For a private researcher of anomalous phenomena, the author and metaphysician Charles Fort (1874-1932) remains uncannily popular. A new biography of Fort, Colin Bennett’s Politics of the Imagination, was issued in 2002 from London-based publisher Critical Vision, and gothic scribe Caitlin Kiernan’s most recent book of short stories was named in his honor (To Charles Fort, With Love). In 2006, two of Fort’s best-known works were reissued, Lo! by Cosimo Classics, and The Book of the Damned by Book Tree. In these and other works — all, incidentally, in the public domain — Fort analyzes such unexplained phenomena as teleportation, spontaneous human combustion, poltergeist events; rainfalls of frogs and fishes; unaccountable noises and explosions; strange animal sightings, as well as more everyday events like UFO sightings and alien abductions.
In the UK, admittedly well-known for its fostering of eccentrics, Fort has a strong following. The Fortean Times, a monthly magazine devoted to anomalous phenomena, currently boasts a circulation of 27,000 copies a month — not bad for a print journal, a medium supposedly relegated to the scrap heap of history. There was even a short-lived television series on Channel 4 called Fortean TV hosted by a bearded, motorcycle-riding paranormalist, Fortean and ordained priest, Father Lionel Fanthorpe.
For many years now, The Fortean Times has sponsored a yearly UnConvention, a meeting held in London to celebrate the world of strange phenomena. At this popular event, well-known guest speakers like metaphysician Colin Wilson, consciousness expert Susan Blackmore, and alien abductee Whitley Streiber get together to talk about poltergeists, strange manifestations, conspiracy theories, and other weird phenomena. Last year’s UnConvention even included a guest lecture by Rat Scabies, long-time drummer from the rock group The Damned, and hero of the Fortean-themed childrens’ adventure story, Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail. So it was with cheery memories of UnConventions past that I happily coughed up $85 for my ticket to this year’s FortFest, organized by INFO, the International Fortean Association, and held on March 17-18, at the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore.
Imagine my dismay, then, to discover the conference hall empty of all but a handful of Fortean folk, and the mood redolent less of the carnival than the bridge party. Fair enough, there’d been a flurry of freezing snow the night before, but still, I was surprised to find no more than 30-something Forteans in attendance. And let me make it clear: 30-something was the head count, not the average age. That was more like 70-something, at least if the pool of graying pates was anything to go by.
The day’s activities were kicked off by FortFest’s reigning president, a plump, cheerful pagan named Phyllis Meadow, who welcomed everyone back, and mentioned the great success of the society’s recent venture, “Fortean Seminars-at-Sea” (séances and shuffleboard, anyone?). She then asked any newcomers to raise their hand (that would be me, my boyfriend, and Gadi Dechter from the Baltimore Sun), and warned us against confusing Forteans with UFO buffs. Not that a lot of them weren’t interested in UFOs, she added, hastily. As any Fortean will tell you, Charles Fort was one of the first people to explain strange human appearances and disappearances by the hypothesis of alien abduction, and was an early proponent of the extraterrestrial theory, specifically suggesting that strange lights or object sighted in the skies might be alien spacecraft. Still, Ms. Meadow wanted to make it clear that there was far more to the Fortean Society than flying saucers. “In fact,” she added, “you are, this morning, in the company of one of the most interesting group of people you’re ever going to meet.”
Hard evidence of the attendance level at the recent INFO
(the International Fortean Convention) (corrected)
I looked around me warily. The gentleman to my left had slumped down comfortably in his seat, and was already starting to snore gently. Another old geezer was leafing through a worn copy of Fate magazine. A number of the ladies had brought their knitting. Since FortFest apparently invited the same speakers every year, they’d obviously come prepared.
The first presenter was philosopher Michael Gross, whose talk, entitled “Art as Materialization: Studies in Creative Dissociation”, sounded fascinating on paper. Uncannily, however, it turned out to be a mumbling ramble of disconnected thoughts about painting, writing, table-rappings, unexplained phenomena, the narrow-mindedness of scientists, the texture of ectoplasm (in which he professed to be a great believer), and – surprisingly, for a Fortean — the timeless and unchangeable nature of facts. “I’m not a monotheist of the imagination”, he told us, describing his quest for the “metaphysical shudder”, by which time a number of audience members had dissociated in their own way, by nodding off. As a result, they missed the professor’s astonishing proclamation that he’d recently made a decision to abandon the field of paranormal research, only to be jolted back into unreality by a startling precognitive dream, in which he foresaw, in explicit detail, the death of Anna Nicole Smith.
The philosopher declined to give any further details of his disturbing dream; which was unfortunate, because the possibilities are tantalizing. Did he witness a botched tummy tuck, perhaps confusing ectoplasm with extracted stomach fat? Or was an alien intelligence involved? Was it a C.I.A cover-up? Will we ever know the full story? If any more information was given, however, it will remain strictly sub rosa, since by the time Dr. Grosso’s talk was finally winding to a close, I’d decided the time had come to make a spontaneous disappearance of my own.