Michael Dirda

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, May 18, 2008

CHARLES FORT

The Man Who Invented the Supernatural

By Jim Steinmeyer

Tarcher/Penguin. 332 pp. $24.95

THE BOOK OF THE DAMNED

The Collected Works of Charles Fort

Tarcher/Penguin. 1,125 pp. $18.95

Charles Fort (1874-1932) isn't remembered today for his humorous, slice-of-life stories set in turn-of-the-century New York. He isn't remembered for his best friend's -- the great American novelist Theodore Dreiser's -- estimation of his genius as "simply stupendous." And he certainly isn't remembered for his novel The Outcast Manufacturers or his abortive memoir Many Parts. No, Charles Fort is remembered -- in some quarters revered -- because he created what biographer Jim Steinmeyer calls "a new kind of ghost story . . . in which it is the cold, hard data that haunts."

For the last half of his adult life, this walrus-like, myopic amateur scholar spent his afternoons at the New York Public Library or the British Museum, combing through newspapers, magazines, medical reports and learned journals for news items that were . . . weird. Inexplicable. That revealed a lot more strangeness in the world than the received wisdom of science would acknowledge. How is it that fish, frogs, lizards, snakes, eels, insects, worms and blood have been known to fall from the sky? And not just once. Fort sought patterns of anomaly, repetitions of the supposedly impossible, and he wondered about them. His approach to these mysteries was itself an oddity, both reportorial and logical, but also humorous and playful. Could there be, he speculated, a kind of "Super-Sargasso Sea" in the upper atmosphere where detritus floats around before falling to Earth? If so, how do things get up there in the first place? In four volumes -- The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931) and Wild Talents (1932) -- Fort suggested that our comfortable known world was neither comfortable nor known.

"His accounts of mysterious airships," writes Steinmeyer, "formed the canon when, decades later, this phenomenon became a public obsession as Flying Saucers or UFOs. Charles Fort created the word 'teleportation,' inspired the term 'Bermuda Triangle,' and popularized accounts of spontaneous human combustion, visions of cities in the sky, the Mary Celeste[ghost ship] mystery." It was Fort who suspected that our world might be a kind of petting zoo for the amusement of aliens. Human beings, he notoriously concluded, were "property. . . . We belong to something." He also guessed that there might be some kind of invisible barrier around the Earth and that the Earth itself might actually be stationary, that the planets were much closer to us than we suspected, and that, in general, there were more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in anyone's philosophy.

Fort's mature books were based on thousands of notes scribbled on small pieces of paper, which he painstakingly categorized and carefully filed in shoe boxes. Despite his often outrageous conjectures, he usually walked the tightrope of non-committed agnosticism. As he says near the beginning of Lo!: "I shall be accused of having assembled lies, yarns, hoaxes and superstitions. To some degree, I think so, myself. To some degree I do not. I offer the data." Indeed, he does. For instance, when discussing the mysterious hoof-like marks that appeared all over Devonshire one morning in 1855 (and that were made by some kind of biped), he quotes from contemporary accounts in Notes and Queries, the Times of London and the Illustrated London News.

Despite an owlish antiquarian obsessiveness, Fort wrote with a kind of jazzy syncopation, riffing from one report or anecdote to the next, the whole held loosely together by his quizzical humor and personality. After describing several accounts of people who had gone out for a walk and suddenly found themselves 30 miles away without knowing how this had come about, he concludes with what seems a knowing wink: "If human beings ever have been teleported, and, if some mysterious appearances of human beings be considered otherwise unaccountable, an effect of the experience is effacement of memory." He also confessed that "a naive, little idea of mine is that so many ghosts in white garments have been reported, because persons, while asleep, have been teleported in their nightclothes."


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