A retro review from May 28, 2012:
Review: Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, Jim Steinmeyer, 2008.
The influence of Charles Fort on popular culture isn’t that of some seeping, hidden stream percolating out of the depths of history to mysteriously water modern ideas. It’s more of a shaded river whose twisting path abuts a surprising number of cultural vegetation. The subtitle is a bit of marketing hyperbole. As Steinmeyer himself notes, Fort said the word “supernatural” had no place in his vocabulary, no meaning. But his peculiar works, four bizarre mixtures of satire and philosophy; compendiums of strange events and sometimes whimsical, sometimes sinister, sometimes absent explanations, known as The Complete Books of Charles Fort: The Book of the Damned / Lo! / Wild Talents / New Lands, are an important source stream for the torrents of writing on the paranormal the 20th century saw, Berlitz and von Daniken, ufology and raining frogs. His works are explicitly referenced in horror fiction as long ago as H. P. Lovecraft and as contemporaneously as Stephen King and Caitlin Kiernan. His ideas show up in the film Magnolia and an actual character in the recent movie The Whisperer in Darkness. He even gave us the word “teleportation”. And, of course, his name lives on in that indispensable journal of oddities, The Fortean Times.
This isn’t the first work from a major publisher on Fort. Damon Knight, the science fiction writer, did the worthy biography Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained in 1970. But this has several advantages, besides availability, over Knight’s work. Not only does this work have photographs, but it also has numerous quotes from Fort’s earlier writings before 1920’s The Book of the Damned as well as the reactions, in private and in reviews, to those works. There are also selections from Fort’s unpublished autobiography Many Parts. This edition helpfully sets these quotes off in italics which further makes this a handsome production. After an unhappy childhood under a domineering and sometimes violent upper-middle class father, Fort left home at 17; worked as newspaper reporter for about three years; bummed about America, South Africa, Canada, and Britain for a couple of years; and returned home where he married, in 1896, Anna, a woman four years his senior. For the next 12 years, Fort and Anna lived poorly, supported by numerous stories, mostly of a realistic nature and noted for the verisimilitude of their dialogue and setting, that were published in several well-known magazines of the time. These brought him to the attention of Theodore Dreiser who was to become a lifelong friend. Dreiser used his growing reputation and fame to get Fort’s first novel published: The Outcast Manufacturers. Steinmeyer presents some interesting selections from this comic yet realistic novel of slum dwellers – usefully drawn from the Fort’s own impoverished circumstances.
From 1908 to 1918, Fort worked on two works that, to the despair of Fortean scholars and enthusiasts, are lost and known only through letters: “X” and “Y”. Steinmeyer tries to piece out their structure and underlying philosophies, and they seemed to have been closer to conventional fiction, perhaps in the style of The Outcast Manufacturers, than his later and more famous works. “X” seems to have been the story of the influence, exerted by mysterious rays, of a Martian civilization on human history. Fort even wrote a film treatment for it when Dreiser thought he was getting a job in the movies as a “scenario director”. “Y” was about a secret polar civilization and worked in the enigmatic Kaspar Hauser. While Dreiser was an enthusiastic cheerleader – he even used what he thought of as Fort’s serious philosophy in a play he wrote, publishers didn’t bite.
Then Fort came up with “Z”, what became The Book of the Damned, and Fort and his bizarre, staccato prose, his absolute skepticism in refusing to take any belief seriously, to note no categories, to mock astronomers and other scientists who “damned” inconvenient data, entered the world’s consciousness.
It’s for that earlier story of Fort’s life, and not the better known content of his four famous works, that is one of the book’s main values. The other is trying to discern any sort of true belief, any philosophical stance in Fort, to answer the question: crank or genius? He offers many contemporary insights from the famous to forgotten. H. L. Mencken thought Fort was pedaling nonsense. H. G. Wells scoffed at Fort, said that science was an exploration of the world, not the orthodoxy Fort claimed. While science writer and Fort correspondent Maynard Shipley agreed with Wells on Fort’s misunderstanding of the process of science and felt Fort was overpraised, he also acknowledged Fort’s writings left “a new and exhilarating emotion” in the reader that would color all his future readings of science. Fort interestingly admired Shipley’s review and said he saw himself pioneering a new literature that, in a world where movies would take over conventional drama, novels must have something besides humans for their characters and that his damned data might be the substitute.
Fort’s predictions, of course, for the future of fiction did not prove true. Indeed, while Dreiser compared his singular literary genius to Poe, Fort had no stylistic imitators even among those dealing with similar subjects.
The last thing this biography brings to the table is a nice coda, a wrap up of Fort’s influence and what happened to those who were his ardent admirers like Ben Hecht and Tiffany Thayer and, of course, Dreiser. (It’s interesting to note that, rather like the circle of figures around H. P. Lovecraft, many of these names are probably remembered today only because of their association with Fort. Even Dreiser is becoming little known for anything besides providing the source novel for the film A Place in the Sun.) And Steinmeyer also corrects an old, unkind, and untrue notion that Anna Fort was a dullard little interested in her husband’s work. Indeed, she was his first reader, the one he tested all his fiction out on first as well as whatever those four books are.
In short, this book is required reading for anyone just developing their interest in the man behind “Fortean phenomena”. For those already familiar with Fort’s life and work, Steinmeyer presents enough new, primary source material to also make this book essential.