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Richard Sharpe Shaver died 30 years ago. He was never famous in the usual sense of the word, but the “Shaver Mystery” and the “rock books” were once hot topics in certain circles.
That was a long time ago, however, and Shaver ought to be forgotten by now.
Surprisingly, he has remained stubbornly alive, and in an unexpected place—the art world. Maybe it’s time to reassess him; maybe we can even clear up a few puzzles and misconceptions.
Richard Shaver (he added the “Sharpe” himself later) was born in 1907; he was one of five children. At least two other members of his family were writers: his mother, Grace, was a published poet, and his brother Taylor contributed to Boys’ Life and other magazines. Dick was a smart and bookish boy, surrounded by writers and readers. He grew into a rather restless teen, and had discipline problems in high school. The family moved around a lot; maybe that had something to do with it.
At any rate, by 1930 he was living in Detroit, intent on a career as an artist. He enrolled in the Wicker School, where he also worked as a life model to help meet his tuition. He became a great fan of the muralist Diego Rivera and dabbled in progressive politics; his speech at a Mayday rally that year put his picture in the paper.
The Wicker School eventually fell victim to the crumbling 1930s economy. Shaver married one of his teachers, Sophie Gurivich, and the two soon had a daughter, Evelyn Ann. Postponing his own artistic career, he found work as a spot welder at the Briggs Auto Body Plant.
Shaver had always been somewhat unstable, but now he began to have serious troubles at work. He started hearing voices—at first only when he was welding, then more and more often. His fellow workers’ thoughts rang through his head. Even more disturbingly, he heard underground beings gloating over horrible tortures.
In 1934, Shaver’s brother Taylor died suddenly, of cardiac hypertrophy. The two were close, and Richard took the news hard. He recalled later that he reacted by drinking until he passed out. Only six months later, he was admitted to Detroit Receiving Hospital. He insisted that a demon called Max had killed his brother, and was now after him as well. He was diagnosed as insane, and had to be restrained.
Soon after that, Sophie had him transferred to Ypsilanti State Hospital. He must have responded to treatment, since he was released to visit his parents for Christmas in 1936. It was there that he learned of another tragedy: Sophie had been killed, electrocuted when she moved a heater in the bathtub. Her family took custody of their daughter. Shaver did not return to Ypsilanti.
He was certain now that devils were persecuting him. Over the next few years, he wandered aimlessly and compulsively, trying to shake off the creatures that he believed had killed his wife and brother. He often reminisced about this period later, but his accounts are confused and contradictory; he confessed that he had trouble separating reality from dreams and visions. He tried to stow away in a ship to England; he was imprisoned a few times; he was tormented by giant spiders; he returned to a mental hospital at some point. Max was always after him.
Later, Shaver would insist that he had discovered an old and jealously guarded secret during this period. Nydia, a blind girl he had seen in dreams and visions, “a form as light in its step as the sea foam that drifted up and touched the beach,” took him down into the ancient network of caverns built by the giant godlike race that had colonized Earth eons ago. There, the halls were still stocked with their “mech,” machines far in advance of our own: telaugs that transmit thoughts, stim rays that amplify sexual pleasure, telesolidographs that beam images through rock. When the sun turned radioactive, these alien Titans escaped. The few that remained devolved into two warring races: the dero, whose brains were so poisoned that they thought backwards and could only do evil; and the tero, who tried to fight the dero and to assist surface men. In the language of the caves, “de” meant “detrimental energy” and “ro” slave: a dero, then, was a slave to destructive impulses. A tero was the opposite, a slave to constructive forces. Max was a typical dero, Nydia a tero.
The details of his story changed at times—Nydia came to him in a Vermont prison, or from a Maryland fishing shack—but his conviction that he had visited the caves never wavered. He always insisted that he had pinched himself when he was there, and that it hurt. He returned to the surface to pick up some of his belongings, and couldn’t find his way back.
Shaver was released from the Ionia State Hospital in Michigan in 1943. He went to live with his parents in Barto, a small town in Pennsylvania, and found work as a crane operator. A second marriage foundered after a few months, but his third, to Dorothy Erb, was apparently a happy one. And then he started writing to Ray Palmer.