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Science Fiction's Greatest Controversy



Rob Hardy


When malevolent underground beings called deros were controlling humans on the surface by means of electronic rays, only Richard Shaver could perceive the plot. His 1943 letter to Ray Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories, was almost discarded, but Palmer sensed that this was big news, and rewrote the letter into the sort of story his science fiction magazine usually published. He maintained, though, that Shaver had hit upon the truth. Thus was born The Shaver Mystery, a publishing phenomenon that was big news at the time. It all blew over, and we didn't hear from those underground ogres again, but in its facts the Shaver Mystery is itself an Amazing Story, and is recounted in full within . The author is a journalist and edits an e-zine devoted to the subjects of this book, a funny, bizarre, and largely sympathetic tale of odd characters. It is so sympathetic that what Toronto claims in his preface is true: "This book does nothing to confirm or deny the reality of Shaver's deros - an evil race of beings living inside the Earth - or the existence of flying saucers and whether Richard Shaver and Ray Palmer invented them." Invented them - even now it is hard to say. 




Shaver, you see, had a history of being hospitalized for hallucinations and for delusions of persecution. He grew up in a poor family that moved around searching for work during the depression. He liked working for a landscaping company, but eventually wound up working in an auto factory in Detroit. In the welding machines there, Shaver started to hear voices emanating from the underworld. The evil deros were projecting unwanted thoughts into his head, but he had the gumption to learn more; there were benevolent beings to counter them, the teros, and both groups had been deposited by aliens thousands of years ago. The deros had prospered, and were responsible for almost all the calamities people experienced. They used rays from sophisticated electronic machinery to make the evils happen. Shaver had first-hand knowledge of their caverns, and had been taken prisoner by them for several years. It was an elaborate belief system, and given that his first wife died early in an electrocution accident and that his in-laws took away his daughter and arranged for his forced hospitalization, he must have thought that the deros were doing an efficient job. 




He would expose them by revealing their activities to Ray Palmer. Palmer had his own tough life, for when he was seven in 1917, his spine was damaged in an accident with a passing truck, leaving him a diminutive hunchback and in considerable pain for the rest of his life. He was raised Catholic, but began to practice what we would now call "new age" beliefs, relishing the imagination and a sense of wonder. He could never do anything about his back injury, but when in 1930 he was diagnosed as having terminal spinal tuberculosis, he turned it around by mental visualization of healing activities. His appetite for marvels was fed by a new brand of science fiction, as in Amazing Stories which was launched in 1926. He wasn't the only one; SF at the time became a way of life for enthusiastic fans who relished the intoxicating "what if" outlook to the future. Palmer insisted in the early 1930s that SF must be based on scientific facts and theories. He became editor of Amazing Stories in 1938, and he pushed these ideas, as well as promoting sensational and thrilling stories that would boost subscriptions from a juvenile audience. 




Thus in 1943, when Shaver, who had written some science fiction, sent the magazine his letter in which he told the true story of the deros, and included notes about their language and alphabet and their powerful rays, it wasn't surprising that a subeditor read the letter aloud to members of the staff, crumpled it, and dropped it into the waste basket. What was surprising was that Palmer walked over, rescued the letter, smoothed it out, and admonished, "And you call yourself an editor? Run the entire thing in next issue's letter column." It isn't clear if he was pursuing a Barnumesque folly to boost circulation, but circulation grew mightily when the letter, and subsequent diverse exciting stories on the dero theme became a monthly feature of the magazine. Readers wrote in to say that Shaver's experiences confirmed their own experiences of hearing voices or to blame various misfortunes on the deros. For three years, the magazine devoted to science fiction became a center of what was supposed to be some sort of spiritual fact. There were Shaver clubs of true believers, and of course there were the naysayers. These were the organized fans of science fiction, and they were outraged that their magazine had been hijacked; they wrote vicious letters and yelled excited protest speeches at science fiction conventions. Harper's Magazine and Life publicized the controversy. Naturally, none of this hurt circulation. 




The remarkable thing is that it did not all come crashing down because of the outlandishness of the stories or the accusations of hoaxing. What really happened must have warmed the heart of any dero, if hearts deros have. In 1948, his publishers insisted that Palmer lay off the Shaver controversy. It had branched into flying saucers, and the federal government didn't like that because when people insisted upon the reality of deros-via-saucers, Uncle Sam was having to waste his time investigating UFOs rather than fighting commies. Palmer was forced to print an editorial that the magazine would in the future stick to fiction. 




Palmer would go on to other publications and independent publishing. He maintained a friendship with Shaver, one that was strained by money issues and attribution of credit. Shaver found new evidence of underground civilizations in rocks on his farm, and developed a technique of making pictures from the patterns he saw within them; he got some recognition for his artistic work, but sadly it was mostly posthumous. People are still seeing flying saucers, piloted by deros or not, and Shaver and Palmer deserve credit (or blame) for at least some of the UFO enthusiasm. Toronto has told a true tale full of odd characters and events; if Shaver's Lemuria does not exist, this account has almost as much strangeness.



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