Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Fortean and Cthulhian Phenomena

In yesterday's entry, I tore down The Lurker at the Threshold, a pastiche written by August Derleth, supposedly based on fragments by H.P. Lovecraft, and originally published in 1946. My biggest complaint against this book is its extreme prolixity or verbosity. (And this is coming from someone who can really wear out a topic.) Derleth committed other literary offenses, but he also came up with what I think are some innovations. Whether these were original in The Lurker at the Threshold, or this was just an early example of concepts that had previously appeared in some other work or works, I can't say. However, I'm pretty sure that Derleth tried something here that neither he nor Lovecraft had tried before. By coincidence, the innovation of which I speak has to do with a series I have worked on recently in this blog but which is on hold for now.

I have the Ballantine paperback edition of The Lurker at the Threshold from 1971 and 1976. This book is 186 pages long, but only on page 172 does the author finally get to a point, what we might call a thesis, in other words, far too late for it to carry any great weight or significance. Nevertheless, there it is, towards the end of a sentence that runs to more than 120 words, the first mention in this book of:
"a very large, though usually suppressed, body of occurrences [. . .] contradictory to the total scientific knowledge of mankind [. . .] some of which have been collected and chronicled in two remarkable books by a comparative unknown named Charles Fort [. . . .]" (p. 172) (1)
As you know, Charles Fort (1874-1932) was a free thinker and iconoclast who compiled accounts of strange, anomalous, and unexplained events from history and published them in four collections, beginning with The Book of the Damned in 1919 and ending with Wild Talents in 1932. Fort's main thesis, stated in the first few pages of The Book of the Damned, is that all phenomena are continuous with each other and that the break imposed by science between scientific phenomena and non-scientific or anomalous phenomena is arbitrary and artificial. In short, it's not based in reality, and the persistence and widespread occurrence of anomalous phenomena throughout history demonstrates that fact. Authors of weird fiction were well aware of the work of Charles Fort. Some even drew from it in writing their stories. I don't think there's any better example than "The Earth Owners" by Edmond Hamilton, from Weird Tales, August 1931. Coincidently, Lovecraft mentioned Fort in the very next story in that August issue of the magazine, "The Whisperer in Darkness":
Two or three fanatical extremists went so far as to hint at possible meanings in the ancient Indian tales which gave the hidden beings a non-terrestrial origin; citing the extravagant books of Charles Fort with their claims that voyagers from other worlds and outer space have often visited earth. (p. 36) (2)
As far as I can tell, that's as far as Lovecraft went in his references to Fort. In The Lurker at the Threshold, though, August Derleth went all out, more or less making the case that Fortean phenomena are continuous with Lovecraftian--or what I have called in my title Cthulhian--phenomena. (How do you like the italics for effect?) For several pages following his first mention of Fort, Derleth made a catalogue of sightings, encounters, and events, in the process copying Fort's approach to writing rather than that of his master Lovecraft. There are reports of falls of stones and globular lights in the skies, as well as accounts of unexplained disappearances, including that of Ambrose Bierce, who "hinted at Carcosa and Hali" (p. 175). (3) These Derleth linked to the fictional events of his story. I can't help seeing this as Derleth's subordinating--intentionally or not--H.P. Lovecraft's oeuvre to that of his predecessor Charles Fort. In any case, like the rest of The Lurker at the Threshold, Derleth's catalogue of Forteana and his attempt at establishing continuity among all things, like Fort before him, fails. Despite his passing reference to Fort, Lovecraft never tried to do anything of the sort, and wisely so in my view. Whatever similarities he might have had to Fort as a man, Lovecraft's vision was bigger and more lasting than any of that. (4)

"I felt myself grasped; a tentacle of light wrapped around me." An illustration by C.C. Senf for "The Earth Owners" by Edmond Hamilton, Weird Tales, August 1931. 

(1) I tell you, quoting from The Lurker at the Threshold will wear out your ellipses key.
(2) Keep in mind that Fort's third book, Lo!, was published in 1931, the same year in which Hamilton's and Lovecraft's stories went to print. Were these two authors directly influenced or inspired by the publication of Lo!? I don't know. Whatever the case, they were almost certainly aware of Fort's previous books.
(3) One of the main characters in the book is named Ambrose Dewart; Charles Fort had previously remarked on someone in the universe who seemed to be collecting Ambroses.
(4) Charles Fort plays a prominent part in the 2011 film adaptation of "The Whisperer in Darkness" by the way, but clearly out of character for a man who was notoriously withdrawn and decidedly unadventurous, at least late in his life.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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