BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

"Oh, I'm just visiting. "

Fred Nadis' The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey was a dollar store pick-up …. hey, just look at that cover, who could resist, right? Honestly, I was somewhat hesitant on getting into this, as I've not read much science fiction in the past 40 years, and even when I was an avid sci-fi consumer (in high school I probably blew through 4-5 books a week), I only very rarely picked up one of the “pulps” that still existed at that time (although a few still are on the shelves of my library). I realize that I probably “missed out” on that channel, but somehow it never spoke to me, unlike some friends who are even now working in those niches. However, it turned out to be much more aligned to my more recent interests, being, on one level, a look at a very colorful corner of the publishing industry, and a very odd journey through some weird zones of “alternative” and out-there thought (as the dust-cover flaps tell us, Palmer helped ignite the UFO craze, convinced Americans of hidden worlds and government cover-ups, and championed the occult and paranormal … he molded our current conspiracy culture decades before the X-Files claimed that the truth was out there).

Ray Palmer is probably best known for his decade (1939-1949) of being the editor of Amazing Stories, and later the editor and publisher of Fate and Space World (among many other pulps). His work had become sufficiently iconic that in 1961, a predecessor to DC Comics created a character called The Atom, whose alter ego was named Ray Palmer as a tribute. His career lasted nearly 50 years, from the first “fanzine” he put out in 1930 until his death in 1977.

Born in Milwaukee, WI in 1910, Palmer's very early years were somewhat idyllic, even ending up in advertising for a local dairy as one of “Milwaukee's Healthiest Babies” at age two. This was all about to change, however, as:
At age seven, outside his family home in Milwaukee, Ray Palmer ran into the street past a row of parked cars; his foot got caught in the large spokes on the wheel of a passing milk truck and he was spun around on the pavement. … His spine was severely damaged, and several vertebrae were broken, nearly crushed. The medical ailments that were to plague him for the rest of his life had begun.
Two years later, at age nine, Palmer became “the first patient in the United States to receive a spinal column bone graft”. However, infection set in, causing him to double up from the pain, and the doctors were not willing to risk further damage by trying to get his spine straight, leading to his permanently hunchbacked condition.

From age nine to thirteen Palmer was mostly constrained in hospital beds, often in a frame that prevented him from moving. The local school system sent him cases of books, which he read voraciously, on a wide array of topics. Among these were early sci-fi classics by J. Verne, H.G. Wells, and E.R. Burroughs, which hooked him on the genre. He moved into the pulps, such as Amazing Stories and Weird Tales, and wrote his first story, a 16,000-word tale that his high school teacher read to his class (it was evidently quite good) … this was eventually published in 1930, when he was 20, in Science Wonder Stories.

In the 20's and 30's, the main way that fans of the genre communicated was in letter columns in the pulps, Palmer and another fan (from Chicago, who traveled to Milwaukee to meet with him), stated the “Science Correspondence Clubs” in 1928, which has been attributed as “the birth of organized fandom”. Out of this grew the first ever “fanzine”, The Comet, which premiered in 1930, and soon was renamed Cosmology. As this all was happening, more health issues came his way:
At age twenty, another infection set in on Palmer's spine, a form of tuberculosis called Pott's disease. The bone graft that had bridged several of his vertebrae was disintegrating, along with six vertebrae. In September 1930, he was sent to Muirdale Sanitorium, located seven miles outside of {Milwaukee}.
Palmer had pretty much been just sent there to die, but he again beat the odds: the doctors gave him six months to live, but over the next two years (possibly due to his self-created regimen of “healing visualization”), new bone formed where the old had dissolved, and he was released (although he had seen “hundreds” of other patients die while he ws there).

Palmer quickly re-established himself in the sci-fi world, being one of the founders of The Time Traveler fanzine, and then editor and columnist for Science Fiction Digest, where he wrote “Spilling the Atoms” (as “RAP” - his initials), the column he hoped would “make the world science-fiction conscious”. As one might expect, the fanzine business was hardly something at which one might make a living, and Palmer had returned to the sheet metal company that he'd worked at before the years in the sanitarium, so the writing/editing/publishing efforts were done in his spare time. By 1934, the magazine had morphed to Fantasy Magazine. Around this time, one of his more established associates made a pitch for Palmer to become the editor for a new magazine by Shade from Philadelphia. The new title was scuttled, but the publishers still needed material for their “detective” lines, and Palmer was able to both write for them (often under a dozen pen names) and organize others' submissions. In 1938 Palmer quit the sheet metal company, The same contact that introduced him to Shade was visiting Ziff-Davis, which had acquired Amazing Stories, and was looking to supplant the 86-year-old former physics professor that had been its editor, who was “unlikely to move from New York City to Chicago even if invited” … the call was made to Palmer, and he was at 600 S. Dearborn the next day.

There is a great deal of material in the book about authors, stories, books, promotions, contests, trials & tribulations, long-term associates coming and going, and, frankly, it's all a bit of blur to me. Perhaps somebody more “into” this than me might have dove right in, but I'm going to leave it for you to pick up a copy for that. There are also cultural issues surrounding Palmer's move to Chicago – starting with the Capone era, and moving into WW2 – it was “interesting times”, for sure.

And this is where it sort of gets weird. In an editorial meeting, they were reading “crank letters” (which they got a lot of), having a laugh, and round-filing them. However, after one, Palmer pulled the crumpled pages out of the trash …
The six-page letter was from a Pennsylvania steelworker, Richard S. Shaver, who likely had serious mental problems and believed he had discovered the key to an ancient alphabet …
Shaver claimed this “language” was “definite proof of the Atlantean legend” (albeit on mighty flimsy evidence), and Palmer insisted they run the entire 6-page letter, much to the bafflement of his co-workers. This would end up being the start of many years of involvement with the wild theories of Shaver (perhaps due to “Shaver's strange world {having} imaginative flair and a curious logic” which appealed to Palmer).

Palmer requested some stories from Shaver, which he took, re-wrote and greatly expanded, with the addition of shifting focus from Atlantis to the Theosophical Society's vision of Lemuria. From 1945 to 1949 at least two dozen stories by Shaver were published in Amazing Stories, which would “convince so many to start looking in caves to search for abandoned technology”. It appears that Palmer's intent on promoting Shaver's writings was, in essence, to “blend science fiction with the occult”, featuring the concept of “racial memory”, which was central to the justification of the Shaver material. Palmer was clearly aware of how “out there” this material was, and in editorials was playing the carnival barker to create as much “buzz” (and magazine sales) as possible. Not only Shaver's writing, but pseudonymous pieces by himself (as A.R Steber) added to the controversy … and this all worked, as Ziff-Davis had to shift paper resources intended for another magazine to Amazing Stories, whose sales shot up to 180,000 copies.

Nadis brings in a lot of material to put this in context, from similar “weird” stories preceding and contemporary with Palmer's efforts, from the Greek myth of Orpheus, to medieval tales of psychopompic journeys, to H.P. Lovecraft, L. Ron Hubbard, and devotees of Urantia. While sci-fi “purists” bemoaned the shift in focus, others ate it up:
Some readers howled their outrage, but many others linked Shaver's ideas to favorite occultist notions of astral planes, of sightings of mysterious inhabitants inside Mount Shasta … and reports from the lost civilizations of Atlantis and Lemuria.
After the end of WW2, the tone of material wrapped around the Shaver material took on cold war paranoia, with Palmer posing the question: “What if the Shaver Mystery is VITALLY important to our national security?”. Eventually within sci-fi fandom the question of whether Palmer actually believed any of this or not was hotly debated … there's a report that he told a group of writers (including a young Harlan Ellison) that it was all to sell magazines, but his letters to Shaver were framed in “true believer” phraseology. In any case “as the Shaver Mystery waned, a new craze emerged every bit as beguiling. The flying saucer.”

In 1947, Palmer began to take long lunches outside the Ziff-Davis offices, along with another Z-D exec … it turns out that he had been working on a new publication, Fate, which debuted in 1948, and “became a centerpiece for the newly forming flying saucer subculture”. This wasn't quite as duplicitous as it might appear, as it came on the heels of Z-D announcing plans of moving their operations from Chicago to New York in 1950. Palmer and his partner formed Clark Publishing, and added Other Worlds Science Stories to Fate in 1949.

Nadis puts in a lot of early UFO “mystery” at this point, with stories, names, and other particulars too numerous to get into here … however it does dove-tail into another genre that apparently was pioneered by Palmer – that of “conspiracy theories”, as there always seemed to be government agents of various kinds showing up to make evidence disappear – including files at Palmer's office.

In addition to the break with Ziff-Davis, Palmer decided to return to Wisconsin with his family (at this point he had a wife and three small kids), but before the 1950 moving date to the 124-acre farm, he had yet another accident at their Evanston home. Once again, he had broken his back, which his wife attributed to a fall while working on plumbing, his version was more “mystical”, involving an attack by the malevolent forces from Shaver's universe. And, again, he had a miraculous recovery, involving visions, etc. He was, while able to walk, in fairly constant pain for the rest of his life.

While moving a publishing operation to a rural setting in these days of global connectivity is not so remarkable, it was a rather bold move in 1950, and Palmer converted parts of their “estate” to offices. Soon Shaver and his wife moved into the area, which provided almost a commune-like space for fans of “the mystery” to come up and visit both men. Of course, the 1950's were prime time for the UFO craze, with movies, books, and media appearances all across the cultural landscape. Palmer's Fate was well positioned for this trend. Unfortunately for Palmer, by 1952 his partners, who had previously been happy so sit on the sidelines and let Palmer do his thing, began to get more involved, putting forth a rule of thumb that “We don't have to believe it ourselves, but it must be capable of belief.”, which evidently drew a line outside of which was Shaver, as well as many of Palmer's ideas. In late 1953, Palmer sold his interest in the company, and began his own magazine, Mystic, which “jumped aboard the contactee movement”.

Palmer also found a new pet project, in the person of Orfeo Angelucci, whose “I Traveled in a Flying Saucer” was the main feature of the first issue of Mystic. Eventually Palmer, who had expanded into book publishing, put out a collection of Angelucci's pieces as The Secret of the Saucers. What's really bizarre (well, aside from the content of the book) is that a copy found its way to C.G. Jung, who:
… regarded Angelucci's narrative as a credible example of what he deemed the UFO encounter as visionary experience. Angelucci, in the psychiatrist's words, was “naïve, and – if appearances do not deceive us – serious and idealistic.” In his work the “individuation process … is plainly depicted.”
Nadis raises the question of where Angelucci lets off an Palmer begins, and these stories started out “interpreted”, by a long-term Palmer author Paul M. Vest, who got “as told to” credit on the stories … so what was so appealing to Jung had probably as much of Palmer and Vest in it as Angelucci.

However, the classic sci-fi pulp world was fading, falling “to competition from mass circulation paperbacks, comic books, and television.” and Palmer began shifting the focus of his publication to flying saucers in 1957, having “jettisoned the science fiction altogether” by 1959 … although he managed to keep some well known authors involved doing stories in the new genre. At the same time, Shaver got a new focus, having “discovered” messages in rocks: “he became certain that the rocks contained images and information”. In 1960 Shaver brought “an enormous stuffed folder … which contained ten years of Shaver's notes about the Elder World”, and in 1961 he started showing up with “stones along with cross-sections and photographs and to spin out his tale about the images encoded in them”.
Palmer decided to publish Shaver's writings with related materials in a loosely structured twelve-volume paperback series to be called the Hidden World that appeared from 1961 to 1964. It eventually grew to sixteen volumes. … Shaver's discoveries in stone were only one aspect of Hidden World, but this new source of information clearly obsessed Shaver, and it was an obsession to which Palmer slowly warmed.
I'm amazed to find that somebody has re-issued the whole series … so they're out there if you're interested. Palmer himself was “not seeing it”, but was willing to churn out the books … even as the material from Shaver got more and more wacky (“Attack of the Ape-Bats”, anyone?). It's easy to see Shaver's art as pareidolia run wild, and given that he moved beyond the actual stones and into paintings of what he saw in the stones, it's hard to give much of any credence to this (especially when it was expressions of the mythos of the “Shaver Mystery”).

The rest of this section deals with a somewhat tawdry tale (that resulted in the Shavers moving from Wisconsin to Arkansas in 1964) of Shaver's involvement “in the science fiction community's move toward the soft-core magazine and sleaze paperback industry boom of the 1950s and 1960s”, largely led by Palmer protégé William Hamling. It appears that Palmer and Shaver only had helped Hamling get his operations incorporated in Wisconsin (although they operated out of Evanston, IL), and had their names in some of the corporate roles – leading them to be targets of anti-porn crusaders.

Palmer's greatest failure was not finding an audience for his Martian Diary, which was initially going to be a fiction piece, but ended up as something of an autobiography. He originally conceived of it in 1963, but didn't announce it until 1970, when he made an offer of it in his magazines … “the response was underwhelming”. He claimed that he had taken his diary, and done to it what he did to so many others' writing, expanding and adding, etc. His initial intent was to make it a lavish hardcover to come out on his 60th birthday, but, bitter with the rejection, he shelved it until putting it out as part of The Secret World which paired it with Shaver's Ancient History In Stone, in 1975, the same year of Shaver's death.

In the 1960s he was publishing Search, Flying Saucers, and Ray Palmer's Forum, the latter being something of a newsletter that was 32 pages of reader letters and his editorials. As the years went on, her got more paranoid (although Nadis notes: “To be paranoid is not necessarily to be wrong; nevertheless, Rap began to see conspiracies everywhere” … “Rap” being the nickname dating back to his early days, based on his initials) and more political.
Scholars of conspiracy theory have noted that such theory takes particularly well among people dedicated to ideals of self-reliance and liberty. Palmer's political beliefs and interest in unorthodox thought made him a prime candidate.
It appears that most of his concerns were over “one worlders” who were working against freedom and American values, and “Palmer believed a secret government was already in power”. His support for Barry Goldwater, and then George Wallace “whom he believed would defend personal liberties” … predictably raised the hackles of the ever-more institutionalized left.

Nadis writes: “as he aged, Palmer became fixated on two issues: the origins of flying saucers and notions of heaven”, with the former primarily centered around “hollow Earth” or “hole in the poles” theories, and the latter seemingly influenced by an 1882 “automatic writing”-generated “bible” called Oahspe, which had been a factor in some of the materials he'd published decades previously. His interest in heaven was well timed, as he died (in Florida, visiting a daughter and a new-born grandson) in August 1977.

I found The Man From Mars quite an enjoyable read, even if parts of it (the early sci-fi) were frustratingly unfamiliar to me. Of course, having chunks of this set in Chicago is a draw, and I suspect I would have very much liked hanging out (and writing for?) Ray Palmer. Will you connect with this book? If you're into science fiction, publishing, the occult, and “conspiracies”, I suspect that's a definite “yes”. This is still in print, so might be found at brick-and-mortar sources, however, the online big boys at present have it at a whopping 69% off of cover price, which makes it pretty much a wash (given free shipping) with what's being offered by the new/used guys (including shipping), which is odd, as this has been out in the dollar store channel, which usually drives copies into the very cheap range. Anyway, it's a fun, fascinating, and informative read … about somebody I didn't know about beforehand.

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