by Skylaire Alfvegren
Siena, Italy’s best preserved medieval city, was deluged by blood red rains on the morning of December 28, 1860. A second scarlet rain fell before noon. It returned three days later, and locals prayed the rosary heavenward.
This strange report, standing alone, may not raise an eyebrow. Now consider it alongside thousands of other verified reports of inexplicable things falling out of the world’s skies: “substances” pulpy, perfumed, purple or phosphorescent; transparent or unctuous; from “greenish-yellow” to “salmon-colored.” Drizzles of fungus, nitric acid, insects, coins, fish (or their scales), sulphur. Rains of bullets, snakes, frogs, flesh and blood. Bizarro rains, considered together, become the phenomenon known as “skyfalls,” and considered together, have more credence.
For over a quarter of a century, Charles Fort, bibliomancer extraordinaire, combed the world’s newspapers and scientific journals for wonders which orthodox science either ignored or explained away. In the libraries of New York and London, he gathered tens of thousands of reports of ghosts and psychic phenomena, geophysical and atmospheric anomalies, astronomical and archaeological mysteries, which he pounded into four spectacularly original tomes: The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931) and Wild Talents (1932).
With short stories and one novel under his belt, Fort incinerated the antecedents of The Book of the Damned (literally setting fire to his first two manuscripts) before hitting upon a completely distinctive formula. Compelled by “strange orthogenetic gods,” his style was as explosive as the impossibilities he cataloged: highly satirical, volcanically stream of consciousness, and full of wild hypotheses which would later bleed into science fiction (Robert Heinlein, Fritz Leiber and Philip K. Dick are but a few authors who admitted Fort’s influence), and science, as well.
“He identified many previously unrecognized types in phenomenal reality, such as the UFO, the fireball and the teleportation effect,” wrote John Michell and Bob Rickard in their Phenomena: A Book of Wonders.
Fort believed in nothing absolutely, presenting his data as “a procession of the damned… [meaning] the excluded.” He delighted in poking fun at dogmatic science, the practioners of which had “said to all these things that they are damned” in the first place. He explained, "I conceive of nothing, in religion, science or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while." His damned data, he wrote, would “be “proved” as well as Moses or Darwin ever “proved” anything.” On Darwinism, for instance, he noted, “The fittest survive. What is meant by the fittest? Not the strongest; not the cleverest—weakness and stupidity everywhere survive. There is no way of determining fitness except in that a thing does not survive. Darwinism: That survivors survive.”
Novelist Theodore Dreiser, who had bought Fort’s short stories when he was a magazine editor, strong-armed his own publisher into releasing The Book of the Damned. It was unlike anything ever put into print, and hit those that “got it” like an intellectual lightning bolt. Ben Hecht, then writing for the Chicago Daily News, proclaimed, “I am the first disciple of Charles Fort… Henceforth, I am a Fortean. He has made a terrible onslaught upon the accumulated lunacy of fifty centuries. The onslaught will perish. The lunacy will survive, entrenching itself behind the derisive laughter of all good citizens.”
Pulitzer-winning author Booth Tarkington was so struck by Fort’s writing that he penned the introduction to his second book, New Lands, crowing, “Here indeed was a ‘brush dipped in earthquake and eclipse’.”
Neither crank nor skeptic, Fort was not an enemy of science, nor a marvel-monger, as some labelled him. “He was wrongly dubbed the arch-enemy of science, when he makes it perfectly clear that his targets were the demagogues and the public [who insisted] on the sanctity of dogma and authority,” Rickard notes.
Tiffany Thayer began corresponding with Fort after the release of New Lands, and became a notorious novelist before tricking Fort into attending the first meeting of the Fortean Society in 1931, ostensibly formed to celebrate the publication of Fort’s third book, Lo! (working title: God is an Idiot.) Focusing largely on the lunacy of astronomers, it remains Fort’s most popular book.
Thayer formed the Society to “widen the scope of Fortean inquiry,” continue the work of gathering data, “perpetuate dissent” and foster the Fortean viewpoint—that of “enlightened skepticism.” The Society attracted the era’s intelligentsia: Dreiser, Ben Hecht, Tarkington, Burton Rascoe, John Cowper Powys, H. L. Mencken, Oliver Wendell Holmes. Thayer asked the ever-humble Fort what he called himself. Neo-astronomer? Philosopher? Fort replied, “I’m just a writer.” Wild Talents, focused largely on human marvels, was Fort’s last book. He died suddenly after its release, probably of undiagnosed leukemia.
After a go at Hollywood screenwriting, Thayer returned to the East Coast and began publishing The Fortean Society Magazine in 1937. Although Thayer was a cranky editorialist, subsribers were enthusiastic and began the grand tradition of mailing in newspaper clippings of strange phenomena.
Rechistened Doubt in 1940, the magazine and its inspiration enjoyed a renaissance the following year with the publication of Fort’s complete books. More famous names were brought into the Fortean fold: Arthur Miller, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, mondo zoologist Ivan Sanderson, inventor Buckminster Fuller. Henry Miller hawked his watercolors in the magazine’s pages for “any amount of money.”
Doubt died with Thayer, in 1959, but the tentacles of Forteana continued to slither. Two brothers, Ron and Paul Willis (who had published the sci-fi fanzine Anubis, and had corresponded with members of the original Society), created the International Fortean Organization (INFO) in 1965 to “reflect the fact that Fort’s influence was becoming more global,” according to Phyllis Benjamin, the flame-haired force of nature who currently presides over INFO.
The Willises began publishing the INFO Journal in 1962. From England, Bob Rickard began sending them so many clippings they suggested he begin his own magazine. “Fort, through his writings, pioneered the collection and discussion of anomalous data from contemporary sources. This is something I wished to continue with Fortean Times,” Rickard says, which he established in 1973. “Fort articulated what I was thinking, or beginning to think, about our phenomenal existence. I was steeped in oriental mysticism at the time and I immediately saw the parallels in Fort's ideas. In my view, Fort reinvented Platonism for the modern world.”
Fort also published his last book around the time Heisenberg was circulating his 'uncertainty principle,’ which is used to justify uncertainity in quantum mechanics. “Fort discussed, before Einstein, the incredible interconnectedness of two unlike things,” Benjamin says. “Fort saw all forms of phenomena and experience as part of a continuum, every part of which was connected to every other part simply by existing in the same universe,” Rickard notes.
“This is a philosophical view that is at odds with the authoritarian nature of modern institutional science. Eg: many scientific things are defined by experiments, which are designed to focus on a specific set of phenomena and exclude the influence of rest of the universe. Fort's view of good science was that it should be inclusive. It follows Occam's Razor naturally, in that the simpler, more elegant, solutions are those which account for the greatest range of data including their anomalies.”
The best scientists are skeptical in the old fashioned sense,” says Doug Skinner, a New York-based musician, magician and Fortean historian. “Classical skepticism… [is about] suspending judgement. As Bacon pointed out, the scientific method is based on observation and analysis, two things that humans are not so good at. But science is weird! It goes against common sense!”
Physicists who deal with quantum mechanics and string theory most represent Fortean thought in the world of science, and a great number of them can be found on the membership roles of INFO. “Their line of work is holographic, not linear, which is perhaps why they ‘grokk’ Fort.” says Benjamin. “They’re dealing with the suspension of natural laws… They’re forced into a world where all the rules are different.”
The cult of Fort is a cult without dogma. Those who call themselves Forteans entertain the notion that anything is possible, until proven otherwise. They are neither gullible nor pompous. Due to their bemused, balanced approach to the world and its mysteries, Forteans are pariahs to both "true believers" and CSICOP-style skeptics alike. You could be a Fortean, and not even know it.
“This is a country where nuance is a dirty word. People don’t like someone who is open minded. They’re looked at as someone who just ‘hasn’t made their mind up yet,’” notes Skinner. When trying to explain Fort to the man on the street, “It usually comes down to ‘do you believe in weird stuff or don’t you?’” he says. “How often are we asked questions like 'Do you believe in UFOs?', 'Where was Atlantis' and 'What are ghosts?' There are no simple answers and in many areas we don't even know the right questions to ask,” says Rickard.
There are things which exist between our mundane reality and the great unknowns, thereby connecting them. Fort explained, "We are not realists. We are not idealists. We are intermediatists--that nothing is real, but that nothing is unreal: that all phenomena are approximations one way or the other between realness and unrealness. So then: our whole quasi-existence is an intermediate stage between positiveness and negativeness or realness and unrealness. Like purgatory, I think."
In Daimonic Reality, a brilliant Fortean assessment of ‘the unexplained,’ author Patrick Harpur posits that contemporary UFO sightings are but a modern variation of the fairyfolk of bygone eras, that it’s all connected by more than a thread. “Investigators of apparitions are often frustrated by the way that no apparition exists in isolation. One leads to another. We cannot investigate [phantom black] dogs without [mysterious big] cats; cats without fairies; fairies without Bigfoot and lake monsters; any of these without UFOs and aliens.”
“Forteans are often accused of sitting on the fence,” Rickard continues, “but considering the drop on either side to be philosophically untenable, the fence-top can seem a mile-wide ideological rampart. ‘I will find out for myself,’ said Fort, implying that it is our own responsibility, for those of us who also want to know things, to decide on our own criteria of validity.”
“If you’re not locked into a belief system, you can’t condemn anything. Fort was essentially about freedom of the spirit,” says Benjamin. She considers Fort to be America’s leading philosopher. “Fort didn’t believe in censorship, he believed in keeping an open mind. As a Fortean you keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”
Fort’s universe-view may be more relevant now than ever before. “Up to WWII, people had been led to believe great things from science, including the end to ignorance, poverty, famine, disease and war. Since then, confidence in scientists (rather than science) has declined,” Rickard notes. “At this point, almost every form of authority--including government, the Church, the law, doctors—has been called into question. In a way, modern western society is rudderless compared to earlier eras.”
Fort wrote of the cosmic joker, and his writing illuminates the transient and cyclical nature of reality. Many younger people discovered Fort via Fortean Times, like Mark Pilkington, film maker and editor of the U.K.’s Strange Attractor (an anthology of cultural marginalia). He finds Fort’s approach to be “an extremely useful lens through which to view the world around us.” Whether examining science, religion, politics: question everything, accept nothing at face value.
“Human beings simultaneously look to the past and the future for inspiration, but even these are endlessly changing as our attitudes towards both evolve—for example, most futurological predictions prove to be way off the mark, while we are constantly discovering that our ancestors were far smarter than we have previously given them credit for,” Pilkington says. “Today’s orthodoxy might well be tomorrow’s heresy, or vice versa—what looks like madness one year may be mainstream science the next.”
A gentleman who works for a large military contractor “in a position of reasonable responsibility” discovered Fort after sifting through the works of cryptozoologist Bernard Huevelmans. He had encountered a “cryptid” at age 13 and was looking for answers. (“Cryptid” is the technical term for a creature either unrecognized by conventional zoology, or a beast who defies logical explanation altogether).
If you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, nothing stranger can happen to you all day. If you’ve read Fort, it’s the same thing,” he says. Fort’s work, “other than being terribly amusing, gives you an operating philosophy of what to do when you encounter something you can’t explain.”
Fort’s influence on popular culture is without debate—from the memorable froggy “skyfall” in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia to the X Files. Novelist Stephen King and English comics genius Alan Moore are among Fort’s contemporary accolytes.
A couple dozen contemporary authors cover Fort’s beat; some approach strange phenomena encyclopedically, while the unweildy field’s greatest thinkers acknowledge their debt to Fort: John Michell, English tripster and expert on megalithic sites; rogue Egyptologist John Anthony West; John Keel, author, adventurer, UFO reconfigurer, and former Fate columnist--whose 1966 shocker, The Mothman Prophecies, was brought to the silver screen in 2002
I follow the Fortean philosophy as viewed by [zoologist] Ivan T. Sanderson, to study the tangible intangibles, those things that leave concrete evidence,” comments America’s preeminent cryptozoologist Loren Coleman (whose seminal Mysterious America was recently reprinted by Paraview Pocket Books.) “Belief is an artifact of religion. I accept the reality that some eyewitnesses are seeing, finding tracks, and coming across evidence of “unknown” or “unexpected” animals that have not been scientifically discovered and classified. Animals, in my way of thinking, are ‘flesh and blood.’ Cryptozoology is about science.” (Then again, some Forteans entertain the notion that Bigfoot might be an interdimensional traveller, somehow entwined with UFOs.)
Fort, to me, was the Monty Python of the strange and bizarre,” notes Brad Steiger, Forteana’s most prolific author. Having discovered Fort through the digest Fate (which has been published continuously since 1948), Steiger was captivated by Fort’s material as well as his satirical, non-dogmatic approach to it.
Many of Steiger’s 162 titles are “essentially collections of strange and bizarre material, offering no strong theories to explain the reasons for the mysteries which have occurred, but arguing nonetheless that these weird things had indeed happened to real people of sound mind and intellect.” (Steiger’s most recent book, the encyclopedic Conspiracies and Secret Societies: The Complete Dossier, has gone into multiple printings.)
With members scattered across the globe, INFO continues disseminating Fort's work and philosophy. Many INFO members will be embarking on another of the group’s “floating conferences” this December, on a cruise ship bound for the Caribbean. “At Fortfest, you see super left-wingers, right wingers, born again Christians, pagans, retired military officials, all getting along with enough respect for each other to listen without censorship but with a modicum of sense,” says Benjamin. (More information can be had at www.forteans.com).
Fortean Times enjoys continued popularity, reinforcing the idea that weird shit happens, and happens continuously; somewhere in the world, at any given moment, someone might be chased by a creature that doesn’t exist, or witness something inpossible blazing through the sky. The magazine holds an annual UnConvention in London, where the Charles Fort Institute is being created as an “archival entity to preserve Fortean material.” It will feature an online library, encyclopedia and database, as well as a virtual and physical museum.
Fort’s complete works — scientific and philosophical allusions aside — remain a colossal collection of anomalies, and are available from Dover Publications.
“It’s very difficult to upset a Fortean,” notes one anonymous INFO member. “We’re used to seeing the strangest stuff going, or at the very least, we’re equipped to believe in the possibility of it.”
In his introduction to Damon Knight’s biography, Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained, polymathic thinker Buckminster Fuller wrote, “I think that the total data recorded by Charles Fort may prove of great scientific worth. Above all this, there is something extremely inspiring about Fort’s interest in his universe. His interest is very romantic. It isn’t written in romantic terms at all, but the man is full of dreams—dreams of signifigance… Fort, like humanity, was looking for signifigance in experience… [he was] a man who, with humor and tenderness, tried to show the irreversible evoluting scenario of the universe.”