Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Shaver Mystery

Richard S. Shaver The Shaver Mystery books one & two (2011)

Back in the 1940s Amazing Stories ran a series of shorts and novellas submitted by Richard S. Shaver. Most of these occupied a shared mythology wherein a technologically advanced prehistoric civilisation ended with the destruction of Atlantis leaving only subhuman creatures known as Dero to terrorise the survivors; and we are those survivors, going on oblivious to our planet as host to a subterranean realm comprising a global network of caves and tunnels, this being the realm of, amongst others, the Dero. It seems that much of the cast of human history, not least the world's major religions, can be traced back to the caves by one means or another. The mythic Satan was, for example, a feared subterranean ruler known as Sathanas who, like the Dero, made great and terrible use of advanced ray technology left behind following the destruction of Atlantis, rays by which those living below are still very much able to spy on surface dwellers and cause terrible things to happen.

What set Shaver's stories apart from others of the time was their being based on discoveries made in the tunnels when the author was himself abducted by the Dero, and so these tales are presented as fictionalised accounts of actual events. Ray Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories, saw some potential in this and encouraged Shaver to keep it coming, as did numerous letters sent in from persons who said they too had experience of the Dero and their hypogean world.

It probably doesn't take a psychology degree to recognise that the Shaver mythos has about it more than a touch of paranoid schizophrenia - the conspiracy, persecution by mysterious forces, hidden worlds and messages beamed by ray operators directly into one's head. Additionally, Shaver's writing has a certain quality suggestive of a thought process which, if not exactly disordered, almost certainly made one hell of a lot more sense to the author than it does to me. Reading the stories collected here, it's difficult to reach any conclusion other than that Richard Shaver was not a well man.

That said, I can't help feel he may have been done something of an injustice by Armchair Fiction, the otherwise commendable publishers of these collections, who seem to have presented the man's work as the Plan 9 from Outer Space of science-fiction literature - although I'm not sure this is necessarily either better or worse than Ray Palmer's motives, whatever they may have been.

Taken on face value, Shaver reads a little like A.E. van Vogt taken up a few notches and channelling maybe Clark Ashton Smith, sometimes confusing, undoubtedly intense, but with a command of language that is at times quite arresting and elegant. He may have been bonkers, but it seems quite wrong to suggest that he lacked talent - and for my money I've read much, much worse written in less coherent form, but enough about Brian Aldiss...

The Shaver mythology might almost be the Cthulhu mythos if you factor in a basic assumption that advanced technology tends to involve Tesla coils and the sort of stuff you would have seen in Flash Gordon - even if the poor guy did believe it was real, it's at least as richly absorbing as anything Lovecraft wrote providing you don't mind the occasionally confusing drift from narrative purpose.

Shaver's tales might be regarded as the literary equivalent of outsider art - I've always hated that term myself, and only use it in lieu of any more convenient and potentially less divisive alternative - but if that ranks him alongside Richard Dadd, Louis Wain or any of those other painters loved by the surrealists on the grounds of their having painted some damn good stuff - then fair enough. As with A.E. van Vogt, I wouldn't recommend too much Shaver in one sitting, but that poor troubled guy definitely had something.

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