“Ray Palmer gave voice to people nobody else would take seriously.”
That’s the most important line in today’s interview about the life of Ray Palmer, the truly “AMAZING” writer and publisher who whipped Americans into a post-World War II flying-saucer craze, who first published a story by teen-ager Isaac Asimov and who ultimately shaped the realms of sci-fi and fantasy that are so popular around the world today. Along the way, Ray Palmer’s talent as a pulp publisher included early promotion of Asian religious traditions, a fascination with angelic apparitions and all manner of mystical experiences in small towns and big cities coast to coast.
Stirring America’s imagination
Ray Palmer certainly wasn’t a scholar of world religions. His Mystic magazine sometimes described India’s main religious tradition as “Hindoo.” In one of his most notorious publicity campaigns, Palmer actually claimed that the spiritual secrets of planet Earth involved a civilization hidden in caverns deep underground. Ray Palmer was as much P.T. Barnum flim flam as he was a promoter of spiritual inclusion.
Nevertheless, throughout his pulp career, Palmer regularly inspired readers in grassroots communities like South Bend, Indiana, and Pikeville, Kentucky. Farmers, school teachers, teenagers and even elderly women who regularly attended Bible study classes were moved by Ray Palmer’s mystical vision of the cosmos. We know that because many of these men, women and teens eagerly sent their mystical testimonies to Palmer, hoping that a few paragraphs of their “True Mystic Experiences” would appear in the next issue of a Ray Palmer magazine.
RAY PALMER: THE MYSTERIOUS KING OF ‘WHAT IF …’
Despite his titanic impact on American culture, Ray Palmer never became a celebrity. Few photographs of him exist. That’s mainly because he was a tiny man with a deformed back, the result of a tragic childhood accident. Yet, his disability did not prevent him from becoming an unseen media giant whose creative legacy influenced hit TV shows like the Twilight Zone, Star Trek and X-Files—and comic books, too. In 1961, DC Comics renamed the popular super hero The Atom after Ray Palmer. Palmer’s ideas live on today in blockbuster Hollywood movies featuring comic-book superheroes and outer-space exploration.
Ray Palmer was the king of “What if …” In the 1953 debut issue of his pulp magazine, Mystic, the first feature story opened with this classic Palmer pitch: “When you read this story, you will tell yourself that it is fiction; the editors assure you that it is. But what if—it isn’t? What if, by some strange coincidence, the writer has hit upon the truth? What if, as you read, you find yourself repeating the word ‘fiction’ to yourself in order to feel reassured—because what you are reading stirs some deep conviction, coupled with dread, that it is not fiction?” Anyone who recalls Rod Serling’s 1959 debut as the host of The Twilight Zone can see the influence of Ray Palmer’s pulp fiction in full flower.
If Ray Palmer could spring back from his grave to promote his first full-scale biography, The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey, by Fred Nadis, Palmer would write (as he did in penning one advertisement for his own book on flying saucers): “At last! The authentic story of the mystery that has shaken the complacency of the world. On-the-spot answers to the top question of the century! An amazing array of factual evidence, gathered under incredible difficulties and actual risk of life, shorn of the official ‘smog’ that has hidden the truth from the very outset. An incredible array of evidence—the result of years of investigation! The Only Book That Tells The WHOLE TRUTH about …” Ray Palmer.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Ray Palmer’s biographer Fred Nadis …
INTERVIEW WITH BIOGRAPHER FRED NADIS
ON PULP PIONEER RAY PALMER
DAVID: Ray Palmer’s life began like the “origins” issue of a super-hero comic book. As a boy, he was playing in the street near his Milwaukee home and his foot got caught in the wheel of a truck that spun his body against the pavement. His spine was severely damaged. Then, he became the first patient in the United States to receive an experimental spinal column bone graft. That’s the stuff of comic books. But it didn’t turn out as Palmer’s family hoped.
FRED: The accident happened when he was 7—a very energetic kid with an energetic mind. He was running out in the street. When I talked with Ray Palmer’s son, he told me that the accident involved a motorized milk truck, but one that had old-fashioned spoked wheels. The boy’s foot got caught between the spokes and, before the truck could stop, he had been dragged down the street and nearly killed. He wound up spending years trying to recover and undergoing treatments. And you’re right, the doctors were not able to straighten his back. He had a hunched back all the rest of his life. He was 67 when he died in 1977.
DAVID: This is a fascinating chapter in Palmer’s story, because another person might have become an enemy of science. After all, the doctors failed him and he really did suffer under their care. Why did he remain so hopeful about the possibilities of science?
FRED: They key is that, during this period, he had nothing else to do but read. He consumed adventure stories by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote Tarzan but also the John Carter on Mars series. Ray Palmer fell in love with these narratives. He took Hugo Gernsbach seriously!
DAVID: Gernsbach is a foundational figure in what unfolds during Palmer’s life. He often is called “The Father of Science Fiction,” because in 1926 he founded Amazing Stories magazine. He’s the reason that one of the most prestigious awards in science fiction, to this day, is the “Hugo.”
FRED: Yes, Gernsbach was an early evangelist of science fiction. He wanted everyone in the country to become an inventor and he wanted to hook kids early with science fiction. Gernsbach was an editor but he also was a true believer that, together, people could create a new future for the world with this kind of education. It was this noble pursuit that caught the imagination of the young Ray Palmer as he spent those years reading one thing after another.
RAY PALMER: FROM NOBLE VISIONARY
TO THE P.T. BARNUM OF PULP
DAVID: Your biography very quickly jumps into the heart of Palmer’s career. Before age 30, Ray Palmer had become the editor of Amazing Stories. In a way, this was both Ray Palmer’s heaven—and it was a rude awakening about the nature of pulp, right? At one point, you refer to him as a “Happy Hack.”
FRED: The reality of wanting to make a living as a pulp writer and editor made him realize that he couldn’t hold purely to the Gernsbachian vision of science fiction as a noble pursuit of a better future for the world. By the time he became editor of Amazing Stories, he had tried his hand at various genres: Westerns, true crime and other pulp formats. By the time he became editor, at age 28, he had put some of his early ideas behind him. He quickly understood that the bottom line of this business was selling magazines. His own salary was dependent on sales. So, he began to push what I would call the Edgar Rice Burroughs formula of romance, adventure and lots of action. I would describe his mid-career approach to publishing in contrast to the Verne and Wells style of trying to write as close as they could to where they thought science could go.
RAY PALMER, ISAAC ASIMOV and The Shaver Mystery
DAVID: We should make it clear for readers of this interview, though, that Ray Palmer wasn’t all hokum. He had a real passion—and a brilliant editor’s eye—for serious writers who would have their own influence on American culture. Palmer kept spinning off various pulp magazines and fan-zines. He had his fingers in a whole array of publications. Here at Read the Spirit, we recently published an interview with Aldous Huxley biographer Don Lattin, who writes about Huxley’s enormous impact on spiritual diversity in American culture. Through FATE magazine—one of Ray Palmer’s various ventures—Aldous Huxley was featured on multiple occasions. We can say that Ray Palmer played a role in helping Huxley to reach an audience of spiritual fans.
Among Palmer’s other claims to fame is spotting the talent of teen-ager Isaac Assimov.
FRED: Yes, Ray Palmer’s tenure at Amazing Stories was notable for his purchase of Isaac Asimov’s first professional story, Marooned Off Vesta. Written in 1938 while Asimov was still 18, the story was rejected by one magazine before Amazing Stories published it in the March 1939 issue.
DAVID: This is fascinating partly because, as a teenager, Asimov had a love-hate relationship with Amazing Stories. Before he was published in the magazine, Asimov had slammed Palmer’s choice of cover art in earlier issues. Palmer was famous for pushing the envelope with sexy and violent cover illustrations.
FRED: Asimov also did not like Palmer’s tendency to anti-Soviet themes. In a 1938 letter to the magazine, Asimov said: “Entirely too many stories are being printed part or all of whose theme is the reaction against some form of despotism.”
DAVID: So, in Palmer’s career we have this rather high-brow kind of exchange with Asimov and the publication of Asimov’s early work. Even though Asimov objected strenuously to some aspects of Amazing Stories, he apparently was happy to have his short stories appear in its pages.
But, we also discover in your biography that Palmer could play fast and loose with the truth. He had no qualms about publishing the notorious Shaver Mystery and related stories. These days, the Shaver controversy is long forgotten, except to die-hard sci-fi buffs. Basically, here’s what it involved: This writer named Richard Shaver, a guy with a very checkered past, burst into the pulps with a claim that an evil species of sub-human “Doros” lived in caverns beneath the Earth’s surface and would emerge to reshape our planetary future. It was pure fiction, but Palmer really pushed hard on his “What if …” publishing style and pretty much told readers that this Shaver stuff was true.
FRED: Yes, this was a tipping point in Palmer’s career—publishing Shaver’s pieces and claiming they were true. I think this started as a sales gimmick to outrage people and to see how far he could push the promotion of this Shaver Mystery. You have to remember that a lot of Palmer’s work developed through letters he received from fans. As with Asimov, Shaver had been sending Palmer letters. Of course, Shaver was different from an Asimov—and would never become that kind of author. Shaver was this working man who bounced around various places and was a science fiction fan. Eventually, Shaver began claiming that he had arcane knowledge. The first thing he claimed was that he found an alphabet from outer space, which he said was a key to languages. Another editor wanted to throw Shaver’s stuff in the garbage can, but Palmer pulled it out and said, “Let’s print it.”
DAVID: While we might question Palmer’s ethics in the way he presented the Shaver stories—there’s no question that, from a publishing point of view, this was a hit.
FRED: Readership grew as Palmer kept publishing material from Shaver. A lot of the magazine’s pure science fiction fans complained, but Palmer picked up a lot of fans who were drawn to occult and arcane ideas.
DAVID: What’s your bottom-line judgment on this portion of Palmer’s work with Shaver?
FRED: Shaver definitely had some mental illness in his life—but he also had a brilliant, creative mind. His fiction was his outlet for making sense of the world. He was trying to create a detailed vision of the cosmos, or we might say he was trying to write a Gospel, or chart a new science. In common terms, Shaver was your classic inspired crackpot. He was a visionary. Palmer realized it was good business to publish his stories.
RAY PALMER and The Flying Saucer Craze
DAVID: So, this Shaver Mystery—and all the hoopla from the rising sales to the growing controversy—sets the stage for the far more famous contribution Palmer makes to American culture: the flying saucer craze.
I’m sure our readers will be amazed to learn that our U.S. Central Intelligence Agency actually has a website dedicated to the history of UFO sightings. The CIA tells part of the story of the flying saucer craze: “The first report of a ‘flying saucer’ over the United States came on 24 June 1947, when Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot and reputable businessman, while looking for a downed plane sighted nine disk-shaped objects near Mt. Rainier, Washington, traveling at an estimated speed of over 1,000 mph.” What the CIA never mentions, not even in a footnote, is that Arnold’s experience would have faded into the deep dust of old trivia games—except for the super-charged work of Arnold’s co-author and promoter: Ray Palmer.
FRED: That’s right, a lot of people credit Palmer as one of the most important voices whipping up the awareness of flying saucers. It makes sense. This was a great new mystery for him! By the time Kenneth Arnold came along, the Shaver Mystery had created a lot of negative feedback. Shaver was a problematic figure.
DAVID: But not Kenneth Arnold! This is one of the most exciting sections of your book.
FRED: Arnold wasn’t a science fiction fan or an occultist. He wasn’t like Shaver. He was a former Eagle Scout, football player and Olympic-class athlete.
DAVID: Ray Palmer realized that this was a golden ticket in the pulp world. He and Curtis Fuller founded FATE magazine in 1948 mainly to showcase Arnold’s story. Top of the cover of Issue No. 1 was Arnold’s “The Truth about the Flying Saucers”—complete with a vivid, full-color illustration.
FRED: FATE magazine largely was founded because of the flying saucer phenomenon. After Arnold’s report, there were many other sightings, too. This was quite different from the Shaver Mystery. Curtis Fuller, as Palmer’s co-founder of FATE, was a no-nonsense journalist and flying enthusiast. They all were asking questions of the U.S. military about flying saucers—and they became convinced that they weren’t being told the truth. According to Palmer’s version, his other magazine publishers didn’t want him to go fully into flying saucer stories, so FATE was born.
DAVID: Did Ray Palmer believe in flying saucers? I think he knew that Shaver’s stories were pure fiction. But what about the flying saucers?
FRED: Oh, I think he definitely believed there were flying saucers. He later broke with Curtis Fuller and his wife around this question. But it’s not hard to see why Palmer would become convinced of the truth of flying saucers. There were so many sightings emerging after Arnold’s first report—and they kept coming from so many different countries—that it was hard for Palmer to believe that these sightings didn’t have substance.
RAY PALMER as SPIRITUAL SEEKER
DAVID: We’ve come full circle here from the pure love and noble hopes of science fiction—through some of Palmer’s obvious hucksterism—into this realm of Cold War flying saucers and other serious, if speculative, themes. Many of Ray Palmer’s issues were packed with mystical, spiritual stories. His magazines weren’t particularly accurate about world religions, but they certainly inspired Americans to find out more about ancient religions from around the world, as well as what sociologists today call “new religions.”
FRED: Remember that science fiction really has religious undertones. A typical science fiction story is an apocalyptic tale—the death of an old world and the birth of a new world. We can think of so many science fiction classics that are spiritual as well as scientific visions of the future.
DAVID: Would Ray Palmer object to what you just said—or applaud? I think he’s probably smile and nod in agreement.
FRED: Ray Palmer was a remarkable personality with a mind that shaped American culture in ways far beyond his own work and life. He certainly had a problematic side. We might think of him as a classic trickster figure trying to guide people, but guiding them along weird pathways. It took tremendous courage for him to announce so many controversial views over the years and then stand up to so much ridicule.
Here’s a guy who would jump into things fearlessly. While other people were still quietly discussing these ideas in private circles, Ray Palmer was splashing them across the front covers of magazines. And, it wasn’t just Ray Palmer talking to the nation. He encouraged fans to share their experiences in letters they wrote to him—and he set aside pages in every issue for their letters and stories.
Overall, his spiritual vision was remarkable! Now, talk about shamanism and yoga and mushrooms and Eastern religious traditions is everywhere you turn. But, in the era when Ray Palmer was in his prime, you didn’t find that in mainstream American media. In mid-20th-century America, these things were lumped together as occult and paranormal—and they were not fashionable.
Ray Palmer gave voice to people nobody else would take seriously.
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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, interfaith news and cross-cultural issues.)