Fort, Charles

Tagged: Author

(1874-1932) US journalist and author whose first work, The Outcast Manufacturers (1909), is a novel only remotely connected to his later interests. He also wrote numerous usually realistic, and often humorous, short stories including a satirical fantasy, "A Radical Corpuscle" (March 1906 Tom Watson's Magazine), before settling into the work for which he is remembered. Working from extensive notes collected mainly from newspapers, magazines and scientific journals, Fort compiled a series of books containing accounts of "inexplicable" incidents and phenomena; unusual phenomena that recurred repeatedly, such as rains of fish or frogs, poltergeist activity, mysterious disappearances and UFOs. Though characterized as an anti-Scientist, Fort reserved his attacks for the "scientific priestcraft" and their dogmatic "damning" of unconventional or unwanted observations. Fort's own belief was simply a monistic faith in the unity of all things, and this forms the principal connection between his apparently unrelated groups of data. His books are written in an eccentric style and are interspersed with wilfully absurd theories and ideas. The first two, both unpublished, were called simply «X» and «Y»; «X» proposes that Earth is controlled from Mars and «Y» supports the Hollow-Earth hypothesis. These manuscripts have been lost or destroyed but are thus described by Tiffany Thayer, quoted in the Damon Knight biography below.

Of the four published volumes, The Book of the Damned (1919) and New Lands (1923) are largely concerned with astronomical and meteorological events, while Lo! (1931) and Wild Talents (1932) are more interested in human and animal phenomena (> Wild Talents). All are crammed with data, and the sheer bulk of information is impressive; however, there is no attempt to evaluate the numerous reports cited, so that silly-season Urban Legends and hoax stories are jumbled in with a too-sparse leavening of more reliable accounts. Reading Fort therefore feels much like eating a stew of dubious provenance: the taste is good but one worries about what went into it. Fort himself was perfectly aware that much of his data was, to say the least, doubtful; of The Book of the Damned he wrote: "This book is fiction, like Gulliver's Travels, The Origin of Species, Newton's Principia, and every history of the United States." Moreover, he was reluctant to invent theories (other than whimsical ones) to account for his data – a humility that distances his books from the sketchy fantasies of later writers such as Erich von Däniken.

After Fort's death, compilation of data was continued by the Fortean Society, founded in 1931 by his literary admirers including Ben Hecht, John Cowper Powys, Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943) and Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), and in the journals Doubt (US) and Lo! (UK). Information is currently collected by the International Fortean Organization, who publish INFO Journal, and by the UK publication Fortean Times. Prominent modern Forteans have included William R Corliss (1926-2011), John Michell (1933-2009) and Robert J M Rickard (1945-    ).

Fort's list of bizarre observations and events, together with his demand for original and undogmatic interpretation, influenced and stimulated many sf writers. Early examples are "The Thing from Outside" (April 1923 Science and Invention) by George Allan England and "The Space Visitors" (March 1930 Air Wonder Stories) by Edmond Hamilton. Fort's most enthusiastic sf follower was Eric Frank Russell, who considered him "the only real genius sf ever had"; Russell's Sinister Barrier (March 1939 Unknown; 1943; rev 1948) and Dreadful Sanctuary (June-August 1948 Astounding; 1951; rev 1963) followed the serialization of Fort's Lo! in Astounding in May-November 1934. The popularity of Sinister Barrier, plus John W Campbell Jr's 1941 recommendation of Fort for source material, created a wave of Fortean fiction, particularly in Campbell's magazines Unknown and Astounding. Fortean elements rarely appear in more recent written sf, though "A Collector of Ambroses" (September 1971 F&SF) by Arthur Jean Cox and Patrick Tilley's Fade-Out (1975) are exceptions. Films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), with its discovery of the famous "lost" Flight 19, and Magnolia (1999), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (1970-    ) – which climaxes with a rain of frogs – also maintain the tradition.

Damon Knight, another author influenced by Fort, published a standard biography, Charles Fort, Prophet of the Unexplained (1970). Even more directly influenced was Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained (2002 Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained #1-#4; graph 2003) by Peter M Lenkov with Frazer Irving: this features Fort aiding an Alien in nineteenth-century New York as it attempts to expunge from our world a viral Monster, one of whose lurking places is the Statue of Liberty. [PR/JGr/LW]

see also: ESP; Futuristic Tales; Vol Molesworth; Paranoia; Pseudoscience; Psi Powers; Telekinesis; Teleportation.

Charles Hoy Fort

born Albany, New York: 6 August 1874

died New York: 3 May 1932

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