The Man from Mars
Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey
The rollicking true story of the legendary writer and editor who ruled over America’s fantasy and supernatural pulp journals in the mid-twentieth century, and shaped today’s UFO and sci-fi cultures: Ray Palmer. Meet Ray Palmer. A hustler, a trickster, and a visionary. The hunchbacked Palmer, who stood at just over four feet tall, was nevertheless an indomitable force, the ruler of his own bizarre sector of the universe. Armed with only his typewriter, Palmer changed the world as we know it – jumpstarting the flying saucer craze; frightening hundreds of thousands of Americans with “true” stories of evil denizens of inner earth; and reporting on cover-ups involving extraterrestrials, the paranormal, and secret government agencies.
As editor for the ground-breaking sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories and creator of publications such as Other Worlds, Imagination, Fate, Mystic, Search, Flying Saucers, Hidden World, and Space Age, Palmer pushed the limits and broke new ground in science fiction publishing in the 1940s and 1950s—and was reviled for it by purists who called him “the man who killed science fiction.”
In the first-ever biography devoted to the figure who molded modern geek culture, pulp scholar Fred Nadis paints a vivid portrait of Palmer—a brilliant, charming, and wildly willful iconoclast who helped ignite the UFO craze, convinced Americans of hidden worlds and government cover ups, and championed the occult and paranormal.
Palmer overcame serious physical handicaps to become the most significant editor during the “golden age” of pulp magazines; he rebelled in his own inimitable way against the bland suburban vision of the American Dream; he concocted new literary genres; and he molded our current conspiracy culture decades before The X-Files claimed that the truth was out there.
IN WHICH TWO CRIME WEARY G-MEN VISIT A PULP EDITOR IN CHICAGO
In the summer of 1947, the FBI agents in search of Ray Palmer marched through a busy publishing company, then entered the office of a small, hunchbacked man with a cheerful expression who was busy at work. Most likely he was studying a spread of futuristic science fiction illustrations or marking up manuscripts of the latest “space opera” in which brave rocketeers battled loathsome aliens in order to rescue a princess of Venus. Palmer was used to visitors, particularly pulp writers, teenage science fiction fans, business supply salesmen who slipped past the receptionist, and outright cranks. With his alert blue eyes, he offered the G-Men in their fedoras his amused attention. They no doubt greeted Palmer and his secretary civilly.
It was a hot August day in Chicago; outside the office fans whirred, typewriters clattered, and passing workers feigned indifference. The FBI men asked Palmer about his relationship with businessman Kenneth Arnold. Why had he, a science fiction editor, hired this celebrated flying saucer witness from Boise, Idaho? What did Palmer know about the alleged “fragments” from a flying saucer that he had Arnold investigate in Tacoma, Washington? What were the motives of the men who claimed to have found these fragments? The agents were questioning Palmer because a few days earlier, two army intelligence officers had met Kenneth Arnold in his hotel in Tacoma, took samples of the fragments, and were then promptly killed in an army airplane crash.
In his high, breathy voice, Palmer told the FBI agents that several weeks prior to the crash, he had received in the mail a cigar box said to hold samples of material sprayed out of a flying saucer in Washington State. The men who sent the package and claimed to be members of the Tacoma Harbor Patrol were probably hoaxers, but a science fiction editor had the right to investigate such matters. The G-Men looked over the metallic samples and then demanded to see Palmer’s file of letters related to the investigation. After a few more questions, they left. According to Palmer, the next day when he showed up for work, the Tacoma file and remaining mineral samples had vanished—almost as if they’d never existed.
Palmer pondered the visit and its implications. It seemed strange that the government was impounding these fragments if the whole matter was just a simple hoax. He began to see conspiracy within conspiracy. More important, he saw a good story. It was a shame that William Ziff and Bernard Davis, his publishers, had discouraged his interest in uncovering the facts behind the recent sightings of flying saucers, especially with reports coming in nationally and internationally. In 1947, flying saucers were a genuine craze that seemed to have sprung straight from the pages of science fiction pulp magazines into the real world. Fortunately, this latest saga would be perfect for the new magazine Palmer was developing during lunch breaks a few blocks away in a drab office on Clark Street.
He drummed his fingers, sighed. Really, though, what more could he ask for? Here he was, a pulp magazine editor caught in the middle of a pulp adventure story, complete with visits from the FBI, a mysterious plane crash, a tale involving a fleet of flying saucers, and murky explanations. Can it get any better than that? Well, maybe . . . If he was handing a manuscript back to one of his writers, he might say: “The story drags a bit here, right after the G-Men leave. Toss a body through the skylight.”
Palmer liked it when the heat was turned up. And his unconventional ideas kept things hot. He loved how science fiction predicted the future— making it a force with which to be reckoned. Hadn’t the FBI, during the war, visited editor John W. Campbell at Astounding Science Fiction in New York City to demand how he knew the secrets of the atomic bomb program? Science fiction, it seemed, often became the truth. Maybe all fiction was truth-in-waiting. Maybe people had trouble discerning the truth and deserved to be tweaked, prepared for the unexpected. And maybe, if Palmer and some of his readers were right, there really were other realms, and not just in the pages of pulp magazines.
These possibilities grounded his strategies as a pulp editor. As much as anything else, Palmer loved to bewilder his readers—for example, by making up fake author names, running stories under those names, and accompanying the stories with photographs and mock-biographies in the “Meet the Authors” column. Two years earlier, in 1945, he had really pushed the envelope when he began to run as true a series of stories by Richard S. Shaver, a novice author who claimed there was an ancient degenerate race living in caverns beneath the earth, zapping people with rays that could scramble their thoughts and lead them to murder or sexual frenzies. Something about this idea, however crazy, just felt right . . . he handled it carefully. He called these stories of Shaver’s “true” but added that they were products of “racial memory.” The series, which Palmer promoted as the “Shaver Mystery” became a phenomenon and boosted sales, but his publishers were getting worried over the backlash from skeptical readers.
Backlash or no, Palmer was just warming up. Flying saucers, to mention just the latest mania, seemed highly promising. Anything might turn up; a world of wonders beckoned. But at that particular moment, back in his office circa 1947, he was just a guy doing what he loved best: editing wild stories, tweaking readers, questioning their deepest beliefs. This FBI visit could only add luster to the legend. He was eager to retell it at the Friday poker game when all the writers would gather at his house in Evanston.
They’d all have a good laugh, and afterward he’d try to take their money. Palmer had heroic aspects, but he was no hero. He was an entrepreneur, always looking for an angle and constantly reinventing himself. He also was a character in search of the extraordinary. It is possible that he even made up the episode of the FBI visit—there’s no note of it in his FBI file—but the main elements of the tale appear genuine. Whether the bureau had purloined his fragments or not is debatable—that summer prompted many wild speculations and Palmer contributed his fair share.
Like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, chasing after Ray Palmer leads the baffled investigator deep into the underground history of twentieth-century America. Questing after the novel, the unheard of, and the outrageous, Palmer and his associates plunged headlong through such realms as early science fiction fandom, the pulp magazine industry, mid-twentieth-century occultism, flying saucer clubs and religions, and the convolutions of conspiracy theory. From the 1940s until his death in 1977, these various milieus intersected with one man—more often than not— sitting at the center: Raymond A. Palmer.
As the space age dawned, in publications such as Fate, Mystic, Search, Hidden World, Flying Saucers from Other Worlds, and Space World, Palmer made himself an impresario of the paranormal and shaped the sensibility of an underground community. His loyal readers embarked on an endless mystery tour careening between the real world and the pulp wilds. He offered unorthodox ideas to shake things up, overturn preconceptions, and create mystique. Year after year, to all comers, Palmer generously offered his prime commodity: tales wrapped within tales, conspiracies within conspiracies, and worlds within worlds; to use sixties’ jargon, his humble goal was to “blow your mind.”
BIRTH OF A FAN
Can you write a snappy, short story having some scientific fact as its theme? If you can write such fiction we would like to print it.—ELECTRICAL EXPERIMENTER, MAY 1915
A group of men came out of a building that abutted on the wall, dragging a struggling, screaming woman in their midst. They dragged her to the edge of the wall and, as the monster saw them, it moved over to a point immediately below them. Cold sweat broke out on my forehead.—RAY PALMER, “THE TIME RAY OF JANDRA,” WONDER STORIES, JUNE 1930
It was love at first sight. Winter had given way to March’s bluster and promise and the newsstand was brimming with magazines, choked to the gills, decked out like the Fourth of July. Laid out in front, hanging, and set in the windows, the magazines were garish, brash: there were true crime magazines, true confessions, true ghost stories, movie magazines, magazines devoted to physical culture, detective stories, sports stories, weird tales, Westerns, as well as varied boys’ and men’s adventure yarns. But that day in 1926 brought something new: the debut of Amazing Stories—the first all science fiction magazine in America. A diminutive, hunchbacked sixteen-year-old boy with thick blond hair and blue eyes that had a way of drinking in the world—he would never need glasses—goggled and stared at Amazing Stories on a newsstand in Milwaukee. The world came to a halt. Car horns on the street grew faint, along with the shearing sound of streetcar wheels, the shouts of newsboys, brake squeals, voices of passersby. All of it ceased when he saw the magazine cover. Daubed by former architectural illustrator Frank Paul, it revealed a strange landscape with old-fashioned sailing ships marooned on heaps of ice, while monkeylike aliens sped about on ice skates. Saturn hovered ominously in the yellow sky, the ringed planet striped red and white like a giant top. The dark lettering proclaiming the title, Amazing Stories, started huge on the left and shrunk to the right where it wrapped behind the ringed planet, each letter casting a white outlined shadow.
The magazine was gorgeous. The work of a proselytizing genius named Hugo Gernsback, who had left Luxembourg for America at age twenty to manufacture batteries, then to sell radio kits and imported electronic parts. He soon added to his catalog sales with a variety of magazines for radio hobbyists and electrical experimenters. Gernsback realized that the brave new world that science was opening required a new literature, a genre of fiction that he had encouraged with occasional appearances in his technical magazines such as the Electrical Experimenter, Science and Invention, Radio News, and Modern Electrics, and the genre now needed its own venue—and name. Scientific romance would not do. He dubbed it “scientifi ction” but three years later changed the name to “science fiction.” Amazing Stories was the first magazine dedicated to nurturing this literature.
At the newsstand in Milwaukee, Ray Palmer plopped down a quarter and at age sixteen became one of Gernsback’s most fervent converts. Won over by Amazing Stories’s motto, “Extravagant Fiction Today—Cold Fact Tomorrow,” he began flipping through the pages which included older tales such as Jules Verne’s novelette “Off on a Comet,” and stories by Edgar Allan Poe and H. G. Wells, as well as contemporary fiction such as George Allan England’s “The Thing from—‘Outside,’” about a horrifying alien encounter, and G. Peyton Wertenbaker’s “The Man from the Atom,” in which, thanks to a super science device, a man grows almost as large as the universe. As stars circle his legs, he realizes he will never go home as time has sped to the point where he sees the birth and death of stars. The table of contents noted that the next issue would include more stories by Verne and Wells, as well as Murray Leinster’s “The Runaway Skyscraper” in which “the 50-story Metropolitan Life skyscraper vanishes into the Fourth Dimension.”
Gernsback’s editorial in the first Amazing Stories announced that it was “a new kind of fiction magazine! . . . We live in an entirely new world . . . many fantastic situations—impossible 100 years ago—are brought about today. It is in these situations that the new romancers find their great inspiration.” The ensuing “scientifiction,” he noted, offered instruction in a palatable form, as well as inspiration, and, as a stimulus to invention, a glimpse of the future. Such a story should be “a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” It was also good, clean fun, avoiding the “sex appeal” of so many contemporary fiction magazines.
This all made sense to Ray Palmer. Finally something was going right in his life. As he walked away, hunched over and as short as a seven-year-old child, he could ignore the looks of surprise that passed over people’s faces like the shadow of a cloud when they noticed he was “different.” Amazing Stories had arrived. Palmer glowed with the ambition to write the new sort of romance called for by Gernsback.
In two years, Palmer would graduate from high school, take a job as a bookkeeper, and write pulp stories in his bedroom on the south side of town. While he had relished that first copy of Amazing Stories and knew that something new was brewing between its covers, even he would be surprised if he had been zapped by a time ray that day at the newsstand and discovered that in twelve years he would be the editor of Amazing Stories. With his combination of charm and ambition, Ray Palmer would also become one of the most controversial figures in science fiction history—with a taste for the unorthodox that led many to call him a traitor to the science fiction creed. Some would even suggest, not entirely in jest, that Ray Palmer, during his twelve years editing Amazing Stories, helped to “kill” science fiction.
Back on that spring day in 1926, Gernsback opened the door to the new field of “fandom” and Palmer eagerly entered. Several decades later, at a science fiction convention in Chicago, Gernsback was given the honorary title “Father of Science Fiction” and the exuberant Palmer a plaque calling him the “Son of Science Fiction.”
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