Back in the late 1950s, my friends and I would regularly camp out in my back yard. Naturally, we told scary stories about the Hook or the Beast With Five Fingers. Sometimes we’d discuss whether any of our teachers could be Russian spies. Sooner or later, though, we would always lie back in the cool grass and stare up at the night sky. Where’s the Big Dipper? Could that be Venus? Is that a plane over there? We’d all look hard at the lighted dot skimming along high overhead. Was it a plane? It seemed to be flying really fast. Then someone would say, “What would you do if the aliens landed here right now?”

“. . . Flying Saucers Are Real!” is the just-published catalogue of the magnificently kitschy UFO collection compiled by science fiction writer Jack Womack. Sometime next year, the Georgetown University library — which recently acquired the collection — will mount an exhibit featuring such loony, nostalgia-laden volumes as “Flying Saucers Are Watching You,” “Flying Saucers Have Landed,” “Are The Invaders Coming?,” “The White Sands Incident” and “The Elvis-UFO Connection.” Till then, this oversize paperback deliciously chronicles one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary popular delusions and the madness that accompanied it.

"... Flying Saucers Are Real!," by Jack Womack (Anthology Editions )

The main focus is on books, pamphlets and other written material from the heyday of the saucer craze, the two decades following June 24, 1947, when pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine reflective disklike objects moving at 1,200 miles an hour over the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest. As Womack writes, “The words ‘flying saucers’ first appeared in a no-byline Hearst International release datelined June 26. By June 27, Arnold’s story had gone worldwide.” Yet there was much more of that story still to come.

A few weeks after Arnold’s initial sighting, the editor of Fate magazine asked him to speak with a man who had also spotted saucers above Puget Sound. Quickly agreeing, Arnold left a debriefing with two military intelligence officers to meet Harold Dahl, who told him of how six flying discs had ejected shards of a mysterious metal over his boat. Dahl retrieved some of the metal and gave it to his boss, Fred Crisman. “The next day,” as Womack summarizes, “a man dressed in a black suit driving a brand new 1947 Buick sedan” stopped Dahl and “told him they needed to talk.” The stranger added, “I know more about your experience than you will want to believe” and later warned him not to speak to anyone else.

Nonetheless, Dahl then told Arnold that the saucers were piloted by manlike beings made visible by A-bomb radiation. At this point the two intelligence officers who had been debriefing Arnold asked to accompany him when he interviewed Dahl’s boss about the weird metal. At the meeting, however, Crisman failed to bring any of the alien scraps and the officers left, infuriated. “Next morning,” as Womack writes, “Arnold saw the Tacoma Times headline: SABOTAGE HINTED IN CRASH OF ARMY BOMBER AT KELSO. Both officers were on board, both were dead. The reporter said an unidentified source claimed the plane was shot down because it carried ‘classified material.’ ”

There, in a nutshell, are nearly all the darkly suggestive “X-Files” elements that would feed what William Gibson — in his introduction to the catalogue — calls the flying saucer meme. In my own case, by the time I was 14 I had already read, wide-eyed, Frank Edwards’s “Flying Saucers — Serious Business” and retired Marine Maj. Donald E. Keyhoe’s “Flying Saucers From Outer Space,” had learned from radio talk shows about the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) and the Air Force’s Project Blue Book, which was gathering UFO data, and knew that somewhere in the western desert of Arizona and New Mexico strange aircraft had crashed and alien bodies had been recovered, then spirited away to secret, underground laboratories.

“. . . Flying Saucers Are Real!” also features plenty of fuzzy contemporary photographs of circular objects in the sky, one collection of these being described by Womack as “the most complete compilation of lens flares, camera smudges, film imperfections, blurs, and jiggled shots ever published.” Saucer “contactees,” a group that gradually grew more numerous, would frequently testify to intimate body probes or sometimes announce that they were now apostles of a cosmic gospel of peace and love. The cover of John W. Dean’s “Flying Saucers Close Up” even bears an official alien imprimatur: “Spacemen urged the author to compile this book, supplied much of the information and approved the work.” In still another instance, the Office of Naval Research was sent a paperback of M.K. Jessup’s “The Case for the UFO,” annotated with handwritten comments by purported extraterrestrials.

But were the saucers really from outer space? Maybe they originated from inside a hollow earth. Could they actually have been engineered by the Russians or by aging Nazis in Argentina — or even by American scientists working at some top-secret facility? More chilling still, could Basil Tyson be right in titling his book “UFOs Satanic Terror”? One paperback actually includes an illustration of Jesus ascending into heaven with the help of a mother ship’s tractor beam. And finally, did a Venusian named — I kid you not — Valiant Thor actually meet with the president in an underground bunker in Washington? Can you prove it didn’t happen? As Womack needlessly stresses, “In Saucerdom, there are ultimately no limits to what you want to believe.”

In his 1956 book, “The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects,” Edward J. Ruppelt, former head of Project Blue Book, examined all the evidence and concluded that further study of UFOs would be a complete waste of time. Oh, ye of little faith! The very existence of the Womack collection demonstrates incontrovertibly that UFOs are, if nothing else, the stuff that dreams are made of. Keep watching the skies!

Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.

flying saucers are real!

By Jack Womack

Anthology Editions. 285 pp. Paperback, $40