A retro review from May 28, 2012:
Review: Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, Jim Steinmeyer, 2008.
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 vegetation. 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 as The Complete Books of Charles Fort: The Book of the Damned / Lo! / Wild Talents / New Lands, 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 There are also selections from Fort’s unpublished autobiography Many Parts.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. Continue reading