The Incredible Stories of Charles Fort

The Press, February 15, 1992

Denis Dutton

The World’s Most Incredible Stories: the Best of Fortean Times. Edited by Adam Sisman. Allen and Unwin, $29.95.

Charles Fort (1874-1932) was a great dissenter and, in his own striking way, skeptic. Over many years this New York journalist was a tireless debunker of establishment science. In his first work, Book of the Damned (1919), the damned were not people but facts - facts which, because they did not fit in the scheme of things as determined by scientific authority, had been excommunicated.

Charles Fort
Fort scoured old books, newspapers, diaries, and scientific publications for his material: frogs raining from a clear blue sky, nineteenth-century UFO accounts, anomalous effects of ball lightening or tornados, people found to speak unintelligible languages, the seeming teleportation of stones, weird effects of strong earthquakes, and on and on. Reading over Fort’s books today, one is impressed with the vitality and integrity of the man. By describing incidents that science seemed helpless to account for, he saw his task to show the world just how limited and ignorant academic science really was. Fort was downright cynical about professional scientists, most of whom he viewed as smug and narrow-minded at best, incompetent or dishonest at worst.

A couple of generations on, his complaints seem less salient. Many of the anomalous events he described now do have acceptable scientific explanations (but not the famous frog rain), and the contemporary practice of science is much more open to the unusual than in Fort’s day.

Fort remains unique, however, in that he never employed his material in order to advance an ulterior ideological agenda. These days, most paranormal hucksters use strange tales as a device to sell screwball religion (or “spirituality”), belief in life after death, or health scams. Fort steered away from the likes of psychics and astrologers, preferring to stick with apparently serious reports of natural events. He did not remove the halo from science in order to place it on some cult, least of all a cult he would lead.

Fortean Times is a periodical founded in 1973 ostensibly to carry on in the spirit of Fort’s work. It does no such thing; it is a travesty of Fort. Many of the stories in this collection are about merely rare natural events, for example, lambs with six legs. The photo of a kitten standing with its front paws together was taken in a Buddhist temple with the suggestion that the cat is praying. The report of cane toads in Queensland might amaze some, but it would not have impressed Charles Fort.

Some of the tales are about matters that have been investigated and have straightforward scientific explanations, such as reports of alleged human self-combustion or British crop circles. Others are strange indeed, but culled from the pages of tabloid newspapers notorious for inventing their stories. Still others are events which unquestionably happened but are given contrived interpretations. A Canada goose falls from the sky, and the farmer who saw the event claims it was hit by a meteor. Possible, of course, but stupendously less probable than a shooter whose gun was unheard by the farmer. (The bird had holes in it but no presumably no bullets were found.)

Many of the reports are inane. In 1989 elderly people in Middlesex were pelted by eggs in the street. Some eggs hit their windows. The police thought local youths were responsible. And that’s the whole “incredible” story!

There are in the entire book only a few truly Fortean phenomena. One I enjoyed tells of a three-ton plug of earth that was torn from a Washington State wheat field and landed about 25 metres away. There was no machine about to do it, and no apparent natural explanation, though there exists a record of something similar happening in England in 1582. Just plain strange. As Fort would have said, we don’t have all the answers.

But we have a few, and it is a shame that Fortean Times insists on mixing only a tiny bit the truly weird and wonderful with what is mostly banal and fraudulent.