Jack Womack was 8 years old when he first got interested in flying saucers. By the mid 1960s, he started buying pulp UFO books.
"I just continued to collect them just for collecting's sake and eventually tried to build up a collection of all the major works of that period," Womack told me. "I came reasonably close."
Now, over half a century later, he's making the highlights of that collection available to the rest of the world in the form of Flying Saucers are Real!,a lavish coffee-table style art book. It's filled with hundreds of book covers—ranging from the garish to the truly beautiful—and accompanied by a commentary from Womack that's as historically enlightening as it is witty. It's also preceded by a foreword by legendary cyberpunk author, and Womack's longtime friend, William Gibson.
To celebrate the launch of the book part of Womack's collection is the subject of an exhibition at New York's Milk Gallery, and just a few hours before it's opening night party I caught up with Womack over coffee to talk about putting the show and book together, his lifelong obsession with flying saucers, and what it all means for the American psyche.
Despite going on to later have an acclaimed career as a science fiction writer, Womack was not a fan of the genre as a child, instead finding pulp flying saucer books more fascinating.
"I didn't read science fiction. I liked the movies, but I never could get into science fiction books," he said. "I had plenty of friends that told me science fiction gave them that 'sense of wonder', that there was something on the other side of the fence. Flying saucers were, for me, the way I saw over this side of the fence."
By this time flying saucer stories had already been discredited by the science fiction community. "There was an enormous split that started with the predecessor to the flying saucer phenomenon—what is called in science fiction circles 'the Shaver mystery,'" Womack explained. "Ray Palmer started work as editor of the famous science fiction magazine Amazing Stories in 1938. He had an eye for talent. He published Isaac Asimov's first story. He liked his science fiction pretty much dash, slam, bang, shoot 'em up. He received a note from a fellow written in strange handwriting around 1943 saying, 'I have things to tell you I have discovered about the people who live on the inside of the Earth.' Palmer's assistant threw the letter into the trash, but Palmer grabbed it and wrote back to the fellow, Richard Shaver, saying, 'Why don't you write me a little more?'"
Shaver replied with A Warning to Future Man, a 10,000 word document that told how an advanced ancient race used to live within the Earth, which was lit by a beautiful sun. But when that sun died out, they head to leave for the stars. Only some of them stayed behind.
"Flying saucer paranoia turned into communist paranoia, which turned into general paranoia, and then turned into X-Files-era little grey men probing you."
Shaver referred to these hollow-earth dwellers as the 'Deros', a race of twisted and deformed sorcerers hell-bent on meddling in human affairs above ground. The stories became hugely popular with Amazing Stories readers, with many even writing the magazine claiming to have encountered the Deros themselves. It set the scene for what was to become important and everlasting American tradition: the conspiracy theory about mysterious, sinister outside forces wanting to subvert and destabilise the US.
"It was very unexpected to see all of the covers of the books together flat out, as opposed to on my bookcase, because together it seems like you're looking at a history of professional folk art," Womack said. "You just do not see dust jackets like this today, and it's very fascinating graphically. It's fascinating to read and study, now especially to go back and see how flying saucer paranoia turned into communist paranoia, which turned into general paranoia, and then turned into X-Files-era little grey men probing you."
It's around this point in the late 80s and 90s, sensing a shift in the political tone of the UFO conspiracies, that his interest in collecting the books waned. Up until then he'd always seen flying saucer enthusiasts as enjoying the mystery, but this was quickly turning into the kind of propaganda that fuelled right-wing militias and mistrust of the government.
"I stopped around that time, around the time the nature of the contactees changed," Womack said. "In the '50s they would generally be out in the desert. They'd come upon a flying saucer, and some blond guy in ski pants would come toward them and mentally communicate to them some completely worthless but friendly knowledge from the stars."
But that all changed in the 1980s, according to Womack, when the stories changed from tales of friendly contact to the much more sinister stories of nightmarish, violent abduction. He believes this was partly in response to the "satanic panic" of the time, but also because UFO mythology was co-opted by right wing conspiracy theorists who believed the government knew what was going on. "It turned from being a pastime and a fairly harmless fad, and became part of the great American conspiracy that gives you another reason not to trust the government."
"I remember the words of Carl Sagan who said, "Don't read any of these books. Don't read any of this nonsense, because it'll just make you more open to believing more dangerous nonsense further down the line." At the time, I remember thinking 'Oh, that's not going to happen.'" Looking back now though he's not so sure, pointing to the rise of the alt-right, the Tea Party, and the conspiracies growing amongst Trump supporters online this election season.
While modern day conspiracy theories are entered around contrails, vaccinations, and who was really responsible for 9/11, flying saucers seem to have faded out of the popular imagination again. For Womack that's largely due to technology, and the fact that pretty much everyone is carrying a networked video camera around in their pockets.
"Now that you have camera's basically pointing everywhere—there are still UFO photographs, but they're now usually identifiable fairly quickly as space junk coming back in. Oh look, that's an actual meteor landing as happened in Russia. If there were UFOs or Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster or any of these, someone would have gotten a picture of them by now. Cell phones give us magic, and they take away magic."