OF A SUBTERRANEAN WONDERWORLD
The Forgotten Art of
by Doug Skinner
Shaver Pastel (Shavertron Archive)
A Mandark illustration
A Merman (Brosterman Collection)
A Rock Book Painting from the Tucker Collection
Shaver Painting from
the Tucker Collection
Those who've had strange experiences often need to tell about them. Most just buttonhole friends and family. Others, more ambitious, turn to writing. Some go one step further and make their message into art. One such person was Richard Shaver.
Few people today remember Richard Shaver. Those who do -- mostly UFOlogists and science fiction buffs -- often have only a vague idea of his career, and an even vaguer idea of his paintings. In the late forties, though, Shaver kicked up quite a fuss in a scruffy pulp magazine called Amazing Stories. He claimed our world was honeycombed with huge underground caverns built long ago by Titans from another galaxy. When these godlings fled to escape the radiation of our aging sun, their castoffs degenerated into evil dwarves Shaver called "dero." (For the record, he pronounced this "day-ro."' In "Mantong" -- according to Shaver, our original language -- "de" means "detrimental energy," "ro" means "slave." A dero is someone who is compulsively evil.) These nasty gnomes prey on surface humans, toy with the elaborate technology abandoned by the Titans, and trade ancient machinery and abductees with touring extraterrestrials. Shaver insisted he'd visited these primeval caverns, and poured forth his exploits and assertions in a stream of stories and articles. Readers responded with their own strange experiences. Circulation boomed; editor Ray Palmer found himself with an unexpected hit on his hands.
The "Shaver Mystery" -- as Palmer dubbed the affair -- covered more than just caves and deros. Readers had found an outlet for a variety of occult and Fortean topics, and eagerly wrote in about past-life memories, archeological anomalies, UFO sightings, Lemurians on Mount Shasta, mysterious noises and spooky entities.2 The June 1947 issue, devoted entirely to Shaveriana, contained a piece by Vincent Gaddis called "Visitors From the Void" -- one of the first UFO articles in a general circulation magazine. Kenneth Arnold hadn't even spotted those famous saucers yet.
Science fiction fans, though, didn't like Shaver's stuff. They complained that it wasn't science fiction, and was badly written besides. Shaver's stories, in fact, really belonged to the fantasy genre. He loved mythology, and was particularly influenced by Abraham Merritt. Merritt, a popular writer of the time, filled his novels with giant underground caves, dwarfish lost races, and shell-shaped hovercraft.3 Shaver assumed Merritt had discovered the caves, and could only broach the subject in fiction.4
Shaver's work was often as slipshod as his critics charged. At its worst, it's pretty windy. At its best, though, it's lively, imaginative, and packed with surprising ideas. It's certainly more entertaining than a lot of the Amazing Stories lineup from the same time period. Although Palmer usually doctored Shaver's copy, the rumor that he was the real writer is off the mark. Shaver was an amateur working to master his craft. He was a life-long fantasy fan, had a burning message to impart, and put in long hours at the typewriter. He knew his faults, and tried to overcome them by teaming with other writers (such as Chester Geier and Bob McKenna).
Despite Shaver's efforts, his detractors eventually triumphed. Palmer left the magazine at the end of 1949. The new editor, Howard Browne, was determined to steer Amazing Stories back on track. The "Shaver Mystery" was over.
Palmer, having found an untapped market, started magazines to cater to it -- first Fate, then Search. He hawked his brand of sci-fi in a dogged little publication called Other Worlds, which eventually changed into Flying Saucers. Shaver gamely tried straight fiction, but sold only a few stories to other editors. He published his own magazine, and tried to start a small press. Although his claims were popular among UFOlogists in the fifties, his career floundered. He eventually settled in rural Arkansas, where he wrote for small magazines, promoted the rock books (we'll get to those in a moment), and painted.
Shaver had, in fact, been drawing and painting all along. He'd studied at the Wicker School of Art in Detroit, and married one of the instructors.5 He'd sent Palmer sketches of his characters to guide Amazing's artists, and suggested he illustrate his own work. He'd roughed out a comic strip, "Space Ace," which he hoped to syndicate. In his Shaver Mystery Magazine, he'd provided pictures for Mandark, a novel barred from Amazing. (Palmer had suggested Shaver write about Jesus. Shaver responded with a wild tale in which Jesus was controlled telepathically by a giant black alien in the caves. The publishers were not keen on the project.)6
From the late fifties on, though, most of Shaver's artwork was tied to the rock books. He was convinced that certain rocks were actually artificial -- the books of an ancient race of mermen and mermaids, whose civilization had perished when the moon bounced off the earth eons ago. (He thought a few may survive in remote stretches of the sea.) The images in these rocks were so complex -- pictures within pictures, pictures that changed at different angles -- that he thought they must have been projected, like film, by some lost device. He tried to drum up interest in these rocks, but, unfortunately, the images weren't as clear to others. Even Palmer couldn't see them. Shaver took to painting to point out what he saw.
The results were fluid and fantastic, shadowy scenes of overlapping faces and figures.
Shaver's method was akin to some Surrealist techniques. Max Ernst rubbed wood and stone to generate images; Andre Masson sprinkled sand. Their premise was different, though -- they were trying to stimulate the unconscious with forms taken from nature. Shaver believed he was reproducing the handiwork of an antediluvian race.
Although Shaver's stories are still underappreciated (back issues of Amazing Stories are usually cheaper if they feature Shaver), his art is beginning to win some recognition. Los Angeles artist Brian Tucker showed some paintings in 1989 at the California Institute of the Arts, and in 1991 at Manhattan's Curt Marcus Gallery.
The growth of "Outsider Art" has spurred more sympathy for Shaver's work. Many critics and collectors have turned to art outside the mainstream -- folk art, naive art, self-taught art, the work of visionaries, eccentrics, and the insane. A number of galleries and journals now cater to this corner of the art world, and some outsider artists (such as the amazingly productive Georgia preacher Howard Finster) have careers that mainstream artists envy. Although Shaver had some formal training, his unusual beliefs and techniques -- as well as his isolation -- place him squarely in this camp. Maybe there he will get the recognition he deserves.
Much of Shaver's work, done on cheap paper or cardboard, has crumbled; some has been salvaged. Some has been preserved in print. His art was reproduced in the Shaver Mystery Magazine, Search, The Layman's Atlantis, The Hidden World, and The Secret World.
The Layman's Atlantis was a set of pamphlets Shaver published in 1970 (four of a projected nineteen were printed).8 The Hidden World was a Palmer hollow-earth magazine that ran for sixteen issues in the sixties; it featured Shaver's stories, articles and artwork. The Secret World was a hardcover book Palmer put out in 1975 -- half given over to Palmer's memoirs, half to Shaver's rocks. The Shaver half included color reproductions of his paintings -- it was his last work. Shaver's artwork has also appeared in scattered pamphlets, cards, and magazines (Richard Toronto's Shavertron, for example).
Perhaps today's audience will be more receptive to Shaver's views of the strange underground world he insisted he'd seen; to his shimmering glimpses of a distant era when massive mer folk swarm in the depths of our young sea. I can't endorse Shaver's claims (although I'm reluctant to dismiss them entirely, on sheer Fortean principle), but I have to admit he had some pretty strange experiences. Maybe he'd stumbled onto some astral domain, as Palmer argued; maybe he was simply hallucinating. Whatever the explanation, those experiences -- encounters with big-eyed humanoids or nightly trysts with succubi, for example -- have baffled humanity for centuries, and show no sign of letting up. Shaver simply tried to catch them on canvas. It's a compelling and disturbing vision -- even more so if you try to look at it through his eyes.
1. Shaver appeared (by phone) on Long John Nebel's radio show on June 6, 1958; a tape has survived.
Editor's Note: This article was first published in The Anomalist in 1995. Reprinted with the kind permission of the author. Special Thanks to Brian Tucker.