Historical Randomness #12 – The Shaver Mystery

The pulps of the 1930s and 40s were the birthplace of modern science fiction, publishing the early work of the majority of the field’s most influential writers. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein all launched their careers in magazineslike Amazing Storiesand Astounding Stories during the Golden Age of sci-fi (interestingly, many of the greats were first published in 1939, coinciding with that of comics and the birth of the superhero genre). Amazing was the first of these magazines, founded by one of the fathers of science fiction writing Hugo Gernsback, and it’s into this magazine that step a couple of characters who, while not being household names, played the key roles in one of the strange stories that tend to accompany art and literature in all its forms.

The first of these was Raymond A Palmer, a hunchbacked dwarf who became editor of Amazing Stories in 1938, increasing its circulation by taking a more populist, space opera approach than readers had previously been used to (he also gave his name to one of DC’s superheroes). It was during his editorship that the second character in this story appears – Richard Shaver, originator of the Shaver Mystery.

Shaver was a factory worker and a hobo, and in 1943 he sent a letter to Amazing describing an ancient language he’d rediscovered. This started a correspondence between him and Palmer that lead to the publication of I Remember Lemuria, Shaver’s story of how the inhabitants of a world beneath our own. Palmer rewrote Shaver’s tale of how he was persecuted by evil forces, trading on the mythology of a Hollow Earth, but the twist in the tale is that Shaver claimed that the outlandish stories of him being blasted by strange rays used by a race called ‘Deros’ were all true.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a lot – the idea that you’re getting zapped by a strange machine operated by mysterious evil forces can be a symptom of schizophrenia – check out the story of James Tilly Matthews and the Airloom Gang, which almost reads like the basis for a steampunk story in itself but was really the first documented case of paranoid schizophrenia. But the Shaver Mystery boosted Amazing‘s sales, with many readers claiming they were encountering the exact same problems, and when Palmer decided to cease publication of Shaver’s work, all sorts of conspiracies were put forward as to why. It was probably due to the fad being over, but that didn’t convince everyone.

Things petered out; the space opera craziness of Shaver and other writers like him had less staying power than the ‘hard’ sci-fi stories being told over in Astounding under the editorship of John Campbell. The days of the pulp era ended in the mid-fifties, with the magazines switching to digest format and a new wave of writers entering the field. Shaver went on to become an outsider artist and photographer, before dying in 1975. Meanwhile Palmer went on to edit and publish other magazines, a fanboy (he founded the first sci-fi fanzine) turned professional. He died in 1977. Amazing Stories finally folded in 2005, with the sci-fi short story torch still being carried by magazines such as Interzone.

It’s a vanished era now, big characters getting involved in eccentric events. The Shaver Mystery is one of the quirky sideroads of science fiction history, fascinating because of the story, fairly tragic because of the intimations of mental illness. Most of the pioneers of the genre are gone now, leaving new generations in their wake, new subgenres, new stories. It’s reassuring to realise that – we’re all in the gutter, maybe even the Hollow Earth… But some of us are looking at the stars.


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