Shaver Photos No Longer Mystery, Now Art

For Amazing Stories editor Ray Palmer the Shaver Mystery was a way to keep the cash register ringing in the mid-1940s, while many fans felt it threatened to trigger a backlash against the marginally-respectable science fiction field. Nick Redfern capsulized the stories for Mysterious Galaxy:

The Shaver Mystery had its origins at the height of the Second World War. It was a relatively normal day in 1943 when Palmer was opening the daily delivery of mail that regularly poured into the offices of Amazing Stories, and came across one particular missive penned by a certain Richard Shaver. And weird barely begins to describe it. Shaver wrote that he, personally, had uncovered a sensational and terrifying secret: in our distant past a race of ancient, highly-evolved entities lived right under our very feet. Massive caverns, huge caves, and near-endless tunnels, were the dark, damp places they called home.

At least, that is, before they decided to exit the Earth and headed away to a whole new, light-years away world on the other side of the galaxy. But, when these particular entities said their final goodbyes to our planet, they left behind them something truly sinister and abominable: their diseased offspring, which were said to be called the Deros.

Many fans were offended that these stories were represented to be based in reality, others worried that their growing cultic popularity would taint them by association. Harry Warner recalled in All Our Yesterdays

Fans were already in insurrection against the Shaver stories by the summer of 1945, both because they were so sensationally publicized that they threatened to come to public attention as examples of the finest science fiction, and because of the insinuations that they were dramatically presented fragments of a great truth. Tom Gardner cited the scientific absurdity of the elders moving to a larger, denser planet when they sought a new residence because of an increase in their size. He found the voices and imaginary events in early Shaveriana too similar to schizophrenic phenomena to make good reading. “From just a publicity stunt, this hoax is rapidly becoming psychopathic,” he wrote in Fantasy Commentator. “Were public opinion to crystallize against the Lemuria-Mu bunk in Amazing Stories, it might spread to a denunciation of the better fantasy publications as well. And a blanket ban of this entire segment of the pulp field would not be out of the question.”

By the time I became active in fandom in the early 1970s the Shaver Mystery was a little-discussed toxic memory – briefly given fresh currency among the readers of Donn Brazier’s Title, because Donn would stoke discussion by reaching out to exiled sf figures such as Richard Shaver and Frederick Wertham (author of the anti-comics study Seduction of the Innocents), whose controversies were fresh meat for many of Donn’s readers (like me) who had just been in fandom a few years. 

Now, with the passage of time, Shaver has transmuted from threat to trivia answer to historically significant photographic artist. One of his photos is currently part of an exhibition in New York. According to the article at, “The Sci-Fi Writer Who Used Photography to Search for Ancient Aliens” —

Near the end of his life in 1975, Shaver was living in Arkansas and wandering the terrain with an eye for “rock books.” These stones he believed to be tablets with information on the people of Atlantis that came before our current humanity, and he sliced them open to reveal their secrets, which he captured in photographs. One of these photos is currently part of the Morgan Library and Museum’s A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play that opened last month. This is the Morgan’s first exhibition organized by the museum’s new photography department and includes 80 works that connect in some way, with Shaver’s curious capture of a rock positioned quietly in a corner accompanied by his written explanation of the extraordinary origins in which he so fiercely believed.

A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown East, Manhattan) through May 18.

[Thanks to Michael J. Walsh for the story.]

2 thoughts on “Shaver Photos No Longer Mystery, Now Art

  1. I was also a reader of Donn Brazier’s Title in the 1970s, and I think he printed some comment of mine that expressed a liking for Richard Shaver’s letter-writing style, because Shaver wrote me, sending along a couple of his pamphlets, and copies of his rock-pictures, with vital shapes colored in so I wouldn’t miss him.

    I also remember Frederic Wertham, who was so intrigued by fanzines that he wrote a book about them (The World of Fanzines:A Special Form of Communication; Southern Illinois University Press, 1973). In contrast to his attacks on comic books Wertham actually liked fanzines as a phenomenon, both the sf and comic varieties, and thought they were a healthy creative outlet. I don’t know if he was fully aware of what some fans thought of him.

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