Some are aware, some aren’t, that rather than coming up through traditional fan circles I sort of fell into science fiction by way of the backstage trap door. Growing up, ergo, I read neither the majors nor the minors, although I did see most of the movies (not a plus in my favor, twenty-six years ago) and always liked ghost stories.
My own private sense of wonder, however, arose from constant perusal of what Charles Fort called the Data—which in most instances actually weren’t, but which provided constant food for theory and thought; later, key source material for consideration of the permanent incomprehensibility of the human mind. Books from which I learned key lessons in life: don’t always trust your own eyes, weigh the evidence, bring no prejudices to the examination, get a second opinion. How to be a Fortean, in other words.
While Fort seems never so much disliked in SF, in my formative years there seemed not much overt interaction between science fiction and Forteana (and certainly not flying saucers), save for Damon Knight. And so, while my science fiction friends and I were both looking over the fence to the Other Worlds, we looked at different places.
Here follows a short list of four books from the world of Forteana that have had, one way or the other, considerable influence on the way I write; as well as one later science fiction story that proved as formative, though in different yet essential ways.
Lo! by Charles Fort
If H.P. Lovecraft is in the Library of America, so should be The Books of Charles Fort (Lo!, The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Wild Talents). On the one hand, Fort is the ultimate Great American Crank: sitting in libraries collecting data for thirty years, living quietly in the Bronx or in London with his wife, sometimes seeing his only friend, Theodore Dreiser. But Fort is at his best sui generis among the greatest American writers no matter their genre, or field, or background:
“We shall pick up an existence by its frogs. Wise men have tried other ways. They have tried to understanding our state of being, by grasping at its stars, or its arts, or its economics. But, if there is an underlying oneness of all things, it does not matter where we begin, whether with stars, or laws of supply and demand, or frogs, or Napoleon Bonaparte. One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.”
The Mothman Prophecies by John Keel
A genre novel loosely based on this cluster of incidents came out several years later; but being fiction, did not begin to capture the extreme surreality and uncomfortable coincidence of the “non-fictional” actualities. Keel’s account of Point Pleasant’s Mothman describes gigantic, red-eyed, winged beings perching in West Virginia trees, swooping over houses, creeping through abandoned army bases; vaguely threatening men in black driving brand-new 1947 Buicks; spaceships resembling a “lamp chimney” and with pilots named “Indrid Cold,” all culminating after a year and a half in the horrible tragedy of Point Pleasant’s Silver Bridge suddenly collapsing into the Ohio River under the weigh of Christmas traffic, killing dozens.
In the film version of The Mothman Prophecies, the character of Keel, played by the late Alan Bates, is renamed “Leek.’ His discussions with reporter Richard Gere are heated.
“It’s what the UKRAINIANS called him!”
From Outer Space to You by Howard Menger
In 1932, at age ten, Menger writes that he met his first alien; a beautiful blonde Space Sister in the traditional long white gown, who told him he would be meeting space people throughout his life. He said he did; that at various times they flew him to the moon, landed in his back yard in New Jersey, let him cut their hair, allowed him to hold a “moon potato.” In 1956, he met Connie Weber; he perceived her to be the reincarnation of the Space Sister he’d met long before, and they ran off together.
His book appeared in 1959, where he passes along valuable information from the Space Brothers, such as the fact that graham flour is good for you. The same year, Connie released her own book, My Saturnian Lover, and Howard cut an album of piano music written by the Space People. (Available on YouTube.)
And they had two children and were married over fifty years, a normal American life in the midst of sheer surreality.
Flying Saucers Uncensored by Harold T. Wilkins
Longtime UK journalist was a walking exemplar of human gullibility. He is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. There is no seed of possibility from which he cannot grow kudzu-like growths of ergo propter hoc. His first books were straightforward; Mysteries of the Great War is an excellent anecdotal account which includes unsettling information including information that Paths of Glory style executions were more the rule than the exception, in France. After the war, he became interested in secret cities of old South America, sea serpents, “devil trees”, and, naturally, flying saucers. His books on that subject are two of the most delirious, and delightful, ever written. He is one of the greatest fans of the exclamation point ever.
“What are these strange rays beamed out towards the earth by our Moon? Are these harmful to flying-saucer and space-ship entities? If so, have they devised means to insulate themselves against this harmful radiation? It seems likely that they have!”
“The Gernsback Continuum” by William Gibson
The first book by Bill (and others) I ever read was Burning Chrome. My editor at the time was trying to get me to read more science fiction, and I did, and by and large had the same reaction I’d had years earlier when trying to read more science fiction. Then I read this. Not only in a very few pages did he expose the traditional Future for the white nightmare that Future actually was, which deeply impressed me; but then he introduced Merv Kihn, traveling Fortean.
“Last week I was in Virginia. Grayson County. I interviewed a sixteen-year old girl who’d been assaulted by a bar hade.”
This was not the science fiction I was used to. At which point I knew I’d get along fine with this Gibson character, whenever we did meet.
Jack Womack is the author of Ambient, Terraplane, Heathern, Elvissey, Random Acts of Senseless Violence, Let’s Put the Future Behind Us, and Going, Going, Gone. His most recent book, Flying Saucers Are Real!, is a catalogue of the Jack Womack UFO library and a history of one of the 20th century’s most pervasive subcultures. In 1994, he was the co-winner of the Philip K. Dick Award. He has published short stories, features, reviews and articles in Omni, Spin, The Washington Post Book World, Artbyte, Science Fiction Eye, and others. Womack was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and is a longtime resident of New York City.