“A procession of the damned. By the damned, I mean the excluded. We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded. Battalions of the accursed, captained by pallid data that I have exhumed, will march. You’ll read them – or they’ll march.” – Charles Fort, The Book of The Damned (1919).
Chapter 1: The Fortean Age Begins
Charles Hoy Fort (August 6th 1874 – May 3rd 1932 / Aged 58) of Albany, New York certainly left a mark on history. As a child he was fascinated by the world, studied plants and animals, and wanted to be a naturalist. He was socially reserved, shy but intelligent. He also had a habit of collecting things like stamps, paper soldiers, and minerals. At the age of 18, he left home to explore the world, living very cheaply in his travels. After becoming ill while in Africa, he returned home. In 1896 he married an older friend he’d known since childhood, Anna Filing, who aided him during this illness.
Fort began writing short fictional stories for newspapers and pulp magazines such as the “Argosy” in order to make a living. From 1899 to 1901, Fort worked on an unpublished autobiography titled “Many Parts,” in reference to the Shakespeare quote about the many roles people play in life. The draft attempts told of his harsh upbringing, his lonely childhood and his exciting days of world traveling. The final draft was 80,000 words. It was rejected by publishers.
Having failed at getting non-fiction published, Fort returned to short pulp fiction stories to earn a living, submitting roughly one every month to various pulp magazines in 1905. Many of Fort’s short stories were humorous and drew from his early life experiences and his adventures traveling. His dialogue was often based on chatter he overheard. That spring, a house editor of Street and Smith Publishing, Theodore Dreiser, sent Fort a letter extensively praising his writing and asking to meet with him. A shy and awkward Charles Fort, convinced to go by his wife, then met with him at the Smith office.
Dreiser was a lapsed Catholic with an interest in mysticism as well as superstitions and strange philosophies. He would sometimes consult the Ouija board. He seemed to romantically view art and expression as above all else including hard scientific pursuits and overt materialism.
Fort began regularly submitting stories to Dreiser for publication. In October of 1905, Theodore suggested to Charles Fort that he should use his writing talent to write a full novel. In 1906, Theodore Dreiser went on to work for “Broadway magazine” and, as Fort’s biggest fan, he continued to publish his tales to a wider audience there.
I. Charles Fort’s Novel:
The short story “A Radical Corpuscle (1906)” told the tale of one white blood cell delivering a controversial speech to the others in a human body. The blood cell states that they were made for the larger system they live within, rather then the system being made for them. The members of the crowd, who can’t see the bigger picture, naturally disagree. This is an early example of a Science Fiction story, utilizing Fort’s skeptical and curious philosophy.
Fort was frustrated with the difficulty of making a living from the writing game and expressed to Theodore that he was no longer really interested in crafting short stories. He had secretly adopted Dreiser’s idea of penning a novel though, hoping it would be his key to success. Fort then stopped submitting stories to magazines. In his mind the short story writing was all just practice for his career as a novelist.
He and his wife were incredibly poor around this time and eventually were evicted from their house in Albany NY in March of 1907. Anna began working at the laundry to provide for the two. Early that same year, Dreiser was able to track down Fort’s new apartment in Hell’s Kitchen after not hearing from him for several months. Fort revealed that he had been working on a novel about the difficulty of life in New York titled “The Outcast Manufacturers.” Theodore Dreiser was able to help Fort get the book published in March of 1909. Fort made about a hundred dollars from the book.
Fort felt that his limited social experiences held him back in writing, so he ventured to the library to get material, such as interesting historical or scientific facts. He began writing these inspiring bits of information onto little slips of paper which he brought with him into the library. He stored these bits of paper in an old shoebox. By 1912, his research was taking up more time than his writing. He began making daily trips to the New York Public Library and categorizing the information he learned.
Over time he began to focus on strange bits of information found in old science texts, medical journals and history books that defied categorization or explanation. To Fort, these anomalies or oddities showed the world to be a mysterious place of wonder, one that science and reason could not fully tackle or understand. All throughout 1913 and 1914, he continued to spend most of his time in the library collecting these anomalies and began finding strange patterns within them. At this point Fort no longer had interest in writing novels.
II. Charles Fort Discovers “X” and “Y”:
“X” was Fort’s name for a mysterious sinister force which influenced all of mankind through rays to therefore control society and human history. Fort proposed that this intelligent force stemmed from planet Mars. He also wrote of X being a god-like guiding force behind evolution and other natural processes (similar to the obsolete idea of orthogenesis), taking opposition to pure randomness and the theories of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and other scientists.
In May of 1915, Fort wrote to Theodore Dreiser about this concept, attempting to demonstrate to him the concept of X through his long list of compiled anomalies. He reportedly cited thousands of sources or references to obscure newspaper clippings and odd occurrences in history. His letter to Dreiser was reportedly a 100,000 word document. Though Fort clearly took this metaphysical undertaking very seriously, and attempted to make logical arguments for this theory as if he believed it, he told Dreiser it was essentially still a fiction of sorts.
Dreiser was very impressed by the theory and the manuscript which he considered a beautiful, yet perhaps apocryphal, science text. He suggested that he get it published and expected it to be very successful. The manuscript influenced Dreiser enough to later inspire dialogue in his 1917 play “The Dream.” Theodore began sending the manuscript off to various scientifically minded publishers but faced much rejection.
In October 1915, Fort started work on another manuscript – a sequel titled “Y.” The premise was that there was another force working in tandem with X that Fort called “Y.” He asserted that there was perhaps a hidden civilization at the North Pole or “Y-land.” He again used recorded anomalies and examples from history to make the case for this theory.
To put it another way, it could be said, that he used these odd frameworks in the manuscripts as a method to allow for his treasured oddities to be permitted by a rational person. By this point Charles Fort was openly obsessed with these proposed books and the peculiar notions within.
Dreiser continued to send the manuscripts to publishers who rejected them as “crank” material or nonsense. Neither of these books , “X” or “Y”, were ever published. Fort ultimately burned the manuscripts, though ideas from these books did make their way into his later published works.
III. The Procession of The Damned (1919):
After this, Fort returned to his library studies and poured over his extensive collection of odd notes. His first idea was to write a book about occultism, spirits or psychic phenomena but he found his notes to still be stranger than the simple idea of hauntings and the like. His anomalies were something that defied all understanding and laughed at theorizing both orthodox or unorthodox – a procession of hellhounds gnawing at the fabric of reality.
He realized that the mistake he made with “X” and “Y” was trying to fit the data to one grand unconventional theory instead of letting the anomalies speak for themselves, and so in July of 1918, he discovered his “Z” so to speak. He decided to take a more “agnostic” view, to open Pandora’s box and allow the oddities to mystify the audience as much as they mystified him.
He set out to write “The Book of The Damned” – a collection of the anomalous phenomena he had gathered from his time in the New York Public Library examining medical and scientific journals and old newspapers. In the meantime, in early 1919, his friend Theodore Dreiser was receiving great success for his novel writing career.
In Spring of 1919, Charles Fort sent the manuscript of The Book of The Damned to Dreiser who managed to get it published by taking it to his own publisher (Horace Liveright) and threatening to go elsewhere with his novelist talents if he didn’t publish Fort’s book. It hit the shelves in December and the rest is history. Fort announced in his letter to Dreiser about the manuscript: “it is a religion.”
The “damned” in the title of course referred to the unexplained data or oddities that he had exhumed from the libraries which he felt “Dogmatic Science” had rejected. In his view the field of science was not only incapable of explaining these anomalies but also unwilling to even try. He poetically declared that these refused “quasi-souls of lost data” would march onward as we read them. And march they did.
The most iconic of Fort’s recorded anomalies was certainly the reports of objects like fish and frogs falling from the sky. He would go on to cover a wide variety of supposed odd phenomena such as ball lightning, out of place animals or artifacts, mirage cities on the horizon, poltergeist activity, strange disappearances, psychic talents and much more.
As an irreverent mind of the 20th century, Fort in his works boldly rejected established religion while also spitefully questioning scientific knowledge and authority as well as mankind’s ability to truly know anything. He proposed many ideas hypothetically as a method to criticize or poke holes in established views and to demonstrate supposed flaws in the thinking of his many opponents. As his biographer Damon Knight pointed out, Fort’s anti-authority stances and contrarian attitude may have partly stemmed from his upbringing and his reportedly abusive authoritarian father.
Fort later got more books on the subject of anomalous phenomenon published which collected further strange tidbits, including New Lands in 1923, Lo! in 1931 and finally Wild Talents in 1932. Some of these reported oddities naturally turned out to be newspaper stunts or misconceptions, while others remain forever puzzling.
He used sarcasm, wit and a tongue-and-cheek style frequently in his writing. Like a true gadfly, he questioned everything and attacked dogma and presuppositions while also serving as an idea-man with an analytical approach yet a fanciful flair for the imaginative. Fort held a skeptical and agnostic view on most matters and even wrote “I believe nothing of my own I have ever written.” (Lo! 1931)
The purpose of many of Fort’s intellectual exercises seemed to be to make the reader question the very nature of reality and what is real. Fort also said that all things that exist are natural and so therefore nothing is in fact supernatural despite how strange or reality-breaking it might seem to be. One theoretical idea that Fort had was that Earth is owned by someone or something else. He wrote, “We are property.”
Fort considered unexplained experiences to not be marvels but instead common place. He wrote that “miracles” would occur even in a world full of atheists. Fort once theorized that picture frames falling off the wall could be related to the emotions of the person. He was highly skeptical of the religious movement of “spiritualism” and their explanation for such phenomenon as the spirits of the departed.
Charles Fort wrote that ours is a interconnected or hyphenated existence with negative-positives, known-unknowns, or real-unreals that seemed paradoxical or contradictory. In his view, all is one. He wrote: “our whole existence is an attempt by the relative to be the absolute.”
Fort set a hard cut off date for this study at the year 1800 and considered anything older to be outside his era of research. Though aside from that, he refused to specialize, collecting a wide variety of oddities from an array of sources with an apathy towards or rejection of any ideology connected to them. Fort compared his agnosticism to witchcraft stating that science and religion were both against it. In his career he reportedly listed approximately twelve hundred anomalies which science could purportedly not explain.
IV. In Comes The Forteans:
In his 1920 review of The Book of The Damned (1919), screenwriter Ben Hecht announced “I am the first disciple of Charles Fort … henceforth, I am a Fortean.” This was the beginning of Fort’s strange following and is recognized as the coining of the term “Fortean.” A group that was soon to grow.
Science Fiction (Scifi) writer Miriam Allen deFord contacted Charles Fort after having an odd personal experience in March of 1922 involving seemingly inexplicable rocks falling from the sky. This happened while she was investigating some July 1921 reports of mysterious falling rocks in Chicago. This was an early example of Fortean fieldwork. Miriam also told him of odd happenings in the newspapers. Fort included these experiences and notes in his books, crediting her in New Lands and Wild Talents. As a present, Fort also gave her a “fairy cross” which was a twinned crystal sold at gift shops. Miriam and her husband, Scifi writer Maynard Shipley, both later became Forteans.
Side note: Shipley even went on to review Lo! in the New York Times. Decades later, Miriam also wrote a fictional short story titled “Slips Take Over”(September 1964, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Isaac Asimov) which was about slipping into another dimension and mentioned Fort’s work as well as the case of mystery man “Kaspar Hauser” that he covered. (Later they were also members of the organization INFO, and Miriam passed away in 1975.)
In New Lands (1923), Charles Fort focused primarily on astronomical oddities and aerial phenomena, noting sightings of bizarre lights in the sky as far back as 1779. Oddities like these would later catch the eye of flying saucer fans reading decades later. He was reportedly the first to propose extraterrestrial visitation as an explanation for them.
After reading New Lands in 1923, reporter Tiffany Ellsworth Thayer began writing to Charles Fort and they became friends. Charles, being a very reserved man who openly referred to himself as a “hermit,” had no other friends besides Thayer and Theodore Dreiser. Fort had no telephone at home and, because of his phobia of making phone calls and difficulty with social situations, made fewer than 20 phone calls in his life.
He spent his days staying inside, studying in the library or occasionally going to the movies with his wife. He remained withdrawn from the world but very interested in people. Unlike later readers, Fort did not dedicate himself to the task of personally investigating or truly explaining odd claims himself. Instead he merely collected them in print and displayed them as unprovable and unexplainable gems of information to give a place in the limelight and hold over the heads of the scientific minds of the day.
In January of 1920 prohibition of alcohol began in the United States. Fort’s wife, like many Americans, began making her own alcohol which they both enjoyed. Fort’s book New Lands (1923) was a poor seller. In 1925, his proposed book “Skyward Ho!” was rejected. He and his wife moved to London that summer where he spent most of his time in the British Museum. While living there in 1927, he invented the game Super-Checkers which was a version of checkers which involved hundreds of small checker pieces and military troop-like movements.
Side note: Super Checkers featured slightly less than four hundred pieces on a game surface of eight hundred tiny bits of cardboard squares on thumbtacks arranged on a large tablecloth. Each players began by putting the pieces in formation. Fort preferred two wedges meeting at their points. One player would begin moving pieces, for example about a hundred, until the second player told them to stop. Then the second player makes a similar number of moves. This might be repeated in flanking maneuvers. Fighting would then take place, one piece at a time, as in regular checkers. The rules were all but improvised and chaotic, seemingly only understood by Fort alone.
Fort would play checkers against himself or convince neighbors and landlords who would quickly be confounded by the procedure of playing the game. In 1928 Fort sent a letter to the New York Sun’s “What Do You Think” Column outlining the elements of the game. “Super-checkers is going to be a great success,” he wrote in a letter. “I have met four more people who consider it preposterous.”
Fort moved back to New York in 1928, his poor eyesight put an end to his library work of article clipping. The Wall-street Crash of October 1929 which triggered The Great Depression had its effects on Charles Fort as well. He fell into a deep depressive and lonely state. In effort to find a new direction away from oddities he tried various different manuscripts such as “A Book About Caciques” about living with parrots and “The Giant, The Insect and The Philanthropic-looking Old Gentleman” a fictional short story about Fort himself encountering a strange character which he never tried to sell. This qualifies as the first example of Fortean-fiction which would much later be a genre onto itself. In his notes Fort also listed two unknown failed manuscripts as “MF” and “WW.”
Tiffany Ellsworth Thayer had moved to NY in 1926 to pursue acting but became an advertising manager selling short stories and pulp magazines. Thirteen Men (1930) became a best seller for NY publisher Claude Kendall. Each chapter told the life story of juror and the thirteenth chapter, the confessions of a killer on trial, in which he warned parents not to let their children read Charles Fort’s Book of The Damned filled with data of “rainfalls of butter and pork chops” as it is too “heady for mere men.”
In early 1930, Thayer met Fort at Fort’s Bronx apartment and they discussed his rejected “Skyward Ho!” manuscript. Thayer convinced his co-worker Aaron Sussman, a young advertising man and designer who liked Fort’s book, to join him in pressuring their publisher to publish Fort’s manuscript. The publisher agreed but a name change was in order.
Charles Fort went through various title ideas: “Snoozers and Saps and Skyward Ho!”, “Skyward Ho!” and “God and the fishmonger.” Sussman suggested “God is an idiot” to draw headlines based on a line from the text but Fort objected saying it was too dogmatic. Even the idea of adding a question mark, he thought, was “weak.” Fort suggested “If the time has come” or “The time has come” but worried it sounded too sure of itself.
Finally Thayer suggested “Lo!” to which Fort immediately agreed. “In the text, the astronomers are forever calculating and then point to the sky where they figure a new star or something should be and saying ‘Lo!’ – and there’s nothing whatever to be seen where they point,” wrote Thayer. Being a skilled advertiser, Tiffany Thayer wrote bombastic descriptions of Fort in his introduction of the book which flattered Fort. Theodore Dreiser said Fort “may be the progenitor of an entirely new world viewpoint.” However, Thayer wrote that “if Charles Fort should ever become orthodox and established, he’d be the first to start tearing down Charles Fort.”
Sussman enjoyed visiting Fort in person via subway since Fort had no phone and preferred in person meetings or telegrams. Looking over the manuscript for Lo! just before printing, Sussman spotted a paragraph in chapter one that was missing a sentence. The subject was Fort’s view of unity among oddities, all things being one. He added one more line. Perhaps his most famous quote: “One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.”
V. The Society of The Damned:
At the end of 1930, as Lo! was being printed, Thayer had the idea for an organization as a plan to publicize Fort’s books. Newspaper editor J. David Stern had suggested something similar after The Book of The Damned. Fort wrote: “The great trouble is that the majority of persons who are attracted are the ones that we do not want: Spiritualists, Fundamentalists, persons who are revolting against Science.”
Thayer, using the term “Fortean” from Ben Hecht’s 1920 review, reached out to several people interested in Fort’s books to try to organize the group including J. David Stern. Stern then brought the idea to Fort himself with a message headed “The Fortean Society.” The purpose of the group was outlined to be the promotion of Fort’s work, skepticism, agnosticism and anti-dogmatism. Fort rejected the offer of being the organization’s president stating that while he would be okay with a “Society of the Damned” or “Stellar Exploration Club” he wouldn’t like for it to have his name on it. He stated “I wouldn’t join it, any more than I’d be an Elk.” (A reference to the Elk’s Lodge fraternity.)
Meanwhile, Theodore Dreiser tried to get Fort more limelight by getting articles about his work published in the popular Cosmopolitan magazine. Fort agreed that he would indeed like to be successful “just to make trouble” and swipe at his perceived enemies. Due to Fort’s poor marketing skills, he sent in dry lengthy quotation from his books that were rejected, revised and rejected again, leading Dreiser to insist to take over the whole operation from there. Fed up with the hassle of it all, a bored Charles Fort simply put the idea to the side and nothing came of it.
Famous Science Fiction author H.G. Wells, who wrote a harsh review of The Book of The Damned, once received a copy of Lo! as a gift from Theodore Dreiser in 1930. Dreiser had purchased a bunch of Fort’s books and sent them out to authors he knew in hopes to build publicity and put Fort on the best-seller list. Wells expressed great distaste for it and objected to Fort’s ideas of Science as just another dogma. He threw the book away and declared in a letter to Theodore: “God dissolve (and forgive) your Fortean Society.”
After reading The Book of The Damned and New Lands, Scifi Writer Edmond Hamilton, sent newspaper clippings of anomalies to Charles Fort. They began a correspondence and Edmond later joined the Fortean Society. Hamilton wrote the Science Fiction short story “The Space Visitors (Air Wonder Stories, March 1930)” about alien intelligences studying samples of Earth. The forward overtly named Fort as inspiration. In “The Earth-Owners (Weird Tales, 1931),” Hamilton writes of glowing globes protecting the Earth from dark clouds that feed on humanity. The people in the story seek to defeat not only the clouds but the globes as well and free their destiny from outside control. This story is also inspired by Fort’s view of humanity as the property of something.
On January 26th 1931, the “Fortean Society” was officially founded by Fort’s friend Tiffany Thayer, and Aaron Sussman with an inaugural meeting. The group tricked Fort via telegram into attending a celebratory banquet in Stern’s suite at the Savoy Plaza Hotel on East Fifty-seventh Street but he expressed no interest in the society and declined their invitation to join the group. In attendance were: Thayer, Sussman, Dreiser, Burton Rascoe, Claude Kendall, Ben Hecht, J. Donald Adams and a group of reporters who interviewed the crowd. Fort listened to speeches from Thayer and Dreiser, said very little, and tried to avoid the attention while admiring the freshly printed copies of Lo! (1931) given out at the event.
Members of The Fortean Society reportedly included friends of Charles Fort, Tiffany Thayer and Theodore Dreiser, as well as Aaron Sussman, author Vincent Gaddis, Antifascist NY poet Dorothy Parker (who was labeled a communist and blacklisted by Hollywood), novelist Booth Tarkington, zoologist Ivan Sanderson, John Cowper Powys, Harry Elmer Barnes, Alexander Woollcott, Harry Leon Wilson and fantasy fiction author A. Merritt. Fort also received fan mail from Anarchist Benjamin De Casseres and exchanged correspondence with him. Aaron Sussman tried to get Fort to do a book signing, going as far as to advertise it in the Herald Tribune, but Fort refused and had to issue a retraction.
Some time after the release of Lo! and the founding of the society in 1931, Fort’s health started to fail and with his distrust of authority he stubbornly refused to see a doctor. Eventually, at the repeated request of Theodore Dreiser, Fort relented and began receiving treatment. In September of 1931, Fort moved in with Dreiser for a week at his home in Mount Kisco, New York but ultimately decided to head back to the Bronx.
When he returned home he worked diligently on his next book Wild Talents which he assembled out of newspaper oddities and anecdotes on psychic phenomena, strange disappearances, human combustion and even miracles. The title referred to various psychic abilities or talents outlined in the book. As he did with all his books, he read them aloud to his wife Anna Fort (who he called “Momma”) and asked her opinion as he worked. This book would be written in a more comfortable and witty style, perhaps due to his new found following, and contained plenty of commentary.
Late in 1931, Fort’s health worsened and he could no longer leave his house at all. He experienced constant aches and pains, a lack of appetite and weight loss, but was driven to complete his work as he knew he didn’t have long to live. On February 20th 1932, he completed the manuscript for Wild Talents which was then accepted to be published.
By April 1932, Fort was bedridden and on May 2nd, Anna had no choice but to call an ambulance which took Fort to the Royal Hospital on Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Aaron Sussman arrived at his bedside and showed Fort the published copy of Wild Talents (1932). On May 3rd 1932, at 11:55 PM, he died at the age of 57 with his wife Anna by his bedside. Forteans like Theodore Dreiser attended his funeral. He was buried in his family cemetery in Albany, New York. In writing he left his notes to The Fortean Society and Anna gave them over to Thayer.
VI. Science Fiction and The Ghost of Charles Fort:
Somewhat ironically, despite Fort’s distain for spiritualism’s afterlife notions, in 1933 after his passing, his wife Anna reportedly witnessed an apparition of Fort himself sitting on the bench in the bedroom which said “Hello, Momma.” She also reportedly experienced strange poltergeist-like rapping on the walls and doors and the sound of Fort running through the rooms yelling “Annie! Annie!” Anna Fort later died on August 25th 1937 due to heart muscle degeneration. She was buried next to Fort.
In 1934, the Science Fiction pulp magazine “Astonishing Stories!,” under the direction of Editor F. Orlin Tremaine, featured excerpts from Charles Fort’s book Lo! in a chapter by chapter periodical. This introduced many more Science Fiction readers and writers to the works of Charles Fort. Plenty of them would go on to borrow Fortean concepts in their short stories and Scifi plots, including most famously “teleportation.” Though many of them were hardline materialists with a love and respect for Science, they still utilized Fort’s attempts to poke holes in supposed Scientific Dogma as a loophole for interesting story telling and exploring the fringes of our understanding.
Side note: HP Lovecraft, influential Scifi horror writer and horrible fascist, didn’t believe in the paranormal. Though at a young age he was tormented by nightmares of faceless winged horned beings reportedly inspired from John Martin’s illustrated engravings featured in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Despite common misconception, Lovecraft had no deep knowledge of occultism, preferring to invent his own while sometimes namechecking well-known sources of the time. In his short story, “The Descendant (1938)” he mentions Charles Fort. It reads: “Books like Ignatius Donnelly’s chimerical account of Atlantis he absorbed with zest, and a dozen obscure precursors of Charles Fort enthralled him with their vagaries.”
According to Scifi and fantasy writer Fritz Leiber (a correspondent of INFO), at a panel in a 1963 Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, Lovecraft had reportedly praised Charles Fort’s work in letters to Leiber. Lovecraft declared himself a strict materialist and offered an impassioned defense of the Scientific establishment against Fort’s commentary, though purportedly said Fort’s collected anomalies were still interesting and great background material for writers regardless.
In September 1937, Tiffany Thayer founded a Fort-inspired magazine first entitled the Fortean Society Magazine but later renamed “Doubt.” He wrote the majority of material himself and it consisted mainly of Thayer’s wild and controversial theories. Eventually Thayer became somewhat of the head figure in the society, causing many members to leave the group including Theodore Dreiser (who died on December 28th 1945.)
Eric Frank Russell, a British Scifi writer, first read Lo! serialized in the Astounding Stories pulp magazine, but only on his second reading of the book years later did he become enamored with it and joined the Fortean Society. He was inspired to pen the novel “Sinister Barrier” which was published as the feature in the first issue of the pulp fiction magazine “Unknown” in 1939 and dedicated to Fort himself. Russell called it a “posthumous collaboration.”
The novel is about a previously unseen higher forces called “Vitons” that read minds and feed on humans and electromagnetism. The story begins when two scientists are found dead after their discovery and apparent heart attack. Dozens more are discovered to have fallen to madness or suicide. “Quick death awaits the first cow that leads a revolt against milking,” writes Russell. The scientists in the story are Fortean-styled collectors of odd data and Russell uses not just anomalies from Fort’s books but also anomalies that he himself has collected circa 1939. He cites strange disappearances of boats and fireballs from newspaper clippings in the book, weaving those into the fictional narrative. A truly Fortean Science Fiction story.
Russell also wrote “Dreadful Sanctuary (Serialized in Astounding Stories 1948)” which was another Fortean tale about Earth being an insane asylum. His story “Jay Score (1941)” is noted as being progressive for its day by having a black character as the ship’s doctor. His Science Fiction became less overtly Fortean over time and received praise from Carl Sagan for its scientific visions of the future. Eric Russell went on to write Fortean non-fiction books as well covering anomalies and oddities. He was the president of the British chapter of the Fortean Society and he was listed in the magazine “Doubt“ as the representative for Forteans to contact in England.
In 1941, all four of Fort’s books were republished as “The Books of Charles Fort” by Henry Holt, prompted by Tiffany Thayer who wrote an exaggerated introduction for the work. Fort’s books have remained in print since then. The Fortean Society ultimately went inactive much later following Thayer’s death in 1959. (The International Fortean Society aka “INFO” then reportedly acquired their files including Fort’s old notes.) Even after Thayer’s death, Eric Russell of the British Chapter, claimed that because the Fortean Society was never formally dissolved; it therefore still existed. Though despite this, it reportedly didn’t continue to function as an organization.
Charles Fort and his work became a massive inspiration to fellow outcasts, seekers of the strange and researchers of all anomalous phenomena – a genre he essentially paved the way for. His legacy was further cemented by later UFO researchers who came to call themselves Forteans and quote from his treasure trove of collected data. Perhaps Fort’s most influential terminology was the word “teleportation” which he coined in Lo! (1931) while discussing where lost items could possibly be going. He also said that lost objects could hypothetically end up in what he called the “Supersargosso Sea” (Damned 1919). Many of Fort’s ideas would go on to greatly influence the genre of Science Fiction. The procession of the damned was off and marching.
⦁ Charles Fort: Prophet of The Unexplained by Damon Knight (1970)
⦁ Complete Books of Charles Fort (1919-31) including Intro by Damon Knight (Feb 1974)
⦁ Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural by Jim Steinmeyer (2016)
⦁ The Fortean Influence on Science Fiction by Tanner F. Boyle (2020)
Chapter 2: Science Fiction – An Amazing Story (or The Fateful Friendship of Ray Palmer And Richard Shaver)
While there are excellent early examples of fictional stories that fit in the Science Fiction category from Frankenstein to H.G. Wells, the term “Science Fiction” and the genre itself officially came into existence with Hugo Gernsback who coined the term in 1926 and published the first Science Fiction (Scifi) magazine which was “Amazing Stories.”
Gernsback, considered the father of Scifi, had a lot of ideas and big hopes for the genre. Essentially he wanted the genre to encourage discovery, invention and learning of real science as well as functioning as a method of sharing speculative science ideas or theories. Many readers worked on projects and obsessions such as HAM radios or other gadgetry.
He basically envisioned this fictional story genre as recruitment for the scientific mission. It would seem that fate had other plans for this project. The readers of Scifi were the first to be called “fans” (from the word fanatic) and one of those fans was a young man by the name of Ray Palmer.
Raymond Alfred Palmer was born on August 10th 1910 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a child he was featured in a Gridley’s milk advertisement as one of “Milwaukee’s Healthiest Babies.” He enjoyed spending time at his grandparent’s farm and was fascinated by nature and books about science.
At age seven, while playing in the street outside his family home, Palmer’s foot was caught in the wheel of passing milk truck. The accident resulted in broken vertebrae and a severely damage spine. Despite the driver offering, Ray’s father did not take him to the hospital. Two years later, at the age of nine, due to Ray’s pain from the accident, a specialist operated and he was given a spinal column bone graft. Because of an infection, he wasn’t expected to make it more than 24 hours.
The pain caused him to sit up in bed that night, he couldn’t unbend his spine, and the doctors told him not to try it. He had a hunchback for the rest of his life. He spent the rest of childhood in hospital beds, often strapped down on a Bradford canvas frame to prevent him from moving and further hurting himself. At the age of twelve, his mother died. During his recovery, Ray had a tutor and was sent books to read by the Milwaukee school board. Palmer became something of a bitter loner and a voracious reader on the subjects of history and science which led him to science fiction.
I. Ray Palmer – Scifi Fan / Writer / Publisher:
In 1926, at the age of 16, Ray Palmer first spotted the debut issue of Amazing Stories on a newsstand and from there became a loyal fan, diligently reading the magazine’s science fiction tales from the start and aspiring to one day write his own fiction. (Not unlike Charles Fort who also began with attempts at being a fiction writer.)
He then met fellow Scifi fan Walter Dennis while working at a sheet metal company in Milwaukee in 1928. Together they created one of the first Science Fiction clubs which won a Gernsback $100 cash prize contest in 1929 for helping to spread Scifi. Palmer and Dennis also reportedly made the first Scifi “fan-zine,” meaning fan-made magazine, which was titled “The Comet” and released in May 1930.
Ray was able to get his first Scifi story “The Time Ray of Jandra” published in the June 1930 issue of the “Science Wonder Stories” magazine. In the story, a wrecked sailor discovers a time machine within ancient ruins and travels back to see what happened to the civilization. There he finds warring factions fighting over if they should drill to the center of the Earth to find riches, as well as a hungry tyrannosaurus rex. Palmer, through his Scifi club, continued corresponding with fellow fans of the genre and working on more stories.
In September 1930, at the age of 20, Palmer was sent to Muirdale Sanatorium with another infection in his spine. He was reportedly expected to die within six months. Palmer supposedly bet the doctor $5 that he would recover. He began doing mental visualization exercises in hopes of healing his damaged spine. During his stay in the sanatorium, he witnessed many patients die. In 1932, Palmer was surprisingly able to recover and was released.
Palmer then helped co-found “The Time Traveler” fanzine and began writing the column “Spilling The Atom With Rap” (Rap meaning Raymond A. Palmer) for “Science Fiction Digest.” Ray also worked on a collaborative novel titled “Cosmos” with each chapter written by a different early Scifi writer. He continued writing and publishing stories, collaborating, corresponding, and serving as literary editor.
Side note: In Halloween of 1938, Orson Welles performed the infamous radio broadcast of the H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds which blurred the lines between truth and fiction in the public consciousness. In some ways, this event would be shades of things to come.
Hugo Gernsback had lost ownership of Amazing Stories in 1929 and began working on other magazines but the editor of Amazing Stories, T.O’Conor Sloane, continued to work for the publication until 1939 when he resigned. The phone rang at Palmer’s residence and after a successful interview at the Ziff-Davis office, Ray had gotten the job. He was officially the editor of the first Scifi magazine, the very same he’d read since age 16, and a whole new craft was about to begin.
Palmer brought his own style to Amazing Stories, bringing the casual and witty style of his “Spilling The Atoms” column to his new column “The Observatory.” The stories he selected also departed greatly from the Sloane era and more reflected Palmer’s tastes for the genre and a focus on younger readers. Palmer favored action filled dramatic adventure stories with less poetic language and less focus on technical or scientific knowledge. This style became increasingly apparent over time.
Rap published the works of several important and up-and-coming Scifi authors. He published the first two stories of Isaac Asimov (who later went on to write “I, Robot”) as well as the work of Ray Bradbury (famous Scifi writer) and the already well established author Edgar Rice Burroughs (of Tarzan fame). Amazing Stories, which was failing by the time Sloane departed, was now growing in circulation and attracting new readers under Ray’s leadership. To some, Palmer was a breath of fresh air but, to others an unwelcome change. In December of 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America entered into World War 2. During war time, pulp media thrived as a cheap form of entertainment and escapism.
At one point in his time at the office, Palmer claimed to see a light in the sky outside the twenty second floor window which stayed there for about ten minutes before disappearing, though he dismissed it as a possible mirage.
Occasionally Palmer blurred the line between truth and pulp fiction in his columns, placing himself as a character in the action, and when publishing stories under pseudonyms he would sometimes write fake “Meet the author” pages for them. For the cover art of the July 1943 issue of Amazing Stories, artist Harold W. McCauley depicted Ray Palmer as a mad scientist with his secretary, Elaine, aiming a ray gun at him.
II. Palmer Discovers Shaver:
In December of 1943, at the Ziff-Davis office, Palmer’s assistant editor Howard Browne mockingly read aloud part of a supposed “crank” letter before throwing it away. Rap, with a keen eye for story telling, retrieved this discarded six-page letter from the trash can.
It was written by a steelworker from Pennsylvania named Richard Shaver and told of an alphabet or language called “Mantong” meaning “man tongue” that he thought might be linked to the Atlantis myth. Palmer decided to print the letter in the January 1944 letter column of Amazing Stories and began corresponding with Shaver and asking him for a story. Thus would begin the fateful friendship of Ray Palmer and Richard Shaver.
Shaver mailed Palmer a manuscript titled “A Warning To Future Man” which was a 10,000 word story detailing Shaver’s strange and imaginative worldview.
In Shaver’s mythos, extraterrestrial beings came to Earth millions of years ago but left after discovering the sun’s rays were harmful to them. Some of these beings supposedly stayed behind and hid underground, continuing to live on Earth with their amazing technology. However, the maddening rays of the sun corrupted some of these beings which Shaver labeled “Deros” short for “detrimental robots.” Though they weren’t literally mechanical, they behaved robotically, like zombified beings.
According to Shaver, the deros began plotting the destruction of mankind through the use of their sinister influence machines and tampering with the affairs of man. Meanwhile the unaffected beings, labeled “Teros,” began attempting to aid mankind through helpful energy producing machines. Shaver’s writing at the time could use some work but Rap saw the incredible potential in the creative world he described. Richard Shaver had allegedly been diagnosed with Schizophrenia and reportedly spend years hospitalized, but Palmer was purportedly not aware of this.
Palmer privately showed the manuscript around to several people to get opinions on the curious tale and received a mixed reaction. Some didn’t know what to make of the story while some, like typist Bob McKenna, were so struck by it that they suddenly had an interest in cave exploring. Palmer saw that this story could be the key to an exciting new direction for the magazine.
In the pages of Amazing Stories in May of 1944, Palmer built up hype for the release of the story, promoting it as the first “true story” the pulp magazine would ever publish. Palmer saw Shaver’s world as a setting or a universe in which a whole series of pulp tales could be based.
In February of 1945, Rap visited Shaver and his wife at Shaver’s home in Pennsylvania. After eating dinner with them and having many conversations about writing, Shaver’s ideas, underground civilizations and other material within the manuscript, Palmer went to bed for the night.
That’s when Palmer reportedly heard five unique voices conversing with Shaver in the other room, telling him things about the caverns. These voices then switched to a foreign language when Palmer sat up in bed and asked what was going on. Rap claimed to have found no explanation for what he heard.
After this Ray reportedly dove into extensive research into topics such as spiritualism, psychics, mediums, and the occult. Rap claimed that before this he had no interest in philosophy or anomalous phenomena and hadn’t even read Charles Fort. A whole new world had opened up to him.
Palmer reworked Shaver’s manuscript into a 30,000 word narrative titled “I Remember Lemuria.” In Palmer’s version of the story, the underground caverns were set in Lemuria, a hypothetical lost civilization popularized by the Theosophy movement which was an off branch of spiritualism. With this title, it seemed, Palmer was attempting to attract readers interested in esoteric or occult subjects as well as Sci-fi fans.
Side note: “Lemuria” was a hypothetical continent that sank into the Pacific ocean. The idea was proposed by 19th century scientist Phillip Sclater in the 1864 article “Mammals of Madagascar” to explain why lemur fossils were found in India and Madagascar but not in Africa. The theory was later debunked as total nonsense but the theorized lemur-filled landmass then became the subject of myth, not dissimilar to the fictional Atlantis invented by Plato. Helena Blavatsky of the Theosophy movement used lost civilizations in her writings which helped popularize the concept.
III. The Shaver Mystery (1945):
In March 1945, “I Remember Lemuria” hit the stands and a phenomenon known as “The Shaver Mystery” was born. In the footnotes, Rap declared the material to be “racial memory” from Shaver, meaning that much of the information supposedly came from the ancient memories of the human race being obtained somehow by Shaver’s mind. This part was reportedly not a claim Shaver had made but a way of presenting the concept to the audience as supposedly “true.”
Many readers were bewildered by the story, with some believing that it could be true, others greatly doubting yet finding it entertaining, and a certain section being completely disgusted at Palmer’s attempts to pass it off as “true” in any way. The Shaver Mystery strayed far from the path Hugo Gernsback had dreamed for Science Fiction.
In a 1945 issue of James Kepner’s fanzine “Forward Tomorrow,” a dedication page read “Amazing Stories R.I.P. Dedicated to the fond memory of a good magazine, Amazing stories, dead for twelve years, and buried by Raymond Palmer in March, 1945.”
Throughout the rest of the 1940’s (from 1945 to 1949) Amazing Stories published over twenty pulp stories about The Shaver Mystery written by Shaver and Palmer and labeled as true stories or inspired by racial memory. The Shaver Mystery covered the front page issue after issue. Where most Science Fiction focused on the far future and the stars, the Shaver stories focused on advanced ancient beings living underground, though the narrative of good verses evil remained with the dero verses the Tero in their fight for influence on mankind.
Palmer marketed the Shaver tales as the next evolution of Scifi, claiming that fact had finally caught up to the fiction. Shaver’s private fantasy world was now filling the pages of Amazing Stories and effecting the minds of its readers. Hundreds of letters and correspondence poured in of people claiming their own experience with the strange people and cave beings. A Shaver Mystery fan letter section was added to Amazing Stories. Palmer recruited other authors to write about Shaver-type true stories and pulp tales set in the Shaver universe. By 1946, a Shaver Mystery Club was established, followed by a Shaver Mystery Club Newsletter in 1947.
Shaver fanatics were sucked into the inner Earth mythos and prepared to storm into the caves to find the truth. Meanwhile die-hard Scifi fans were becoming more and more outraged as time went on and the magazine changed gradually to accommodate the Shaver story.
Early Scifi fan Forrest Ackerman reportedly sent around a petition demanding Palmer end the Shaver Mystery. The early Scifi fan group “The Queens Science Fiction League” started by James Taurasi and Sam Moskowitz declared The Shaver Mystery to be a threat to the sanity of readers and sent their concerns to the “Society for the Suppression of Vice“ in attempts to suppress this supposedly dangerous material. Palmer was even given the title of “The Man Who Killed Science Fiction.”
⦁ The Man From Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey (2012) by Fred Nadis
⦁ The Fortean Influence on Science Fiction by Tanner F. Boyle (2020)