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'Think to New Worlds' shows Charles Fort's influence on the 'post-truth' era


‘Think to New Worlds’ shows Charles Fort’s influence on the ‘post-truth’ era

A complicated legacy.

Anyone who spends time studying the paranormal eventually comes across the name Charles Fort, whose landmark The Book of the Damned (1919) constitutes the first work to collectively address anomalies like UFOs, cryptids, poltergeists, spontaneous human combustion, unexplained disappearances, and reports of fish falling from the sky.

More recently, scholars have begun to recognize that Fort’s work has also been a significant influence on literature and the arts, especially the field of science fiction. The first book to address this, albeit briefly, was Andrew May’s Pseudoscience and Science-Fiction (2016), followed by Tanner F. Boyle’s more extensive monograph The Fortean Influence on Science-Fiction (2021).

Now historian of science Joshua Blu Buhs, author of Bigfoot: Life and Times of a Legend (2009), offers his own contribution to this growing body of scholarship with his latest book, Think to New Worlds: The Cultural History of Charles Fort and His Followers (University of Chicago Press, 2024). Buhs’ aim is to try and make sense out of the notoriously capricious Fort, not by examining the man himself, but his legion of admirers.

As Buhs demonstrates in the meticulously researched Think to New Worlds, Fort was always popular with those attuned to the arts. Turn of the century American novelist Theodore Dreiser was an early patron of his, and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ben Hetch declared himself “the first disciple of Charles Fort.” Actor and writer Tiffany Thayer started The Fortean Society and published its official journal, Doubt, where he preached a radical form of epistemological agnosticism, which included skepticism about the reality of atomic bombs, satellites, and the efficacy of vaccines.

'Think to New Worlds" cover

But Fort proved the most influential among the early pioneers of science fiction. The first magazine dedicated to the genre, Amazing Stories, included George Allan England’s overtly Fortean short story “The Thing from – ‘Outside’” (1926) in its debut issue. The magazine’s editor, Ray Palmer, would later champion the hollow Earth mysteries of Richard Shaver in the pages of Amazing, and the flying saucer sightings of Kenneth Arnold in his other magazine, Fate. Yet another sci-fi publication, Astounding Stories, serialized Fort’s second book of paranormal mysteries, Lo! in 1934.

The authors contributing to Weird Tales also read Fort. H.P. Lovecraft namedrops him in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931), which involves a surreptitious alien invasion in Vermont. Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard introduced the idea of shape-shifting reptilians infiltrating the government in “The Shadow Kingdom” (1929). Another popular Weird Tales alumnus, Robert Barbour Johnson, penned “Far Below” (1939), about a conspiracy to conceal the existence of cannibals roaming the New York City subway system. Johnson started his own branch of The Fortean Society in the San Francisco Bay Area, called Chapter Two, which Thayer disavowed.

Pioneering British sci-fi writer Eric Frank Russell drew on Fort’s speculations about extraterrestrials for his story “The Sinister Barrier” (1939), which was published in Unknown, a sci-fi magazine edited by John W. Campbell, who advised budding sci-fi writers to read Fort. Campbell authored the deeply paranoid sci-fi story “Who Goes There?” (1938), which director John Carpenter would later adapt into the movie The Thing (1982).

Russell became second-in-command of Thayer’s Fortean Society, though Thayer held sci-fi writers and fans in contempt. Russell was also lifelong friends with Arthur C. Clarke, who likewise admired Fort, and whose tale of aliens directing human evolution, “The Sentinel” (1951), would inspire the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In France, Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, editors of the fantasy and sci-fi magazine Planète, were inspired to write The Morning of the Magicians (1960), an exposé on Nazi occultism and ancient alien super-science, after reading Fort.

Fort’s first biographer was the sci-fi author Damon Knight, whose chilling “To Serve Man” (1950) was informed by Fort’s conspiratorial speculations and adapted into a popular episode of The Twilight Zone. Think to New Worlds concludes its survey with a profile of contemporary trans Irish paleontologist turned acclaimed horror writer Caitlín R. Kiernan, whose hit short story collection was titled To Charles Fort, With Love (2005).

This litany of writers and artists only represents a fraction of the individuals covered, and it’s this comprehensiveness that’s simultaneously Think to New World’s greatest attribute and its key liability. Buhs writes in a staccato rhythm, jumping from one profile to another and back again so quickly that it’s occasionally difficult to keep track of who he’s discussing, necessitating paragraphs be read and re-read several times. One almost suspects that Buhs was attempting to imitate – in a decidedly mild way – Fort’s own notorious, idiosyncratic writing style.

Fort gleefully anticipated the breakdown between fact and fiction.

Buhs’ goal in Think to New Worlds isn’t to suggest that speculative fiction writers uniformly believe in the authenticity of the paranormal, although some certainly do. Both Issac Asimov (I, Robot [1950]) and Richard Matherson (I Am Legend [1954]) found Fort credulous, and Thayer obnoxious. Nevertheless, they still wrote stories premised on Fortean themes, and thereby helped propagate Fort’s ideas.

Given this literary milieu, Think to New Worlds draws heavily on genre fiction historian Michael Saler’s As If (2012) for a theoretical framework with which to interpret Fort. A heightened emphasis on faux verisimilitude was central to the advent of modern genre fiction, as authors increasingly presented narratives in the style of epistles, diary entries, and newspaper reports. Dates, names, locations, and even fake maps and photos became de rigueur, all in the interest of cultivating what Saler calls an “ironic belief” in the fictional worlds being presented.

If science-fiction writers wanted to make the fantastic sound increasingly realistic, then Buhs argues Fort and his later overt imitators, like cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson and ufologist John Keel, tried to make reality sound increasingly like fantasy. This conceptual overlap allowed science fiction and Forteana to form a feedback loop with each other, which caused the boundary between fact and fiction to become increasingly porous.

Think to New Worlds: The Cultural History of Charles Fort and His Followers notes that Fort gleefully anticipated this eventual breakdown, which he prophetically referred to as the “era of the hyphen.” Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” the word of the year in 2016, defining it as “relating to and denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” and many cultural commentators say we’re living in a post-truth era. For better or worse, I can’t help but imagine Charles Fort looking down from the Super Sargasso Sea and smiling.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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