Robert Fulford's column about Charles Fort

(The National Post, March 21, 2000)

Charles Fort was one of those dedicated screwballs who go down in history as minor gurus, their reputations kept alive for generations by loyal followers. Fort was never famous in his lifetime (1874-1932) and even today he seldom pops into public view. But Magnolia, a movie in which his thinking plays an off-screen role, has recently strengthened Fortean devotees in the belief that their hero remains influential.

He made his reputation by defying science just when it was becoming the dominant force in civilization. He believed scientists ignored whatever facts they could not understand, so he tried to uncover inexplicable incidents that he hoped would shake their confidence. He spent his life digging up stories about ghostly apparitions, sea monsters and mysterious lights indicating interplanetary travel. He specialized in live creatures falling from the sky. By the end of his life he had collected "294 records of showers of living things," newspaper accounts of sudden inundations of fish, spiders, worms, crabs -- or frogs. Frogs were his favourites. Reading Fort, you might imagine that there are few villages anywhere that have never experienced a rain of frogs.

He believed they all came from what he called the Super-Sargasso Sea, a region in the air above us cluttered with abandoned cargoes from old interplanetary wrecks, junk left over from earlier centuries on Earth and objects plucked from our midst by cyclones. He invented the term "teleportation" to suggest how such objects were moved about.

Fort was born in Albany, N.Y., spent much of his time in England and died in New York. He was a newspaper reporter for a few years and an unsuccessful fiction writer. He had few friends and no collaborators. He was married for most of his life to a former maid in his father's house, who was said never to have read Fort's books or anyone else's.

They were poor for many years, but in 1916 a small inheritance freed him from money worries and he spent the rest of his life in libraries. At one point he read through 25 years of the London Daily Mail in search of paranormal incidents. He may have been intent on undermining conventional science, but he seems also to have been interested in oddity for oddity's sake. It didn't much matter whether he believed any given report. Once he came upon a Toronto Globe clipping from May 25, 1899, reporting that a cow had given birth to two lambs and a calf. He acknowledged that this was as likely as an elephant giving birth to two bicycles and a baby elephant, but he passed it on to his readers anyway. It was his kind of thing. Today he would be a star contributor to the weekly tabloids.

One of his admirers, Tiffany Thayer, the novelist, organized the Fortean Society in 1931, along with such literary figures as Alexander Woollcott and Ben Hecht. After Fort's death, Thayer founded the Fortean Society Magazine, which later changed its name to Doubt. It eventually vanished, but a successor, The Fortean Times: The Journal of Strange Phenomena, has been published monthly in London since 1973.

It follows Fort's methods and tone precisely: It makes no attempt to separate truth from fiction but passes on each reported phenomenon with blithe even-handedness, apparently on the principle that mere weirdness validates anything. A recent issue reports that in the last 120 years there have been 70 reported fishfalls in Australia; in 1989, for instance, about 800 sardine-sized fish (sea bream, it turned out) fell from the sky onto the home of an astonished couple in Queensland, 60 kilometres from the sea, as the fish flies.

The Fortean Times welcomes new contributors and carries a little note that indicates the nature of its contents while warning writers against making common spelling mistakes: "millennium has two n's; prophesy is the verb and prophecy is the noun; occurred has two r's; phenomena, simulacra, bacteria and data are plural. The plural of UFO is UFOs, not UFO's."

Today there's a Charles Fort Institute, a Fortean Picture Library, an International Fortean Organization. Canadian Forteans include an anonymous gentleman in Kingston, Ont., described in the publications as "the diligent Canadian Fortean, Mr. X." He's particularly interested in Canadian lake monsters.

There's something weirdly anachronistic in the perpetuation of Fort-style reporting and thinking. His followers are caught in a time warp that Fort never anticipated; they're still worrying about sea monsters, human levitators and poltergeists while scientists are routinely turning up much more startling phenomena.

How could a dubious report of spontaneous human combustion be as interesting as, say, the mandibled leaf-cutting ants in the tropics (explored in books like The Ants, by Edward O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler)? The leaf-cutters strip leaves from trees, drag them beneath the surface, feed them to farms of fungi and then distribute the nutrients from the fungi to their fellow ants, a system worked out over 50 million years. Newspaper science sections carry revelations far more wondrous than anything in Fort's clipping files.

Connoisseurs of the eccentric, the quaint and the charmingly pointless enjoy Fort without taking him seriously. Ben Hecht called all his work a "Gargantuan jest," and from time to time Fort himself claimed not to believe much of it. Perhaps this is the spirit in which Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer and director of Magnolia, approaches him. At the climax of Magnolia, a multitude of huge frogs falls on the San Fernando Valley (they are animatronic dummies or computer simulations; no frog was harmed in the making of this film). If people leaving the theatre are asking where the hell those frogs came from, they now have an answer -- from Charles Fort.

In the film, several signs read "Exodus," suggesting that this is a version of the Biblical plague, but Anderson recently told a Variety reporter, "I got it first from Charles Fort, then from the Bible." He's been reading Fort for five years. Sharp-eyed viewers of the film noticed that it shows a young quiz kid with a paperback copy of Wild Talents, one of Fort's books, which Anderson inserted as a clue and a tribute. If his script for Magnolia wins an Academy Award on Sunday night, will he thank Charles Fort and the Forteans for inspiring his most memorable scene?

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