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My Favorite Forteans

Reading About Weird Stuff

The Agony Column for July 25, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


I've always liked to read about weird stuff. I'm not talking science fiction or horror, though the weird stuff category in some cases includes both. I'm talking about rains of fishes and ball lightning, sea serpents and goatsuckers, psychics and skeptics. If you're an SF or horror reader, you've probably found yourself looking at books of this ilk from time to time and wondering whether they're worth your time. Some are most certainly worth any reader's time. And some of those are practically required reading for those who would write SF or horror.


Charles Hoy Fort circa 1920, just as he was taking up the research that would change the world.

There's an easy pigeonhole for all these subjects -- Fortean. This adjective refers Charles Fort, author of 'The Book of the Damned', arguably the first collector weird news.

Charles Hoy Fort was born on August 6, 1874 in Albany, New York, and left home at the age of 18 to become a reporter. By 1921, he'd married and moved to London, where he took up residence in the British Museum. There he began a lifetime of research and note-writing. He led a reclusive life, dedicating himself to collecting news stories of events unacknowledged and unexplained by science -- "damned". He wanted to write novels which might have been classified as science fiction but his first novel was very poorly received. In 1919 he published the first collection of news stories and notes, 'The Book of the Damned'. Three others -- 'New Lands' (1923), 'Lo!'(1931), and 'Wild Talents'(1932) followed. But all it took was the first collection to permanently change the world of fiction and non-fiction literature. Those who, like myself, find the investigators as fascinating as what they investigate are urged to search out the biography of Charles Fort from the late SF writer Damon Knight.

The late SF writer Damon Knight wrote an excellent biogrpahy of Charles Fort, in case anyone has doubts that this non-fiction writer had an influence on science fiction.


Yes, Fort is pretty much responsible for the boatloads of drivel that are vomited forth on a regular basis by publishing houses both reputable and repugnant. In this case Sturgeon's Law applies to a greater degree than usual. Most of the tripe that has blossomed with the immense popularity of 'The X Files' is in fact, tripe. But it's easy to throw out the baby with the bath water, while paying all too much attention to the babysitter. The bottom line is that there's a wealth of great writing and reading out there if you know where to look. Having been hooked since I was younger than I will admit to being, I've ferreted out a fair bit of decent literature amidst the oceans of trash.


One of those books that gets in your brain and never lets go, Charles Fort's 'The Book fo the Damned' is notable not just for its occasionally lurid subjects, but also for his fascinating and quotable philosophic interjections. This wonderful Ace paperback has survived far longer than it has any right to have survived in my garage.

Going back to the beginning, back to the source, you can ask for no better and should accept no substitute for the original work, 'The Book of the Damned'. Don't get caught up in the latest bout of psychic adoration. Fort's work is seminal because it was well-written, not just because it was first. Fort has a lively wit and a scathing sense of satire. He despised the science of his day (and would not be happy with the current state either). His works are full of so many quotable bits that it's hard to know where to start. Given that problem, the best place is undoubtedly "One measures a circle starting anywhere". There are numerous editions of his work, and while nobody today will have the thrill of finding the Ace Paperback version on the bookstands that I had back when I was starting to read these types of works you can have the pleasure of finding any one of a number of omnibus collections featuring all his non-fiction.


The Fortean Times is a must-subscribe for all humans who enjoy entertaining and weird magazines.

Part and parcel with the works of Charles Fort goes The Fortean Times, dubbed by Wired magazine as 'The most entertaining magazine on the planet', or some blurb-worthy hyperbole. I must say it comes close. For a sense of the magazine, which has done an excellent job at preserving Fort's wit and sense of balance, take a peek at the website. I can guarantee that it will be one of the most viewed magazines on your coffee table should you choose to subscribe.


I bought both this book and 'The Book of the Damned' from a rotating display rack at Zody's in the late 1960's with paper route money.

For my part, I followed up on Charles Fort with another Ace paperback from Willy Ley, 'On Earth and In the Sky'. Ley's work probably isn't worth looking up in this day and age, but that Ace paperback managed to make it through more years than most marriages. So it must have some survival power. Made of from columns for Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine, 'On Earth and In The Sky' covers some pretty fascinating topics, which are as much of itnerest for their now-dated data as they are for what's not been disproved. You can date yourself by admitting that you've actually seen a copy of Galaxy Science Fiction in a newsrack.

This manly trade paperback edition is probably harder to find than the mass market movie-tie-in edition, but well worth the effort, not the least for the totally not-in-the-book cover illustration by Frank Frazetta.

Next up on the 'making a big impression' list is a book I found in the Mark V. Ziesing catalogue many years ago. Ziesing's catalogues are practically Fortean phenomena in themselves, and it was there I found the IllumiNet Press copy of 'The Mothman Prophecies'. I've covered both the book and the movie extensively in another column. If you haven't read the book (or rented the movie), do so. The movie doesn't really capture all that much of the book though what it does capture is quite well done. The outstanding feature of 'The Mothman Prophecies' and its follow-ups, like 'Disneyland of the Gods' is not the spooky incidents but Keel's off-kilter sense of humor. I mean, how can you not like a book titled 'Disneyland of the Gods'? Like Fort, Keel takes his work seriously but not so seriously as to be easily subject to lampooning. It also makes it great reading.


This book is one of those that's worth the cover price for the cover and title alone. Thankfully, what's inside measures up the setup.

'The Mothman Prophecies' is by far John Keel's best work. For the most part it tells a single, unified story, though Keel peppers the narrative with all sorts of marginalia to flesh out his odd theses. His other books are rather hard to find. 'Disneyland of the Gods' doesn't ever actually get better than its wonderful title, but then, that's a high standard. It's not a unified narrative, but a series of Fortean essays on wide range of topics. Not all the essays meet the high standard set in 'The Mothman Prophecies', but those that do are outstanding. Even those that don't are fascinating. 'The Complete Guide to Mysterious Beings' is another collection of disparate pieces. If the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts, then at least the sum of the parts is greater than the cover price. It's also another valuable compendium of monsters for writers who need some backup or inspiration for their latest creature feature.

David Blackbourn's 'Marpingen' is an excellently detailed look at the societal implications of change and prejudice that often result in sightings of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A major sighting occured in the 1990's in Medjugorge, in the former Czechoslovakia.

Now let's take this so-far rather basic reading list into the idiosyncratic. One of the most fascinating Fortean mysteries for me are the many appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She's a busy lady, and I find these reports fascinating because they invert the usual spookiness, but preserve the strangeness. They're also a great way to gain some insight into the societal forces that shape Weird Stuff reportage and the world in general. For my money, the best book about this phenomenon is 'Marpingen', by David Blackbourne. In this very extensively researched and documented work, you'll get a window on a society as fragmented as the present and what heaves up between the cracks of the societal flotsam and jetsam. It's a fascinating work of the history and strangeness that shape our world.

'Daimonic Reality' by Partick Harpur -- don't leave this world without it! An excellent philosophical look at supernatural and science fictional phenomena and the implications of these for the humans who witness them.

I've recently begun going back and adding some reviews of Fortean works on note, and one that belongs on anyone's list is the remarkable 'Daimonic Reality' by Patrick Harpur. Harpur attempts nothing less than a sort of 'unified field theory' of Forteana, from Apparitions to Visions to Otherworld Journeys. Calling itself 'A field guide to the Otherworld', 'Daimonic Reality' should be required reading for all writers of supernatural fiction. It offers a rigorous, thoughtful, philosophy of the supernatural that is still freewheeling and entertaining. Incorporating Jung, Yeats, Blake and other visionaries into his reportage of Blessed Virgin Mary manifestations and UFO's, Harpur seems to cut effortlessly through the external appearances of these disparate phenomena to find the central core of truth within. And it's fun to read.


One of the many fine illustration that make Kurt Selimann's 'Magic, Supernaturalism and Religion' AKA 'The History of Magic' such a delight. make sure you find the used, heavily illustrated edition.

As long as we're covering sourcebooks for the horror writer, it behooves me mention Kurt Seligmann's 'Magic, Supernaturalism and Religion' AKA 'The History of Magic'. Make sure you look around for a used edition that has the full set of illustrations. I've included a couple of examples in the review, and I think most readers would agree that they add quite a bit to the narrative. Seligmann is a bit more scholarly than Harpur, but he covers his bases thoroughly. If you've ever wondered why demons are named 'Asmodeus' or whatever weird names pop up in the narrative of horror novels, or why an SF writer has called a planet Behemoth (and want to go beyond the obvious), then this is the book for you. Of course, conversely, if you wish to add amore than a dash of authenticity to your next SF or horror work, then this is an excellent place to start. And it has lots of illustrations!

They truly don't make them like Tom Slick anymore. A Texas millionaire and beef businessman, Slick was determined to find the Yeti and led several expeditions to do so.

One of the most prominent and important practicing Fortean writers living today is Loren Coleman. He's recently released the book 'Mothman and Other Curious Encounters', which I have not yet got round to reading. However, I do have 'Tom Slick and the Search for the Yeti', which has recently been re-released. There was word a while back that it was set to be filmed in an adaptation starring Nicholas Cage. When you read it, you can easily see why. 'Tom Slick and the Search for the Yeti' is an all-out adventure about searching for monsters. Slick was truly a larger-than-life figure. Loren Coleman writes his story with a combination of scholarly ease and a thirst for the search. It's an effective mix. If it weren't so well researched, if it wasn't verifiably true, then it would be shelved with science fiction or horror fiction. It certainly reads like something from either genre.

The cover of Coleman's recent uypdate of his famous Tom Slick book. The update includes 50 pages new material.

And this just in from author Loren Coleman:

"You might be interested to know that while most of the new Slick book is the same as the 1989 version, there are some significant changes. These include a long, new ending appendix on Slick's CIA involvement, an update of cryptozoological discoveries, new photographs, 239 pages versus 189 pages, and other new details (for example, on what Slick was really looking for in New Guinea)."

Now, on one hand, the upshot of this is yet another book for me to buy. But for you, reader of this column, several more reasons to buy this one.

Timothy J. Knab has a great econmic reason behind 'A War of Witches' which he unearths in Mexico. Nobody is who they seem to be in this gripping, terrifying work of non-fiction.

For something that definitely reads like the genre, in this case horror, you need look no further than 'A War of Witches' by Timothy J. Knab. Knab is an anthropologist who unearthed a history of violence,killing and magic in a small Mexican village. This book is alternately terrifying and page-turning, a real mystery that keeps you guessing until the end. It may also keep you awake at night. It's wonderfully written, convincing when it needs to convince and visonary when it requires a vision.


John P. O'Grady's collection covers angry bees and other oddities.

Tahir Shah joined an Indian sorcerer in this humorous book.

What I've covered above is only a small taste of the Fortean canon. There's a lot more out there that's worth reading and about ten times as much that you should avoid at all costs. In coming months, I'll be reviewing at least two more entries in the Fortean canon, 'Gave Matters' by John P O'Grady and 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' by Tahir Shah. Indications are that they're worth reading, and just what we all need -- more good books to slip into the queue.




Rick Kleffel