Sunday, December 10, 2017

Barker and Bender on the Case-Part Two

On Friday evening, September 12, 1952, a visitor from another world came to West Virginia. Soon after dubbed the Flatwoods Monster, the Phantom of Flatwoods, the Green Monster, and the Braxton County Monster, the visitor put a scare into residents of Flatwoods. Within days, journalists and other investigators were roaming over town and country in search of witnesses, evidence, and clues. Gray Barker, a Braxton County native then living in Clarksburg, was among them. He arrived in Flatwoods after work on Friday, September 19, only a week after the sighting of the monster. He had in hand an assignment from Fate magazine: 3,000 word and a few pictures with a Monday deadline. That weekend, Barker interviewed some of the witnesses of the event. He also ran into Ivan T. Sanderson, another investigator of strange and unexplained phenomena. The two men collaborated in their investigations in that last weekend of the summer of 1952, the closing of what in journalistic circles is sometimes called "the silly season." Both got their stories. It was likely the first time they had met.

Gray Barker's story of the encounter with the Flatwoods Monster, entitled "The Monster and the Saucer," was published in Fate in January 1953. By then, Barker was already in touch with still another investigator, Albert K. Bender, Jr., of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Barker first wrote to Bender on November 20, 1952, after having read a letter by Bender that was published in the December 1952 issue of Other Worlds Science Stories. Bender's missive to Other Worlds announced the formation of the International Flying Saucer Bureau and invited interested parties to join. In writing, Bender also offered an honorary membership to the editor of Other Worlds. Although the wording of his response is ambiguous, the editor seems to have accepted the honor. His name, by the way, was Raymond A. Palmer, also known by his initials, Rap.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 1, 1910, Palmer was a writer, editor, and publisher of fact, fiction, and things from the twilight zone between them. Palmer was badly injured as a child. In search of solace and escape, he read science fiction and fantasy, then created with Walter Dennis the first science fiction fanzine, The Comet, published in May 1930, when he was only nineteen. With the June 1930 issue of Wonder Stories, Palmer became a professional author of science fiction. He also managed to slip his first name into the title of his first published story, "The Time Ray of Jandra."

Palmer was not quite thirty when he landed a plum assignment as editor of Amazing Stories. The June issue of 1938 was his first. Eleven months later, in May 1939, he took on additional duties as editor of the new Fantastic Adventures, also published by Ziff-Davis of Chicago. He remained as editor through the December 1949 issues of the two magazines and was succeeded in the following month's issues by Howard Browne. Palmer wasn't out of of work, though, for he had already started as editor of Other World Science Stories in its inaugural issue of November 1949. More commonly known as Other Worlds, the new publication was digest-sized in keeping with a growing trend in the pulp-fiction market. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction also began as a digest-sized publication in the fall of 1949. (1) Astounding Science-Fiction had started the trend in November 1943. Weird Tales didn't follow suit until September 1953.

Other Worlds was published by Clark Publishing Company of Evanston, Illinois. Although the magazine was new in late 1949, its publisher was not, for Clark Publishing Company had been formed about two years before, in late 1947, by Raymond A. Palmer and Curtis Fuller. Their purpose was to publish a new kind of magazine, a magazine to look into the strange and unexplained facts on the fringes of science. They called it Fate

To be continued . . . 

(1) The first issue was called The Magazine of Fantasy.

A clipping from the Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette from Tuesday, September 23, 1952, page 3, eleven days after the sighting of the Flatwoods Monster in Braxton County. Kathleen May and Gene Lemon were the only two adults to see the monster. All of the other witnesses were children. A week after the sighting, Mrs. May, Gene Lemon, and A. Lee Stewart, Jr., co-editor of the Braxton Democrat, appeared on the NBC television show We the People in New York City to talk about the incident. Note that the photograph above was taken at the Charleston bus station. Presumably, that was on the trip to or from New York. I don't know who drew the picture the two eyewitnesses are holding here, but I believe it was also shown on We the People. It may have been drawn by an artist for the show or by a newspaper artist.

A photo-montage of the Flatwoods Monster, ostensibly created by Gray Barker. However, Barker admitted in another context that he was not an artist. If he in fact created this image, he seems to have superimposed the artist's drawing from above onto a photograph of a woodland scene, with a large white oak tree on the right. I don't whether the photograph of the oak tree was shot at the original location of the sighting of the Flatwoods Monster or not. In any case, in the sixty-five years since the monster came to Earth, the tree has died and rotted. There may be little left of it.

Barker wrote his account of the encounter with the Flatwoods Monster for Fate magazine. It was published in January 1953. I like the drawing of the monster shown here. Unfortunately, I don't know the identity of the artist. 

Asa Lee Stewart, Jr., known as A. Lee Stewart (1930-1998), was co-editor of the Braxton County Democrat and the first reporter on the scene after the encounter with the Flatwoods Monster. According to Gray Barker in Barker's book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers (1956), "He arrived about half an hour after the incident." (p. 28) A few weeks later, Barker stopped in at Stewart's office. "Stewart chuckled as he held up an 8 x 10 photo, attached to a publicity release from Collier's magazine. The issue of October 18 was to contain the story of how a moon rocket would be constructed in the future, and the photo was [of] the art work which was to appear on the cover." (p. 30) Stewart, then, would seem to have been the first to notice a similarity between the eyewitness descriptions of the Flatwoods Monster and the cover art for Collier's, October 18, 1952. (Rev. S.L. Daw of Washington, D.C., an associate of Albert K. Bender, Jr., would write about the similarity in the January 1953 issue of Bender's Space Review.) Again, I don't know the identity of the artist. I also don't know whether the October 18 issue would have been on the newsstand as early as September 12. It doesn't seem likely to me, given that Collier's was a weekly rather than a monthly. On the evening of the incident in Flatwoods, the issue whose cover is shown above would have been still five weeks--and five issues--out.

Not long ago, I was watching the 1950 science fiction film Rocketship X-M when I saw this scene: actor John Emery as physicist and rocketship designer Dr. Karl Eckstrom at the chalkboard as he explains his creation to the astronauts who are about to be shot into outer space. I was struck by the resemblance of the drawing to the Flatwoods Monster, especially to later mechanistic interpretations of the monster's appearance. According to Wikipedia, the design of Rocketship X-M was based on drawings that had appeared in the January 17, 1949, issue of Life magazine. So in this wondrous age of the Internet, what do you do but look for just those drawings?

Five years ago--even a year ago--you might not have found what you were looking for. Now it's another story. And so I found these two images (above and below), illustrations for the article "Rocket to the Moon," predicting a trip within the next twenty-five years. (It actually took twenty.) The artist was Michael Ramus (1917-2005). 

Although they don't offer the best view of Ramus' rocketship design, these images show a craft similar to the one in Rocketship X-M, a movie released a little more than a year later, on May 26, 1950.  

In any case, as this advertisement from the Beckley, West Virginia, Post Herald from May 9, 1953, shows, Rocketship X-M was still playing at theaters three years after its debut. In other words, it might still have been fresh in the minds of moviegoers. By the way, Gray Barker worked as a movie theater booker. His business was the largest of its kind in West Virginia at the time. So did he book Rocketship X-M at the Pine theater in Beckley less than a year after the Flatwoods Monster incident? 

A baby Flatwoods Monster? No, just a barn owl with its heart-shaped face turned upside down to form instead a spade-shape. Some people believe that the witnesses in Flatwoods actually saw an animal, possibly a barn owl, and in their excitement, fear, and hysteria, mistook it for a monster. After all, they went up on the hill expecting to see a Martian, so they saw one. Photograph by Lisa Kee. By the way, the tapetum lucidum of barn owls is orange, the same color reported by the eyewitnesses at Flatwoods as to the monster's eyes.(Actually, they said the Flatwoods Monster's eyes were "greenish-orange," an obvious impossibility, unless there were distinct and separate areas of green and of orange in or around the monster's eyes.)

Gray Barker (1925-1984), in the overused "talking on the phone" portrait of the 1940s and after. I don't know when this picture was taken nor the identity of the photographer, but in looking at it, you might get an idea of Barker's great height: he was six feet, four or five inches tall. You might also have noticed by now that Barker shared his first name with the most common type of alien (unlike him, a diminutive creature), while his last name suggests an association with a carnival barker. "Step right up, folks," he says, "and see the gray alien from another world." Half sincere, half huckster and hoaxer, Gray Barker had one of the most appropriate names of anyone I know of. (A forestland owner I knew by the name of Forrest Akers might have had him beat.)

Finally, Albert K. Bender's letter in Other Worlds Science Stories, December 1952, page 156. This is almost certainly the letter that prompted Gray Barker to write to Bender on November 20, 1952. (I don't have access to the October 1952 issue of Other Worlds, but I doubt there was a letter prior to this one.) Barker's letter was his introduction to Bender and to the whole mystery that would soon surround him, including the Mystery of the Three Men in Black.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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