Is it possible that a mysterious letter about aliens published by a circulation-hungry editor spawned the science fiction craze that still influences the genre today? Paul Byrnes examines one of sci-fi’s most colourful conspiracy theories.
Not many will believe the tale I am about to tell. I can hardly believe it myself, but it happened, and there were once many who believed. A few still do. The Shaver Mystery is 60 years old this year. You may never have heard of it, but it has influenced much of our popular culture – from ufology, to conspiracy theory, to the films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. It’s a foundation myth for the generation that grew up reading the oldest of the science fiction magazines, Amazing Stories, as both of those directors did. It is lurid, shocking, enticing, and quite possibly the result of what happens when full-scale schizophrenic delusion meets the American genius for turning myth into moolah.
Or it might all be true. On that level, it’s the story of how a meek Pennsylvania welder named Richard Sharpe Shaver discovered an ancient race of people living underground in a vast network of tunnels. He claimed to have first heard their voices while welding on the Ford assembly line in Michigan in 1932.
Later, a blind girl called Nydia led him underground and he spent years with the people there. Actually, he said they were robots, which he called teros and deros. The deros, or “detrimental robots”, were psychotic dwarfs who controlled great machines. The teros, or “integrative robots”, were good, like Nydia. They had not suffered the same mental and physical deterioration, and they fought constant battles with the deros.
Both were descendants of the Titan-Atlans, aliens who settled on Earth 12,000 years ago. They lived in Atlantis, but moved underground to escape the sun’s radiation. Eventually, they moved to another planet, leaving their robots behind. We are descended from one of the robot races they manufactured, according to Shaver. I told you you weren’t going to believe it, but fortunately, someone did (or said he did).
Shaver was an avid reader of Amazing Stories, the least respectable and oldest pulp magazine in the science fiction world. In late 1943, he wrote to the magazine about a language he claimed he had discovered:
“Sirs, Am sending this in the hope you will insert it in an issue to keep it from dying with me. It would arouse a lot of discussion. Am sending you the language so that sometime you can have it looked at by someone in the college or a friend who is a student of antique times. The language seems to me to be definite proof of the Atlantean legend.
“A great number of English words have come down intact as romantic – ro man tic – science of man patterning by control, Trocadero – t ro see a dero – “good one see a bad one” – applied now together. It is an immensely important find, suggesting the God legends have a base in some wiser race than modern man.”
Shaver sent an alphabet he called “Mantong”, in which each letter had a distinct meaning – hence the transcriptions above. The letter A meant “animal”, B “existence”, and so on. Howard Browne, an associate editor at Amazing, threw the letter in the bin.
“The world is full of crackpots,” he is supposed to have said to the editor, Ray Palmer. But Palmer loved crackpots. He published Shaver’s letter and alphabet in late 1943. Reader response was good, so Palmer asked for more. Shaver then sent a 10,000-word letter entitled “A Warning to Future Man”. Palmer rewrote it as a 31,000-word story, called it I Remember Lemuria!, and published it in the March 1945 issue – 60 years ago last month.
The Shaver Mystery then took off in earnest, with hundreds of reader’s letters pouring in. Some backed up Shaver with their own stories of encounters beneath the earth; some pointed out the entrance portals; others warned Palmer that he was playing with death.
Palmer rewrote and published more of Shaver’s outpourings. The stories got wilder and weirder and caused a backlash among more serious science fiction fans. The deros lived in cave cities and abducted surface folk to eat; they had fantastic ray guns and their mind-control machines caused delusions among the surface dwellers. The deros were sexual degenerates who used “stim” machines to debauch themselves.
Shaver blamed Franklin Roosevelt’s death and the rise of Hitler on the deros. Much later, he included the death of JFK. “Even Jesus Christ was crucified under orders from the caves,” writes Walter Kafton-Minkel in Subterranean Worlds, his lively history of the various inner-earth cults. (The belief in underworld civilisations goes back hundreds of years before Shaver.)
When the first great UFO “flap” occurred in 1947, Palmer jumped on that, too. Could the flying saucers be from inner space, rather than outer space? Shaver thought they could. After all, the Atlan-Titans came and went in their own spaceships thousands of years earlier.
Lots of movies are influenced by inner-earth lore. Alien vs Predator has a sort of Mayan temple beneath the Antarctic, The Matrix has the bad machines on the surface, the good people in the caves. The cave cannibals in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine predate Shaver by 40 years, and may have been a kind of auto-suggestion for the deros.
I stumbled upon this stuff last year. It seemed fascinating but harmless, except that there are people who have devoted their lives to it and died trying to find entrances to the underworld in deep caves. The internet is now the portal to these weird worlds. Over the past few months, I have been cyber-caving, discovering amazing stories. The deeper I go, the darker the trail, but the one holding the torch is a small man with a hunchback – “the P.T. Barnum of alternative reality stories”, as he was dubbed by Walter Kafton-Minkel.
Ray Palmer was born in 1910. A butcher’s truck ran over him when he was seven, leaving him with a bent spine and constant pain. He only grew to 142 centimetres tall. In and out of hospital, he became a science-fiction aficionado and sold his first story in 1926. By 1938, when he took over as editor, Amazing Stories was down to a circulation of 25,000. Palmer built it up with fast-paced action fiction aimed squarely at teenage boys. Lurid cover art helped, with horny space monsters and devils menacing semi-naked women. Palmer wrote much of the magazine himself, under various pseudonyms. Howard Browne, quoted in Martin Gardner’s book In the Name of Science, says Palmer “loved to show his editors a trick or two about the business”. That’s why he rescued Shaver’s letter and published it.
“I thought it was about the sickest crap I’d run into,” Browne said. “Palmer ran it and doubled the circulation of Amazing within four months.” Whether Palmer believed the Shaver mystery is debatable, but he believed in circulation – his salary was based on it. Amazing Stories eventually sold 180,000 copies.
“The Palmer-Shaver match was a double-barrelled, lethal and absolutely controversial combination,” says California writer Richard Toronto, who corresponded with Shaver in the 1970s. “Palmer made Shaver’s claims of an underworld civilisation seem real, important and timely.”
Toronto says he has obtained FBI documents through freedom of information laws that show the FBI thought Palmer and Shaver concocted the 1947 UFO panic. Palmer had published a Shaver story in Amazing in September 1946 about spaceships abducting humans. On June 24, 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold claimed to have sighted nine UFOs flying at great speed near Mt Rainier in Washington State. The story became a worldwide event and Palmer fanned the flames, recruiting Arnold to write for him.
In 1948, Palmer left Amazing and started his own pulp magazine, Fate, containing true stories of the strange, the unusual, the unknown. The first issue had a piece called I Did See the Flying Disks, by Kenneth Arnold (rewritten by Palmer).
Arnold became Palmer’s new Shaver, in a sense. Interest in the Shaver mystery was waning, but flying saucers were taking off, so to speak. Palmer pushed the launch button throughout the 1950s in a series of magazines: Other Worlds, Mystic, Search, Flying Saucers.
In many, he promoted the idea that various governments knew what was happening, but wouldn’t tell. In that sense, the Arnold sightings are not just the foundation of today’s ufology, but a great deal of conspiracy theory.
The pulps had a significant effect on popular movies, even before Palmer. Many of the 1930s movie series – such as Buck Rogers and Tarzan – had been published first in the pulps, but Palmer’s potent mix of fantasy and sexuality had a profound effect on teenage boys, some of whom would become filmmakers.
Director Steven Spielberg’s father, Arnold, began reading Amazing Stories from the first issue in 1926. He subscribed to more respectable science fiction pulps as well, and Steven read them all. Joseph McBride’s biography of Steven Spielberg makes clear he was particularly interested in stories about visitors from outer space.
His uncle Bud was a rocket scientist, and Steven saw all the science fiction movies of the period, many of which came from stories published in pulps. His first full-length film, Firelight, made while he was in high school in Arizona, portrays aliens abducting humans for an extraterrestrial zoo – a storyline Palmer would have been proud of.
Many of the ideas in Firelight turn up in Close Encounters and E.T., his most powerfully personal films. In the mid-1980s, Spielberg started a television show based on his fantasy and science fiction story ideas. It was called Amazing Stories.
Television killed a lot of the pulps in the early 1950s, then took up their ideas through the 1930s pulp-movie serials. George Lucas grew up watching them as Saturday matinees and on television. He also read comics and pulps, including Amazing Stories, according to Dale Pollock’s 1983 biography, Skywalking.
It’s easy to see their influence in his work. The multiple worlds, unlikely critters and good and bad robots in Star Wars are strikingly similar to the worlds that Richard Shaver described. The difference is that Shaver believed they were real.
Shaver died in 1975, still believing. Palmer died in 1978. He never actually said he believed in the Shaver mystery, so he never had to recant.
A few years before his own death, Palmer did say that Shaver spent nearly a decade, from the mid-1930s, in a mental hospital. These years correspond closely with the time Shaver said he was underground. In at least that sense, perhaps he was. Sydney Morning Herald