complex, more nuanced character, well-educated, artistically talented, incredibly resilient, and perhaps someone who was able to tame his ‘voices’ and use them to his own advantage. It throws a fascinating light on an intriguing and much misunderstood character. -- John Rimmer