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The new editor of Amazing Stories, Howard Browne, didn’t like Shaver’s work—he once called it “the sickest crap I’d run across.” With that outlet gone, Shaver’s writing career declined. He sold a few pieces to other magazines (like If), but mostly appeared in fanzines and Palmer publications. UFO buffs did their best to keep the Mystery alive; the idea that the saucers came from underground was popular in UFO publications and became a regular subject on Long John Nebel’s nightly radio talk show. Still, Shaver wasn’t selling many stories. He suffered from depression and took to spending long hours in the bathtub.
Sometime in the ’50s, however, he made a discovery that came to dominate his life. One day, his wife dumped a handful of stones on his desk, remarking that they seemed to have pictures on them. After studying them, he decided that they weren’t just stones, but the books of an ancient race of sea people. He had found the evidence that had always eluded him: physical proof of the elder races.
These rocks, Shaver believed, were the records of the giant mermaids and mermen who had developed a rich civilization eons ago, before the moon fell and bounced off the earth. They made books by projecting images into rock as it hardened. These images were complex and variable; there were pictures that changed from different perspectives, and pictures under and inside one another. Shaver concluded that these “rock books” must have been projected, like movie film, by some long-lost machine.
Eventually, Shaver turned to painting to show the pictures that nobody else seemed able to see. His method was somewhat unusual. A sheet of cardboard or plywood was first coated with a variety of chemicals, chosen to simulate the texture of rock and to “respond easily to the minute light forces.” Shaver had no set mixture, but experimented with different combinations of laundry soap, wax, Windex, glue flakes, dye, and diluted paint. He also tried fixative, but abandoned it when Dorothy complained about the smell. A rock was then sawed open and set on an opaque projector. Once the image was focused onto the cardboard, he sprinkled water over it and gave the picture time to form. Only then did he get out his paints to carefully touch it up clarify clarify it.
The resulting paintings were fluid and hallucinatory: distorted dream-like visions of faces, battles, mermaids, and strange creatures. And, always, naked women. “Oh yes, they were sexy, these voluptuous ancient sea people!” Shaver explained. He insisted that the paintings weren’t his own creations, but strictly documentation.
Shaver devoted most of his later life to painting and to promoting the rock books. Palmer published a hardcover book, The Secret World, that preserved many of the paintings and rock photos (as well as an installment of Palmer’s memoirs), and a 16-volume series, The Hidden World, that collected both early and late Shaveriana. Palmer also revealed in an interview that Shaver had been confined to a mental hospital for much of the time that he claimed to have spent in the caves, which didn’t help either of their reputations. Shaver himself planned a long treatise on the rocks, The Layman’s Atlantis; he printed a few chapters as booklets in 1970.
Shaver’s writings have been largely ignored since his death. Many of them, I would suggest, deserve a better fate. Some are just standard space opera, but others are not quite like anything else in literature. “Erdis Cliff” (Amazing Stories, September 1949), for example, manages to combine heretical physics, a talking purple pig, atheism, Greek mythology, excerpts from the channeled Bible OAHSPE, and an orgy led by Satan—who, we learn, is actually a harmless but lusty cave alien. Nor, for that matter, is there anything quite like the disturbing and hallucinatory memoir “The Dream-Makers” (Fantastic, July 1958). I also enjoy Shaver’s articles for Palmer’s Forum, which treat environmental and social issues from Shaver’s own soulful, quirky perspective.
Shaver’s rock art, however, has found a wider audience. Brian Tucker organized an exhibit at the California Institute of the Arts in 1989, and at Chapman University in Orange, California, in 2002. The LA Weekly wrote about the latter show that Shaver’s work “ranks with the Surrealist paintings of Max Ernst and Jean Dubuffet.” Shaver’s work has also been shown at the Curt Marcus Gallery in New York City in 1989 and at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in 2004. Norman Brosterman exhibited some of his collection at the Christine Burgin Art Gallery and at the Outsider Art Fair in New York City. Rock photos have been published in recent issues of Cabinet and The Ganzfeld.
Posterity will have to decide whether Shaver’s art is to be remembered. I can only add that I have one of his paintings, and like looking at it. Meanwhile, some of Shaver’s fans continue to keep his memory alive—particularly Jim Pobst (to whom I’m indebted for his research into Shaver’s early years) and Richard Toronto, whose indispensable website can be found at www.shavertron.com.
There’s a hidden message in Shaver’s work, one that’s often overlooked by both enthusiasts and detractors. Quite simply: We are the dero.
To Shaver, we have virtually unlimited potential. Within us is a huge untapped capacity for wisdom, strength, vitality, and beauty. We could be like gods. Instead, we’re a stunted, perverted bunch: we kill one another, poison our planet, stultify ourselves with mindless jobs, cut down forests to put up ugly boxlike cities, vilify intelligence, and condemn sexuality. We think backwards and embrace everything that’s vile, nasty, and foolish.
Shaver may have been overly optimistic about our capabilities, but he did have a point. We can do better. And if it takes a Shaver revival to get that into our little dero heads, we might as well have one.