“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 From 1899 to 1901, Fort worked on an unpublished autobiography titled “Many Parts,” in reference to the Shakespeare quote about the many roles people play in life.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 than the system being made for them. The members of the crowd, not seeing 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). His notions stood in 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 comparatively 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 they 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, unexplained animal mutilations 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 commonplace. 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 an 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 to 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 player 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 unto 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. Thayer’s 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. Fort 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 had been labeled a communist and blacklisted by Hollywood), novelist Booth Tarkington, zoologist Ivan T. 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, mysterious disappearances, spontaneous human combustion, and even miracles. Though Fort was very critical of Spiritualism and its afterlife claims, the book focused on the subject of potential psychic phenomena and the title referred to the various mental abilities or talents outlined within its pages. As he did with all his books, he read it 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 Tiffany 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 had a huge effect on Fort’s popularity and 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. This made Fort’s work an important part of this seminal period of Science Fiction which would go on to have ripple effects throughout the genre and beyond.

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 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 the pulp of its day by having a black character as the ship’s doctor. His Science Fiction became less overtly Fortean over time and also 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.

Source(s):

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: Fortean Zoology: Loch Ness, Dinosaurs
and Ivan T. Sanderson

In the year 565 A.D., an Irish monk named Columba, known as a “saint” to the Catholic church, allegedly encountered a “water beast” in Loch Ness, Scotland and after using one of his followers to bait the creature he made the sign of the cross and repelled it away as if it was “pulled back with ropes.” The story, like a lot of stories of saints, is obviously a product of religious propaganda, and likely inspired by water monsters of Irish myth, but is nonetheless brought up alongside stories of the much later “Loch Ness Monster” which came to prominence in 1933.

Since Charles Fort passed away in 1932, we will never know what his thoughts on the Loch Ness Monster might have been. In his book Lo! (1931), Fort mentions folkloric tales of Sea Serpents in passing. He writes: “But I am avoiding stories of traditional serpentine monsters of the sea. One reason is that collections of these stories are easily available.” Perhaps Fort considered such accounts too cliché for his outlandish books, but he didn’t shy away from discussing the weirder animal anomalies or legendary monsters such as the supposed Jersey Devil of the 19th century. He also wrote about odd lake monsters and winged creatures from around the world as he critiqued and poked fun at zoologists for not being able to explain or account for them.

On April 7th 1933, the cinematic masterpiece King Kong was released in theaters. The film depicted the fictional “Skull Island” filled with incredible beasts and living dinosaurs alongside the titular giant ape King Kong. The fantastic imagery of these large prehistoric monsters captured the imagination of audiences and many have speculated that this could’ve had some influence on the Loch Ness legend.

I. Aldie Mackay (1933)

On April 14th 1933, at 3pm, Aldie Mackay and her husband John Mackay were driving along the north shore of Loch Ness. Mrs. Mackay reportedly spied a disturbance in the water and a whale-like creature rolling over repeatedly for about a minute before disappearing back beneath the water’s surface. She said it appeared to be many feet long and made large waves. The couple waited for about an hour for the beast to return but it was gone. The story was printed in the Inverness Courier on May 2nd 1933 in an article titled “Strange Spectacle In Loch Ness” by Alex Campbell which was relatively popular.

II. George Spicer (1933)

On the afternoon of July 22nd 1933, while on holiday in Scotland, George Spicer of London was driving along the east side of Loch Ness near the Foyers Hotel when he reportedly saw something he described as “prehistoric” and like a “dragon.” The long-necked greyish creature quickly crossed the road in front of him supposedly carrying a small lamb or animal. The roughly twenty five feet long creature then disappeared back into the Loch. George wrote a letter to the Inverness Courier newspaper telling the story of his sighting which was published on August 4th 1933 and became a worldwide sensation.

Author Rupert Gould then interviewed Spicer and wrote about his story in his book “Loch Ness Monster And Others (1934)” which was an important early work on the creature. The book also contained a sketch of the creature George Spicer reportedly saw. He said that he didn’t witness the creature’s legs or its head and remarked that it looked like a large snail with a long neck. In the Fortean magazine “Doubt” Issue #23 (December 1948), Tiffany Thayer revealed that he had corresponded with Rupert Gould and invited him to join the Fortean Society but, not enjoying Charles Fort’s humor, he declined. Though he still reportedly received issues of Thayer’s “Doubt” magazine by mail and Gould’s work was embraced by Forteans of the time and afterwards.

III. Hugh Gray’s Photo (1933)

On November 12th 1933, near the village of Foyers, Hugh Gray took a blurry photograph of something vague in the water of Loch Ness which he alleged to depict the Loch Ness monster. This photo was the first of its kind, though not very impressive, as it appears like it could be anything. What exactly it depicts is unknown but it is most likely a misidentification of some kind rather than a monster. Even if it were the legendary creature, the unclear and indistinct photo wouldn’t do anyone much good.

IV. Arthur Grant (1934)

On the night of January 5th 1934 at around 1am, Arthur Grant was riding his motorcycle near the north-east end of Loch Ness when he reportedly saw a creature with a small head and long neck which he described as a cross between a seal and a plesiosaur. Upon seeing him, the creature supposedly crossed the road and disappeared into the Loch. Grant followed but the creature was gone, leaving only ripples on the water. The story was featured in news press as well as in Rupert Gould’s “Loch Ness And Others” book including a sketch of the creature.

V. The Surgeon’s Photograph Hoax (1934)

The famous photo labeled “The Surgeon’s Photograph” which alleged to depict the creature in the Loch was published in the Daily Mail newspaper on April 21st 1934. It went on to become perhaps one of the most iconic and recognizable images in the history of the paranormal. Robert Kenneth Wilson, a surgeon and gynecologist from London, alleged to have taken the photographs though he refused to give his name to the paper which led to the photo’s title.

Despite its enduring legacy as a striking image to represent the creature, the photo was thoroughly debunked as a hoax in the 1990’s including in the book “Nessie – the Surgeon’s Photograph Exposed (1999)” by Alastair Boyd and David S. Martin. The “monster” seen in the photo was reportedly a toy submarine with a head and neck made from wood putty.

Marmaduke Wetherell worked for the Daily Mail. After being ridiculed for finding hoax footprints from the creature, Marmaduke recruited his son-in-law Christian Spurling to craft a fake monster to prank his employers. Spurling admitted to his involvement in the hoax in January of 1991. Marmaduke Wetherell, Christian Spurling, and insurance agent Maurice Chamber were all reportedly involved in the taking of the photo and sinking the sub into the Loch afterwards. Maurice gave the photos to his friend Robert Wilson afterwards who developed them. They were then sold to the Daily Mail and the rest is history.

The photo has been incredibly influential on the legend of the Loch Ness monster and cemented in the public zeitgeist what the creature is presumed to look like. The effects of the photo are incalculable. Reported sightings of the creature continued to happen for decades to come. A few even backdated their reports to the 1800s or claimed to have witnessed the monster before the media hype of 1933-34, though most claimed their sightings to have occurred afterwards. Loch Ness now had a new mascot and the legacy of the monster was firmly established. In the 1940s, the creature began being referred to by the name “Nessie.”

VI. Fortean Ivan T. Sanderson and The Birth of “Cryptozoology.”

Now let’s talk about another legend born in Scotland.

Ivan Terrence Sanderson (January 30th 1911 – February 19th 1973 / Aged 62) was a dedicated Fortean researcher and a member of the Fortean Society.

After reading the book “Lo! (1931),” Ivan Sanderson began collecting his own strange clippings from the newspapers and was greatly influenced by Charles Fort’s way of thinking. Sanderson was also a Naturalist and a Zoologist. He wrote books and articles on nature, travel, and Zoology as well as appearing on television as a presenter of animal guests for talk shows.

Sanderson had traveled around Europe and the North Atlantic in the 1910’s with his parents and pursued zoological education in England. Sanderson’s father Arthur Sanderson was a whiskey manufacturer who also founded a wildlife game reserve in Kenya. He reportedly died in 1924 after being attacked by a rhinoceros while assisting a documentary film crew.

In the 1920 and 30s, Sanderson went on various expeditions to places such as India, China, Japan, Egypt, Hawaii and North Africa where he collected animals for the British Museum. He wrote that he was supposedly attacked by a very large bat which he thought was the legendary “Olitiau” or “Cave Demon” of local African lore.

During World War II, he served as a British Naval Intelligence. Afterwards, he took residence in the United States and lived in New York city where he had worked as a press agent during the war. In the late 1940s, Sanderson began to write articles on anomalous phenomena, specifically related to mysterious supposed animals or creatures such as sea serpents.

On March 8th 1947, The Saturday Evening Post published an article written by Ivan T. Sanderson about sea serpents entitled “Don’t Scoff at Sea Monsters.” The next year, in January of 1948, The Saturday Evening Post published another Sanderson article exploring the possibility of living dinosaurs existing in remote Africa entitled “There Could Be Dinosaurs.”

Within these articles Sanderson coined the term “Cryptozoology” for the study of supposedly hidden animals.

Sanderson’s article on Dinosaurs inspired French Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans who later wrote the classic book “On the Track of Unknown Animals” which was released in French in 1955 and in English in 1958. Heuvelmans went on to become an important and influential figure seen as a “founding father” of the newly-invented Cryptozoology movement alongside Ivan Sanderson.

In 1949, Tiffany Thayer, of the Fortean Magazine “Doubt,” was discussing the idea of a mock “Fortean University” with classes devoted to different Fortean studies. Fortean reader Jack Clayton wrote a letter, which appeared in Doubt Issue #24 (April 1949), stating that Sanderson should be made chair of the “Fortean Zoology” class to cover sea serpents and other monsters. Jack added that collecting stories of sea serpents is what introduced him to Fortean material.

While Charles Fort definitely didn’t see himself as a scientist and often harshly criticized the field of Science, Sanderson held no such stigma, instead viewing his own undertaking as a true scientific pursuit. Ivan set out to apply the methods of Charles Fort to the field of Zoology.

Fort collected thought provoking anecdotes and oddities to make the reader question authority, reality, and what is truly possible. He often posed tongue-in-cheek theories for such phenomena but the purpose of his collecting was not as scientific “evidence.” By melding Forteanism, which isn’t a science, with the scientific field of Zoology, Sanderson had created a new field of supposed science that wasn’t quite science. A semi-scientific subculture that often accepted witness testimony and anecdotes as potential evidence of real undiscovered biological animals.

To put it very plainly, he had created a pseudoscience.

We can only speculate what Fort would have thought of this and if he would be proud or ashamed of such an intellectual offspring. Cryptozoology would fixate on the idea that behind every monster legend there could be a biological animal just waiting to be discovered and catalogued. For better or for worse, in the decades to come, this mindset would be applied not only to a variety of indigenous lore and spirituality but also to many examples of up-and-coming American monster folklore.

Source(s):

⦁ Lo! (1931) by Charles Fort

⦁ “Strange Spectacle In Loch Ness” by Alex Campbell, Inverness Courier 05/02/1933

George Spicer letter, Inverness Courier 08/04/1933

Loch Ness And Others (1934) by Rupert Gould

Doubt Issue #23 (December 1948)

Nessie – the Surgeon’s Photograph Exposed (1999) by David Martin and Alastair Boyd

“Don’t Scoff at Sea Monsters” by Ivan Sanderson, Saturday Evening Post 03/08/1947

“There Could Be Dinosaur” by Ivan Sanderson, Saturday Evening Post Jan 1948

Doubt Issue #24 (April 1949)

Cryptozoology A to Z (1999) by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark