Posted on behalf of Daniel Cressey
It seems amazing that anyone ever believed in them. In the mid-twentieth-century heyday of unidentified flying objects (UFOs), grainy pictures of flying saucers hovering in the sky were a staple even in respectable magazines such as Time and Life. Volumes were written earnestly detailing the visits of aliens. This novel form of cold war paranoia seemed to seep into the collective psyche on both sides of the Atlantic.
For believe they did. A sizeable section of the public ate up cheap books on saucers and devoured tales of visitors from beyond our planet, whether their intent was good or ill. Fortunately for anyone enamoured of American subcultures in all their garish glory, the speculative-fiction writer Jack Womack has amassed a huge collection of these books, from sex-obsessed adult novels to earnest pseudo-academic treatises. He reproduces many of these gems in his lavishly illustrated menagerie of the tracts, Flying Saucers Are Real.
They range from what Womack calls the “finest science fiction cover to ever appear on a non-science fiction book” (The Flying Saucers Are Real by Donald Keyhoe) to the mundane (Richard S. Shaver’s 1948 I Remember Lemuria).
While Womack is deeply invested in these books, he doesn’t spare them. UFO Photographs Around the World Vols 1 and 2, he notes, “offers the most complete compilation of lens flares, camera smudges, film imperfections, blurs and jiggled shots ever published”. Womack points out that British linguist Gavin Gibbons (author of The Coming of the Space Ships (1956) and They Rode In Space Ships (1957)), and others from the UK brought “a wide-eyed if not overly creative spirit to the field”. Gibbons rewrote other people’s UFO encounters, “managing to make their accounts far less interesting”.
This is no attempt to deconstruct the reasons behind the rise and fall of the UFO. Instead, Womack seems to be attempting to understand a bizarre lost cult by collecting the artefacts they left.
We learn of George Adamski, born in Poland in 1891, who ended up founding the “Royal Order of Tibet” in California (and co-writing the 1953 Flying Saucers Have Landed) before setting up an eatery. Adamski’s ‘close encounters’ include a man who claimed to be from Venus — evidenced by the fact that his “trousers were not like mine”. In Britain, Leonard G. Cramp’s 1966 UFOs and Anti-Gravity purported to lay bare the engineering of the flying saucer, complete with detailed blueprints, which he apparently thought revealed an anti-gravity system “similar to one of his own devising”.
Womack describes another book, Flying Saucer from Mars (1954), as written by “Cedric Allingham” — a hoax said to have been perpetrated by a now-deceased British astronomer and his friend. This friend apparently admitted pretending to be Allingham to give a talk to a flying saucer club, during which he wore a false moustache.
Womack’s book can be as confusing to follow as the arguments of his UFO proponents. The typefaces switch to signal passages from source materials, and covers, photos and drawings abound. Following the huge numbers of authors mentioned and whether they are believers, hoaxers or fictional becomes something of a task. There is no clear logic to this collection of what science-fiction luminary William Gibson calls “testimonials to certain human needs” in the introduction.
Some of the notes accompanying the awesome images are brief and baffling. We read on page 10: “When John C. Sherwood was seventeen, Gray Barker published his book, Flying Saucers are Watching You (1967), a dry account of events during the 1966 Michigan Flap. Barker’s congratulation, post-publication, ‘Evidently the fans swallowed this one with a gulp.’” Who Sherwood and Barker are, and what the “Michigan Flap” was, we can only guess.
Womack’s collection is heading to Georgetown University Library in Washington DC, to be preserved among its special collections. It may stand as a monument to collective lunacy, a testament to how easily people can be led down the garden path, or simply a collection of egregious publishing mistakes. Whichever it is, Womack has preserved a record of something that felt very real to a great many people. These books began emerging, after all, around a decade after the filmmaker and theatre impresario Orson Welles inadvertently frightened an estimated 1.2 million US listeners during his famous 1938 radio broadcast of an adaption of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds.
Today, the ubiquitous advanced cameras mean the lack of convincing photographs is more and more of a problem for believers. The evidence collected here is as ‘real’ as flying saucers will ever get.
Daniel Cressey is a senior reporter for Nature in London. He tweets at @dpcressey. Flying Saucers Are Real is the first book release of New York City publisher Anthology Editions, a partnership between Boo-Hooray Gallery and Anthology Recordings.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.