By Terry Fleming • May 01, 2019
In praise of National Paranormal Day (May 3), a day set aside to believe all those stories of supernatural stirrings and otherworldly oscillations you hear about throughout the year, allow me to introduce to you the Emperor of Eerie, Charles Fort!
Charles Fort (1874—1932) was an American journalist and novelist whose love for and analysis of strange phenomena made him a legend. Anthropologist Roger W. Wescott claimed that Fort created an entire field of research, Anomalistics (the scientific analysis of anomalous phenomena). His obsessions led to the coining of the word "Fortean," the definition of which is "relating to or denoting paranormal phenomena."
An anecdote from Fort's childhood, as discussed in Jim Steinemeyer's biography Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, shows in stark terms the man he'd eventually become. A neighbor boy tells him that Santa Claus doesn't exist. On the one hand, the rational part of Fort's mind reasons that it must be true, while the part given over to wonder and flights of fancy insists that it cannot be true, for no other reason than the joy he received from his belief in St. Nick. Writing about the incident later in life, he said:
We had never thought to doubt Santa Claus before, but had a feeling that, doubt as we might, the boy was right. Then torments like religious unrest. Kind, jolly old Santa Claus coming down chimneys was too beautiful to give up. But no one could possibly come down our chimney. Then the reindeers, Prancer, Dancer, and the rest, skimming from roof to roof. We could not give it up; it was too beautiful. But we had to; reindeers cannot skim from roof to roof. Oh, don't take from us any more of our beliefs! Perhaps heaven and the angels, too, were only myths.
This struggle between his relentlessly analytical side and his need for wonderment would create his unique style, not to mention his obsession with phenomena. In this way, he was most assuredly a man of the Victorian era (1837—1901). Yes, Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) had astounding impact and helped to create entirely new modes of scientific and intellectual inquiry, and let's not forget, Sigmund Freud's On Dreams was published in 1901, but parallel to the Victorian rise of New Science was a fascination with the supernatural and occult—mesmerism, spiritualism, parlor magic, circus freak shows, belief in the existence of ghosts—anything that hinted at hidden realms or super-abilities captured the imagination of common Victorian folk. Fort was uniquely positioned to bridge these two competing worlds.
But where to find the time to study phenomena? Fort was a mediocre journalist and a failed novelist. Only one out of the ten novels he wrote was published, The Outcast Manufacturers, and despite good reviews, it didn't sell. No, it wasn't until he received two family inheritances that he was able to quit both his day job (journalism) and nightly pursuits (novel writing) to focus on his primary joy in life: going to the library and pouring over newspaper accounts of bizarre events and making notes about them. If that doesn't sound particularly captivating, then you don't understand how great those notes were, not to mention how bizarre the events.
For instance, there were accounts of, well, interesting rains. Blood, butter, beef, fish, frogs, eels, snakes, worms, elephant-sized blocks of ice, black rains, black snow, pink snow, blue hailstones, hailstones flavored like oranges, and all the other things the newspapers and journals of the day claimed were falling from the sky on a quasi-regular basis (if you think "fake news" started with the internet, think again!). Rather than rush to debunk any of these stories, Fort almost always regarded the "facts" relayed as gospel, but often took issue with the conclusions drawn by the journalists, such as with this passage, commenting on an article detailing a "red rain":
Yes, that's correct—rather than simply deny that rains of blood exist, he amplifies the preposterousness of the story by suggesting that ships in outer space either collided or waged war, and it was the blood of the myriad wounded that rained down to earth (when commenting on a different account of "red rain," he postulated that a space dragon had been maimed by a meteorite).
Intrinsic to all of this was his belief (perhaps sarcastically asserted, there are conflicting accounts as to his motives) that modern science had failed the human race for not being open-minded enough to (for instance) believe that there might be a secret ocean—a "Super-Sargasso Sea"—hovering somewhere above us, from whence "derelicts, rubbish, old cargoes from inter-planetary wrecks, things cast out into what is called space by convulsions of other planets" could unceremoniously drop on us. Yes, if one were to build a moral paradigm from Fort's work, Scientists would definitely occupy his version of hell for the twin-sins of intellectual arrogance and closed-mindedness.
Fort published four books of notes on phenomena—The Book of the Damned, Lo!, New Lands, and Wild Talents (all four are collected in The Complete Books of Charles Fort), but The Book of the Damned was his first, and the one that defined his pro-wonder, anti-science mission in the clearest terms. From the opening passage of the book below, you'll see that, while Scientists might be the devils in Fort's world, all knowledge not embraced or accepted by science are damned to a sort of intellectual purgatory:
You won't find poetry like that in the Weekly World News!
And speaking of that once-prolific tabloid of strange events (who could forget Bat Boy, after all?), Charles Fort's books of phenomenaic (not a word) musings were so successful, they spawned a club—the Fortean Society—which itself spawned many publications that cited and analyzed accounts of paranormal activity, the most recent being The Fortean Times, which still exists. Channel 4, a British television network, aired Fortean TV in the late 1990s, a documentary series that covered supernatural topics. Writers as varied as Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Dreiser, Robert Anton Wilson, Tiffany Thayer, Philip K. Dick, Booth Tarkington, Dorothy Parker, Ben Hecht, and Stephen King have called themselves fans of his work.
So let's take this day to pay tribute to the inventor of Super-Checkers and the venerable father of our modern obsession with all things weird and unexplainable, Charles Fort!
Abour the Author: Terry Fleming is the Communications Manager at ThriftBooks, and is an Absurdist as both a hobby and (often unintentional) lifestyle. He is drawn to any subject matter that is both weird and hilarious, like Charles Fort, or the subjects of his first blog post Songsmiths and Scribes. Apropos of nothing, he will now recommend that you purchase this book. It is worth every sparkling penny of its (admittedly hefty) price.