Saturday, February 15, 2020

A Century of Forteana

December of 2019 marked the centennial of Charles Fort's first published book, The Book of the Damned. From it flowed a good deal of fantasy and science fiction and a good deal more of pseudoscience. According to Fort's biographer, Jim Steinmeyer, the official publication date of The Book of the Damned was December 1, 1919. Fort signed the first copy of his book for his wife, Annie, on January 7, 1920. The earliest review that I have found is from one hundred years ago this month, February 1, 1920:

A very early review of The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort, from the San Francisco Chronicle, February 1, 1920 (p. 2). Note the last sentence: "It [. . .] will be cherished by collectors of the curious in pseudo-scientific literature." The online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has a long and interesting entry on pseudoscience as we know it. I think that the anonymous reviewer of 1920 was referring not to what we call pseudoscience but to the nascent genre of science fiction itself. (The first use of the term science fiction was still almost a decade into the future when he or she wrote.)

In July of 1920, an illustrated feature on Fort's book began making the rounds of American newspapers. Its author remained anonymous, and I don't know the title of the newspaper in which it originated. The artist's name might have given us a clue, but we have instead only his initials: E.R.H. I checked two good sources for American illustrators and cartoonists with those initials and came up empty. That's a shame, because E.R.H. may have been the first artist in the world to have drawn a flying saucer:

The title of this article varies from paper to paper, but the text, the portrait photograph of Charles Fort, and the illustration by E.R.H. are the same. This version is from The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana, July 16, 1920 (p. 7).

When I say that the drawing by E.R.H. may have been the first of a flying saucer, I mean that it is what we would now call a flying saucer, i.e., a disc-shaped spacecraft of extraterrestrial origin, carrying "[s]pies from another world--celestial emissaries--[. . .] planning the destruction of man, the annihilation of his civilization and the annexation of his globe!" When I saw this image I was wowed. Here, twenty-seven years before Kenneth Arnold's fated flight, are fully formed flying saucers, complete with domes on top. The main holdovers from nineteenth-century concepts of flying machines are the gondolas hanging underneath, suggesting that these are balloons or dirigibles. Even if they are, why the disc shape? A good explanation might be that this drawing of alien spacecraft shows a leap of the artist's imagination from nineteenth-century visions of the future to twentieth-century "pseudo-scientific literature," inspired by Charles Fort.

Much has been made of the sub-genre of fantasy called "dark fantasy." According to Wikipedia, that ultimate authority on all things, Charles L. Grant "defined his brand of dark fantasy as 'a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding'." H.P. Lovecraft's so-called Cthulhu Mythos is sometimes considered a dark fantasy of this type. But what else is the Cthulhu Mythos but a chronicle of alien invasion, or at least of visitation? There was precedent for this type of story in H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, but wouldn't a more proximate influence on Lovecraft have been the writings of Charles Fort? Here's the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction in its entry on pseudoscience:
Perhaps the greatest single source of pseudoscientific ideas in genre sf has been the work produced by Charles Fort in the 1920s and 1930s. [. . .] The two areas of his theorizing that have most influenced sf are ESP/Psi Powers and the notion that we are being secretly observed, and perhaps controlled, by mysterious intelligences. The latter hypothesis is reflected in many theories at the wilder end of ufology, in the sort of Paranoia demonstrated in the lurid stories of Richard Shaver, in the lasting popularity of H P Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos--extensively imitated and developed by others--and, in a roundabout way, in the idea that we have been visited many times in the past by Aliens, who have directed the evolution of our technology [. . .].
I have already written about Fortean writers in Weird Tales (on October 16, 2014, here). Fort's influence goes beyond Weird Tales, though, into science fiction and pseudoscience (which are sometimes just two sides of the same coin). I have also remarked that Charles Fort was the inventor of science fiction; I was being about half-facetious when I wrote that. But it's not an idea easily dismissed, and if Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, or H.G. Wells didn't do it, who is the next best candidate for the title? And who among these authors gave twentieth-century science-fiction writers more material from which to work in imagining their own creations? Something to think about in this, the beginning of a second century of Forteana.

Original text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

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