The Uses and Abuses of Illusion

By Michael SalerAugust 26, 2013

The Uses and Abuses of Illusion

The War Over Lemuria by Richard Toronto
The Man from Mars by Fred Nadis

WHY SHOULD ANYONE care about Ray Palmer, an editor of down-market publications touting science fiction, UFOs, the paranormal, and conspiracy theories? Or about his collaborator Richard Shaver, who claimed that the “dero,” a race of malevolent beings dwelling underground, were the source of all the world’s ills, to say nothing of the voices he heard in his head? During the 1940s, the two created a minor sensation when they transformed the science-fiction pulp Amazing Stories, which Palmer edited, into an organ promoting the “Shaver Mystery.” It succeeded in attracting many new readers to the magazine, including a surprising number who confessed that they too had communed with the dero. But it alienated most SF fans, who accused Palmer of catering to the lunatic fringe and squandering any respectability that the genre was struggling to attain.

Palmer went onward if not upward from the Shaver Mystery to ballyhoo UFOs and warn about plots to subvert American freedoms. Shaver turned from the dero to champion his discovery of “rock books,” seemingly ordinary stones that were actually alien scriptures from the antediluvian age. When sliced open they depicted unearthly creatures, cataclysmic events, and tantalizing languages. He sent boxes of rocks to friends and briefly ran a rock-book lending library that attracted few borrowers. (Since his death in 1975, his paintings and photos of rock books have been more successful, classified as “Outsider Art” and exhibited at several galleries and museums.)

Clearly these were imaginative guys. Their exploits may seem marginal, but they have a “believe-it-or-not” appeal that helps explain the simultaneous publication of two books centering on their friendship: Fred Nadis’s biography of Ray Palmer, The Man From Mars, and Richard Toronto’s study of both men, War Over Lemuria.  These provide brisk, entertaining accounts of the beginnings of the science-fiction genre and the zealous fandom it inspired, as well as the complicated relationships between fans and related subcultures devoted to UFOs, the paranormal, and New Age spirituality. Both authors are understandably enthralled by the colorful personalities and incidents of this fantastic milieu, emphasizing narrative over analysis. (Nadis provides more cultural context and reflection, whereas Toronto’s research is more detailed and thorough.)

The superficial zaniness of the Shaver Mystery should not distract us from its hidden depths, which plumb issues of personal and social significance. Palmer and Shaver discovered each other fortuitously in the 1940s, and their mutually enabling folie à deux survived occasional disagreements until their deaths in the 1970s. They came of age during the Depression: both were hardscrabble children of the working class whose fantasies could never be utopian. Shaver’s dero were as cruel, petty, and vindictive as his in-laws, who had him committed to an insane asylum. Palmer’s mystical inclination was counterbalanced by a dark view of existence resulting from an accident that left him a diminutive hunchback. God, he claimed, was “the Great Manipulator.” Both were emotionally — and, in Palmer’s case, physically — damaged individuals who successfully coped with their disabilities through faith in the transformative powers of the imagination. Their intertwined relationship would be barely credible as fiction, rendering it all the more touching as fact.

Nadis also suggests a thematic reason for Palmer’s importance, one that has a more limited applicability to Shaver. They embraced fiction as a wellspring of wonder and moral guidance in a rational, secular age. Shaver used the conventions of science fiction to cope creatively with his schizophrenic hallucinations. (Toronto’s book is especially strong here.) Palmer went further: he insisted that all truth was fictional and consciously construed his life as an ongoing story. “At his most intriguing,” Nadis observes, Palmer “was a master of paradox who hinted that multiple interpretations coexisted as true…. He developed the uncomfortable blend of science fiction and true mystery — leavened with irony —– that has continued to shape our culture and entertainment industries.”

Nadis does not explore this facet in depth, but it is a vital avenue of inquiry. Palmer seemed to be anticipating, in the prosaic domain of mass culture, arguments by later postmodernists that truths are contingent and provisional creations. (Amazing Stories under his helm was a heady mix of the metafictional and the jejune.) He also appears to be drawing on related insights about “truth” defined as a useful fiction that had been advanced, in various ways, by a host of thinkers at the turn of the century, including Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Sorel, William James, and Max Weber. The German philosopher Hans Vaihinger codified such views into an outlook he termed “Fictionalism” in his 1911 book The Philosophy of ‘As If’ (translated into English in 1924). Wallace Stevens advanced an “as if” outlook in his poetry and essays, one that Palmer would likely have endorsed: "The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and to believe in it willingly.”

It is unlikely that Palmer read any of these writers; he preferred Edgar Rice Burroughs. Yet he wouldn’t have needed to, as the concepts circulated widely. They were conducive to a specifically modern interplay of truth and fiction that trickled down from the empyrean heights of elite culture to the netherworlds of pulp fiction, which in turn has provided the taproots for many of our contemporary cultural obsessions and practices.

For all his idiosyncrasies, Palmer was emblematic of this cultural turn to Fictionalism, the adoption of an “as if” orientation to secure enchantment in a rational, secular age. Since the Enlightenment, fiction has arguably superseded religion as a resource of meaning and spirituality in the West. Fiction today is not begrudgingly entertained with the “willing suspension of disbelief,” as Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued in the early nineteenth century. His fellow poet Stevens is a better guide to the practice of modern Fictionalism: rather than willingly suspend disbelief, we willingly believe in fictions with the double-minded awareness that we are engaging in pretense.

This practice is most visible in the modern habitation of imaginary worlds, from Tolkien’s Middle-earth to the World of Warcraft. People have always “lived” in fictional worlds to some degree, but the prolonged, ironic, and interactive engagement with environs explicitly marked as fictional is a recent phenomenon within the Western world. Adults first began to inhabit fictional imaginary worlds communally and persistently in the late nineteenth century, when they proclaimed, with a knowing wink, that Sherlock Holmes was real. Readers at the fin-de-siècle eagerly embraced him because he accorded equal weight to reason, the hallmark of modernity, and the imagination, which has become the necessary complement to modernity’s emphasis on critical thought and scientific procedures. (Holmes called this combination the “scientific use of the imagination.”) Holmes was the first “virtual reality” character in Western fiction and an avatar of modern enchantment.

The transformation of Holmes’s world into a virtual world transcending Conan Doyle’s control, one made perpetually accessible and interactive through fan gatherings and publications, became the template for all the succeeding imaginary worlds populating the mass-media firmament. And while adults first turned to fantastic imaginary worlds to secure a form of enchantment compatible with modern reason, the practice of inhabiting fictional worlds in a communal, prolonged way has extended to more quotidian fictional worlds as well. Scholars who once would have sniggered at Star Trek fans in costume now don bowlers on Bloomsday; social media devoted to realist worlds, from those of Jane Austen to Breaking Bad, are ubiquitous.

Inhabiting imaginary worlds trains its practitioners to reflect that the “real” world is, in many ways, an imaginary construct, open to alternate interpretations. It also preserves the supernatural, at the level of the imagination, in a secular age that allegedly disavows it. Fictionalism relocates the supernatural from the realm of the sacred to a more ambiguous, uncanny middle ground between reality and fiction. Such fictions might well be “true” — in fact, perceiving the world in their light could establish their pragmatic or empirical validity — but must be held in an “as if” manner until confirmed.

Palmer’s commitment to a Fictionalist lifestyle allows us to assess the benefits and dangers of this outlook. He was skilled at being skeptically credulous.  Although fascinated by the occult, and eager to extoll the reality of the Shaver Mystery and UFOs, Nadis finds him boasting that, “While I believe every word [Shaver] says, that he has presented [the Shaver Mystery] honestly, in reality it is a complete fraud! Except that while I swear by the reality of flying saucers, there is no such thing! Except that while I believe in the spirit world, there is no such thing as a spirit!” Palmer could have sired Fox Mulder of The X-Files, whose own skeptical faith was codified by the clashing credos, “I Want to Believe” and “Trust No One.” The real Palmer and the fictional Mulder were able to entertain belief and disbelief simultaneously, without cognitive dissonance. This “double consciousness” is emblematic of Fictionalism and the secular imagination it fosters.

Although Fictionalism privileges the secular imagination, it is not antithetical to religion. Some among the religious accept fictions as sources of revelation and endorse an “as if” attitude as the way to apprehend them. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, for example, had an ingenious strategy for addressing the widespread contemporary understanding of the Bible as a cultural rather than a revealed text. In advancing what Tolkien called “Mythopoeia,” the two tried to reverse the secular tide by defining fiction as theological. Fictions (like The Lord of the Rings or the “Narnia” series) were useful myths inspired by God — with the exception of Christianity, which itself was both mythic and true. Fundamentalists can also be enraptured with fiction as religious touchstone, which partly explains the extraordinary success of the “Left Behind” series of novels and video games.

Palmer was raised as a Catholic, but as an adult rejected doctrinaire belief and practice in favor of a no-less-spiritual, Fictionalist orientation to life: he venerated the imagination and the sense of wonder it engendered. In fact, he claimed that the powers of the imagination literally saved his life. In 1917, when he was seven, he ran impulsively into the street and entangled his leg in the wheel of a passing truck, severely damaging his spine. He nearly died from a corrective operation attempted two years later and was similarly diagnosed as a terminal case in 1930 when he contracted spinal tuberculosis. In his memoir he claimed that he had healed himself through mental visualization techniques. But he was bitterly aware that mind-magic had its limits — that he would remain a four-foot, eight-inch hunchback, a perpetual outsider, a “man from mars.” He lived for the enchantments of the imagination, especially those that challenged the status quo and suggested alternate worlds of possibility, fictions that might be true.

Palmer’s craving for potential marvels was slaked by the new genre of science fiction, which reconciled science and the imagination, modernity and enchantment. It was launched in 1926 when editor Hugo Gernsback published Amazing Stories — the first pulp magazine devoted to what he branded “scientifiction.” For many of its earliest fans, SF was not merely a pastime but a way of life, even a quasi-religion, with its own institutions, rituals, hierarchies, and creeds. It stimulated an intoxicating sense of wonder from its “as if” stance to the future.

It was also socially relevant, not merely escapist. Contemporary scientists tended to minimize the role of the imagination in favor of an “objective” and empirical stance; Gernsback’s genius was to celebrate the inextricability of science and the imagination, just as Sherlock Holmes had done. He proclaimed that science fiction would be the necessary handmaiden to scientific progress. The new genre would supply scientists with the prophetic yet rational visions that they could materialize: Amazing’s motto was “Extravagant Fiction Today — Cold Fact Tomorrow.” According to one of Gernsback’s writers, science fiction “takes the basis of science … and then adds a thing that is alien to science — imagination. It lights the way. And when science sees the things made real in the author’s mind, it makes them real indeed.”

Gernsback’s sf magazines, and those he inspired, extolled the union of science and imagination in their editorials, letters pages, and features, although the fiction itself was often more exuberantly imaginative than strictly scientific. This also had been true for the genre’s predecessors. H.G. Wells, an earlier proponent of the “scientific romance,” explained that a credible story about the future required “an ingenious use of scientific patter.” Early SF fans’ dual commitment to science and the imagination was sincere, however, balancing their embrace of extraordinary possibilities with critical skepticism. Science fiction exemplified the interplay of belief and disbelief that characterizes Fictionalism, ideally preventing “as if” thinking from plummeting down a slippery slope into the pitfalls of wishful thinking.

Before Palmer met Shaver, he was an evangelist for Gernsback’s creed. In the early 1930s he wrote that SF “must contain actual scientific facts and ideas not based on unfounded theory” and helped establish the first SF fanzines and clubs that would spread the gospel. He became editor of Amazing in 1938 and didn’t depart noticeably from the SF mainstream, aside from targeting a more juvenile audience to boost sales. Fans were understandably perplexed, then, when Palmer began trumpeting Richard Shaver’s outlandish stories about the dero between 1945 and 1949 — not because Shaver insisted that they were true, but because Palmer supported him. Many thought that Shaver might be crazy but weren’t sure what to make of Palmer. 

The fans were right about Shaver, who displayed traits of paranoid schizophrenia. His psyche, like Palmer’s spine, had been twisted by trauma. His break with reality was precipitated by the murder of his beloved older brother in 1934. As he worked on an assembly line, Shaver heard bizarre voices emanating from his welding torch. The dero, he came to see, were projecting unsavory thoughts into his head through the advanced technology they hid in their underground caves. While Shaver was giving birth to his irrational imaginary world, his wife was expecting their first child, and his wary in-laws persuaded her to have him committed. Shaver was incarcerated when his daughter was born; shortly afterwards, his wife accidentally electrocuted herself. His in-laws then assumed legal custody of his daughter, whom he never saw again.

Shaver lost everything, but he was compensated with a clear explanation of evil and how it could be fought. He was no Fictionalist. The dero were real, the archetypes for all the demons, imps, and sprites of global lore. They were the degenerate heirs of immortal alien races, which had settled the earth in its infancy and subsequently left due to harmful solar radiation. Those who remained — the “abandondero” — found shelter from the rays in caves. Some, the tero, retained their natural goodness, but their dero counterparts devolved into moronic sadists who relished torturing humans.

When he was released from the asylum in 1943, Shaver sent proof of his findings to Amazing by explicating “Mantong,” the universal language that originated in Atlantis. Palmer’s assistant editor read Shaver’s submission, laughed, and tossed it in the wastebasket. Sensing a marketable controversy, Palmer retrieved it and asked its author for more. The first Shaver story, “I Remember Lemuria,” was published in the March 1945 issue, heavily rewritten by Palmer. It opened with a solemn introduction by Shaver, insisting that the story was true but so incredible it could only be published under the guise of fiction. What followed was slap-dash space opera, buttressed by over forty footnotes attesting to the tale’s “factual” nature.

For the next four years, Palmer featured Shaver’s “mystery” on the cover of Amazing and demanded it be taken seriously. He encouraged readers to debate its veracity and contribute corroborating evidence. Because the stories cited Atlantis, Lemuria, and other staples of esotericism, he soon attracted readers interested in the occult as well as those who heard voices. Amazing’s circulation soared, which pleased but also perplexed its publishers. According to one former employee interviewed by Toronto, they were astounded “that a goddamn pulp magazine could be selling hundreds of thousands of copies with a lunatic writer.”

The Shaver Mystery dragged on, enraging prominent SF fans who had worked hard to legitimate the genre. Just when they had finally refuted the canard that SF was “that crazy Buck Rogers stuff,” Amazing started promoting the genuinely crazy Richard Shaver’s stuff. Palmer seemed to reject science fiction’s essence, a respect for science and critical reason, in favor of New Age mumbo-jumbo. They accused him of perpetrating a cynical hoax to boost sales, and were chagrined when Harpers and Life publicized the controversy. Some called for a boycott of Amazing and the dismissal of Palmer and Shaver. 

They were right on one count: Palmer was gleefully milking the Shaver Mystery to increase sales, and he saw nothing wrong with that. All pulp editors were struggling in a declining market at the end of the war. The fans were being hypocritical, however, in condemning him for engaging in a hoax. As they well knew, hoaxes were intrinsic to the “as if” nature of science fiction, which represented the incredible as empirically credible. Notable sf hoaxes included Edgar Allan Poe’s 1835 story “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaal,” Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World (which included photographs of its author disguised as “Professor Challenger”), and Orson Welles’s 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds. Fans themselves loved perpetrating hoaxes, inventing fictional fans and writing bogus letters to magazines.

Editors loved them as well. When editor John W. Campbell published a fan’s letter in the November 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction praising the stories and writers of the November 1949 issue, his printed response was a terse, “Hm-m-m — he must be off on another time track.” Lo and behold, the actual November 1949 issue featured most of the stories and authors predicted a year earlier. (Campbell wrote a puckish editorial praising SF as the literature of prophecy.) Palmer’s hoaxes were no less overt and preceded the Shaver Mystery. He published stories under pseudonyms, some accompanied with bogus biographies and photographs (including one of himself sporting a monocle). The cover of the July 1943 Amazing featured Palmer as a mad scientist, which nicely encapsulated the contested nature of truth and fiction in his publications.

The mad scientist, however, was ultimately defeated by the adverse publicity he provoked. Stung by criticism, Palmer’s publishers demanded that he label the Shaver Mystery unambiguously as fictional rather than potentially factual. Palmer denied the distinction and left Amazing in 1949. For the rest of his life he issued a series of magazines devoted to UFOs, the paranormal, occult, and conspiracy theories — anything that stimulated his sense of wonder and questioned dogmatic truth claims. While Shaver perused rock books, in which the truth was literally set in stone, Palmer pursued Fictionalism. Nadis rightly concludes that Palmer was “a lover of paradox, content to be inconsistent, [and] encouraged dual interpretations like a sailor tacking into the wind.”

And yet, as Palmer might say, that is not the whole story. There is a cautionary lesson to be learned from Palmer’s commitment to Fictionalism. His initial outlook might be defined as an example of “science-fictional thinking,” in which extrapolations, counter-factual arguments, and divergent ideas are balanced by a rational and evidentiary approach. This was Gernsback’s paradigm for science fiction. As both Nadis and Toronto show, however, Palmer abandoned it over the course of the Shaver Mystery.

Despite his repeated avowals in his publications to uphold “science,” it was clear that Palmer had no intention of abandoning unusual theories if evidence or logic got in the way. Of course, he was perpetually fanning the flames of mystery to sell magazines, as well as to stoke his own sense of wonder. And he remained skeptical of dogmatic beliefs, even attractive ones, for much of his life. But seeing everything as a fiction is not the same as seeing some fictions as being more plausible than others. The latter describes science-fictional thinking; the former might be called “Negative Capability,” which the poet John Keats defined as the capacity to remain “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” 

Negative Capability is an important dimension of modern Fictionalism, but also one of its dangers. It is blissfully neutral in the face of “facts” and “reason,” which are rightly understood as potentially fallible and misleading. Science-fictional thinking often has the same misgivings, but nevertheless brings evidence and reason into a fruitful collusion with uncertainties and Mysteries in order to draw conclusions. After evaluating the evidence, we have less reason to remain doubtful about, say, climate change, let alone the implausibility of the dero’s underground shenanigans. When Fictionalism is applied to life it must acknowledge limitations, necessary compromises with a “reality” that always pushes back.  This seems obvious, yet Palmer’s example shows what can happen when an attractively pluralistic, anti-dogmatic, open-minded stance is taken too far for too long.

Nadis relates that in his old age, Palmer fell prey to the enchanting allures of one-world conspiracy theorists, condemning “Zionist World Government” and supporting George Wallace for President. He eventually became a firm believer, a friend to extremists like the John Birchers. While his Negative Capability flourished after he met Shaver, his critical capacity withered. The Shaver Mystery, then, is much more than a bizarre tale promoted by two engaging eccentrics. It’s a warning about the uses and abuses of illusion: a modern allegory of the caves.

LARB Contributor

Michael Saler is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford, 2012) and The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: 'Medieval Modernism' and the London Underground (Oxford, 1999).


Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!