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Flying saucers: a true story

Flying saucers: a true story

A collection of otherworldly books takes us back to a time when America was in the grip of a UFO obsession

A collection of otherworldly books takes us back to a time when America was in the grip of a UFO obsession

Nicholas Barber | September 21st 2016

In 1964, Jack Womack’s grandmother bought him a copy of “Strange World” by Frank Edwards. The book’s front cover promised “118 astounding incidents so fantastic and amazing as to baffle the most brilliant scientific mind”. But among its 118 tales of ghosts, psychic powers and “the monster apes of Oregon”, the stories that really fascinated Womack were those about flying saucers. For the next 40 years, he collected several hundred books, magazines and pamphlets on the subject, all written by people who believed, or claimed to believe, that UFOs are constantly zipping through our skies.

Now his collection is being archived as the Jack Womack Flying Saucer Library at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, but don’t worry if you aren’t beaming down to Washington in the near future. A catalogue of the Womack Library, featuring 257 book covers and illustrations from the collection, has been published under the title of “...FLYING SAUCERS Are Real!”

A must for students of snazzy 1950s graphics and eccentric outsider art, as well as for anyone who just likes childish drawings of web-footed fiends, the catalogue is a treasure trove of fabulous imagery and bizarre anecdotes. But the most enjoyable part of it is Womack’s wry commentary on the cranks and con artists in its pages. Womack, an award-winning science-fiction author, notes that the average 1950s saucer book was “seemingly written in less than a day”. And the writer of “I Rode a Flying Saucer” (1952) “didn’t actually ride a flying saucer, but the space brothers suggested that he give his work a more marketable title.”

As funny as the catalogue is, it’s touchingly plain that almost all of the books in Womack’s collection express a fear of nuclear annihilation. Many of them propose that the H-bomb blasts of world war two alerted aliens to the human race’s capacity to destroy itself; and the message they keep bringing us is that we should abandon our warlike ways before it’s too late. If flying saucers were real, then, it might do us all some good.

“The Hidden World” (1962)

Ray Palmer (1910-1977) is the father of the flying-saucer craze of the 1950s. As the editor of Amazing Stories magazine, he shifted its purview to outlandish, outrageous narratives which purported to be true. First, he revealed all about a subterranean race of telepaths called the Dero. Then he published the testimonies of an airline pilot, Kevin Arnold. It was Arnold who professed to have seen nine disc-like objects zooming at 1,200 miles per hour above Washington’s Cascade mountains on June 24th 1947. Two days later, the term “flying saucer” was used for the first time in a Hearst International news report. Palmer was quick to get in touch with Arnold, and, presumably forgetting to ask him how he could have counted nine separate objects flying in formation at almost twice the speed of sound, he collaborated with the pilot on numerous bestselling books and pamphlets. Saucer-mania had begun. In publications such as his long-running magazine The Hidden World, Palmer would keep stoking and profiting from that mania for decades.

 

“...FLYING SAUCERS Are Real!”/“Flying Saucers Have Landed” (1953)

The moody painting on the cover of “...FLYING SAUCERS Are Real!” is borrowed from “Flying Saucers Have Landed”, written by Desmond Leslie and George Adamski. A Polish immigrant, Adamski ran a roadside restaurant in Laguna Beach, California, and wrote a science-fiction novel, “Pioneers of Space”, in 1949. Coincidentally, three years after publishing “Pioneers of Space”, Adamski met one such pioneer in the desert near his home. Recalling his close encounter in “Flying Saucers Have Landed”, he cited two clear indicators that the being he met was from a different world. One was that “his trousers were not like mine. They were in style, much like ski trousers”. Even more of a giveaway was that “his hair was long, reaching to his shoulders”. Case closed.

 

“Those Sexy Saucer People” by Jan Hudson (1967)

There is much to love about the swinging-Sixties cover of “Those Sexy Saucer People”. One of the most intriguing details of Ed Smith’s brazen soft-porn painting is that the red-skinned aliens have to wear space helmets onboard their own saucers – even if they don’t have to wear anything else – whereas their curvaceous captives from Earth can breathe the air unaided. Surely the atmosphere in any spacecraft should be suited to the people who are actually piloting it? Even better, though, is the use of “those” in the title, which implies an eye-rolling indulgence of the aliens’ shenanigans. Whatever will they get up to next?

 

“Pictorial Tour of Unarius” (1982)

Surprisingly, Unarius is not a distant planet, a Zodiac sign or a body part, but an acronym for the Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science. Founded in Los Angeles (where else?) in 1954 by Ernest Norman, Unarius published over one-hundred books on the subject of inter-dimensional science, most of them comprising transcriptions of psychic conversations between human beings and intelligences from another dimension. In case those transcriptions weren’t mind-bending enough in their own right, Norman’s wife, Ruth Norman, publicised Unarius by appearing on television in voluminous space-themed fancy-dress costumes incorporating fairy-light-lined crowns, robes and ballgowns. Other acolytes favoured skimpy Egyptian slave outfits. But not even these could keep the organisation going forever. In Womack’s words, “the failure of a space fleet predicted to materialise on earth in 2001 to actually land, negatively affected the operation”.

 

“UFO: From Venus I Came” by Omnec Onec, as told to Rainer Luedtke (1982)

Along with the author’s doe-eyed beauty, and the Yoda-like, topsy-turvy syntax which makes the title sound classier than “I Came From Venus”, the most charming thing about the cover of this memoir is the caption, just beneath Omnec Onec’s name, clarifying that she is “A Venusian”. Apparently, she had lived on Venus for 250 years before she travelled to Earth and assumed the identity of Sheila Gipson, a human girl who had just died in a bus crash. Sceptics needn’t point out that the Venusian cities she describes have never been detected by human technology. Onec didn’t just come from Venus, but from the astral plane, “a dimension of lower density that cannot be seen or proven with physical means.” Besides, mockery “does not offend me because I know it is due to a limited understanding.”

 

“Elvis UFO Connection” by Richard Daniel (1987)

By the 1980s, the standard close-encounter memoir no longer concerned saucers glimpsed in the sky, ski-trousered men in the desert, or mysteriously mutilated cattle (a 1970s phenomenon), but spindly, grey-skinned humanoids who abducted earthlings, probed them in sensitive areas, and then deposited them back where they came from. One such abductee was Elvis Presley, who was so shook up by his experience that he wore a jewelled belt buckle in the shape of “alien eyes”. At least, that’s the thesis advanced by “Elvis UFO Connection”. Saucerian conspiracy theories have mutated and adapted over time, incorporating Bigfoot, Hitler, Jesus Christ and the USSR (“Men from the Moon in America: Did They Come in a Russian Satellite?”), so it was inevitable that someone with as fevered a fan base as the King would one day meet the occupants of interplanetery craft. Incidentally, “The Elvis UFO Connection” would be a cool name for a student rock band.

 

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