Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
At the age of 42, Charles Fort inherited a small fortune from an uncle, which allowed him to quit work and pursue his hobby full time. A year later, his brother Clarence died, and Clarence’s portion of the inheritance was divided equally between Charles and his other brother, Raymond. Charles’ hobby was unusual, especially in 1916, the year that he first inherited his money. Although he wrote ten novels, only one was modestly successful.
Perhaps this lack of success in writing fiction is what caused him to turn his hand to nonfiction. He wrote a series of books in which he recorded bizarre incidents which, today, would be characterized as either paranormal or supernatural in nature. Among such incidents were reports he read in various world-class libraries of rains of frogs, snakes, and other animals; strange disappearances of people; visitations of ghosts and apparitions; unidentified flying objects; mysterious lights in the sky; the occurrence of spontaneous human combustion; and appearances of unlikely breasts.
Recounting reports of such phenomena in The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents, Fort also formulated absurd theories to account for these objects, events, and experiences. His theories were not intended to be taken seriously--or, at least, not any more so than he believed anyone should take scientific theories. The fact that science was unable to explain such phenomena as those he recounted and, indeed, rejected them, suggested to Fort that science was limited in its ability to interpret reality and, consequently, did not deserve the nearly unlimited credit and honor that it arrogantly claimed for itself and its practitioners.
For example, Fort attributed many mysterious incidents to a visitation of extraterrestrial space travelers to the Earth or to their being stranded in a gigantic Sargasso Sea that orbited the planet, occasionally spilling one or another strange artifact upon the Earth. He likewise suggested that Martians were controlling events on Earth. These theories, he claimed, tongue in cheek, had as much explanatory value as (and possibly more than) scientific theories that rejected inconvenient facts as “damned.” He compiled such data, rather than reject it out of hand, in The Book of the Damned and subsequent volumes of different titles. Today, The Fortean Society, named in his honor, continues his work, publishing its results in the Fortean Times.
Admittedly, Fort was something of a crackpot who didn’t fit well into the society--or the science--of his day and is, as such, an interesting person in his own right, but why is he interesting to readers of Chillers and Thrillers, who are concerned with the theory and practice of writing horror stories?
I think he is of interest to such readers for at least two reasons. First, many of the phenomena that he identifies could serve as the inciting moment, or launch pad, for a horror story or novel. Assume that human flesh rains down upon the earth from a dark, overcast sky, as, according to Fort, it did on more than one occasion. Why? What caused such an unlikely event? Or why did fish or snakes suddenly fall from the heavens? The answers to such unusual questions should suggest some unusual possibilities, some of which might be horrific, indeed! (As I have already suggested, many of these same incidents could easily be the catalyst for a story as well.)
Second, Fort’s invention of theories suggests that a writer whose work includes bizarre incidents must have a theory that finally explains the origin, the cause, and the nature of these incidents, bizarre though they may be. Stephen King claims that he didn’t think he had to include an explanation of the remarkable events that unfold in his work, but, he says, his readers let him know, in no uncertain terms, that, yes, by God, he did have to explain himself. In Under the Dome, King offers multiple possibilities for the origin and the nature of the transparent barrier that descends over Chester’s Mill, Maine: aliens, rogue scientists, foreign terrorists are among these possibilities. The strangest (and, for me, the most intriguing) is that the dome might itself be a living organism of some sort. Outlandish? Perhaps, as Fort’s theories certainly were, probably by design. However, the very absurdity of Fort’s theories remind the writer of horror stories to offer a cause or a reason by which the bizarre incidents of his or her novel may be understood.
It is advisable for writers to acquaint themselves with criticism of Fort, too, of course, so as to have a balanced perspective regarding him and his work, and The Skeptic’s Dictionary helps in this regard, concluding, regarding Fort:
Fort was skeptical about scientific explanations because scientists sometimes argue "according to their own beliefs rather than the rules of evidence" and they suppress or ignore inconvenient data. He seems to have understood that scientific theories are models, not pictures, of reality, but he considered them to be little more than superstitions and myths. He seems to have had a profound misunderstanding of the nature of scientific theories. For, he criticized them for not being able to accommodate anomalies and for requiring data to fit. He took particular delight when scientists made incorrect predictions and he attacked what he called the "priestcraft" of science. Fort seems to have been opposed to science as it really is: fallible, human and tentative, after probabilities rather than absolute certainties. He seems to have thought that since science is not infallible, any theory is as good as any other.