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Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural
The seminal biography of the twentieth century’s premier chronicler of the paranormal, Charles Fort—a man whose very name gave rise to an adjective, fortean, to describe the unexplained.
By the early 1920s, Americans were discovering that the world was a strange place.
Charles Fort could demonstrate that it was even stranger than anyone suspected. Frogs fell from the sky. Blood rained from the heavens. Mysterious airships visited the Earth. Dogs talked. People disappeared. Fort asked why, but, even more vexing, he also asked why we weren’t paying attention.
Here is the first fully rendered literary biography of the man who, more than any other figure, would define our idea of the anomalous and paranormal. In Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, the acclaimed historian of stage magic Jim Steinmeyer goes deeply into the life of Charles Fort as he saw himself: first and foremost, a writer.
At the same time, Steinmeyer tells the story of an era in which the certainties of religion and science were being turned on their heads. And of how Fort—significantly—was the first man who challenged those orthodoxies not on the grounds of some counter-fundamentalism of his own but simply for the plainest of reasons: they didn’t work. In so doing, Fort gave voice to a generation of doubters who would neither accept the “straight story” of scholastic science nor credulously embrace fantastical visions. Instead, Charles Fort demanded of his readers and admirers the most radical of human acts: Thinking.read more
JIM STEINMEYER is one of today’s most renowned historians of stage magic. He is the acclaimed author of The Glorious Deception and Hiding the Elephant, a Los Angeles Times bestseller. He is also a leading designer of magic illusion who has done work for television, Broadway, and many of the best-known names in modern magic, such as Doug Henning, Siegfried & Roy, and David Copperfield. Steinmeyer has also developed attractions and live shows for the Walt Disney Company, Universal Studios, and Dreamworks, and has twice received fellowships from the Academy of Magical Arts. He lives in Los Angeles.read more
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. 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 collectively as The Books of Charles Fort, 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 character 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.read more
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The cover of Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural shows a photograph of Fort, aptly described by author Jim Steinmeyer as resembling a slightly chubby Teddy Roosevelt, surrounded by the fanciful creatures and phenomena he described in his writings: fairies perch on his shoulders, UFOs hover over his head, snakes and fish fall from above. Given the cover illustration and the subtitle, one might expect a lively description of Fort’s work on the paranormal and, perhaps, a larger discussion of the role of the supernatural in early twentieth century America. Sadly, though, one would be wrong to expect that.Steinmeyer’s book has been misrepresented; it is not so much a study of Fort’s research into the paranormal and the metaphysical studies that resulted from his work, but rather is a fairly standard biography, and not a very interesting one at that. Steinmeyer chronicles Fort’s life from childhood, often dwelling on unnecessary detail and injecting drama to enhance his narrative (Fort slammed a door when he finally left his parents’ house for good! Oh, my!) Steinmeyer’s description of Fort’s childhood, though, is interesting, characterized as it was by his obsessive hobbies and what appears to have been fairly systematic child abuse on the part of his father. Steinmeyer employs excerpts from Fort’s fragmentary autobiography, Many Parts, to great effect in the early chapters of the book, but such use of Fort’s writings, however apt it may be, becomes tiresome later on. Indeed, Steinmeyers affords too much attention to Fort’s early adulthood and failed literary career, a portion of the book that can only be described as monotonous. Fort’s encounter with the “supernatural,” alluded to in the subtitle, occurs halfway into the book. Sadly, Steinmeyer never fully delivers on the promise of his subject. The phenomena that fascinated Fort are mentioned briefly, but are never given any deeper consideration. Likewise, the metaphysical system Fort constructs is described only in the most cursory way. Steinmeyer frequently drops a few sentences or paragraphs from Fort’s “supernatural” texts into his discussion, but is never able to expand on the meaning of those texts or provide the reader with a more fully developed sense of Fort’s ideas, which is unfortunate, since they are perhaps the most interesting thing about a man who spent his life sitting at his kitchen table writing about fish falling from the skies. (Fortunately, Steinmeyer notes that a study of Fort’s beliefs by Ian Kidd will be released next year.) Finally, Steinmeyer’s strained attempts to connect Forts beliefs to a larger portrait of American society in the 1920s fall flat. Fort’s works on the paranormal characterized the beginning of the twenties; Al Capone’s fall was the decades unofficial end, and so on.It is unfortunate that Steinmeyer employed such a conventional approach to an otherwise fascinating subject. Steinmeyer would have been wise to cut down his chapters on the early years of Fort’s life and to beef up his discussion of Fort’s metaphysical works and beliefs and what they said about 1920s America. Steinmeyer occasionally hinted at the book trade and publishing industry of the age, and how Fort’s work fit into those industries and the burgeoning fantasy/science-fiction genre. By going into greater detail about those businesses and literary realms, Steinmeyer might have achieved a study worthy of Fort’s ideas and their legacy, and written a far more interesting book.read more
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Fort was a fascinating character. This biography is far more readable than any of Fort's actual books. Interesting and just the right length. I was surprised to learn that Fort was reporting a great deal with his tongue in his cheek. I always thought he was a great big crank. Turns out that's not true. Odd, yes. But crazy? No. There's also a lot of information about Theodore Dreiser here, as he was more or less Fort's mentor. And H. G. Wells provides background snark, as does Mencken. The book is pretty light on recitations of weird phenomena, which is okay by me.read more
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Ben Hecht saw iconoclastic author Fort (1874-1932) as an "inspired clown" who thumbed his nose at science as well as religion, and Fort's imaginative books exerted a strong influence on science fiction, notably novelist Eric Frank Russell. Stage magic historian Steinmeyer (Hiding the Elephant) captures Fort's wry humor, skepticism and wildest notions. Surviving fragments of Fort's unpublished autobiography illuminate his strict Albany, N.Y., childhood. In 1892, Fort became a New York City reporter and editor before his world travels and 1896 marriage. He was befriended by Theodore Dreiser, who shepherded Fort's short stories and first novel into print. Fort also pored through diverse journals to document the paranormal and anomalies rejected by the scientific establishment. Shoe boxes packed with 40,000 slips of paper served as a basis for The Book of the Damned (1919), which saw print because Dreiser threatened to leave his publisher unless the company also published Fort. As more compilations of oddities appeared, Fort developed a cult following, and the so-called Forteans issued journals long after their leader's death. Steinmeyer has emerged from the archives with a wonderful, prismatic portrait of the man who once wrote, "To this day, it has not been decided if I am a humorist or a scientist." 8 pages of b&w photos. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved