Charles Fort

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in Scotland On Sunday


Charles Fort
Jim Steinmeyer
Heinemann, £16.99

Not many people get a whole new concept named after them, and Charles Fort was perhaps the unlikeliest of candidates. Shy, podgy, bookish – all he ever wanted to be was a novelist. But on a snowy January night in 1931, the reclusive 57-year-old author was lured to a rare public appearance at New York’s Savoy Plaza Hotel, expecting to attend the launch of his latest book. In fact it was the inaugural dinner of the Fortean Society, a body dedicated to investigating the kind of weird phenomena Fort made famous – frogs raining from the sky, nails found fossilized in quartz, unexplained flying objects. A little over a year later, Fort was dead – but his name lives on as a byword for the paranormal. Long before the X-Files, Fort was, as the subtitle of Steinmeyer’s excellent biography calls him, “the man who invented the supernatural”.

So much legend has encrusted the man, that the facts of his life are surprising. He had nothing to do with the Fortean Society, founded by a self-publicising fan who kept it going until 1959, nor the magazine Fortean Times, which started in the 1970s and continues to publicise ufology, cryptozoology, and random stains that look like celebrities. Fort disapproved of the word Fortean, and even of “supernatural”, insisting that what he investigated were natural phenomena that orthodox science overlooked. An opponent of superstition as much as dogma, he is as unclassifiable as the Yeti footprints or spontaneously combusting corpses he assiduously catalogued.

Steinmeyer attributes much of Fort’s character to his troubled childhood. Initially all was well: his father was a successful grocer in Albany, New York, married to a girl from a well-to-do merchant’s family. Three sons were born, Charles being eldest, but soon after the birth of the third, when Charles was four years old, their mother died, aged only 25. Servants pampered them, as did their stepmother when the father remarried – but the three boys felt isolated, and formed a mischievous alliance against their father, and against authority in general. Charles Fort described his early years in a memoir where he always referred to himself, curiously, as “we”, his father as “they”. He would use much the same terminology years later, describing the battle of free-thinkers like himself against the forces of orthodoxy.

The boys’ games were hair-raising – one involved a pistol that turned out to be loaded. That any of them reached adulthood was something of a miracle, though the youngest and wildest was sent to a school for wayward children as soon as he hit his tenth birthday (the earliest age at which he could be admitted), while the second child calmed down and eventually followed his father into the grocery business. Charles, on the other hand, was determined to pursue a literary career, and as a teenager began writing for the local newspaper. Then, in search of experience for the novel he hoped to write, he set off on a journey that took him through America, Britain and South Africa, living on his wits and often sleeping rough. Returning to New York, he married and began living in the Hell’s Kitchen district (in those days as rough as the name implies), trying to earn a living by writing short stories for magazines.

Forts’ big break came when he was discovered by Theodore Dreiser, only a few years older but already successful as a writer. He was to prove Fort’s greatest friend and ally, even though the two only actually met, by Dreiser’s reckoning, some 20 or 25 times over 28 years. To Dreiser, Fort initially looked “almost a duplicate of Oliver Hardy”, but his belief in the bumbling writer’s genius never wavered – he would eventually compare him to Edgar Allen Poe and even Leonardo da Vinci.

Through Dreiser’s help and encouragement, Fort published a starkly realistic portrayal of working-class life, the Outcast Manufacturers. “In spite of its faults,” writes Steinmeyer “the novel is refreshing and addictive”, quoting Anthony Boucher’s opinion that Fort’s lack of success with it was due to its being “ahead of its time… closer to… Ring Lardner or Sinclair Lewis than the average novelist of 1909”.

Dreiser urged Fort to write more fiction, but Fort was never able to believe in his own artistic instincts: Steinmeyer describes how he kept “boxes of metaphors, tens of thousands of little pieces of paper on which were written descriptive sentences”, and tried creating “visualizing devices” to encourage his creativity, “searching for a system the would guarantee success”.

Suddenly, though, everything changed, and the catalyst was the death of Fort’s father. Fort did not visit him near the end, and may not even have attended his funeral – nor did he inherit anything (it all went to the second son). But at the age of 39, Fort began “a new sort of education”. Instead of metaphors, he began filing information, gleaned from New York Public Library. He arranged them under subject headings (1,300 of them), but found that some items defied classification. Strange objects falling from the sky; evidence that the Sphinx once stood beneath the sea; footprints of a giant found in the Himalayas…

Fort came up with an explanation. The people of Mars, he claimed, are controlling everything on Earth, through a force called X. Our planet is like a “sensitive film”, and what we perceive is only the projection of X upon it. Mysteries and anomalies are evidence of our planet’s unreality. “I’ve given up fiction,” Fort wroted to Dreiser. “I am convinced that everything is a fiction.”

Dreiser thought his new work, X, “one of the greatest books I have ever read in my life”, but it was never published, nor was its successor Y, in which Fort reattributed Earth’s wonders not to Mars, but to an intelligence at the North Pole. Fort eventually destroyed the manuscripts, both of which, Steinmeyer notes, must really have been crank science of a fairly ordinary kind, attempting to present a grand unified theory of everything. Fort’s great innovation, which would influence all subsequent writers on the paranormal, was that he dropped all attempt at explanation. Instead of trying to come up with a solution, Fort would simply present the “evidence”, leaving readers to ponder “what if?”

The result was The Book Of The Damned, a survey of weird phenomena that dismisses both science and faith, replacing it with total relativism. Maybe blood falls down on us from a Super-Sargasso Sea - or maybe not. “Our attitude: Here are the data.” In staccato style, Fort offered extracts from newspapers and journals, to create a bamboozling picture of inexplicable events. It was the book that made Charles Fort’s name.

Screenwriter Ben Hecht thought it brilliant, the work of “an inspired clown”, while H.L. Mencken was “puzzled”, and H.G. Wells judged Fort “one of the most damnable bores who ever cut scraps from out of the way newspapers”. In The Book Of The Damned and three more books that followed, Fort, presented himself (and his readers) as the open-minded antidote to scientfic certainty. Even the Catholic World approved of his swipes at Darwin, not noticing his equally heavy swipes at the certainties of organised religions. Another devotee was the fashionable novelist Booth Tarkington, mistakenly described by Steinmeyer as Nobel Prize-winning, though his Pulitzer made him an influential ally.

Ever the recluse, Fort lived out his remaing years in his New York apartment with the wife he referred to as “momma”, no children, but a number of parrots (he considered writing a book about them). His inventions included “topeacho” - a preserve made of tomatoes and peaches - and a form of draughts using 400 pieces on a board of 800 squares, which took two days to play. The man who coined the word “teleportation” died of leukemia, his last words being an enigmatic plea to his absent friend: “Drive them out, Dreiser, drive them out!”

Steinmeyer has produced a marvellously readable window on the life this extraordinary man, though the great question he leaves unanswered is, “was Fort a genius, or a crank?” Fort’s own message was that we should not always attempt to solve, because some questions have no solution. That is Steinmeyer’s conclusion: the greatest enigma in Fort’s books is the man himself.