Thursday, October 16, 2014

Fortean Writers in Weird Tales

The Book of the Damned, the first of Charles Fort's four compilations of weird and unexplained phenomena, was published on December 1, 1919, to mixed reviews. The New York Times wrote:
[Any] conclusion . . . is so obscured in the mass of words and quagmire of pseudo-science and queer speculation that the average reader will find himself either buried alive or insane before he reaches the end. (1)
H.G. Wells, himself a believer in nonsense, called Fort "one of the most damnable bores who ever cut scraps from out-of-the-way newspapers." (2) Theodore Dreiser, Fort's champion, considered him "simply stupendous." (3) Ben Hecht, writing for the Chicago Daily News, was even more effusive:
I am the first disciple of Charles Fort. 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. I, however, for one, rush to surrender my homage. Whatever the purpose of Charles Fort, he has delighted me beyond all men who have written books in this world. Mountebank or Messiah, it matters not. Henceforth I am a Fortean. (4)
Born on August 6, 1874, in Albany, New York, Charles Fort was an impoverished journalist, novelist, and writer of short stories before turning his attention to all things unexplained--at least in any satisfactory way--by science. Three compilations of these "data" as he called them followed The Book of the Damned. They were: New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931), and Wild Talents (1932). The last arrived in bookstores on May 5, 1932, just two days after Fort's death. Fort's wife survived him, as did his monumental works. Fortean has since become a word to describe the followers of Fort (thanks to Ben Hecht) as well as the phenomena themselves (collectively known as Forteana). Today there are Fortean societies all over the world.

There are also writers of Fortean fiction and have been since the beginning. Weird Tales, "The Unique Magazine," was one place where they could gather. In his remembrance of the editor Farnsworth Wright, E. Hoffman Price wrote:
Inevitably, Farnsworth was thrilled by the works of Charles Fort, the rebel who spent a lifetime trying to shatter the solemn pretenses of science, and in debunking the sacerdotal attitude of scientists. Whether he agreed or disagreed with Fort, I don't know, and it makes no difference; the essence of it was that he admired the iconoclastic approach, the startling phrases, the audacity of the wildman who juggled suns and stars and sciences. (5)
Edmond Hamilton was a young correspondent of Charles Fort and one of the first Fortean writers of fiction. His story "The Earth Owners" from Weird Tales, August 1931, was an early example in the genre (or sub-genre, or sub-sub-genre). Hamilton pointed out that he himself was preceded by George Allan England and his story "The Thing from--'Outside'" from Science and Invention, April 1923, reprinted in Amazing Stories, April 1926. (6) George Allan England (1877-1936) did not contribute to Weird Tales. Some Fortean writers who did include:

According to Robert J.M. Rickard, founder and editor of the British magazine Fortean Times: The Journal of Strange Phenomena, "John Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction . . . encouraged many authors to expand Fort's data and comments into imaginative stories." (7) And of course Raymond A. Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories, Fantastic Adventures, and Fate, modeled on the Fortean magazine Doubt, was also inclined towards Forteana. It's interesting that Campbell, the most scientifically minded of the three editors--Wright, Palmer, and himself--was also the one who fell hardest for pseudoscientific claptrap.

Fort's influence continued beyond the golden age of pulps and science fiction. The novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney (1954, 1955), about which I wrote recently, alludes to Fort in recounting stories of frogs falling from the sky, spontaneous human combustion, and of course the manifestation of "mysterious objects" on a farm outside Santa Mira, California. In fact the entire story is framed in Forteana with this as its closing paragraph:
But . . . showers of small frogs, tiny fish, and mysterious rains of pebbles sometimes fall from out of the skies. Here and there, with no possible explanation, men are burned to death inside their clothes. And once in a while, the orderly, immutable sequences of time itself are inexplicably shifter and altered. You read these occasional queer little stories, humorously written, tongue-in-cheek, most of the time; or you hear vague, distorted rumors of them. And this much I know. Some of them--some of them--are quite true. (8)
Charles Fort didn't think much of science or scientists, yet his "data" are now everywhere in science fiction. He inspired writers of fantasy and weird fiction, too, and even appears as a character in the recent movie adaptation of "The Whisperer in Darkness" by H.P. Lovecraft. Between the two--between science and the supernatural--lies pseudoscience, which you might say was invented by Charles Fort. As a believer in the continuousness of all things, he would not have recognized a difference among science, pseudoscience, and the supernatural. He may very well have felt comfortable inhabiting those in-between spaces--or as comfortable as he felt at any time inhabiting this strange planet.

(1) Quoted in Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural by Jim Steinmeyer (2008), with Mr. Steinmeyer's brackets and ellipses, p. 11.
(2) Quoted in Steinmeyer, p. 11.
(3) Quoted in Steinmeyer, p. 12.
(4) Quoted in Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained by Damon Knight (1970), p. 70.
(5) From "Farnsworth Wright" by E. Hoffman Price in The Weird Tales Story by Robert Weinberg (1977), p. 11.
(6) See Knight, p. 171 and notes 161 and 162 on p. 216.
(7) Quoted on Wikipedia.
(8) Ellipses and italics are in the original.

The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort in a British (?) paperback edition.

Lo! in the original hardbound edition illustrated by artist and raconteur Alexander King (1899-1965).
Charles Fort's ideas have permeated our culture, even showing up in cartoons by Charles Addams. From Creature Comforts (1981).

Text and captions copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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