Gray Barker, Hoaxing, and Performance Art

(Cross-posting from the Saucerio Tumblr)

I just finished watching the documentary about Gray Barker, Shades of Gray.  It’s very well done, but one thing I would have liked to see addressed is a different take on his hoaxing, misrepresentation (fabrication?) of stories, and colluding with various fakers and frauds.  The film discussed Barker’s sense of humor about the subject, but I think there’s a case to be made for Barker’s hoaxing being a form of performance art.

I learned, a very tiny bit, on my trip to the Gray Barker archive about Barker’s personal life–particularly the ways his activities and sexuality didn’t fit particularly well with small-town West Virginia in the 1950s.  I think, perhaps, that the Saucer exploits could have been a kind of pressure release valve .  Enabling, through his editing and publishing, the creation of  a world where an outsider status worked to his advantage.  Unlike the world of Clarksburg, WV.

Religious Studies scholar David Halperin, back in February of this year, wrote of Barker, “When he wrote about Bender, he wrote about himself.  The Men in Black, with their hush-up threats and their terror, hovered over Gray Barker each day of his grownup life.  That was what gave They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers its tremendous emotional authenticity, calling out to a boy obliged to bear a different secret” (Gray Barker, the Men in Black, and North Carolina Amendment One).  That says says it about as well as I could.  Halperin discussion Barker’s status as a Myth Maker, creating stories of the Men In Black, reflecting the fear he must have felt as a gay man living in 1950s West Virginia.  I think, however, his myth making goes further than that.

One aspect of Barker’s role that I think goes under-examined is his place as a publisher, distributor, and promoter of all manner of saucer and new age-related materials.  His work work was about far more than the Men in Black, the Bender story, the IFSB.  For a generation (at least), he was a major source for books, magazines, and pamphlets on The Weird.  I believe this, as much has the MIB aspects of his life that Halperin described in the linked article, speak to his embracing of an outsider status, living in that particular time and place.

This is particularly true of the Contactees which, of course, are a longstanding interest of mine (Extraterrestrials and the American Zeitgeist!  Coming in 2013!).  Barker did a masterful job of promoting them without explicitly endorsing them; recognizing that their stories were interesting, even if not especially true.  His editing of these works (such as Bender’s Flying Saucers and the Three Men and Gray Barker’s Book of Adamski) demonstrate a particular viewpoint.  He was not just a myth maker, he was a world builder–helping establish the parameters of a collective reality.

The people behind the Gray Barker project at West Virginia University’s Center for Literary Computing put it this way, “Gray Barker’s work is a act of literary self-creation. If the postmodern novel troubled the notion of authorship, of intertextual relations, and of the margins between text and context, then the Gray Barker archive is the most extensive, successful, and aporetic postmodern novel ever written” (Gray Barker Project Description).  They may be overstating it a bit, but there is no doubt that Barker’s collected output represents something huge and significant.

Gray Barker died when I was a child, long before I knew about flying saucers in any detail.  I think there’s a word–that slips my mind–but the basic feeling I have when I read his words (and the words of that entire generation of saucer people) is a nostalgia for something I never experienced.  Partially this is due to the utterly drab and nihilistic world of “UFOlogy” which my generation inherited in the 1990s.  Partially also, I think, it is due to the utter fun of Barker’s writings.  They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers is one of the few saucer books I can read over and over again.  His The Silver Bridge (about the Mothman events) is the same way.

True or not (and whether he knew it or not) Barker was creating art which will outlast the more realistic and less interesting books on the paranormal which have been produced.

I think it’s why I keep coming back to Barker as a sort of touchstone of paranormal and Saucerlogical thought.  Oh, I respect the work of others, especially the Jacques Vallees of the field but no one had the art and passion that Barker did.  I think that may be because his work was great despite its intentions; subliminally great, if you will.  Down there in the soul of the fast-buck huckster and hoaxer was a raw talent for making The Weird wonderful.  Oddly, I have trouble putting my admiration for his work into words that seem to fit my feelings.

It’s probably an October thing, thinking about Barker and writing these ideas down.  I first read They Knew Too Much on a few sunny October days off from work in 2000 and Autumn, for some reason, makes me want to think about Flying Saucers.  The decay of the trees and grass and the year itself conjures feelings of The Weird.

Now, I need to do some real work and then–if I’m lucky and have time, I’m reading some Gray Barker.

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