Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Shaver Mystery-Part One

One afternoon in late 1943, Raymond A. Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures, was sitting in his office, listening intently as assistant editor Howard Browne read from a recently arrived letter. It had come from a reader in Barto, Pennsylvania, a man who expressed his hopes that the editors would place it in their magazine "to keep it from dying" with him. The "it" of which the man wrote was his discovery that within words in English there are hidden clues to an ancient and forgotten language. "This is perhaps the only copy of this language in existence," he continued, "and it represents my work over a long period of years." Accompanying the letter was a separate sheet illustrating the secret meanings behind the letters of the English alphabet. For example, the letter A means animal, while B means be, C translates as see, and D represents a novel concept, disintegrant energy or detrimental (presumably abbreviated de), meaning harmful or destructive. The word bad, then, can be broken into its constituent parts: be a de, or be a disintegrant energy or detrimental. (I guess a can mean either animal or the indefinite article.) "It is an immensely important find," the man wrote of his discovery, "suggesting the god legends have a base in some wiser race than modern man." Howard Browne laughed at it as one of countless crank letters received every year in the offices of Ziff-Davis of Chicago. Then he crumpled it up and threw it away. "What kind of editor are you?" Palmer asked as he retrieved the pages from the trashcan. He handed them back to his assistant editor and said, "Let's run the entire thing in next issue's letter column."

And that's how the Shaver Mystery began.

The Shaver Mystery, launched by Palmer from the writings of Richard S. Shaver of Barto, Pennsylvania, was both a boon and a bane to science fiction during the 1940s. Some readers and fans loved it. Once Palmer started running its stories in Amazing Tales, sales took off, and the magazine began receiving thousands of letters in response. "This is real," many claimed. "This happened to me," wrote others. "I, too, have come in contact with detrimental forces." Others hated it, a very young Harlan Ellison most prominently among them. (Sam Moskowitz and Forrest J Ackerman were part of that group, too.) The arguments and controversy raged for about half a decade, beginning in 1945 and reaching its height in 1947-1948. Then, suddenly, in December 1949, Palmer was out as editor of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures, and the Shaver Mystery faded from mainstream science fiction (if any science fiction can be called mainstream). There were Shaver Mystery stories published in these and other magazines after 1949, but they were pretty well consigned to the fringes. That is of course where they had originated, for they had come from the diseased mind of Richard Sharpe Shaver.

To be continued . . .

"Mr. Shaver's Lemurian Alphabet." The source is unknown. This may be an image reproduced from the letters page of Amazing Stories. According to Fred Nadis, biographer of Raymond A. Palmer, the initial letter written by Richard S. Shaver to Amazing Stories arrived at Ziff-Davis in December 1943, and was published in the issue of January 1944. Raymond Palmer himself wrote that the letter arrived in September 1943, while author David Hatcher Childress says it was published in the issue of December 1943. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDb) says there was no issue of December 1943, but I also couldn't find any listing of Shaver's initial letter and alphabet in the ISFDb. For now, we'll say that Raymond Palmer was right about the date received and Mr. Nadis is right about the date of publication. In any case, the published letter
included an editor's note asking readers to try it out and see what percentage of root words made sense when the alphabet was applied--would it be higher than pure chance? Rap [Raymond A. Palmer] told readers, "Our own hasty check-up revealed an amazing result of 90% logical and sensible! Is this really a case of racial memory, and is this formula the basis of one of the most ancient languages on Earth?" Dozens of readers responded. Many discussed the philological value of Shaver's discovery while others scoffed, curious why the interstellar root language depended so highly on English-based phonetics to impart its concepts. (The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey by Fred Nadis, 2013, p. 59)
The answer of course is that the alphabet is pseudoscientific and pseudo-historical nonsense, an attempt to reveal Earth's secret history, just as so many cranks and crackpots have attempted to reveal that history in the centuries since the Scientific Revolution began. John Cleves Symmes, Jr., (1780-1829) was one of them. So was Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891). Both provided ideas useful to Shaver and Palmer in their promulgation of what became known as the Shaver Mystery. These and countless others assert and have asserted basically the same case for themselves and their special place in history:
I am special.
I am chosen.
I am the first.
I am the only.
I was specially chosen to reveal this to you, to carry to a benighted humanity the truth about the world.
I alone know the truth. I alone am the prophet and purveyor of these things I tell you.
I was there at the beginning. I preceded all others.
I alone know the secret. I alone have the key.
I am the creator, the originator, the discoverer.
Time and again we have seen it, in Joseph Smith and Karl Marx, in Henry George and George Adamski, and on and on. They have claimed discovery to the key to history, to economics, to religion, to human nature, and on and on. Richard S. Shaver was just another in a long line of cultists, crackpots, crazies, and cranks, some of whom have been rewarded by humanity, while others have been forgotten. If only some of the rewarded--Marx is the best example--could be among the forgotten.

I alluded earlier in this series to the significance of precedence in the various fields of pseudoscience, pseudo-religion, and pseudo-history. The men and women working in these pseudo-fields invariably seek precedence, very often backdating their observations, experiences, and theories to support their claims to being first or to coming first. Rapuzzi Johannis did it when he claimed to have encountered a little green man in the Italian Dolomites in the summer of 1947. Fred Crisman did it, too, when he claimed to have seen and recovered parts from a flying saucer earlier that summer at Maury Island, Washington, before Kenneth Arnold's sighting near Mount Rainier and Mac Brazel's discovery of a supposed crashdown near Roswell, New Mexico. And Raymond A. Palmer did it when he wrote:
On December 27, 1949, Albert Einstein came out with a new theory of gravitation and electromagnetic fields. Months before that, Mr. Shaver (minus the mathematical formula) told me the same thing! For the record, I want to say that if any credit for a new and revolutionary theory of gravity goes to anybody it should go to Richard S. Shaver, on the basis of prior publication. (Quoted in "The Shaver Mystery" by Richard Toronto, Fate, March 1998, here.)
The examples could go on and on--and they will in this series, if only a little.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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