Too Freakish a Place - Ray Palmer and the Invention of "Psi-Fi"

Ray Palmer was an American original. Born in Milwaukee in 1910, he was struck by a milk truck at age seven, shattering his back and forcing him to be bedridden for much of his childhood and crippled for life (he remained a hunchback). After seeing the first issue of Hugo Gernsback's landmark science fiction pulp magazine Amazing Stories, in 1926, he became hooked on science fiction. An early enthusiast (it was then called "scientifiction" or stf), Palmer co-edited the world's first fanzine, The Comet, with its first issue in 1930. When fans honored Hugo Gernsback as the "Father of Science Fiction" at the Worldcon--or more formally The World Science Fiction Convention--in 1952, Ray Palmer also was honored as the "Son of Science Fiction."

From 1938 to 1949, at Ziff-Davis publishing in Chicago, Palmer edited Amazing Stories, reviving the dying pioneering magazine and making it the most popular sci-fi pulp of its day. He filled it with tricks and sly pranks--like running "Meet the Author" biographies of imaginary writers. Unlike other editors who came before him, Palmer didn't come off as aloof or professorial to his readers, but "one of the gang," and signed his answers to letters with the nickname, "Rap." But, as the mysterious cliché goes, you always "kill the thing you love."

In 1945, Palmer announced the genre must "mutate" or die--as the future was already happening. His own response to this observation was to run a series of pulp stories about an evil underground race of "dero," who liked to hold sadistic orgies and cannibalistic feasts involving captive humans. The "dero" were degenerate offspring of noble star wanderers and had inherited devices with which to scramble thoughts, invoke sexual frenzies, or otherwise undermine the human race. Palmer announced that these stories of the dero, penned by a highly creative--yet likely mentally ill gent named Richard Shaver--were entirely true. They were also the harbingers of a new kind of science fiction, one that later became dubbed "Psi-Fi."

The era's sci-fi purists, called "trufans," were disturbed. How dare their colleague pander to the vast, untapped market of America's "kook" underground? As the pulp magazine market crumbled, Palmer stuck to his new vision and by 1950 had set up a mom and pop publishing empire from a farmhouse in Wisconsin--(his office was a converted chicken coop)--issuing books and lurid periodicals (Fate, Mystic, Search, Flying Saucers from Other Worlds) about flying saucers, meetings with their inhabitants, hauntings, second sight, magic mushrooms, yagé, yoga, shamanistic rituals, magic mirrors, and Bigfoot.

To the end Rap remained a trickster, trying to convince readers that there were secret underground UFO bases, that NASA photos proved this, and so on. Yet a part of him believed that there really was a "hidden world" and that Shaver's madness may well have given him insights into it. There was nothing, Palmer felt, worse than a closed mind.

Mainly he wanted a reaction. He poked. He offered up the outlandish. He loved to twist and wiggle his way through an argument. Perhaps, like Don Quixote, who had overdosed on tales of chivalry, Rap had overdosed on science fiction and no longer was certain what was real. His mantra became "What if?" Early on, he had latched on to the dream of real, scientific progress through science fiction, but decided, ultimately, it wasn't enough. The world was too freakish a place--and somebody had to file the reports.

Fred Nadis is the author of the new book The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey.