Tuesday, August 5, 2014

THE MAN FROM MARS

I finished reading THE MAN FROM MARS: RAY PALMER'S AMAZING PULP JOURNEY by Fred Nadis yesterday evening. The book was published last year and is now available in trade paperback.

Ray Palmer was short in stature and hunchbacked due to an accident in childhood followed by a bout with a crippling disease. But his physical infirmities didn't stop Palmer, or RAP as he came to be known, from becoming editor of the venerable science fiction pulp magazine AMAZING STORIES. But that's just the start of this "amazing" story.

While editor of AMAZING, RAP was contacted by Richard Shaver, a man with a past history of mental illness. Shaver claimed that there was a race of ancient aliens living under the surface of the earth. These aliens were the original inhabitants of the lost lands of Lemuria and Atlantis and they were divided into two factions, one good, one evil. The aliens used their advanced technology to influence the affairs of men and were still doing so in the 1940s.

Palmer took Shaver's rough narrative (which Shaver claimed was true) and reworked it into a serviceable pulp yarn that he presented as maybe true, maybe not. With that the infamous Shaver Mystery was born as Palmer and Shaver began collaborating on a series of stories that revealed more information about these underground aliens. Nadis raises the question: did Palmer really believe Shaver's wild ramblings or was he just a canny promoter who recognized that this material would  increase circulation and readership of his magazine? Although the two men eventually became friends, you can't help but come away from this narrative thinking that RAP exploited Shaver for Palmer's own benefit.

But the Shaver Mystery eventually ran its' course and RAP left AMAZING to begin publishing a series of "true" magazines (such as FATE) devoted to flying saucers and the paranormal.  Palmer spent the rest of his professional life courting people involved in these fringe subjects, always looking for the next Shaver, someone with a wild and compelling story to tell that Palmer could present as maybe true, maybe not.

RAP encountered many colorful people and published lots of unusual material. Towards the end of his life, Palmer latched onto the many different "hollow earth" theories that were floating around at the time but this material proved too little, too late to save RAP's small publishing empire. In addition to science fiction and bizarre "true" stories, Palmer also had a brief fling as a publisher of soft core pornography. Many of these paperback originals were penned by science fiction authors working under pseudonyms.

In the 1960s, Palmer took a stand against the Vietnam War, embraced the youth/hippie culture (but was against drugs such as LSD), became a staunch right-winger (supporting Barry Goldwater and George Wallace in their presidential runs) and eventually came to believe in various extremist conspiracy theories before his death in 1977.

Science fiction fandom is split regarding the legacy of Ray Palmer. Some die hard purists believe that he ruined science fiction (he didn't), while others went along with him on his exploration (and exploitation) of the mysteries of the unknown world. Palmer had an innate curiosity about everything and he was smart enough to recognize what was commercial material and what would spark dialogues between himself and his readers.

And let's not forget that the real Ray Palmer gave Julius Schwartz and Gardner Fox his consent to use his name for the revamped, Silver Age Atom super-hero character published by DC Comics in the 1960s. Editor Schwartz and writer Fox both knew Palmer from their days in the pulps.

Fred Nadis does a serviceable job of presenting the life and work of Ray Palmer but I do have a few minor quibbles. It's H. Rider Haggard not L. Rider Haggard, Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian) wouldn't have anything to say about the pulps in 1938 because he died by his own hand in 1936 and the Atlas Comics (later Marvel Comics) anthology title JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY was one of dozens of horror/science fiction/fantasy comics that were on the newsstands in the late 1950s, all of which were a response to what other publishers were producing and not, as Nadis posits, a result of anything Ray Palmer did.

But those are minor points that a good copy editor could have easily fixed. THE MAN FROM MARS is a fast, breezy, informative read. I have heard about Ray Palmer for years but I didn't know anything about him. He was a fascinating man, full of contradictions and paradoxes. THE MAN FROM MARS is recommended for anyone with an interest in the unusual and the bizarre and is must reading for all science fiction fans.

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