“I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written”
by Mary Vareli
When large quantities of exhaustively documented “puzzling evidence” and facts that science avoids are accumulated by observing minds, then numerous accounts of thoughts and observations are compiled by restless minds. One of these is Charles Fort.
Charles Hoy Fort (August 6, 1874 – May 3, 1932) was an American writer and researcher who specialized in anomalous phenomena, sometimes called Fortean and Forteana, in other words strange phenomena, unusual events or the unexplained or downright ludicrous. The people who are still inspired by his work are called Forteans and as some of them love writing we can talk about Fortean influence in the science fiction genre. Some of his theories have developed into their own schools of thought: for example, reports of UFOs in ufology and unconfirmed animals (cryptids) in cryptozoology. These new disciplines are not recognized by mainstream scientists or academics.
Fort’s studies were the outcome of reading scientific journals, newspapers and magazines and collecting notes on things unexplained by modern science. He emphasized on unrelated bits of information trying to find a relation keeping notes on cards and scraps of paper in shoeboxes, using his own shorthand invention. All to often he destroyed his work and started anew. Some notes were published by the Fortean Society magazine Doubt and, upon the death of its editor Tiffany Thayer during 1959 most were donated to the New York Public Library, where they are still available.
Examples of Forteana are occult, supernatural, and paranormal phenomena, teleportation, falls of animals and inorganic materials, spontaneous human combustion, ball lightning, poltergeist events; unaccountable noises and explosions, levitation, unidentified flying objects, unexplained disappearances, giant wheels of light in the oceans, the interconnectedness of nature and synchronicity. And many more, of course.
“I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written.”
Among the first who considered themselves “Fortean” was the screenwriter Ben Hecht, who in a review of The Book of the Damned declared: “I am the first disciple of Charles Fort… henceforth, I am a Fortean.” Among Fort’s other notable fans were John Cowper Powys, Sherwood Anderson, Clarence Darrow, and Booth Tarkington, who wrote the foreword to New Lands. Of course, nowadays, Forteans are not just the people who follow Fort’s theories but, as a word, it is a euphemism related to people who like the paranormal phenomena and have a developed “agnostic skepticism” and a pronounced distrust of authority in all its forms, whether religious, scientific, political, philosophical or otherwise.
Life and death
Fort was born in Albany, New York, of Dutch ancestry; abused and discouraged by his authoritarian grocer father, as his biographer Damon Knight writes, he developed disrespect for authority and a secure sensation of independence. Reading for school was one of the things he disliked, as a consequence, as a scholar and as a young adult he wanted to be a naturalist exploring the world’s mysteries through his collections of shells, stuffed birds and minerals. Curious and smart as he was, he chose to travel instead of adopting a formal education; “put some capital in the bank of experience”.
At the age of 18 he left New York to through the western United States, Scotland, and England, but unfortunately when he reached Southern Africa he fell ill, so he came back home and on October 26, 1896 he married his nurse and prior childhood friend Anna Filing. Fort started writing short stories quite successfully; however they lived in poverty and melancholy.
His uncle’s death in 1916 and his brother’s death in 1917 provided Fort with a modest inheritance, just enough money to quit his various day jobs and to write full-time. Fort’s nature was contrarian, this combined with his wit and his experiences with newspapers editors initialized, freely this time, his tendency to ridicule the pretensions of scientific positivism and rationalism.
Fort wrote ten novels but only one, The Outcast Manufacturers (1909), a tenement tale, was published. It received positive reviews but commercially it was utterly unsuccessful. In 1915, Fort started writing two books, titled X and Y, the first dealing with the idea that beings on Mars were controlling events on Earth, and the second with the postulation of a sinister civilization extant at the South Pole. These books caught the attention of writer Theodore Dreiser, who attempted to get them published, but to no avail. Discouraged by this failure, Fort burnt the manuscripts, but was soon renewed to begin work on the book that would change the course of his life, The Book of the Damned (1919), which Dreiser helped to get published.
Fort and Anna lived in London from 1924 to 1926, having relocated there so Fort could peruse the files of the British Museum. Both were fond of movies and Ford enjoyed frequenting the parks near the Bronx through piles of his clippings or riding the subway down to the main New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. He also had some literary friends who would gather on occasion at various apartments to drink and talk.
Fort was pleasantly surprised to find himself the subject of a cult following. There was talk of the formation of a formal organization to study the type of odd events related by his books. Clark writes, “Fort himself, who did nothing to encourage any of this, found the idea hilarious. Yet he faithfully corresponded with his readers, some of whom had taken to investigating reports of anomalous phenomena and sending their findings to Fort” (Clark 1998, 235). Even if he suffered from poor health and failing eyesight, he distrusted doctors and did not seek medical help for his worsening health.
After he collapsed on May 3, 1932, Fort was rushed to Royal Hospital in The Bronx. Later that same day, Fort’s publisher visited him to show him the advance copies of Wild Talents. Fort died only hours afterward, probably of leukemia. He was interred in the Fort family plot in Albany, New York. His more than 60,000 notes were donated to the New York Public Library.
Fort published five books during his lifetime, including one novel.
Many Parts, 1901 (unpublished autobiography)
The Outcast Manufacturers, 1909 (B.W. Dodge), novel
The Book of the Damned, 1919
“A procession of the damned.
By the damned, I mean the excluded.
We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.
So, by the damned, I mean the excluded.
But by the excluded I mean that which will some day be the excluding.
Or everything that is, won’t be.
And everything that isn’t, will be—
But, of course, will be that which won’t be—”
The Book of the Damned was the first published nonfiction work of Charles Fort (first edition 1919). It is about various types of anomalous phenomena including UFOs, strange falls of both organic and inorganic materials from the sky, odd weather patterns, and the possible existence of creatures generally believed to be mythological, disappearances of people, and many other phenomena.
“Our general expression: That the state that is commonly and absurdly called “existence,” is a flow, or a current, or an attempt, from negativeness to positiveness, and is intermediate to both.
By positiveness we mean:
Harmony, equilibrium, order, regularity, stability, consistency, unity, realness, system, government, organization, liberty, independence, soul, self, personality, entity, individuality, truth, beauty, justice, perfection, definiteness—
That all that is called development, progress, or evolution is movement toward, or attempt toward, this state for which, or for aspects of which, there are so many names, all of which are summed up in the one word “positiveness.”
At first this summing up may not be very readily acceptable. At first it may seem that all these words are not synonyms: that “harmony” may mean “order,” but that by “independence,” for instance, we do not mean “truth,” or that by “stability” we do not mean “beauty,” or “system,” or “justice.” “
The title is related to the “damned” data; meaning the data excluded by modern science, categorized as nonconforming, not proved information. Fort perceives scientists as conformists, unable to accept what does not agree with their ideas and similar to religious fundamentalists, implying with his thesis that “the supposed “battle” between science and religion is just a distraction for the fact that, in his opinion, science is, in essence, simply a de facto religion”. One of Fort’s examples was the 1883 eruption of the volcano Krakatoa. There was a strange glowing in the sky worldwide that scientists attributed to the eruption, Fort claims that the phenomenon preceded the eruption and somehow caused it, not the opposite. He is also focusing on what interests him more; strange “falls,” and discusses purported falls of fish, frogs, and various unidentifiable materials.
The book also deals with the findings of “thunderstones”, which supposedly fell from the sky during lightning storms; with evidence for the existence of giants (huge oversized axes too big for any person to use) and fairies. There is also a chapter on poltergeist phenomena and the disappearances of people, UFO sightings and the famous “Devil’s Footprints” mystery in England during 1855.
Fort presents phenomena without any accurate source of explanation, therefore some skeptics and critics, particularly Martin Gardner, have criticized Fort as simply a destructive critic (or “crank”) presenting negative claims without positive accounts.
You can read the whole book here (free download)
New Lands, 1925
“San Salvadors of the Sky — a Plymouth Rock that hangs in the heavens of Servia — a foreign coast from which storms have brought materials to the city of Birmingham, England.
Or the mentally freezing, or dying, will tighten their prohibitions, and the chill of their censorships will contract, to extinction, our lives, which, without sin, represent matter deprived of motion. Their ideal is Death, or approximate death, warmed over occasionally only enough to fringe with uniform, decorous icicles — from which there will be no escape, if, for the living and sinful and adventurous there be not San Salvadors somewhere else, a Plymouth Rock of reversed significance, coasts of sky-continents.”
New Lands was his second nonfiction book, dealing primarily with astronomical anomalies and expanding his theory about the Super-Sargasso Sea – a place where earthly things supposedly materialize in order to rain down on Earth. In New Lands Fort presents the idea that there are continents above the skies of Earth, citing as a proof, a number of anomalous phenomena like strange “mirages” of land masses, groups of people, and animals in the skies.
Fort her also attacks the scientific community mentioning a number of mysterious stars and planets that scientists failed to account for. New Lands was considered the worse of his books by critics, initiating a number of ironic comments attacking his allegations for continents in the sky.
You can read the whole book here (free download)
“A NAKED man in a city street — the track of a horse in volcanic mud — the mystery of the reindeer’s ears — a huge, black form, like a whale, in the sky, and it drips red drops as if attacked by celestial swordfishes — an appalling cherub appears in the sea —
Showers of frogs and blizzards of snails — gushes of periwinkles down from the sky —
The preposterous, the grotesque, the incredible — and why, if I am going to tell of hundreds of these, is the quite ordinary so regarded?
An unclothed man shocks a crowd — a moment later, if nobody is generous with an overcoat, somebody is collecting handkerchiefs to knot around him.
A naked fact startles a meeting of a scientific so- [1/12] ciety — and whatever it has for loins is soon diapered with conventional explanations.
Chaos and muck and filth — the indeterminable and the unrecordable and the unknowable — and all men are liars — and yet —
Wigwams on an island — sparks in their columns of smoke.
Centuries later — the uncertain columns are towers. What once were fluttering sparks are the motionless lights of windows. According to critics of Tammany Hall, there has been monstrous corruption upon this island: nevertheless, in the midst of it, this regularization has occurred. A woodland sprawl has sprung to stony attention.”
Lo! is the third and most popular published nonfiction work of Fort that continues exploring astronomy, continuing from New Lands, and brings forward once more a diverse range of strange phenomena similar to The Book of the Damned. What is explored is animal mutilations and attacks on people, strange swarming of balls, the appearance of various strange people from nowhere (the famous cases of Princess Caraboo and Kaspar Hauser), and the mysterious disappearances of others (including the diplomat Benjamin Bathurst, and vessels such as the Mary Celeste, Carroll A. Deering, and USS Cyclops, presaging later interest in the Bermuda Triangle phenomenon).
Fort wrote an extensive chapter on the winter of 1904-5 in Britain, when a widespread religious revival in England and Wales coincided with numerous other strange occurrences: the appearances of ghosts, poltergeists, a few purported cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion, and a ravenous wolf (or perhaps werewolf) mutilating sheep and other farm animals in Northumberland.
Lo! also presents a new cosmology that the earth is stationary in space and surrounded by a solid shell which is “… not unthinkably far away.” Lo!, as a title, is inspired by Fort’s portrayal of astronomers as quack prophets, pointing towards the skies and saying “Lo!”, who make premature, positivistic and flamboyant announcements that are far from precise. Quite an attack to astronomers who were very much in fashion since the discovery of the Planet Pluto. Fort even challenged Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity, claiming that the whole matter could be explained by a transit of the Sun, pointing out contradictions in scientists’ statements to the press.
The most important aspect of the book is the fact that Fort is credited to have coined the now-popular term teleportation, tied to the Super-Sargasso Sea and later expanded in Wild Talents. His thesis is that there is a kind of a cosmic force know as “cosmic joker” that can teleport people, animals, and materials. Mysterious falls of animals and strange materials, flying stones, poltergeist activity and many more are incorporated in the theory of teleportation, besides the teleportation from the Super-Sargasso Sea can explain these phenomena.
You can read the whole book here (free download)
Wild Talents, 1932
“I AM A collector of notes upon subjects that have diversity — such as deviations from concentricity in the lunar crater Copernicus, and a sudden appearance of purple Englishmen — stationary meteor-radiants, and a reported growth of hair on the bald head of a mummy — and “Did the girl swallow the octopus?”
But my liveliest interest is not so much in things, as in relations of things. I have spent much time thinking about the alleged pseudo-relations that are called coincidences. What if some of them should not be coincidences?…
In the explanation of coincidence there is much of laziness, and helplessness, and response to an instinctive fear that scientific dogma will be endangered. It is a tag, or a label: but of course every tag, or label, fits well enough at times. A while ago, I noted a case of detectives who were searching for a glass-eyed man named Jackson. A Jackson, with a glass eye, was arrested in Boston. But he was not the Jackson they wanted, and pretty soon they got their glass-eyed Jackson, in Philadelphia. I never developed anything out of this item — such as that, if there’s a Murphy with a hare lip, in Chicago, there must be another hare-lipped Murphy somewhere else. It would be a comforting idea to optimists, who think that ours is a balanced existence: all that I report is that I haven’t confirmed it. “
The fourth and final non-fiction book also deals with fitting Fort’s new theory of psychic and mental power into unexplained phenomena and, of course, is another attack to the scientific community. It is consider the best of his books full of his “tongue-in-cheek sense of self-deprecating humor”. It is shorter and less clattered than his previous works and includes a section on his own purported psychic experiences. Poltergeists, spontaneous human combustion, animal mutilations, vampires, and ghosts – along with many supposed cases of psycho-kinesis and ability to control one’s surroundings, witchcraft and murder by mental suggestion are also mentioned. There is also an impressive list of “occult criminology”, meaning people apparently being murdered under peculiar or unexplainable circumstances. Fort claims that humans are able to transform into animals at will, citing a number of cases of werewolves and other similar creatures such as gorillas and hyenas.
What is interesting in Wild Talents is that Fort largely disregards his previous teleportation theory and incorporates it into his new thesis. Rather than a vague “Cosmic joker”, as he postulated in his earlier books, the responsibility for these occurrences are freak powers that occur in the human mind, that cannot be naturally developed, but are a sort of throwback to primeval times. In primeval times, man needed such extraordinary powers in order to survive in the wilderness. All people can potentially develop these powers if they literally put their mind to it. Fort attacks the general sense of taboo, which prevents wild talents from being accepted, and suggests that such people would become acceptable if science would regard them as such.
You can read the whole book here (free download)
The Books of Charles Fort (1941; Holt), intro by Tiffany Thayer, index by Henry Schlanger.
Complete Books of Charles Fort, Dover Publications, New York, 1998, hardcover, ISBN 0-486-23094-5 (with introduction by Damon Knight)
The Book of the Damned: The Collected Works of Charles Fort, Tarcher, New York, 2008, paperback, ISBN 978-1-58542-641-6 (with introduction by Jim Steinmeyer)
Other writers’ opinion on Fort
Notable literary contemporaries of Fort openly admired his writing style and befriended him. Among these were: Ben Hecht, John Cowper Powys, Sherwood Anderson, Clarence Darrow, and Booth Tarkington.
After Fort’s death, the writer Colin Wilson said that Fort made “no attempt to present a coherent argument.” He described Fort as “a patron of cranks”, while at the same time he compared Fort to Robert Ripley, a popular contemporary cartoonist and writer who found major success publishing similar oddities in a syndicated newspaper panel series named Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Wilson called Fort’s writing style “atrocious” and “almost unreadable”, yet despite his objections to Fort’s prose, he allowed that “the facts are certainly astonishing enough.” In the end, Fort’s work gave him “the feeling that no matter how honest scientists think they are, they are still influenced by various unconscious assumptions that prevent them from attaining true objectivity. Expressed in a sentence, Fort’s principle goes something like this: People with a psychological need to believe in marvels are no more prejudiced and gullible than people with a psychological need not to believe in marvels.”
However, Jerome Clark wrote that Fort was “essentially a satirist hugely skeptical of human beings’ – especially scientists’ – claims to ultimate knowledge.” Clark described Fort’s writing style as a “distinctive blend of mocking humor, penetrating insight, and calculated outrageousness.”Fort was skeptical of sciences and wrote his own mocking explanations to defy scientists who used traditional methods.
The Fortean Society and Scholarly evaluation
The Fortean Society was initiated at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel in New York City on 26 January 1931 by some of Fort’s friends, many of whom were significant writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Ben Hecht, Alexander Woollcott, and organized by fellow American writer Tiffany Thayer, half in earnest and half in the spirit of great good humor, like the works of Fort himself. The board of founders included Dreiser, Hecht, Booth Tarkington, Aaron Sussman, John Cowper Powys, the former editor of Puck Harry Leon Wilson, Woollcott and J. David Stern, publisher of The Philadelphia Record. Active members of the Fortean Society included journalist H.L. Mencken and prominent science fiction writers such as Eric Frank Russell and Damon Knight.
Fort, however, rejected the Society and refused the presidency, which went to his friend writer Theodore Dreiser; he was lured to its inaugural meeting by false telegrams. As a strict non-authoritarian, Fort refused to establish himself as an authority, and further objected on the grounds that those who would be attracted by such a grouping would be spiritualists, zealots, and those opposed to a science that rejected them; it would attract those who believed in their chosen phenomena: an attitude exactly contrary to Forteanism. Fort did hold unofficial meetings and had a long history of getting together informally with many of New York City’s literati such as Theodore Dreiser and Ben Hecht at their various apartments where they would talk, have a meal and then listen to brief reports.
The magazine Fortean Times (first published during November 1973), is a proponent of Fortean journalism, combining humour, skepticism, and serious research into subjects which scientists and other respectable authorities often disdain.
Another such group is the International Fortean Organization (INFO). INFO was formed during the early 1960s (incorporated during 1965) by brothers, the writers Ron and Paul Willis, who acquired much of the material of the original Fortean Society which had begun during 1932 in the spirit of Charles Fort but which had largely ceased by 1959 with the death of Tiffany Thayer. INFO publishes the INFO Journal: Science and the Unknown and organizes the FortFest, the world’s first, and continuously running, conference on anomalous phenomena dedicated to the spirit of Charles Fort. INFO, since the mid-1960s, also provides audio CDs and filmed DVDs of notable conference speakers: (Colin Wilson, John Michell, Graham Hancock, John Anthony West, William Corliss, John Keel, Joscelyn Godwin among many others). Other Fortean societies are also active, notably the Edinburgh Fortean Society in Edinburgh and the Isle of Wight.
Fort is acknowledged by religious scholars such as Jeffrey J. Kripal and Joseph P. Laycock as a pioneering theorist of the paranormal who helped define “paranormal” as a discursive category and provided insight into its importance in human experience. Although Fort is consistently critical of the scientific study of abnormal phenomena, he remains relevant today for those who engage in such studies.
More than a few modern authors of fiction and non-fiction who have written about the influence of Fort are sincere devotees of Fort. One of the most notable is British philosopher John Michell says: “Fort, of course, made no attempt at defining a world-view, but the evidence he uncovered gave him an ‘acceptance’ of reality as something far more magical and subtly organized than is considered proper today.”
Stephen King also uses the works of Fort to illuminate his main characters, notably It and Firestarter. In Firestarter, the parents of a pyrokinetically gifted child are advised to read Fort’s Wild Talents rather than the works of baby doctor Benjamin Spock. Loren Coleman is a well-known cryptozoologist, author of The Unidentified (1975) dedicated to Fort, and Mysterious America, which Fortean Times termed a Fortean classic. Indeed, Coleman terms himself the first Vietnam era conscientious objector to base his pacificist ideas on Fortean thoughts. Jerome Clark has described himself as a “sceptical Fortean”. Mike Dash is another capable Fortean, bringing his historian’s training to bear on all manner of odd reports, while being careful to avoid uncritically accepting any orthodoxy, be it that of fringe devotees or mainstream science. Science-fiction writers of note including Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, and Robert Anton Wilson were also fans of the work of Fort. Fort’s work, of compilation and commentary on anomalous phenomena has been carried on by William R. Corliss, whose self-published books and notes bring Fort’s collections up to date.
During 1939 Eric Frank Russell first published the novel which became Sinister Barrier, in which he names Fort explicitly as an influence. Russell included some of Fort’s data in the story. Ivan T. Sanderson, Scottish naturalist and writer, was a devotee of Fort’s work, and referenced it heavily in several of his own books on unexplained phenomena, notably Things (1967), and More Things (1969). Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians was also heavily influenced by Fort’s work and mentions it often. Author Donald Jeffries referenced Charles Fort repeatedly in his 2007 novel The Unreals.
The noted UK paranormalist, Fortean and ordained priest Lionel Fanthorpe presented the Fortean TV series on Channel 4. Paul Thomas Anderson’s popular movie Magnolia (1999) has an underlying theme of unexplained events, taken from the 1920s and ‘30s works of Charles Fort. Fortean author Loren Coleman has written a chapter about this motion picture, entitled “The Teleporting Animals and Magnolia”, in one of his recent books. The film has many hidden Fortean themes, notably “falling frogs”. In one scene, one of Fort’s books is visible on a table in a library and there is an end credit thanking him by name. In the 2011 film The Whisperer in Darkness, Fort is portrayed by Andrew Leman.
The Charles Fort Institute
The Fortean Society
Fortean Museums and Galleries:
International Cryptozoology Museum
Grim Prairie Tales
The Mothman Prophecies
Wisconsin Death Trip
Fortean favourite Art:
Austin Osman Spare
Knight, Damon, (1970) Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained
Bennett, Colin (2002) Politics of the Imagination: The Life, Work and Ideas of Charles Fort
Dash, Mike (Winter 1988–1989) “Charles Fort and a Man Named Dreiser.” in Fortean Times no. 51
Wilson, Colin. Mysteries, Putnam
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