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The 1940s is generally regarded as the Golden Age of American science fiction magazines. Readers could, for ten or 15 cents, read a hundred pages of stories and articles. Astounding Science Fiction, edited by John W Campbell, was the most adult and literate. For the adventure-starved teenager, there were magazines like Super-Science Stories or Captain Future. There was something for everyone.
Occasionally, fiction and fact would blur; this is the decade that introduced the world to the Unidentified Flying Object. One of the oddest bits of speculation (but is it?) occurred in the middle years of that decade. This is the story of 'The Shaver Mystery'.
Amazing Stories and Ray Palmer
Amazing Stories was the most juvenile of the science fiction magazines in the 1940s. It was also the oldest, having started in 1926. By the '40s it was owned by Ziff-Davis Publications, (a company that still exists, though it sold Amazing decades ago) which hired a longtime fan and author, Raymond A Palmer (1910-1977) to edit it.
Ray Palmer was a short man, partly crippled from a childhood accident, but his enthusiasm was giant. He transformed Amazing from a plodding, stodgy relic into a brash, vibrant magazine. He liked stories full of action and adventure; plausibility was low on his list. He built around him a cadre of writers who could produce the sort of works he wanted. His formula worked; Amazing flourished.
In the summer of 1943 a letter arrived at Amazing from Richard S Shaver (1907-1975), a semi-literate former steelworker from Barto, Pennsylvania. Howard Browne, Palmer's second-in-command, read the letter aloud to the staff as a joke. Shaver declared that he had unlocked the secrets of an ancient lost civilisation, and offered his interpretation of the alphabet as evidence. Browne snorted derisively and threw the letter away. Palmer retrieved it and published it in the January 1944 issue. That issue, by the way, featured the story 'The Mad Robot' by William P McGivern, one of a precious few of Palmer's regulars to go on to any real success.
The Shaver letter opened up a deluge, which Palmer rode like a champion surfer. Was this truth, or a delusion of Shaver's? Shaver said voices spoke to him, relating the past history of the Earth. Palmer loved it; it was, to him, a great way to spark debate and make Amazing stand out in the field. Palmer took the idea and ran with it.
According to Shaver, the Earth was once inhabited by super-advanced races, foremost of which were the Atlans and the Titans. They built immense cities under the Earth's surface. They were godlike, but the Earth could not sustain them; harmful radioactive emissions from the Sun caused people to go wrong, and turn evil. This force could not be combatted so, reluctantly, approximately 12,000 years ago, the Titans abandoned the Earth. Those left behind were already perverted, and were called abandondero - 'dero' for short. All of the human race is said to originate from these deros. In fact, because we are living under the Sun's influence, we ourselves are deros.
The tero is the opposite of dero, but few teros exist on the Earth today because of the Sun's harmful radiation.
But the Titans left behind more than just their warped friends; they left their cities and machines. The dero took control of them, and manipulate them to this day to make human lives more difficult. Between the harmful energies of the Sun and those put out by deros, life is, in Donne's words, 'nasty, brutish and short'.
Surprisingly, Shaver's revelations have little application to everyday life. Aside from cursing 'those darn deros' or using the Shaver alphabet, there seems little we can do. The Sun emits harmful energies, so an exodus to other worlds might be in order, but that was a pipe dream in the 1940s. The Titans sometimes return to observe the Earth and its condition, so perhaps there is hope from them. However, Shaverism has no religious aspirations; it is merely a set of ideas about the Earth's past.
Here is the Shaver alphabet, with definitions.
- A - is for Animal
- B - is to Be
- C - means See
- D - is the harmful energy generated by the Sun
- E - is Energy
- F - means Fecund
- G - means to Generate
- H - means Human
- I - means I
- J - is the same as G - generate
- K - means Kinetic, as in motion or energy
- L - is Life
- M - means Man
- N - means child, as in 'ninny'
- O - means Orifice, a source
- P - is Power
- Q - means Quest
- R - horror; signifies a large amount of D present
- S - means the Sun, which emits D
- T - is the beneficial force, the opposite of D
- U - means You
- V - Vital; in Shaver's words, 'the stuff Mesmer calls animal magnetism.'
- W - Will
- X - Conflict, sometimes meaning D and T in opposition
- Y - means Why
- Z - means Zero, or when T and D cancel one another out
By using the Shaver alphabet, we are supposed to learn primal truths about people and things. For example: the word 'cat' translates to 'See Animal Good force', which is preferable to 'dog', which means, 'Bad force Orifice Generate'. As in the old chestnut, 'dog' and 'god' are equals.
This doesn't always apply; Shaver sometimes joined several letters to alter a word's meaning. 'Dero', translated literally, means 'Bad force Energy Horror Orifice', yet Shaver often translates the 'ro' as part of the word 'robot', though deros are not robots and do not have the redeeming T that 'robot' has. The etymology, where it does wander from the strictly alphabetical, follows no discernable logic. If you wish to use the Shaver alphabet, stick rigorously to the above definitions; you'll get confused, otherwise.
The first Shaver story, 'I Remember Lemuria!', appeared in the March 1945 issue. It purports to be a narrative of the abandonment of Earth as told by Mion, one of the lesser species inhabiting the Earth at that time. In 1945 Amazing was quarterly, due to wartime paper restrictions; all four issues featured Shaver stories. Articles about Shaverist subjects - telepathy, radioactivity, etc, - began to appear.
The peak of Shaverism occurred with the June 1947 issue, which was entirely devoted to 'The Shaver Mystery'. Every story and article related to the topic. But which were which? Palmer danced around the line between truth and fiction; he dropped frequent hints that Shaver's tales were not fiction, but fact. In the special Shaver Mystery issue he went further. In his editorial, Palmer names each story, and how much of it is true. Most of the stories are said to be fiction based on true Shaverist concepts, but one, entitled 'Zigor Mephisto's Collection of Mentalia' is a thought-record of the olden ages, and therefore, fact.
Whether Palmer believed any of this is questionable, but Shaver did. Debate raged in Amazing's letter columns, but the fire never spread to other magazines. The tenor of the Palmer Amazing changed, and lost some of its luster. The Golden Age was sputtering to a close.
Richard Shaver is credited as the author of his stories and articles, but was he? His letters and pieces known to be from his own pen show a very limited talent. His syntax is often garbled, his ideas pile on one another until one can hardly see the forest for the treatises. Yet many of his stories show signs of competent literary ability, or abilities; if Shaver wrote these, he was capable of writing in several differing styles.
It seems likely that Palmer farmed out Shaver's stories to his own cadre of writers for revision. Shaver would never admit this. What is clear is that whoever wrote the stories had been reading science fiction extensively. Shaver's concepts are often related to common science fiction themes. The hollow Earth, which had been used ever since Jules Verne, gets an airing; one of Shaver's methods for preserving thought-records - having them sealed inside solid rock - is explicitly borrowed from a story by John Taine. Much of the muddiness surrounding Shaver's concepts may stem from the addition of older ideas by Shaver and other writers.
According to Ray Palmer, Amazing was wildly successful during the Shaver years; although no circulation figures have ever been released. It seems clear that Palmer felt he was on to something, for he continued to blur the lines between fact and fiction in his later efforts, especially in regard to flying saucers.
Palmer was restless - why, no one knows. He began to moonlight, putting together a new magazine, Other Worlds, through his own publishing company. It may be that Ziff-Davis found out about this - Other Worlds ran Shaver stories, and others by Palmer regulars - or they may have decided that enough was enough. The situation is unclear. Whatever the reason, Ray Palmer was fired as editor of Amazing in the summer of 1949; his name remained on the masthead through the January, 1950 issue. No announcement was made when he was fired. Howard Browne became the next editor of Amazing. It was his first job to throw out thousands of dollars worth of already purchased Shaver stories and articles. The Shaver era was over.
Ray Palmer was never again so prominent in the science fiction field. Other Worlds did not last long - for its final issues its name was changed to Flying Saucers from Other Worlds. He went a step further when he helped found Fate, a magazine where no theory is too outré to be true.
Shaver, buried in his belief like a dero in a cave, continued to write and believe in his discovery, with less and less attention. He married, and spent many years painting and selling his paintings, without the success his writings achieved.
Here you can find another concise history of the Shaver Mystery, with respect to its early years especially.
The Shavertron is an online archive of articles from a Shaverist publication, with some new works added.
Here you can see some Amazing Stories cover art. Click on 'Amazing Stories 2' and you can see a couple of covers from the Shaver period, including the special Shaver Mystery issue.