Raindrops from Genesistrine:
Fortean Moments in Popular Culture
Martin Gardner, in his classic (and I am not just throwing that word around here--it is truly the foundation of an entire branch of anti-paranormalist thinkers) Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, wrote "It is often said that Fort had a strong influence on modern science fiction, but this seems an exaggeration. It is true that abourt a dozen novels and scores of short stories have been based on his ideas, but these works are more of the "weird tale" variety than science fiction. A few Fortean terms like "teleportation" have become staple science-fantasy property, but in general his ideas have proved too mundane to serve as useful story gimmicks."
In fact, I think that the reason that there are very few fictions that can be considered truly Fortean is that Fort eschewed resolutions, and narratives as a rule tend toward final conclusions. Even an exception such as the white flower at the end of Well's The Time Machine is merely a coda to what is an exploration of the division between the leisured and the laboring classes in Victorian England on the one hand, and a rousing adventure story on the other. There are few resolutions in Fort's works: merely falling frogs, teleporting fish, and disappearing objects.
Still, though Fortean narratives are rare per se, there are still many Fortean moments in fiction and film: moments during which the characters are brought to wonder about the universe, and find a motivation to close the gap, as it were, between their previous understanding and this new information.
Charles Hoy Fort is most frequently characterized as the collector of accounts of odd entities such as winged humanoids, objects and organisms appearing where scientists say they oughtn't, and absurd abilities such as teleportation. There is a greater framework in which he places his collected accounts, however, and that is: no framework. If Fort ever intended anyone to take his theories seriously-a theory such as the idea that the earth is not round but flat-he denies it a second later.
As a rule, truly Fortean narratives are rare, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who reads his work carefully: the goal of his writing is not to close, finish, put an end to, or fully explain a mysterious event; instead, Fort's intent was to never reach his goal, never draw a line in the sand, never finish examining the evidence. A narrative, fictional or otherwise, which ends with the discovery that the huge hairy creature spotted by the protagonists, for example, is shown to be a new species of primate, a bear, or the effect of electromagnetic pulses on the human brain, would not be Fortean in the strictest sense, since a scientific explanation would put an end to the mystery.
These sorts of tales are generally unsatisfying to those of us who prefer the Poe-inspired narrative: a moment of mystery or wonder followed by an explanation and resolution, supernatural or not. Fort eschewed resolutions. He rejected pat endings and final answers, whether they were metaphysical or not. He would have laughed equally hard at theorists explaining an odd artifact as being of Indian origin as well as those proposing that it was Atlantean, since as far as he knew, neither America nor Atlantis existed.
Notwithstanding, there are many tales, novels, and films that deal with Fortean phenomena, that begin or contain within themselves a Fortean moment. This page is dedicated to presenting, discussing, and analyzing, however lightly, these texts.
The place to begin one's studies of Fortean phenomena is, of course,
The Complete Books of Charles Fort.
Charles Fort writes: "Upon August 11, 1805, an explosive sound was heard at East Haddam, Connecticut. There are records of six prior sounds, as if of explosions, that were heard at East Haddam, beginning with the year 1791, but, unrecorded, the sounds had attracted attention for a century, and had been called the "Moodus" sounds, by the Indians. For the best account of the "Moodus" sounds, see the Amer. Jour. Sci., 39-339. Here a writer tries to show the phenomena were subterranean, but says that there was no satisfactory explanation." New Lands 391.
These noises were the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft's short story "The Dunwich Horror," in which he writes: "Noises in the hills continued to be reported from year to year, and still form a puzzle to geologists and physiographers." (H.P. Lovecraft, "The Dunwich Horror," collected in The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre 102.) The story quickly leaves Fort's path to inspire in the reader a sense of cosmic horror.
In the following text, Corwin, the first person narrator, and his brother Random drive a Mercedes through a strange landscape, no less perplexing to Corwin than the reader:
We moved through a canyon of rocks, then passed through a city which seemed to be made entirely of glass, or glass-like substance, of tall buildings, thin and fragile-appearing, and of people through whom the pink sun shone, revealing their internal organs and the remains of the last meals. They stared at us as we drove by. They mobbed the corners of their streets, but no one attempted to halt us or pass in front of us.
"The Charles Forts of this place will doubtless quote this happening for many years," said my brother.
Roger Zelazny, Nine Princes in Amber, in The Great Book of Amber: The Complete Amber Chronicles, 1-10 (Chronicles of Amber) 34.
Corwin and Random are two princes of Amber, travelling through Shadow. And if you don't know what that all means, you are missing not only a fiction which proposes a Grand Unified Theory of all Fortean events, but one hell of a good read which will grip you from beginning to end-a great way to spend a weekend. This hardboiled Machiavellian fantasy, if true, would explain every wacky beast and out of place object ever seen on Earth.
Leopoldo Lugones' (Argentina, 1874-1938) collection of perfect short stories, Strange Forces (1906, tr. Gilbert Alter-Gilbert, 2001) has several Fortean moments in it: "The Firestorm" celebrates Sodom and Gomorrah rather than its destruction, and "Origins of the Flood" offers an explanation of the origin of out of place artifacts and organisms. Other stories include weird talents and science, animals that behave like humans, and a new twist on the lycanthrope tale. These and the other stories are perfect examples of the short story as defined by Poe; there really is nothing finer in supernatural fiction.
Talking animals do make appearances in Charles Fort's writings, if I recall correctly, as do spiderwebs with writing in them. The latter event occurs nicely in that old childhood favorite,
Web, which, as a friend has pointed out, is not just a good children's book--it is a good book that children can read.
The Firesign Theatre, that wacky bunch of clowns, consider nothing sacred. In
You Know Is Wrong! they skewer such paranormal phenomena as UFOs and writers such as Carlos Castaneda. There are no phenomena on this album that are discussed by Fort, but they share Fort's sense of playful irreverance.
Joe Nickel is a skeptic of a different sort: he goes about undermining local legends and showing that ghosts are nothing but wind in a bottle, and so forth. In
of the Supernatural: Investigating the World's Occult
Mysteries, he examines the origins of the story of Oliver Larch, who supposedly disappeared one dark night; his cries could be heard coming from the sky above, and then they faded away...Nickel shows the connection between this story, and the tales of Ambrose Bierce--the subject of another strange disappearance.
In fact, the tales discussed appear in Ambrose Bierce'
such things be?
I think that James Thurber and Charles Fort would have very much enjoyed each others' company, since they both poked fun, lightly, at the foibles of Those who Think they Know Everything. And both men loved to catch Unpleasant People in their own traps, which is what happens in Thurber's "The Unicorn in the Garden", collected in
The Thurber Carnival, in which a moment of Fortean whimsy allows a man to hoist his wife by her own petard. I think that Fort undoubtedly has a copy of this work, up there in his study on Genesistrine, and that sometimes we hear his laughter, trickling down through the clouds, as he re-reads the story.
The Chicano Bildungsroman
Bless Me, Ultima, one of the finest pieces of literature produced in the Americas, has a Fortean moment within it: the residents of a house in a lonely valley are under attack by strange forces. Nearly identical with what parapsychologists would call the poltergeist phenomena--pots and pans fly through the air, stones fall from the sky, this event has elements similar to those in Keel's Mothman Prophecies: the stones fall from a dark cloud in the sky, which shortly afterwards disappears, leaving destruction in its wake. The fact that the phenomena focuses on one family is very much like Keel's vision of these events, as well; it is reminiscent particularly the events haunting Mrs. Bryant. In
Bless Me, Ultima, however, the events are placed in a supernaturalist framework, rather than an ultraterrestrialist one.
I am not the only one compiling lists of this sort; please be sure to visit
Justin Notout's Fortean Films on DVD--it is indeed excellent.
2003 Hermester Barrington
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