Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Shaver Mysery Part 2: The Antediluvian Alphabet.

Ray Palmer and the Coming of the Fans.

One of Gernsback’s major innovations while publisher of Amazing Stories was his decision to print reader’s letters along with their names and addresses. From its very outset, science fiction had ardent, obsessive fans – pulp Platonists who lived much of their lives in the exotic, imaginary realms conjured up by science fiction and fantasy. The letters page created an interactive culture between the writers, editors, and consumers of pulp fiction, and made a cohesive community out of the fans themselves. They began to correspond, and tentatively form fan clubs. On December 11, 1929, a group called the Scienceers became the first of these groups to meet face to face in an apartment in Harlem. A new cultural mutation – SF fandom - was born, and other groups rapidly sprang up, including the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society (1934 – present), the National Fantasy Fan Federation (1934 – present), and the left-leaning, New York based Futurians (1937 – 1945.)

Once again, Gernsback had created a network of outsiders whose peculiar, subterranean passion contained the seeds of the future. While television didn’t take long to catch on, science fiction fandom had a longer road to take to become a dominant force in mainstream culture. That first generation of fans who met in the dimness of their parent’s basements contained a large percentage of nowhere people – losers, outsiders, essentially cultural gnostics who sought an escape from the grim realities of American life during the Depression. We call them geeks today, but back then, a geek was the very lowest stratum of the entertainment industry – a variety of fairground wildman who bit the heads off live chickens, and performed various other morbid spectacles, often for a wage of raw alcohol. The sci-fi fans were a marginal but resilient group; against all evolutionary odds, they survived and passed on their genes, through the kids who wrote letters to Stan and Jack in the early sixties, through Trekkies and tabletop role-play gamers in the 70s, right up to the multi-million dollar annual geek-Vegas of Comic-Con today. The instigators of SF fandom could scarcely have imagined a time when the all-powerful computers that science fiction dreamt of would become a reality, and gradually begin to re-wire the world’s neural pathways, making all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, geeks and fans.

Raymond Arthur Palmer was a quintessential SF fan and pulp gnostic. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 1, 1910, Palmer was hit by truck at age seven, resulting in a broken back. Unlike Marvel Comics’ Matt Murdock, he wasn’t transformed into a superhero; instead, a failed spinal graft two years later left him a hunchback who would never grow above four feet. In this sense, Palmer conformed to a common archetype of the pulp world: an invalid child who becomes a voracious reader, particularly prone to the escapism offered by more exotic varieties of fantastic literature. (This is a strikingly common pattern in the history of weird fiction. H.P. Lovecraft barely attended school as child, owing to variety of illnesses which are believed to have been largely psychosomatic in origin. Similarly, Clark Ashton Smith suffered from various psychological disorders in his youth, including a morbid fear of crowds, and never attended high school.) Once again, the Red Planet was the catalyst: Palmer was turned on to science fiction by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, and was a devoted reader of Amazing Tales from the first issue.

Mantong: The Antediluvian Alphabet.

By 1938, Palmer had risen through the ranks of fandom, and was editing Amazing Tales himself. Amazing was in the doldrums when Palmer inherited it; in 1929, Gernsback had lost control of the magazine, and its ownership had passed over to Ziff-Davis. Palmer succeeded in increasing circulation, but the content of the magazine was held in low esteem by SF aficionados. (Writer Lester Ray described the Amazing house style as “Keep the story moving; if the action falters, drop an anvil from the sky and see what happens.”) Indeed, Palmer’s tenure on Amazing Tales might scarcely be remembered today, were it not for a controversial creative partnership he developed with a very strange man indeed. The affair which has come to be known as the Shaver Mystery begins in September, 1943, when Ray Palmer asked his associate editor Howard Browne to read a letter that had arrived in the mail. The letter was from a man who claimed to have discovered an antediluvian alphabet, which contained the “root words” of all known terrestrial languages. He called the alphabet Mantong, and the letter read as follows:

It is an immensely important find, suggesting the god legends have a base in some wiser race than modern man; but to understand it takes a good head as it contains multi-thoughts like many puns on the same subject. It is too deep for ordinary man – who thinks it is a mistake. A little study reveals ancient words in English occurring many times. It should be saved and placed in wise hands. I can’t, will you? It really has an immense significance, and will perhaps put me right in your thoughts again if you will really understand this. I need a little encouragement.

Browne promptly threw the letter in the bin, muttering something about “crackpots”. Palmer, however, wasn’t so sure; perhaps he intuited the fall of a profound anvil from the skies. After performing some rudimentary tests with a dictionary, Palmer was satisfied that the mysterious letter-writer might actually be on to something. Well, at any rate, satisfied enough to print letter and alphabet in the next edition of Amazing Tales. The following is the Mantong alphabet; I leave it to the reader to perform their own experiments, and draw their own conclusions:

A – is for Animal

B – is to Be

C – means See

D – is the harmful energy (Dero) generated by the sun.

E – is Energy

F – means Fecund

G – means to Generate

H – means Human

I – means I.

J – is the same as G, Generate

K – means Kinetic, as in Motion or Energy

L – is Life

M – means Man

N – means Child, as in Ninny

O – means Orifice, a source

P – means Power

Q – means Quest

R – horror; signifies a large amount of d (harmful energy) present

S – means the sun, which emits d

T – is the beneficial force, the opposite of d

U – means You

V – Vital, the stuff Mesmer calls animal magnetism

W – Will

X – Conflict, sometimes meaning d and t in opposition

Y – means Why

Z – means Zero, or when d and t cancel each other out

The alphabet proved a minor sensation with the readers of Amazing; some claimed that they had checked Mantong against a variety of foreign languages, and found that it could correctly predict the meaning of most words! Palmer, sensing a circulation boaster, wrote the man back asking how he had discovered Mantong. A genuine anvil dropped through the mail in response: a massive, 10,000-word document portentously titled A Warning to Future Man. The Warning contained an alternative cosmology and physics, an alternative history of the planet earth, and a contemporary mythos of nefarious, technologically advanced beings who live in caverns deep underground. It was the work of one Richard Sharpe Shaver. According to his own testimony, Shaver had walked the same path as most men throughout his life, until a fateful day in Detroit in 1932. He was using a welding gun in the auto plant where he worked, when suddenly the gun ,“by some freak of its coil’s field atunements”, began to allow him to read the minds of his co-workers. Worse was to follow: he became aware of a torture session being conducted by fell entities deep underground. This was the beginning of Richard Shaver’s initiation into the chthonic mysteries of the Cavern World.

Continued Shortly.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


The Barnum of the Space Age.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the grand age of the electrical current. In 1881, the Savoy Theatre in Westminster, London, became the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity. The venue had been provided with 1,200 incandescent light bulbs by their inventor, Sir Joseph Swann. The late 1880s was the era of the “Battle of the Currents”, an increasingly bitter and occasionally macabre feud between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. Edison had established direct current (DC) as the gold standard for electrical distribution in America, when Westinghouse began to promote new European technologies centred around alternating current (AC). The currents provoked fierce emotions in their adherents; several former employees of Edison, including the shamanic Nikolai Tesla, defected to the Westinghouse camp.

The War of the Currents quickly got dirty, if not downright diabolical. Edison organised an elaborate smear campaign designed to demonise alternating current. He had his assistants Arthur Kennelly and Harold P. Brown oversee an AC-driven animal killing spree: stray dogs, cats, and even unwanted horses and cattle were publically executed. Edison attempted to popularize being “Westinghoused” as a synonym for electrocution, and secretly insured that alternating current powered the first electric chair in New York. The spectacle reached its nadir on January 4, 1903, when an estimated 1,500 people gathered on Coney Island to witness the execution of Topsy the rouge fairground elephant. (When Luna Park went up in flames in 1944, superstitious denizens of the boardwalk called it “Topsy’s Revenge.”)

Underlying these gruesome displays, however, we have a sense of the stark novelty and mesmeric power that electricity exorcised during the early modern period. Men like Tesla seemed more like oracular conduits than mere scientists. A secular witchcraft of stunning efficacy was being born, and something else with it: an idea of the future as something which was no longer written in the stars or scriptures, but rather taking shape in the forge of human invention and technology. The electrical current was making the world futuristic, and ushering in the great Wanderlust for the future that took us all the way to the moon, and then somehow ebbed away in a cloud of paranoia and greed in the 1980s and 90s.

One young man to catch the bug both for electricity and futurism was Hugo Gernsback. Born in Luxembourg while the Battle of the Currents was heating up in the US, Gernsback suffered from a mysterious ailment as a child: he was as “bald as an egg”. His father took him the length and breadth of Europe in search of a cure, until the problem finally resolved itself of its own accord when Hugo was five. Shortly after this, the now hirsute child received a modest present that would have a profound impact on the subsequent course of his life: a Leclanche wet battery, a piece of wire, and an electrical bell. Gernsback’s later life was also deeply influenced by an early reading of the astronomer Percival Lowell’s books Mars (1895), Mars and its Canals (1906), and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). Lowell’s Martin canals were a scientific fallacy, but exerted a potent influence on the emergence of science fiction, via HG Wells’ invasion of Martian “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic”. Mars as an Abode of Life also made quite an impression on the 9 year-old Gernsback; according to scf-fi historian Sam Moskowitz, “he was immediately sent home, where he lapsed into delirium, raving about strange creatures, fantastic cities, and masterly engineered canals on Mars for two full days and nights while a doctor remained in almost constant attendance.” With hindsight, Hugo’s Martian fever-dreams were a prophetic vision of the new literary genre he would later christen “scientifiction.” A book of speculative astronomy had prompted Hugo to intuit the dreams of the future, and the covers of its pulp magazines.

The Inevitability of Image by Wireless.

Inspired by cowboy comic books, Gernsback went to New York at age 19 and rapidly became a man of prodigious accomplishments: an inventor, futurist, writer, and publisher of magazines. A 1963 Life piece on Gernsback labelled him “the Barnum of the Space Age.” He had been an enthusiastic dilettante across the whole spectrum of electronics, having established the first wireless home radio set for commercial distribution, long before radio broadcasting networks even existed. Gernsback was an all-around pioneer of the airwaves – the etheric printing press of the Space Age. He set up his own radio station (WRNY) in 1925, and also experimented with a kind of paleo-television broadcasting. The Life article paints a fascinating picture of Gernsback’s early experiments with the television medium:

“The tele-numbed 1960s makes his laborious, excited and tremendously bull-headed 1928 telecasting seem more archaic yet. The device by which Station WRNY emitted its primitive video signals – a whirling perforated “scanning disk” hooked to a set of photoelectric cells – produced a picture only one and a half inches square. Programs simply showed the head and shoulders of a singer, a speaker or a doll which was sometimes used as a substitute subject. They could be received in all New York by only a dozen or so rabid “experimenters” who had built similar disk machines from instructions in one of Gernsback’s own magazines, Radio Times. But these telecasts dramatized his own tenacity more pointedly than the process dramatized the inevitability of image by wireless.”

These ghostly, stamp-sized images of singers and dolls were on the cusp of a communications revolution – and brought together a network of odd-balls whose strange minority obsession would become the universal norm of the future. This is a recurring motif in this tale, and it is a figure which seems to play a peculiarly prominent role in the creation of the world of the 21st century.

It was, however, in the realm of publishing that Gernsback’s greatest legacy lies. He produced a prodigious amount, including literally dozens catering to electronic amateurs and obsessives like himself, and two magazines – Sexology and Sexologia – which, the Life article dryly states, “aim to present a scientific view of problems inherent in the reproductive processes”. One, however, was for the ages: Amazing Tales. Tales was the very first pulp magazine devoted entirely to science fiction stories. It was launched in 1926; as with his previous experiments with wireless radio and television, Gernsback got there before the medium really had a proper name. The new magazine’s masthead compressed the underlying ideology and eschatology of the coming Space Age into a neat six word aphorism:


The future was invading the present, with the dazzling brilliance and novelty of a cavalcade of rockets from Mars. The wildest things imagined today were but modest premonitions of what will be the everyday of tomorrow – “to make reality of imagination” in the words of the Bendix Corporation’s Tomorrow People campaign:

Hugo Gernsback commissioned a death mask of Nikola Tesla, and kept it in his office. He was dreamer, but he was also a cutthroat magazine man, notorious for the maltreatment of writers. Pulp titans H.P. Lovecraft and Clarke Ashton Smith called him “Hugo the Rat.” The Life article calls him “a dude of the first order”, whatever that might have meant to a Life staffer in 1963.

Continued shortly.