17 June 2013


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.

Lord - Pads PassionIn 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.


Curt Collins said...

Palmer seems to have been a huge influence, and if he didn't create UFOlogy, he sure seems to have been a trailblazer. I'll be giving this one a look.

Phil said...

Palmer's story is a cautionary tale for anyone who (still) hankers after a genuinely scientific, empiricist ufology. Perhaps there never has been such a thing - certainly Palmer didn't have any problem moving back and forth between nuts-and-bolts saucer-spotting, occultic revelations and sheer fantasy.

Count Otto Black said...

Yes, Ray Palmer is often said to have invented the flying saucer. And it may be that he got a good deal of his inspiration from that very strange fellow Richard Shaver. But where did Shaver get it? Bearing in mind that Shaver obviously liked to read pulp magazines, at exactly the time when he probably started writing his first book about those horrid Dero, "Weird Tales" published a story called "The Mound" which is pretty much a first draft of Shaver's entire farrago.

And who wrote that? H. P. Lovecraft! You almost never see it in anthologies because it's one of those he co-authored with somebody else (in this case Zelia Bishop), nearly all of which (including this one) are well below his usual standard. Still, you might like to check it out - it's interesting to speculate that, in addition to everything else, HPL was the great-granddaddy of the UFO!

Incidentally, Timothy Green Beckley recently included a rehash of "The Mound" in one of his ridiculous books, presumably thinking it was sufficiently obscure for him to pass it off as non-fiction. Naughty Timothy! No space cookies before bedtime for you tonight, my lad! Anyway, here's the story. See what you think:


ahtzib said...

Otto, I too have thought the "The Mound" vs. Shaver link to be a very clear one, though it is difficult to credit just The Mound specifically, as it is in the same vein and shows clear inspiration from stories like Merritt's "The Moon Pool," and Bulwer-Lyton's "Vril, the Coming Race," stories of advanced and dangerous subterranean worlds with designs on the surface world that they at times carry out with semi-material powers and technologies.

However, I'd be very interested to know specifically the Beckley book where he uses "The Mound." This relationship between fact and fiction is something I've been working on. BTW, are you aware that David Icke has done the same thing to some degree? He at one point was pointing his followers to the Simon Necronomicon, and has directly pointed them to Doreal's Emerald Tablet, which paraphrases/plagiarises "The Dunwich Horror," specifically the Necronomicon passage (this work by Doreal became an instrumental bridge for moving Reptilians out of Howard and Lovecraft's fiction, and into first occult and contactee flying saucer communities, and then into ufology).

Count Otto Black said...

@ahtzib, I mentioned "The Mound" specifically because "The Moon Pool" came out in 1918 and "The Coming Race" in 1871, but "The Mound" appeared in "Weird Tales" - the kind of pulp magazine Shaver obviously liked to read, since he submitted his stories to a similar periodical - in 1940 (although it was written in 1930, it sat in a drawer for 10 years - HPL obviously wasn't very happy with it), just at the right time to inspire him to begin writing "I Remember Lemuria". He may have read the others, though surely Bulwer-Lytton's turgid Victorian prose was long out of fashion by 1940s, and a not very well-educated man like Shaver would be unlikely to know of the book?

I'm afraid I can't remember which book Beckley did that naughty thing in - he's written so many! I never read the actual book, I just saw him caught out on his own forum by an unusually literate reader. It's one of his more recent publications - within the last 3 or 4 years, I think. Apparently he claimed that some third party had seen an article describing these events in a local newspaper (which of course couldn't be traced) and told him all about it. His reply was very brief and downright sulky - basically "Anyone can make a mistake, and I refuse to discuss it further."

I didn't know that David Icke thought the "Simon Necronomicon" was authentic (is any version of a book which never existed in the first place less authentic than any other?), but since he considers the whole of reality to be generated by a giant evil extraterrestrial computer on the dark side of the Moon, he presumably must believe that the ground he's standing on has exactly the same degree of reality as Narnia, so if he chooses to believe that made-up editions of non-existent books are as real as anything else, philosophically he's not being inconsistent. Of course, he's not being sane either, but that's different!

Actually I thought that a great deal of Icke's worldview came from "The Matrix", an immensely thick and ludicrously-expensive self-published multi-volume book by one "Valdemar Valerian", actually a fringe UFOlogist called John Grace who was also responsible for hoax "scientific" papers by a certain "O. H. Krill" who was supposed to be an extraterrestrial held captive in Area 51. It's all rather confusing, really...

ahtzib said...

Otto, I concur about the Mound, it is far too similar to Shaver's tales (or Palmer's versions thereof) to not be, and you're right about both the timing and the venue. What I guess I was hinting at is that these stories were in the air more generally, and not just invented by HPL. And when it comes to things like the Mound, where similar stories were flying about, I suspect that there were probably other tales in the pulps in a similar vein, that haven't been really well-remembered because they aren't by a "name."

For example, I only discovered after consulting

Bleiler, Everett F.
1983 The Guide to Supernatural Fiction. The Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio.

that because of Robert Chambers, there was a whole subset of pulp tales (not quite a dozen, IIRC, but about 7 or 8) that put the real-world Kurdish minority religion of the Yezidi as the villains as an ancient globe-spanning devil-worshipping cult. I had only been familiar with HPL's take on this in "The Horror at Red Hook," and even there it is muted. But he took it from Chambers, and then others took it from HPL.

As for Icke and the Simon, he's mentioned it in his books IIRC, and at one point a text file version was on his website I believe. He definitely cites the Emerald Tablets by Doreal. For example here, under the bit on Children of the Shadows, the influence of HPL's bit of the Necronomicon from the Dunwich Horror is unmistakeable


Steve Ash said...

The most fascinating thing for me is how the UFO phenomena to be a concretization of Science Fiction, in which Palmer no doubt played a significant part. The very idea of the Flying Saucer in Sci Fi dates back to the 1920s long before anyone ever saw one (probably). It may be demonstrating a link between physical manifestation and the imagination that people like A O Spare were writing of long before the age of UFOlogy, but its probably something far more complex....

Doug Skinner said...

Shaver was actually quite well-read. He was damaged goods, certainly, but came from a literary family; both his mother and brother were writers. In his letters to Palmer, he cited Merritt as his main influence, particularly "The Moon Pool," and thought Merritt must have been down in the caves. (Merritt also edited the sensationalistic "American Weekly," and was a member of the Fortean Society: an interesting man.) Shaver also often referred to Maupassant's "The Horla," and was steeped in Greek and Norse mythology. It all went into his stories...

ahtzib said...

Doug, where would I find those letters? Not doubting it, I'd like to be able to cite that in the future in part to clarify any Lovecraft connection (they're all meshed together, but being able to cast it back to the Moon Pool would be nice)

theo paijmans said...

On Beckley's error in regards to the Mound, Count Otto Black writes: "I just saw him caught out on his own forum by an unusually literate reader", that reader was me, having both the accursed Beckley tome and the Arkham House volume with the tale (The Curse Of Yig).

Best regards,

Theo Paijmans

theo paijmans said...

By the way, in a Fortean Times of 2008 I cite what may be the very first pre-Shaver tale on record, published in the early 20th century. Entitled The Devil With A Laser Beam it recounts the story of a man's encounter in a cave at Mont Pelee with a faunlike, horned creature with some kind of heat ray.

Best regards,

Theo Paijmans

Doug Skinner said...

Palmer published much of his '40s correspondence with Shaver in the last four issues of his magazine "The Hidden World" (#13-16, 1964). It puts the lie to many of the misconceptions about Shaver: he was conferring with Palmer about how to improve his stories, working with other writers to polish his work -- even submitting sketches of his characters as a guide to the illustrators. I guess "The Hidden World" is hard to find now, but not impossible!