Thursday, June 17, 2010

Men in Black and Shades of Gray

I've been reading up on 1950s UFO writers lately, and honestly, I'm beginning to think that these guys in the 50s who first started writing about aliens and UFOs were even more colorful and slippery than their mercurial subject matter.

There's a hell of a book in THAT for anybody with the time and means to write it--Hey maybe it will be me. (Weird things have happened.)

Yesterday I watched an excellent documentary about Gray Barker, the one time editor of the 1950s rag The Saucerian Review, and author of such classics as They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, The Silver Bridge (Barker's book about the sightings of the Mothman creature that preceded the collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, WV in 1967), and MIB: The Secret Terror Among Us. 

The documentary film, entitled Shades of Gray, is focused more on Barker than it is on flying saucers, but it's well worth watching, and it opens up quite a few compelling questions about the nature of paranormal research and the motivations of the people who do it.

Gray Barker and John A. Keel both wrote books about Mothman and the collapse of the Point Pleasant Silver Bridge, and both tied the events to UFOs to a greater or lesser degree. Barker's book preceded Keel's by five years, and took a more methodical, detached approach to the topic that didn't stress the UFO connection as strongly as Keel's more popular Mothman Prophecies.

Some years after Keel's book came out, Barker complained to the skeptical press about Keel's tendency to whip up witnesses by inserting his own paranoia and is own theories into his interviews, and he also accused Keel of changing some of the 'facts' presented in his version of the events.

While it appears to be true that Keel's personality was impossible to extricate from his investigations and his theories (some of Keel's witnesses said many years later that Keel terrified them, and that for weeks after he left they were unable to sleep or relax), it's also true that Barker himself was quite the hoaxer and that he loved playing mean-spirited jokes on fellow authors and subjects. Keel's counterfeit letter from the State Department to contactee George Adamski is now famous--a staple of ufological history and myth--so the very idea of Barker criticizing Keel's integrity is pretty funny.

Barker was a complex man by any standard. The Saucerian Review was the first publication of its kind to present contactee information as plain fact. The more outrageous the content, the better Barker liked it.

At the same time, Barker clearly believed that something genuine was going on with some UFO phenomena, and that paranormal phenomena were sometimes more than simple delusion.

He was fascinated by his subject matter, yet he wasn't above exploiting its weirder aspects in order to make a buck. He also had no problem with pranking others in the field or with mocking his own contributors, a quality that on the only hand is less than admirable, but on the other makes him all the more interesting a character in his own right.

I thought that one of the strangest and more poignant aspects of Barker's career was his attempt late in life to market the true story of his daily life as a fictional novel. This came after years of marketing patently ridiculous stories as plain truth and having all kinds of fun doing so. In some sense, Barker could only write his true story as fiction. This irony could not have been lost on a man of his unique genius and bizarre humor.

Barker was a homosexual in the South at a time when it was a lot safer and less awkward to be from outer space. The kind of duplicity and secretiveness required of a writer in such a position had to be toxic beyond imagination.

I hate armchair psychoanalysis, especially when it comes to writers and historical figures, (so here I go, diving in anyway), but it really is hard not to see relevance in this case. Barker's work revealed an obsession with dangerous secrets, duplicity, and illusion. It put me in mind of Charles Fort's procession of the Damned, the march of the excluded--or even, one might say, the alienated?

I also find no small measure of romance in the gritty, drinking, smoking, 50s sleaziness of these guys--Keel and Barker both seem larger than life, the kind of writers who pound out the latest bit of pulp insanity on a manual Royal typewriter with a scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other. There are photos of a young John Keel floating around the internet that make Brando and James Dean look like pussy poseurs.

They were bad, bad boys. That much is undisputed. 

I've lately been playing with the idea that UFOs can't really be studied in a detached way, that it isn't even possible--that at least when it comes to this specific topic, the observer needs to be embedded in the observation in a way that science does not allow. Gray Barker gave me much to think about in this regard, and now I want to know more.

You can watch Shades of Gray yourself on your desktop at Netflix, or order it from the filmmaker's website.

BTW, if you find a copy of The Saucerian Review at a yard sale this summer, jump on it.

Those little rags are worth hundreds of dollars now.

And anyway, how cool is this stuff? I'm on the hunt from here onward, rest assured.


  1. We always used to see bright objects in the sky that would be stationary for about hour, and then which would take off real fast. I even saw them make triangular shapes, so I do think there are ufo's out there.

  2. I think so too. Bard of Ely was nice enough to do an interview for EOL about them, and I thought he really made a lot of sense. He said there's a bunch of different things going on all at once, and it tends to get collapsed into one thing. Here's the link if you are interested: