By Michael Dirda
Sunday, May 18, 2008
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."
Steinmeyer's engrossing biography dwells a little too long on Fort's childhood as the son of a well-off Albany merchant, but it makes up for this by briskly recounting the author's youthful adventures (riding the rails all over the East Coast, shipping out to England and South Africa) and describing his desperate years as a magazine short story writer, somewhat in the vein of O. Henry. Eventually, a family inheritance saved Fort (and his stolid, loyal wife) from near starvation and allowed him to embark on his life's true work.
Fort's two earliest excursions into paranormal reporting sound far more mystical and outré than his later writing. In X-- that was the intended title -- he speculated about a mysterious evolutionary force and postulated a race of beings on Mars. Dreiser, who read the manuscript, judged the book a masterpiece of daring thought and gorgeous prose, and he was appalled when Fort destroyed it. A subsequent volume, called Y, took up the possible existence of a hidden world at the North Pole. As evidence, Fort cited "blond Eskimos, warm climates near the North Pole, and Perry's peculiar explorations." Fort even speculated that Kaspar Hauser, the strange boy who appeared in Nuremberg in 1828, may have come from that other world. "Hauser exhibited odd traits like supernatural senses, but could barely communicate and did not recall any family. . . . He was killed under puzzling circumstances -- stabbed as he walked in the middle of a snowy park; no other footprints in the snow, no murder weapon."
Eventually, Fort wired Dreiser that he had written Z, which later appeared as The Book of the Damned. Here Fort posited "intermediate existence," or what he sometimes referred to as "existence of the hyphen," explaining that our lives reveal "an attempt by the relative to be the absolute." Like Schrödinger's dead-and-alive cat, things could be positive-negative, real-unreal, soluble-insoluble. I don't quite get this, but as the years went by, Fort came to believe increasingly in a kind of monism, a mystical connectedness of all things.
During his lifetime Fort's admirers ranged from the journalist Ben Hecht to the inventor R. Buckminster Fuller. His successors included Robert Ripley, who commercialized a whole range of oddities in his "Believe it or Not!" newspaper columns and, from my own childhood, Frank Edwards, whose book Stranger Than Science frightened more than one 12-year-old into sleepless nights. On a larger scale, Fort's legacy was initially preserved through the Fortean Society and its magazine, Fate, edited by the forgotten novelist Tiffany Thayer. Today, the standard-bearer is the British magazine Fortean Times. A recent issue dealt, in part, with statues that bleed.
Jim Steinmeyer is best known as a historian of magic ( Hiding the Elephant) and as a creator of illusions for Doug Henning and David Copperfield, among others. His biography, drawing heavily at times from Damon Knight's pioneering life of Fort, balances neatly between skepticism and sympathy. Steinmeyer views Fort as a representative 1920s figure, but to me he seems in a slightly earlier mode: The antiquary with a hobby horse. Fort and his 40,000 slips of paper recall Marx researching economics in the British Library, H.W. Fowler compiling his picky Modern English Usage, the editors of the Variorum Shakespeare and the Oxford English Dictionary noting arcane interpretations and elaborate etymologies, J.G. Frazer tracing hanged gods and ancient ritual in The Golden Bough.
In all his works Fort aimed to undermine the sanctimony and swagger of modern science -- but also to offer some diverting intellectual entertainment. Are his books, then, mere crackpot pseudo-science? To give a Fortean answer: Yes and no. Are they fun to read? Yes, just plain yes. ·
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org