DEEP IN AN underground cavern, a diabolical being, monstrous and swollen, gazes lecherously upon a scantily clad maiden. Robots assist human captives as they plot rebellion against evil overlords. Powerful rays penetrate the cavern walls, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Strange beasts, only partially human, lurk in the shadows. Evil forces employ ancient technology to control events on the surface of the planet and manipulate human history. Our hero, armed with a raygun and a clean conscience, rides a flying machine through the endless tunnels.
All this is from the pages of Richard Shaver’s “Formula from the Underworld,” published in the June 1947 issue of the pulp science-fiction periodical Amazing Stories. It is a typical example of the rip-roaring, sexy adventures that editor Ray Palmer cultivated during his tenure at the helm of the magazine (1938-49). Blazoned across the bottom of this particular issue’s front cover, a cover depicting a speeding red racer dodging raygun fire as it rockets through an underground cavern adorned with carvings of ominous half-human beings, is this strange caption: “The Shaver Mystery: The Most Sensational True Story Ever Told.” “Formula from the Underworld” is fiction, Palmer tells readers at the beginning of the issue, but it is based on truth. The events were invented by Shaver, but the settings and context are real. There really is an underground world filled with strange technology and evil forces. Shaver has been there, has seen it in person. It is real.
In two excellent recent biographies of Ray Palmer and Richard Shaver, Fred Nadis and Richard Toronto provide insight into the strange partnership that was responsible for the Shaver Mystery. Nadis’s The Man from Mars takes as its focus the more familiar character of Ray Palmer, while Toronto’s War Over Lemuria provides new insight into the odd, and less well-known, personality that was Richard Shaver. Taken together, these two books offer the clearest picture yet of this curious footnote in the history of mid-twentieth-century science fiction that also marked a pivotal turning point in the development of the flying-saucer movement and other SF religions, including L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology.
It seems pretty clear that Richard Shaver suffered from some form of paranoid schizophrenia. He really did believe that his life was being controlled by unseen forces from deep underground caverns. He heard voices — some nefarious, others kind — that he believed originated in an underground world populated by the evil dero and the righteous tero, all descendants of an ancient race that once lived on the surface of the Earth but long ago fled to the stars. From those voices, and perhaps visions, Shaver constructed a deeply textured mythology of ancient wonders, sin, tragedy, and conflict that seemed to give some meaning to the voices in his head as well as to the triumphs and tragedies of his life. Toronto, a long-time chronicler of the Shaver Mystery and editor of the fanzine Shavertron is particularly good at revealing Shaver’s story. Thoroughly researched and documented, his account of Shaver may not solve the mystery of the man, but it goes a long way toward revealing the creative, if troubled mind at the heart of the Shaver Mystery.
Of course, the underground worlds of Richard Shaver did not spring full grown from his brain, no matter how fevered it might have been. Subterranean adventure has long been a staple of science-fiction. Even more to the point, the belief in the existence of subterranean civilizations itself has a long history, and not just among the ancients who believed in one form or another of an underworld abode of the dead. Indeed, there are other instances in which fictional stories about the underworld have been regarded by some readers as revealing a hidden, sometimes religious truth. The Shaver Mystery, it turns out, is not without precedent. John Cleve Symmes’s hollow-earth novel Symzonia (1820), Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril: The Power of the Coming Race (1871), and Willis George Emerson’s The Smokey God (1908) are all examples of fictional tales of underground civilizations that have been treated as true accounts and the source for religious belief by some members of the Theosophical and occult communities. Shaver’s stories are darker than the similar works that preceded them, but Palmer’s claim that Shaver’s tales contained truths about the hidden world under our feet is part of a long tradition.
For a brief moment, culminating in the June 1947 issue of Amazing Stories, it looked as if the Shaver Mystery might become an enduring pop-culture phenomenon. From the time Palmer published Shaver’s first “crank” letter to the magazine in 1943, detailing his discovery of the ancient alphabet known as Mantong, a Shaver story was found in practically every issue. Sales of the magazine skyrocketed. The June 1947 issue was entirely devoted to Shaver and featured four Shaver stories. Palmer classed three of these tales as fictionalized versions of the truth and the fourth as completely true. Alas, by then Palmer was faced with a revolt in the ranks of SF fandom due to his endorsement of the Mystery, and his tenure at the magazine was threatened. Just as critical for the legacy of the Shaver Mystery was something else that happened in June of 1947: Kenneth Arnold reported seeing flying saucers over Mount Rainier and the resulting craze swept the nation.
In retrospect, it makes a great deal of sense that the Shaver Mystery disappeared from popular awareness in favor of flying saucers from outer space. Shaver’s vision was dark and pessimistic, clearly shaped by the darker aspects of his mental illness. His focus was underground, away from the light and toward the caverns under our feet. But after World War II, Western eyes were looking upwards, to the stars and a brighter future. Even its paranoia was disguised with flashing lights and silver-toned spaceships. For a while, Palmer suggested that sightings of flying saucers confirmed the Shaver Mystery. Perhaps, he argued, they were flying ships from the caverns, piloted by the evil dero. But the call of outer space was too great. The extraterrestrial hypothesis won out, and the last half of the twentieth century saw films and television programs devoted to flying saucers from the stars rather than from subterranean realms. Another conspiracy theory rose to near-mainstream acceptance, while the Shaver Mystery disappeared. Flying saucers were reported over Washington, DC, but the dero stayed hidden in their caves. Hubbard’s space-based religion appealed to other sorts of stars in ways that the Shaver Mystery never could.
Palmer was quick to transition to the new reality. His new magazine, Fate, was devoted not to science fiction, but to “true tales” of the strange and paranormal. In the early issues, Palmer collaborated with Kenneth Arnold in the investigation of the Maury Island saucer sighting over Puget Sound. In the midst of the heyday of the flying-saucermovement, Palmer published the writings of self-described contactee Orfeo Angelluci. Shaver, on the other hand, continued to look down. He became convinced that he could discern images in rocks that had been preserved from the time of an ancient lost civilization. Whether the images came from the distant past or from Shaver’s own mind, it is clear from his elaborate paintings that he really saw something in the stones he found on his farm.
Nadis and Toronto tell good stories, stories both sensational and true, about how two broken men — Palmer’s body twisted by a childhood accident and Shaver’s mind twisted by stim rays from the caverns — found each other and created something mysterious and strange. Nadis and Toronto open up a world mostly forgotten, a world where writers were paid by the word and magazines were printed on pulp paper. And they show us the birth and short life of a new set of religious beliefs. The characters in the story, as in every story of religious origins that I have ever read, are driven by complex motivations — in this story in particular, by madness, duplicity, and devotion. It is hard, I suspect, for the biographers as well as for their readers to know how much Palmer really believed Shaver’s outlandish tales and how much was simply a con game designed to raise circulation and draw in the rubes. One is tempted to think of Palmer’s stance as equivalent to late-twentieth-century ironic detachment, but in Nadis’s and Toronto’s telling, there seems to be something more at work — to quote William James, a “will to believe.” There was madness at play in the Shaver Mystery, and duplicity, but at least between the two men at the heart of the story, there was devotion and true belief, as well. Sensational but true.