There was a time (before black-and-white television images were streamed into every living room in America via invisible rays that transformed the masses into mindless zombies) when pulp magazines were an important source of entertainment for millions of Americans. Cheap pulp paper was the vehicle for delivering exciting and quickly produced tales to the public: tales of the old west, tales of true romance, tales of crime and mystery and, most exciting of all, tales of science fiction set on far off planets, in the distant future and in the ancient past. (George Lucas was not the first sci-fi creator to set his stories “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”)
The garish and wonderful covers of these magazines, none more colorful and exciting than the ones which adorned Amazing Stories, were filled with space adventurers, scantily clad women, streamlined spaceships, and bug-eyed monsters. They also contained, at least between 1945 and 1948, illustrations for stories by a now mostly forgotten writer: Richard Shaver.
Shaver, along with Amazing Stories’ editor Ray Palmer, produced a series of popular stories about space travelers and subterranean civilizations. They also, to the shock and dismay of many in sci-fi fandom, claimed that the stories were based in reality. Shaver, a sometime resident of mental hospitals, insisted that he regularly received transmissions from caverns under the earth where the evil dero and the kindly tero fought for the soul of humanity. He also insisted that he had visited the cavern world and observed the operation of the powerful technology (“mech” in Shaver’s terms) that was responsible for much of the good and bad that happens on the surface of our planet. The Shaver Mystery, as it came to be called, sold magazines. It also caused a scandal in the sci-fi world that ended the Palmer/Shaver era at Amazing. In June of 1947, an entire issue of Amazing Stories was dedicated to the Shaver Mystery and to Shaver’s “true-to-life” fiction; by 1948, both Shaver and Palmer were gone from the magazine. Palmer went on to play a central role in the development of the flying saucer craze. Shaver carried on, out of the spot-light, with less overt fiction and more direct descriptions of life within the caverns, both now and in the distant past, and of the hidden danger posed to those on the surface.
I confess that I find everything about Richard Shaver and the Shaver Mystery utterly fascinating. Shaver’s fiction, like much pulp fiction of the era, is now sometimes difficult to read and enjoy; it is obvious that it was written quickly and according to a strict formula. Some of his more obscure non-fiction, especially when he describes the operations of underground technology, is also painfully obtuse and, to be honest, irrational. There is something about his writing, however, that makes it worth the effort. I think it is because Shaver was an utterly original voice. There is, within both his fiction and his subterranean theorizing, a hint of genius. Perhaps that genius was hampered by his mental illness; perhaps it was accentuated by it. It is there, nevertheless. Shaver makes me shudder at the fear he finds at the heart of existence; he makes me wonder at the crazed creativity of human thought.
Richard Toronto’s recent book, War over Lemuria: Richard Shaver, Ray Palmer and the Strangest Chapter of 1940’s Science Fiction is a masterful accounting of the lives and careers of Palmer and Shaver. Toronto, a lifelong fan of the Shaver Mystery and friend to Richard Shaver, is the perfect person to tell the story of the Shaver Mystery. Indeed, his Shavertron fanzine (and later website) probably did more than anything else to keep the Shaver Mystery from disappearing completely from popular consciousness. Toronto’s book is not be missed by anyone interested in the history of science fiction, in the flying saucer craze, or in the development of mid-twentieth century science fiction-influenced religious movements. (My review can be found at the Los Angeles Review of Books.)
I was not surprised to find that Toronto was not able to include everything he wanted in War over Lemuria. This is a problem faced by anyone with space limitations and editorial concerns to consider; it is especially true when dealing with material as voluminous and odd as that associated with the Shaver Mystery. I was surprised, and delighted, however, to learn that Toronto has published a second volume under his own Shavertron Press imprint. Behold Shaverology: The Shaver Mystery Home Companion! Containing personal accounts of visits with Shaver and Palmer written by long-time Shaver Mystery follower, Richard Horton; hard-to-find editorials by Ray Palmer himself; details (and seemingly whole chapters) cut from War over Lemuria; correspondence and poetry written by Richard Shaver; excerpts from Shaver fanzines; a moving account of the journey by Shaver’s daughter to discover her unknown father; countless illustrations; and detailed analyses of Shaver technology, this book is an answer to the prayers of Shaver Mystery fans or anyone intrigued by the subterranean streams that feed popular culture and popular religion. When read along with Toronto’s War over Lemuria, this book is an indispensable introduction to Richard Shaver and to the remarkable confluence of fiction, hype, madness and religion that was the Shaver Mystery.
Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief.
Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.