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Palmer, a prolific pulp writer in all genres, had taken over the editorship of Amazing Stories in 1938. Its founder, Hugo Gernsback, had pioneered science fiction—or “scientifiction,” as it was then called—with stories rooted in scientific accuracy and technological prophecy. Palmer slanted the magazine more toward fantasy and adventure. Purists may have preferred Gernsback, but Palmer’s approach proved far more commercial.
Palmer was always looking for new ideas, new writers, and new gimmicks. So when Shaver sent in a key to the meaning of the alphabet, Palmer was willing to try it out. He printed it, and the readers had fun with it, so he asked Shaver for more.
Shaver responded with stories about the caves and the dero, and Palmer published most of them. Some readers were enthralled, and some enraged, but the controversy was good for sales: circulation increased from 135,000 to 185,000, and Amazing Stories went from a quarterly to a monthly. Palmer called the affair “The Shaver Mystery” and it dominated the magazine from 1945 to 1950.
A number of misconceptions have arisen about those years. Palmer was often accused of perpetrating a hoax by rewriting Shaver’s letters as fiction. In fact, the correspondence between Palmer and Shaver (which Palmer later published) showed that the two men worked together to turn Shaver’s ideas into salable stories. Shaver was a longtime fantasy fan and was happy for a chance to break into a profession that promised more than the 83 cents an hour he made at Bethlehem Steel. His early attempts—particularly the first one, “I Remember Lemuria!”—were thoroughly reworked by Palmer. But Shaver was determined to improve, and collaborated with other writers to polish his output. He conferred with Palmer about style and subject; he even sent sketches of his characters to the art director. And he wrote non-cave stories as well: fantasy and adventure yarns for Fantastic, Mammoth Adventure, and the other pulps that Palmer also edited for the same publishing house, Ziff-Davis.
Shaver’s main literary model was Abraham Merritt. Merritt isn’t read much today, but his fantasy novels were quite popular throughout the ’20s and ’30s. Beginning with The Moon Pool in 1919, he produced a series of novels about underground caverns, lost races, ancient ray machines, shell-shaped hovercraft, and other marvels. He was also a member of the original Fortean Society and the editor of The American Weekly, a Sunday newspaper supplement that often featured scientific and historical oddities. Shaver thought Merritt had seen the caves but could only mention them in fiction. One might also suspect that Merritt’s novels had influenced Shaver’s beliefs.
Shaver was serious about his mission: the dero were ruining our lives and needed to be exposed. Palmer was not convinced, but he was intrigued by Shaver’s unorthodox scientific ideas, wild imagination, and ingenious interpretations of mythology. He didn’t question that Shaver had seen strange things, but thought that the caves were probably astral or ethereal rather than physical. To Shaver, a staunch materialist, this was “dero wool.”
Thousands of readers wrote in with their own experiences, and Palmer liked to cite them as evidence for Shaver’s claims. This too has been misunderstood. Many letters did describe caves and dero—some of which, I suspect, were written by Palmer himself. But Palmer lumped all Fortean, paranormal, and psychic subjects into the Shaver Mystery; it could all, somehow, be connected to Shaver.
After a few years of this, Amazing Stories became primarily a forum for these subjects. There weren’t many alternatives back then, except for a few privately circulated newsletters. Palmer had stumbled onto an unexpected audience.
The Mystery peaked in June 1947, with a special issue loaded with Shaver stories and essays—and a Vincent Gaddis article on spaceship sightings that presaged the flying saucer craze that was soon to follow. In fact, when Kenneth Arnold’s sighting made news that month, both Shaver and Palmer saw it as further proof of the caves. After all, Shaver’s stories had long sported spacecraft, and Palmer had been writing editorials about alien visitors and government cover-ups since 1946.
By this time, many readers—and, more critically, Messrs. Ziff and Davis—were getting tired of Shaver. He couldn’t prove his claims, and the stories were getting repetitive. Many were also alarmed by Shaver’s unbridled sexuality—Palmer once had to snip out a 50-page bedroom scene. Shaver agreed to stick to straight-ahead fiction, and the dero were confined to The Shaver Mystery Magazine, a smaller magazine he started with one of his collaborators, Chester Geier.
Meanwhile, Palmer and another Ziff-Davis editor, Curtis Fuller, had founded a new digest to cater to this newfound audience for the paranormal. They called it Fate, and it did so well that Palmer quit Ziff-Davis to devote himself to it. For some reason, he edited it under the name of Robert N. Webster. Despite regular ads for the book edition of I Remember Lemuria, Shaver was never featured in it. A 1950 article on him was not well received—one irate subscriber called it “entertainment for morons.”
Fate, though, wasn’t quite what Palmer was after. Within a few years, he left to start his own line of magazines: Mystic (later Search), Other Worlds, Flying Saucers, Space World—many of which changed titles and formats erratically. Shaver wrote for several of them. Despite spiraling costs and poor health, Palmer kept his creations afloat, even when he had to print them on remaindered paper and could no longer afford to pay contributors.