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Richard Sharpe Shaver (1907–1975)

Richard Sharpe Shaver was an American writer and “outsider” artist best known for his controversial stories known collectively as “the Shaver Mystery,” which were presented as nonfiction in science fiction magazines, most notably Amazing Stories. These stories, in which Shaver claimed to have discovered an ancient, sinister civilization in underground caves, led to Shaver Mystery Clubs and influenced many artists and writers, including Harlan Ellison and Phillip K. Dick. Shaver died in the Arkansas town of Summit (Marion County), where he had moved in the mid-1960s.

Richard Shaver was born on October 7, 1907, in Virginia, but his family moved to Berwick, Pennsylvania, sometime before 1910. Little is reliably known about Shaver’s early life. According to Shaver, in 1932, while working on an assembly line at a factory, he developed telepathic abilities that gave him insight into “malign entities in caverns deep within the earth.” According to author Michael Barkun, Shaver gave inconsistent accounts of how he first learned of the hidden cavern world, but the assembly line story was the “most common version.” Shaver said he then quit his job and became a hobo for a period. In 1934, according to Barkun, “Shaver was hospitalized briefly for psychiatric problems…but there does not appear to have been a clear diagnosis.”

In 1943, Shaver wrote to the editors of Amazing Stories, claiming to have discovered an ancient Proto-World language he called Mantong. When one editor threw away Shaver’s letter, Ray Palmer retrieved it and contacted Shaver. Shaver claimed that in Mantong, which was the source of all earthly language, each sound had a hidden meaning, and, by applying a formula to any word in any language, one could decode a secret meaning from any word, name, or phrase.

Over the course of their correspondence, Shaver described a race of aliens who had populated caves within the Earth before fleeing the planet, though not without leaving behind two groups of offspring—one, the “Teros,” a benevolent humanoid group, and the other, “Deros,” or “detrimental robots,” a sadistic group that tortured and ate humans. Women, especially, were treated brutally by the Deros. (Shaver claimed to have been held prisoner by the Deros for several years, though Palmer later stated that, in fact, Shaver had been in a mental institution.) These alien races were explained in detail in a 10,000-word document titled “A Warning to Future Man,” which Palmer edited and rewrote, cutting much of the sadomasochistic content toward women, though he claimed that he remained true to Shaver’s vision. Palmer re-titled the now 31,000-word manuscript “I Remember Lemuria!” and published it in the March 1945 issue of Amazing Stories.

The issue sold out. Palmer claimed to have received thousands of letters in response from people who claimed to have experienced similar things. According to Barkun, circulation of the magazine increased from about 135,000 to 185,000. “Shaver Mystery Club” societies were created in several cities. The controversy gained some notice in the mainstream press at the time, including a mention in a 1951 issue of Life magazine.

For the next few years, much of the content of Amazing Stories was related to the Shaver Mystery, though many science fiction fans disapproved, even organizing letter-writing campaigns in protest. Palmer printed a number of critical or skeptical letters sent to him, and he and other contributors occasionally rebutted or replied to such letters in print. Bruce Lanier Wright notes, “The young Harlan Ellison, later a famously abrasive writer, allegedly badgered [Palmer] into admitting that the Shaver Mystery was a ‘publicity grabber’; when the story came out, Palmer angrily responded that this was hardly the same thing as calling it a hoax.” Critics of the “Shaver Mystery” were quick to point out that its author was suffering from several of the classic symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.

In 1948, Amazing Stories discontinued publishing Shaver’s stories due to decreased sales. Palmer continued publishing Shaver’s work in The Hidden World, and Shaver and his wife produced the Shaver Mystery Magazine irregularly for some years.

Shaver moved to Summit, Arkansas, in the mid-1960s with his wife, Dottie. During the 1960s and 1970s, now living in obscurity, Shaver claimed to have discovered physical evidence of the aliens in certain “rock books” embedded with pictures and texts. He wrote about, photographed, and made paintings of the images he found in these “rock books” for years, going so far as to create a lending library through the mail, sending to the borrower a slice of polished agate with a detailed description of what writings, drawings, and photographs were archived inside the stone.

Shaver never succeeded in generating much attention for his later findings, but, in the years since his death in 1975, there have been exhibits of Shaver’s art and photographs at the California Institute of the Arts, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, and the Guggenheim Gallery of Chapman University in Orange County, California. Shaver’s art has also been exhibited in art galleries in New York City and in a traveling exhibition of “outsider photography” called “Create and Be Recognized” that originated at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, California, in 2004. Shaver died on November 5, 1975. He is buried in Layton Cemetery in Yellville (Marion County).

For additional information:
Ackerman, Forrest J. Forrest J. Ackerman’s World of Science Fiction. Los Angeles: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, 1997.

Barkun, Michael. A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Dash, Mike. Borderlands: The Ultimate Exploration of the Unknown. New York: The Overlook Press, 2000.

Tucker, Brian. “Shaver Declared a Master Surrealist!” http://www.softcom.net/users/falconkam/tuckershow.html (accessed March 19, 2010).

Wright, Bruce Lanier. “Fear Down Below: The Curious History of the Shaver Mystery.” http://www.softcom.net/users/falconkam/feardownbelow.html (accessed March 19, 2010).

C. L. Bledsoe
Ghoti magazine

 

Last Updated 9/14/2010

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