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Sunday, 21 August 2016

Tales of the Damned

Pictured above is Tales of the Damned: An Anthology of Fortean Horror – the latest title from the Fortean Fiction imprint of CFZ Publishing (with a specially painted cover by Anthony Wallis). Edited by the CFZ’s zoological director Richard Freeman, the book contains 25 stories all of which, in their distinctive and original ways, are variations on the theme of “fortean horror”. The book has been years in the making – I only became involved in the very late stages when I was offered the roles of copy editor and type setter. These are long and laborious tasks that should be avoided unless they’re well remunerated ... or the book is so good it’s a privilege to be involved with it. In this instance it was definitely the latter!

The book’s unique selling point is that a significant proportion of the stories are written by authors who specialize in Fortean non-fiction rather than fiction – including Richard himself, Corinna Downes, Rebecca Lang, Lars Thomas, Neil Arnold, Andy Roberts and Dr Karl Shuker. But there are plenty of established fiction writers too, including Nick Walters, Mark Clapham, Kate Kelly, Chris Lambert and Hannah Kate. No fewer than four of the contributors (two in each category) are important enough to have their own Wikipedia entries: Richard Freeman. Karl Shuker, Nick Walters and Mark Clapham.

I really can’t overstate how good this collection is. The general standard of the fiction is much higher than I’d expected, and at least a couple of the stories are potential award winners. Unfortunately, since I just told you I was involved in the book’s production, the cynics among you may think “well, he’s bound to say it’s good, isn’t he?” So all I can suggest is that you buy the book and read it from cover to cover ... and if you find a story that’s badly written, or unoriginal, or sloppily researched, or with a plot that doesn’t hang together or an ending that’s unsatisfying – then you’ll have to tell me, because I must have missed it.

You can see the contents list on the back cover of the book, reproduced below (yes, there’s a story by me in it – but don’t let that put you off). If you’re on Facebook, please consider liking the Tales of the Damned page – you can read a number of short excerpts from the book there, and more will be added in future.

Finally, here are a couple of links to find the book on Amazon:

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Giants and Saints in the Scottish Isles

Here is the third and last of my “what I did on my summer holiday” posts for this year! Probably the biggest highlight of the Scotland trip was a one-day Three Isles Tour of Mull, Iona and Staffa, involving no fewer than five boat trips and two bus journeys (the latter complete with highly entertaining commentary from the driver). There is nothing particularly fortean about the big island of Mull – though it’s very picturesque – but both Iona and Staffa have interesting legends associated with them. I’ll start with Staffa (pictured above), which is the more visually spectacular of the two.

Staffa is a small uninhabited island, and a relatively new one in comparison to its neighbours. Geologically, most of the Scottish “highlands and islands” date from the Caledonian orogeny 400+ million years ago. However, Staffa popped up only about 60 million years ago, when the Atlantic Ocean began to form. As North America pulled away from the British Isles, molten magma was forced up through the rent, and where it reached the surface it cooled to form basalt extrusions. Staffa is one of these – the Giant’s Causeway on the north coast of Ireland is another. When basalt solidifies from a molten state, it has a distinctive way of forming into interlocking hexagonal columns. This is a perfectly natural process, but the result is so artificial-looking that it has given rise to a variety of myths and legends.

According to one tradition, Staffa and the Giant’s Causeway are the two ends of an 80-mile causeway that used to link Ireland and Scotland. It was supposedly built by the Irish giant Finn Mac Cool (quite a well-known figure in Irish mythology – he appears in Finnegans Wake for example). After building the causeway, Finn was involved in a battle with a Scottish giant named Benandonner. The Irish and Scottish versions of the legend differ as to which of the two giants won, but they both conclude with the destruction of all but the two ends of the causeway.

In the 18th century, the Scottish poet James Macpherson created a Scoticized version of Finn Mac Cool called “Fingal”, and the largest of Staffa’s caves (the one on the right in the picture at the top of this post) soon became known as Fingal’s Cave. Prior to this point, the idea of visiting a remote location simply because it was scenic or visually spectacular was virtually unknown. However, with the advent of steamships and railways in the 19th century, Staffa – and Fingal’s Cave in particular – soon became a must-see tourist attraction for literary and artistic types. In 1830 Mendelssohn wrote a Fingal’s Cave overture, in 1832 J. M. W. Turner painted a picture of it, and in 1864 Jules Verne mentioned it in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, when the narrator encounters a similar structure in Iceland: “I had, of course, heard of the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland and of Fingal’s Cave in Staffa, but never before had I beheld the sight of a basalt substructure.”

Here are my close-up pictures of the basalt columns (left) and Fingal’s Cave (right):
Over the years, legends have attached themselves to Staffa for the simple reason that it’s such an extraordinary sight. In contrast, the nearby island of Iona is a fairly ordinary-looking place (at least, the Mull-facing coast that we had time to explore is) ... but it has an extraordinary history. As I mentioned in last week’s post about Loch Ness, St Columba was the 6th century Irish monk who first brought Christianity to Scotland. Iona is the place that he set up the first Scottish monastery, in 563 AD. As far as I can tell, this much is real history – although many of the details of Columba’s life (including his encounter with the Loch Ness monster) are likely to be legendary accretions.

Columba’s monastery, Iona Abbey, became an important centre of “Celtic Christianity” during the Middle Ages. Sadly it fell into ruin after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century – and then (almost as sadly, in my opinion) the ruined buildings were completely rebuilt in the early 20th century. This makes it almost impossible to get a feel for the mediaeval Abbey today. Ironically, one of the oldest objects still standing doesn’t look very old at all (either in its design or its state of preservation). This is St Martin’s Cross, pictured on the left below, which dates from the 9th century ... 1200 years ago! If you look closely you can see the decoration includes a number of snakes, which seem strangely un-Christian symbols (and un-Irish ones, for that matter).

More obviously old-looking is the statue of St Columba, in the right-hand image below. I don’t mean the wire mesh statue (which is very modern), but the mediaeval stone one – of which only the highly weathered feet remain!

Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition

The Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition in Drumnadrochit was much better than I’d expected it to be. As the most hyped-up cryptozoological tourist attraction in Britain, I’d assumed the visitor centre would dutifully tell people what they wanted to hear, with dumbed-down science and lots of far-fetched speculation. But it’s nothing like that at all. It features a series of sober and intelligent audio-visual presentations, together with museum displays of research equipment, newspaper cuttings and relics recovered from various wrecks. As for dumbing down – visitors (even the ten-year-old ones) are expected to take words like “bathymetry”, “pelagic”, “thermocline” and “refraction” in their stride.

In a way the Loch Ness Centre is another example of the Scottish skepticism I was talking about last week. This is particularly noticeable in the case of the best-known theory of the Loch Ness Monster, that it is a long-necked marine reptile such as a plesiosaur which has somehow managed to survive since Jurassic times. Admittedly the Loch Ness Centre features this image in their logo (which you can see in the photo above), and in innumerable toys and other souvenirs for sale in the gift shop. But inside the exhibition they stamp on this theory right at the very start. Any creature that managed to emerge unscathed from the Mesozoic would have been definitively killed off during the ice age, when the whole of Scotland was covered by a kilometre-thick block of ice for tens of thousands of years. Anything in the loch today that is larger than a single-celled micro-organism must have arrived after the ice melted. And why plesiosaurs anyway? They were pushed out of their ecological niche by whales and dolphins, which are found in plentiful numbers in the waters around Scotland.

The seemingly deep-rooted idea that a long-necked monster inhabits Loch Ness only dates from about a hundred years ago. Prior to that, mysterious sightings in the loch always referred to a “huge fish” or a “strange fish”. The word “monster”, prior to the early 20th century, only cropped up in the context of St Columba – the 6th century monk who brought Christianity to Scotland from Ireland. According to legend, Columba “drove away a water monster” in the River Ness near Inverness. It’s important to note, however, that this is a legend relating to a specific event – a miracle associated with a saint – and not recurring monster sightings by ordinary people.

A later development in Scottish folklore were the “water-horses” that were said to inhabit various lochs, including Loch Ness. Called kelpies, these creatures would drag unsuspecting travellers into the water and devour them. A pair of kelpies are the subject of a huge modern sculpture near Falkirk, about a hundred miles south of Loch Ness. At 30 metres (100 feet) in height, this is currently the largest statue in Britain. I only glimpsed it a few times from the M9 motorway, but my cousin, who stayed in Scotland longer than I did, sent me the following photo that she took after I left (she sent it via Facebook, which has the annoying habit of converting good quality, high resolution pictures into small, low resolution ones):
The general conclusion at the Loch Ness centre – again essentially a skeptical one – is that historical accounts of “water horses” and “huge fish” most likely refer to sightings of Atlantic sturgeon. These can grow to several metres in length, and do indeed have a vaguely horse-shaped head. The biggest problem with any large animal living in the Loch is the lack of sufficient food, but that doesn’t apply to sturgeon which are essentially sea creatures that would only be occasional visitors to the loch. While sturgeon have been spotted in and around Scotland in past centuries, they are virtually unknown there now (except for the definitely-not-monstrous First Minister, of course).

As for modern sightings of long-necked or serpentine creatures – most, if not all, of these can be explained as misidentifications (together with a few deliberate hoaxes). The visitor centre gives plenty of examples of floating logs, swimming deer, waterbirds and boat wakes all looking like convincing Loch Ness Monsters. I only spent a few minutes looking at the Loch, but even in that time I took the two pictures below which give an idea how misidentifications might arise. The one on the left contains a few dark specks which, if you zoom in on them, you can see are birds in flight. A couple of them have distinctly arc-like shapes which could be mistaken for “monster humps” under different viewing conditions. The second picture shows a boat trailing a wake, with another long wave that has been churned up by the boat in the foreground. Again, under different conditions (e.g. in foggier weather) the latter could be mistaken for a long, serpentine creature just below the surface.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Scottish Skepticism

I met up with my Canadian relatives for a few days in Scotland last week, and while I was waiting for them to arrive in Glasgow I walked over to Kelvingrove Park to see the statue of Lord Kelvin pictured above. Despite his high-sounding name, Kelvin wasn’t really an aristocrat – he was born plain William Thompson, and only acquired his title at the age of 68 in recognition of his scientific achievements (he took the name Kelvin from the river that flows past Glasgow University, where he worked). Today – rightly or wrongly – Lord Kelvin is best remembered as the archetype of the arrogantly self-confident scientist who refuses to believe anything that isn’t already enshrined in a textbook.

This reputation is only partly deserved. It’s true that Kelvin was overly skeptical about technological advancement – for example in 1902, the year before the Wright Brothers’ first flight, he confidently predicted that heavier-than-air flight would never be practical. However, his most famous pronouncement was actually cleverer and more perceptive than it appears at first sight. In 1900 (at the age of 76) he gave a speech suggesting that scientific theory was virtually complete except for what he described as “two little clouds in the sky”. With hindsight, given the huge revolutions in quantum theory and relativity that would turn physics on its head over the next few decades, Kelvin’s assertion looks ludicrously pompous. Yet the two clouds he was talking about – the Michelson-Morley experiment and the ultraviolet catastrophe (or lack thereof) – were pretty much the only phenomena known at the time which couldn’t be explained without relativity or quantum theory. So Kelvin’s only mistake was to assume that these “two little clouds” would turn out to have simple explanations, rather than domino-toppling, paradigm-shifting ones.

Personally I don’t believe Lord Kelvin was the blinkered and close-minded skeptic that history makes him out to be. If you’re really looking for the patron saint of skeptics, you need to go back to the 18th century and another Scotsman – David Hume. I wrote about him in some detail five years ago (David Hume: a skeptic in the 18th century) so you can just click on that link if you want the details. To put it in a nutshell (and again this is just a personal opinion), Hume was a nasty piece of work who pioneered the aggressively hardnosed “If I haven’t seen it with my own eyes, it doesn’t exist” brand of skepticism.

Anyway, I spotted a statue of Hume a couple of days later in the centre of Edinburgh. Amusingly, it shows him dressed like an arty-farty ancient Greek philosopher – somehow I doubt that it’s a depiction Hume himself would have appreciated!

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Enfield Haunting

First shown on subscription TV last year, the mini-series The Enfield Haunting was repeated on free TV a few weeks ago. Unfortunately it always seemed to be scheduled at awkward times, so I got fed up waiting and splurged £6.99 on the DVD. I’m really glad I did – it’s by far the best fortean-themed “based on real-life events” dramatization I’ve seen to date.

The usual problem with this genre is that the events in question are either 100% anecdotal or else utterly banal. That’s certainly not true here, where the case – more commonly referred to as “the Enfield poltergeist” – was exhaustively documented by means of photographs, audio recordings and multiple eyewitness testimony. Taking place in a north London council house in 1977-78, it was essentially a working-class version of The Exorcist, focused around a highly strung schoolgirl, her divorced mother and her three siblings.

I don’t know a huge amount about the case, but as far as I can tell the dramatized version sticks to the facts pretty faithfully. The characters are all based on real people, and the general sequence of events – including the bringing-in of psychic investigators and the intense interest of the tabloid media – is also true to life. No doubt events have been streamlined to some extent to make a more coherent story, and the main characters have been embellished to make them more interesting. However, the basic motivations of the two investigators – the eagerly credulous Maurice Grosse, who’s desperately looking for evidence of life-after-death, and the more cynical Guy Lyon Playfair, who just wants material for a new book – probably aren’t too wide of the mark.

The production is very British in its focus on acting and dialogue, as opposed to the traditional Hollywood reliance on screaming and special effects. The pivotal character of Maurice Grosse is played by Timothy Spall, who I became a fan of when I saw him in Mr Turner last year. Not that I imagine for a moment that the real JMW Turner was anything like as weird and interesting as Spall’s portrayal of him – and I’m sure the same is true of the late Maurice Grosse!

The Enfield Haunting also differs from more traditional horror movies in maintaining a fortean ambiguity as to what is actually going on. While some of the events do seem to be genuinely paranormal, others appear to be deliberate attention-seeking, and still others may be the involuntary result of emotional or behavioural problems, like a kind of super-Tourette syndrome. Or maybe it’s a mixture of all three. Having dug out some old Fortean Times articles – I found one by David Sutton from 2003 (FT166:39), one by Guy Lyon Playfair from 2007 (FT229:58-59) and one by Alan Murdie from 2012 (FT 288:18-19) – that seems to be pretty much the consensus about the real Enfield poltergeist, too.

With its setting in the late 1970s, The Enfield Haunting is a potentially perfect piece of retro-forteana. However, while I didn’t notice any actual anachronisms, I didn’t get a really strong sense of a “period drama” set four decades in the past either. I was worried this was an indication of just how behind the times I am (I mean, 1977 really does seem like yesterday sometimes) – but in one of the DVD extras the producers explain that they made a deliberate decision to understate the seventies setting, because it would have been a distraction from the serious story they wanted to tell.

As far as I can recall, this is the first time I’ve seen an on-screen actor portraying someone I’ve seen in real life. Matthew Macfadyen’s performance as Guy Lyon Playfair is a great foil to Timothy Spall’s Maurice Grosse – although I’m sure the real-life Playfair was never as snottily pretentious as Macfadyen plays him! Anyway, I saw the real Guy Lyon Playfair speaking at a paranormal conference in Bath a few years ago. Unfortunately it was too dark to take a decent photo while he was speaking, although I got a better shot of him as he was returning to his seat afterwards:

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Alien garden ornament

Usually I do a blog post on Sunday morning, but this morning I went to a local flea market instead. I was hoping to pick up something suitably retro-fortean that I could write a quick post about, but apart from a few 1950s paperbacks I didn’t see a single thing worth buying (nothing I could afford, that is). The most fortean thing I spotted is pictured above – I think it’s supposed to be a garden ornament in the shape of an alien. Good thing it wasn’t in better condition or I might have ended up buying it!

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Out-of-place Pterodactyl

With the Farnborough airshow coming up next week, I thought it would be a good opportunity to dig out this little curiosity. It’s the coat-of-arms of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, which occupied the Farnborough airfield site for more than 70 years. Where you might expect an eagle to be sitting on top of it, instead there’s an extinct flying reptile from the Jurassic period – a pterodactyl!

I’ve always wondered about the reasoning behind the pterodactyl symbolism. As far as I can tell it really is a pterodactyl, not the later and much more impressive pteranodon of the Cretaceous period. A pteranodon was a gigantic creature, almost the size of a small aircraft, and might indeed make a good mascot for an aeronautical research establishment. But a pterodactyl was only about the size of a seagull, which isn’t going to impress anyone (except for Peter Harriman, of course).

The Latin inscription at the bottom reads ALIS APTA SCIENTIA, which according to Google Translate means “wings suitable for science”. So maybe a pterodactyl was seen as somehow “more scientific” than an eagle? That makes sense, I suppose, since everything we know about pterodactyls comes from the science of palaeontology.

A Google search didn’t shed any more light on the subject, although I did find an auction item with the following description: “A large armorial crest formerly on the South Gate at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, circa 1930s – 1950s, of heavy cast aluminium with intaglio relief design incorporating a pterodactyl surmounting a helmet and shield motif with foliate border and motto inscribed Alis Apta Scientia”.

During the First World War, the government-owned Royal Aircraft Factory designed and built a number of aircraft types – the best known being the SE5a fighter. However, private companies complained it was unfair to make them compete for government contracts against the government itself, so in 1918 the Royal Aircraft Factory became the Royal Aircraft Establishment – and refocused its attention on research rather than production. Nevertheless, it still played an important role in the development of the jet engine, the Concorde supersonic airliner and Britain’s one and only space launcher, Black Arrow. In 1988 it briefly and rather pointlessly changed its name to the Royal Aerospace Establishment, before merging into the Defence Research Agency three years later.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

This has to be one of the most fortean items I’ve ever seen in a museum – a spoon that was supposedly bent “with mind power” by Uri Geller! I spotted it last week amongst countless other fascinating objects in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall. This was my second visit there – I went five years ago (see this blog post), but that was on a very busy day and the milling crowds made it difficult to see everything properly. It was much quieter last week and I managed to see a lot that I missed the first time – including Uri Geller’s spoon.

Other items on display include mediaeval books on witchcraft (including Saducismus Triumphatus, which I’ve written about before), protective charms used by soldiers in the 1st and 2nd world wars, Ouija boards, a large collection of magical artifacts that belonged to Gerald Gardner (the founder of modern Wicca), and several dead cats that had been walled up inside houses to keep the rats away. To top it all, there’s a “sex magic” display featuring a large number of little dicks (at least twice as many as I managed to get in this photo):
Actually the main reason I wanted to go to that part of Cornwall was to visit a much newer and less well known museum just a few miles from Boscastle – the Cornwall at War Museum. It’s off-topic for this blog, but highly recommended for anyone interested in 20th century military history. It’s a big place, occupying more than a dozen recently renovated buildings at what used to be RAF Davidstow. There are two full-size aircraft (a Hawker Hunter and a Fairey Gannet), several torpedoes, missiles and target drones, and loads of smaller items.

In one building I spotted an R1155 radio similar to the one I own (cf. the post about my various Museum Pieces). More surprisingly, in a different display in the same building I saw another very familiar object. This is something I’ve had since I was 12 years old, when I inherited all my father’s junk after he died. It’s nothing special – just a camera controller from a photo-reconnaissance aircraft – but I’ve always wondered exactly what period and what type of aircraft it came from. Unfortunately the one in the museum is unlabelled, although it appears to be identical to mine (as you can see from the two photos below). However, an online search yielded this page which includes a picture of one inside a 1950s-era Canberra PR.3/7.

Sunday, 26 June 2016


The new extension to the Tate Modern museum opened last week. I only need the slimmest of excuses to visit London, so I went to see it. The new part (called the Switch House) mainly houses contemporary art installations, while the original building (which used to be Bankside Power Station) contains older works of “modern art”. Prominent among the latter is Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic painting WHAAM!, pictured above. This was far and away my favourite item in the whole museum – not surprisingly, given the irresistible combination of comic-book nostalgia and military aircraft nostalgia!

Roy Lichtenstein was a controversial artist, because so many of his paintings copied the layout of published comic-book panels (for numerous examples, see this page). But I think it’s wrong to belittle his work for this reason. Yes, it’s a shame that the original artist goes uncredited, but the artistic medium, display context, gigantic size and sheer painstaking precision of Lichtenstein’s works make them totally different from the original (a fact that isn’t always clear when you see small side-by-side comparisons on a web page). In any case, the comic-book industry is much more relaxed about the "swiping" of panel layouts than it is about, say, the unlicensed use of lucrative franchise characters.

The display caption to WHAAM! states that it is “based on an image from All American Men of War published by DC comics in 1962”. But looking at its Wikipedia entry the situation is a little more complicated than that. The basic layout (including the words “I pressed the fire control and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky” and the sound effect “WHAAM”) does indeed come from a single panel in All American Men of War #89. However, the American aircraft in that panel is clearly a jet – probably a Korean-vintage F-86 Sabre. The plane in Lichtenstein’s painting looks more like a P-51 Mustang – and Wikipedia makes a good case for that being taken from a panel in the following issue, #90. Lichtenstein’s victim aircraft is noticeably different from either of those panels – Wikipedia suggests it comes from #89 again, but from a different story in that issue. Whatever sources Lichtenstein used, I still think the result is one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century.

As regards the new Switch House, I have to confess that most of the items on display went over my head. For the most part I mean that figuratively, but the small object pictured below was literally over my head ... because it was hanging from the ceiling in one of the rooms (sorry it’s out-of-focus – my camera was on maximum digital zoom). Regular readers will know I have an uncanny ability to spot things that “look a bit like a dick” (see for example this statue of Balzac or these 1940s comic-book aliens). The work pictured below is a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois entitled Fillette, which is French for “little girl”. I guess that’s what it’s meant to depict ... but it still looks like a dick to me.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Hell-Fire Club

The evocatively named Hell-Fire Caves in West Wycombe were originally excavated for a very practical reason – to quarry chalk for a new road to neighbouring High Wycombe. But the person behind the project, Sir Francis Dashwood, had the tunnels carved in a strange symbolic design (see top left picture), somewhat reminiscent of a modern-day crop formation. The caves were finished in 1752, and for the next ten years they served as the meeting place of Dashwood’s mysterious “Hell-Fire Club”.

I wrote about the Hell-Fire Caves on a previous occasion, using a picture that Paul Jackson sent me (and Paul has written about the site on his own blog). But I finally got around to visiting the caves myself last week, so I can show some of my own photos!

Actually “the Hell-Fire Club” seems to have been a pejorative term applied by outsiders – Dashwood and company actually referred to themselves as “The Knights of St Francis of Wycombe” (or sometimes “Friars” rather than “Knights”). Many of them were prominent poets, politicians and doctors – Dashwood himself was Chancellor of the Exchequer at one point. Other famous members included the Earl of Sandwich (who served as First Lord of the Admiralty, as well as inventing the sandwich) and the great painter and cartoonist William Hogarth (who is fortean enough to have appeared on this blog at least four times – here and here and here and here). Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, wasn’t a member of the club but is known to have visited the caves on more than one occasion (as depicted in the bottom right photo).

The caves contain a strange mixture of Christianity (as in the references to St Francis and Friars) and pre-Christian mythology (such as the statue of Venus that can be seen in the bottom left photo). The final chamber has the pagan-sounding name of “The Inner Temple”, and is located some hundred metres directly below the Christian church on top of the hill. Undoubtedly this helped give rise to the various rumours of “satanic” goings-on at the Hell-Fire Club. Personally, I’m increasingly sceptical about this – remember it was a time when the God-fearing masses believed anyone who read a book other than the Bible was a closet Satanist. Instead, I think Dashwood and his circle were just indulging in fashionable romantic fantasies about Graeco-Roman culture (a bit like the Stourhead temples I wrote about last year, which also date from the 1750s).

Normally when I hear about a “family mausoleum” in a churchyard I think of something comparable in size to my garden shed. Dashwood’s mausoleum, which he built on the hill directly above the Hell-Fire caves around the same time, is more like a small fortress:

Sunday, 12 June 2016

18th Century Electrostatic Flying Machine

Here is an interesting book illustration I came across a few days ago. When I first saw it I had no idea what it was meant to depict, but having done a bit of research it turns out to be really quite remarkable. I’m surprised it doesn’t crop up more often in histories of science fiction – or of ufology and “ancient aliens” for that matter.

It’s the frontispiece from a French-language novel called Le Philosophe sans Prétention (The Unpretentious Philosopher), written by Louis-Guillaume de la Folie and published in 1775. The original French edition can be found on the Internet Archive, although I don’t think it’s ever been translated into English. However, I did find the following summary on Google Books:
This strange but rather wonderful work concerns a visitor from the planet Mercury called Ormisais who flies to Earth in an electrically powered sky-chariot, which he breaks by crash-landing it on Earth. Aided by an Earthling named Nadir, Ormisais searches for materials to mend his spacecraft. [A. Roberts: The History of Science Fiction (2006), p. 79]
It’s worth remembering just how long ago 1775 was. The first manned flight – in a Montgolfier hot-air balloon – was still eight years in the future. Apart from lighter-than-air balloons, the only other means of controlled flight known at the time involved aerodynamic lift (birds, kites etc). “Electricity” in those days meant static electricity – electricity in the modern sense of a flowing electric current wasn’t really discovered until the 19th century.

After a bit of searching within the French text, I found the following on page 30: “I saw two glass globes three feet in diameter, mounted above a small seat” (a French writer measuring things in feet – that shows how old it is!). Presumably the glass spheres somehow collected or stored the static electricity. The next page describes the globes “turning with a prodigious rapidity” – and from the picture it looks like they’re coupled to some sort of gear arrangement to control the craft’s motion.

Of course it could never work – but then it’s only a novel, not an engineering treatise. It’s interesting to see state-of-the-art science (in this case electrostatics) invoked as hand-waving technobabble, in just the same way that a modern-day science fiction writer might use wormholes or quantum entanglement!

Sunday, 5 June 2016

The House of the Screaming Skull

“The Screaming Skull” is the title of a Hollywood movie from 1958, a short story first published in 1908, and a rather dubious legend that can be traced back to Victorian times. The short story was set in Cornwall and the film somewhere in the United States, but the legend comes from Bettiscombe Manor in Dorset. That’s only about six miles from where I live, but it isn’t open to the public, and it’s quite a distance from the main road, so I’d never actually seen it till last week. I felt rather awkward gawping at what is obviously just a private house (even if it’s a famously haunted one), so I carefully kept to the public footpath and managed to grab the appropriately cryptic view shown above.

The legend of Bettiscombe’s screaming skull is one of Dorset’s best known ghost stories. In their book Dark Dorset, Robert Newland and Mark North devote no less than 17 pages to it. As is often the case, the legend seems to have evolved with each telling. The first reference to an old skull being kept at the manor house dates from 1847, but it wasn’t described as “screaming”, and it wasn’t associated with a ghost. Quite the opposite, in fact – “While this skull is kept here no ghost will ever infest Bettiscombe House”.

In 1872, the lawyer and amateur folklorist John Udal repeated the story of a skull being kept in the house out of superstition, and added that “the legend runs that it belonged to a faithful black servant of an early possessor of the property”. Just over a decade later, in 1883, the daughter of a British Museum researcher accompanied her father to the house, and picked up a much more detailed version of the story. The servant “had declared before his death that his spirit would not rest unless his body was taken to his native land and buried there”. Ignoring the warning, they buried him in the local churchyard – “then the haunting began; fearful screams proceeded from the grave”. The body was dug up and the skull brought into the house, but “the reputation of the screaming skull of Bettiscombe House remains unimpaired”. This was the first written reference to “screaming” in connection with the skull.

Around 1900, John Udal was posted to the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. By chance, he came across a plantation that had been founded by “John Pinney, son of Azariah Pinney, formerly of Bettiscombe”. Udal also learned that one of the early plantation workers had been given the slave-name Bettiscombe – and immediately leapt to the conclusion that this was the “black servant” associated with the legend of the screaming skull. Most modern accounts of the Bettiscombe legend take this association for granted, without mentioning the shaky foundations on which it is based (except Wikipedia, of course, which gleefully tells us that “In 1963 a professor of human and comparative anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons stated that the skull was not that of a black man but that of a European female aged between twenty-five and thirty”).

The reason I decided to go and look at Bettiscombe Manor was that I recently came across the movie version of The Screaming Skull on a public domain movie site (I’d already read the short story a few years ago). It’s often said that the film is based on the story, and the story is based on the legend … but beyond the phrase “screaming skull” there’s really no similarity between the three versions. The short story (written by F. Marion Crawford, and originally published in two parts in Collier’s Magazine in 1908) is really quite clever, although it’s narrated in an old-fashioned way. In contrast the movie comes across as atrociously bad, but that’s largely due to its low budget and amateurish direction. If you can get all the way to the end without falling asleep, the underlying storyline is actually quite good.

Partly as an excuse to show a couple of downmarket paperback covers (which as regular readers know, I can never resist), here are two items of related trivia:
  • The part of Dorset in which Bettiscombe is situated is called Marshwood Vale (in fact I parked the car in the village of Marshwood itself). This boasts a very tenuous connection with H. P. Lovecraft, courtesy of John Brunner’s 1992 short story “Concerning the Forthcoming Inexpensive Paperback Translation of the Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred” – in which he transposes two of Lovecraft’s infamous New England towns to the Dorset countryside. Brunner’s version has “the small town of Arkham overlooking Marshwood Vale in the county of Dorset, England”, while Dunwich is “a parish whose boundaries adjoin those of Arkham”. The story is reprinted in Robert M. Price’s Necronomicon anthology pictured below.
  • The anthology in which I read F. Marion Crawford’s “The Screaming Skull” was The 4th Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories, also pictured below. The longest story in the book is James Blish’s werewolf-themed novella “There Shall Be No Darkness”, originally written in 1950. Much later, in 1974, this story was adapted as The Beast Must Die by Amicus Productions – often seen as an inferior competitor to Hammer Films. This is one of their best films, though – pretty faithful to Blish’s original plotline, and with plenty of added seventies grooviness.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

The Somerset Space Walk

The Somerset Space Walk is a 1/530,000,000-scale model of the Solar System, spread out along the 22.5 km length of the Bridgwater-to-Taunton canal. At the half-way point, the Sun is represented by a sphere approximately 2.6 metres in diameter, and as you walk along the towpath in either direction you come to models of each of the planets to the same scale. For example, Mercury is a stainless steel ball just 9 mm in diameter, around 110 metres from the Sun (Mercury’s orbit is elliptical – this distance represents the semi-major axis).

The main canal-side car park is located close to the northern (i.e. Bridgwater-side) model of Mars. I walked from there past Earth, Venus and Mercury to the Sun, and then past another Mercury, Venus and Earth to the Taunton-side Mars. That involves a total distance of just 860 metres. I then walked on another kilometre to Jupiter, before returning to the car and driving into Taunton, where I “finished” the trail at Pluto, 11.3 km from the Sun (the model dates from 1997, when Pluto was still counted as one of the planets). My photos above show the six planets I visited on the Taunton side of the Sun.

The model really does put “astronomical scales” into perspective. The picture below shows the relatively huge model of the Sun, with the hundred-times-smaller model of the Earth in the inset. The latter is a stainless steel sphere approximately 25 mm in diameter. On that scale, the International Space Station would be a mere 0.75 mm above the surface of the sphere. The Moon, which is the furthest anyone has travelled, would be just a metre away. The nearest star outside the Solar System, Alpha Centauri, would be about 77,000 km away – almost six times the diameter of the real Earth!
During the Second World War, the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal formed part of the “Taunton Stop Line”, another stretch of which I wrote about on Paul Jackson’s blog several years ago (see also Paul’s own post about the GHQ Line, which served a similar function further East). In the short distance I walked last week, I saw no fewer than three gun emplacements, all to different designs:

Sunday, 22 May 2016

I already said that AGES ago

There’s nothing more frustrating than saying something clever, being completely ignored, and then years later someone else says exactly the same thing. That’s always happening to me. A case in point was the above article on the BBC website last week. It’s about how E. M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops” from 1909 seems to foreshadow the world of social media, with its depiction of a dystopian future where people interact with each other via technology rather than face-to-face. But I made exactly the same point as long ago as 24 January 2011, in what was only the third post on this blog.

The post was called Wikipedia Prophecy, and in the last five years and four months it has amassed a grand total of 48 page views. In it, I said that Forster’s story “can be read today as an amusing satire on the World Wide Web, and on social networking sites such as Facebook in particular” – which is essentially what the BBC article says. However, as the title of my post indicates, I made another connection they missed – with Wikipedia’s strict (and to my mind frighteningly fascist) policy of “No Original Research”, which is also a central tenet of the future world envisaged by Forster.

A later post I wrote on a similar subject was The End of Books, about Octave Uzanne’s short story of that title from 1895. That post has fared better, with a total of 647 page views (above average for this blog). However, I can’t resist repeating this illustration by Albert Robida, which shows a group of earphone-wearing commuters on a metro train. When you realize that Queen Victoria was still on the throne when the picture was drawn, it really is astonishingly prophetic.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Test your ESP

Here’s a nostalgic curiosity I found in a second-hand shop a couple of weeks ago. It’s called Know Your Own Psi-Q, and it’s the only retro-fortean book I’ve come across that contains computer code. The book dates from 1983 (or 1986 in the case of this paperback version), so the programs were written with things like the Apple II and BBC Micro in mind. However, I managed to convert one of them to JavaScript and will try embedding it at the bottom of this post.

The computer programs only take up one chapter of the book – the rest consists of what you might call “manual” tests. In effect they’re all guessing games. Typically you’re asked to do a repetitive task, like guessing the colour of playing cards before they’re turned over, and record the number of “hits” or correct guesses. Then you have to look at the tables in the back of the book (or use a formula for more complicated examples) in order to calculate your “z” score and hence the probability of obtaining that result from pure chance. According to the authors, you have “some Psi” if this probability is 1 in 20, “good Psi” if it is 1 in 100, and “excellent Psi” if it is 1 in 1000.

There are several problems with this. Firstly, it assumes there is a black-and-white choice between pure chance and ESP, with no other possible explanations. Secondly, if you do a lot of short test runs one after the other (20 of them, say), then the likelihood that one of them will yield a 1-in-20 result is pretty high, by definition (thanks to Peter Harriman for reminding me of this last week, in a completely different context). Finally, if you have to resort to hunting for small deviations from chance, then “extra-sensory perception” is far inferior to regular “sensory perception” (which comes close to 100% reliability and repeatability).

If you want an intelligent discussion of such issues, you won’t find them in Know Your Own Psi-Q – even though the authors, Hans Eysenck and Carl Sargent, were both professional psychologists who ought to have been aware of them. Your money is much better spent on Brian Clegg’s Extra-Sensory, which I mentioned a few weeks ago.

Now for my attempt at reproducing one of their computer programs. I’ve simplified it a bit, making it a straight choice between heads or tails. Imagine that the computer has just flipped a coin – and click on “heads” or “tails” according to which of them you think it is. As soon as you do this, the computer will tell you whether you were right or wrong, and immediately flip another coin. So then you can guess again. Keep doing this as many times as you like – the computer will accumulate your z-statistics, but only start displaying them after you’ve had at least 36 guesses.

Don’t click the “Restart” button unless you want to clear the statistics and start again from scratch (which you might want to do – as mentioned earlier, a large number of short runs is more likely to produce a high z-score than a single long run). What you’re aiming for is a z-score of 1.96 or higher, corresponding to “some Psi ability” according to Eysenck and Sargent.

DISCLAIMER: This is a cut-down version of Eysenck and Sargent’s Program 2 (“Clairvoyance Test”), with an updated user interface. The main reason for putting it here is to illustrate the tedious and soul-destroying nature of such tests. Please don’t expect it to demonstrate anything other than the random nature of JavaScript’s math.random() function. If it doesn’t work on whatever device you’re viewing this on, you aren’t missing anything.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

A Low Budget Flying Saucer

 Here are some pictures of an odd little vehicle I saw at the Helicopter Museum in Weston-Super-Mare last week. It struck me as looking like the kind of cartoony flying saucer the Jetsons or Marvin the Martian might be see in. My previous visit to the museum was 12 or 13 years ago, and while most of the displays were just the same as last time, I don’t remember seeing this one. Either it was in storage, or else I blinked and missed it. That’s possible, since it’s half-hidden behind a screen in the far corner (possibly out of embarrassment – it’s like the airborne equivalent of a Sinclair C5).

According to the display placard, the Westland WG33 was a proposed short-range, two-seat helicopter that could be flown by inexperienced personnel and would cost less than £30,000 per unit. It was considered for use as an aerial observation platform by both the British and U.S. army in the late 1970s, but never got to the stage of a flying prototype. This full-scale mock-up was donated to the museum when the project was declassified in 1980.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Paranoid Conspiracy Death Cult

I found another really good retro-style adventure game on Steam last week (I got it at an 80% discount, but I see it’s back up to full price now). It’s called Corrosion: Cold Winter Waiting, which is a rather weird title – but then it’s a rather weird game, from the minimalist gameplay and graphics (see screenshots above) to the disturbingly psychotic storyline. Personally I liked both these aspects, but not everyone will agree about the style, so I’ll start with the story (and I’ll keep it as spoiler-free as possible).

To start with a general comment – there’s something very odd about conspiracy theorists. The theories themselves are pretty odd, of course – especially the ones that involve shape-shifting aliens infiltrating world governments with a view to eradicating homo sapiens and taking over the planet. But it’s even odder that, having discovered this terrifying truth, all the conspiracy theorists do is talk about it on the internet. When France was occupied by the Nazis in the 1940s, the underground resistance fighters went in for things like sabotage and assassination. Why don’t conspiracy theorists do the same, to save Earth from the threat the rest of us are too stupid to see?

In a nutshell, that’s the idea behind this game. It’s played from a first-person perspective, with the player exploring a now-deserted underground complex that until recently was occupied by a small cult with a very strange belief system. In this case, the supposed threat isn’t from shape-shifting aliens, but from an ancient race of “demons” that can take people over at random. But the effect is pretty much the same. The cult members believe they can detect demon-possessed individuals (although a cynic might think they just pick members of the public at random), who they bring back to the complex to be dealt with. I won’t say exactly what this entails, partly because it would be a plot-spoiler, but mainly because it’s too horrible to think about. If you play the game, you’ll find out – if not, then count yourself lucky!

One of the outstanding things about Corrosion: Cold Winter Waiting is its characterization, which is excellent and chillingly believable. That may seem an odd thing to say, because you never actually come face to face with any of the cult members. However, you get a very good picture of them from their writings and audio recordings. There are six of them in all, four of which you get to know really well. Essentially they’re all social outcasts with deep-seated grudges against humankind in general – so it’s rather ironic that they consider themselves to be humanity’s saviours. Also ironic is the fact that they all hate each other, to the point of working to subtly different agendas. And they’re all head cases. One of them is a psychopathic sadist, another is a paranoid schizophrenic, another suffers from a chronic inferiority complex.

Worst of all is the cult’s charismatic leader, who is the ex-CEO of a large pharmaceutical corporation and the only one who knows what’s real and what isn’t. I won’t say too much on that subject – except that one of the two chemicals the demon-hunters use to “immunize” themselves turns out to be a harmless placebo, while the other is a fear-enhancing hallucinogen… and the whole narrative about ancient demons (and how to neutralize them) is taken from the rambling notebooks of a mad psychiatrist in the 1950s.

The first-person point-and-click gameplay is reminiscent of Jonathan Boakes’s Dark Fall games, which I’ve enthused about on at least two previous occasions (here and here). But Corrosion: Cold Winter Waiting was released in 2012, ten years after the first Dark Fall game, and if anything its user interface is even more minimalist. That gives it a strongly nostalgic feel (and when you get to my age, that’s never a bad thing). Like the Dark Fall series, this game is pretty much the work of a single creator – in this case Daniel Lee Peach. Like Jonathan Boakes he’s British, but unlike Jonathan’s games this one is set in America (I spotted a few British spellings and the occasional little-endian date, but apart from that I thought the American setting was pretty convincing).

Point-and-click adventures always tend to emphasize the cerebral rather than the visual, and Corrosion: Cold Winter Waiting is an extreme example of this (if you’re wondering why I picked those four screenshots at the top of the post, it’s because they were the most exciting ones I could find). Personally I wasn’t too bothered by the minimalist graphics, but I did find the gameplay a bit too obscure in places. I ended up having to consult a walkthrough at least half a dozen times, in most cases because there was some non-intuitive action I had to perform on one of the in-game computers. Having said that, if there’s ever a sequel, I’ll snap it up as soon as it comes out (and happily pay full price this time).

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Popular Science with a difference

Yet again I’ve been working so hard on my book about Pseudoscience and Science Fiction that I haven’t left enough time (or energy) to do a proper blog post this week. So I thought I’d just give a quick plug to three books by Brian Clegg that I’ve found very useful as reference sources:
Despite their subject matter, all three of these books are about real, reputable science – even if they take pseudoscience and/or science fiction as a starting point for the discussion. Highly recommended for anyone wanting to understand the facts behind the speculations!

(Another of Brian’s books in a similar vein, Ten Billion Tomorrows, was mentioned in an earlier blog post)

Sunday, 17 April 2016

A little box of Bigfoot relics

Pictured above is a rather unusual Bigfoot-related item I happened to spot on an episode of Baggage Battles on the Travel Channel last weekend. It appears to be some kind of sideshow gimmick or stage prop (it’s too deliberately phony to call it a “hoax”). There are a couple more pictures below, but first I’ll explain the context.

I hardly ever watch TV these days, and when I do it’s often low-budget “factual” programmes on high-numbered channels that most people never bother with. Baggage Battles is a case in point. It features a group of people who attend auctions around America (and sometimes elsewhere) buying up the oddest items they can find, and then getting them independently valued. There used to be a similar show on British TV, and it was rubbish. The antique dealers were real antique dealers, the auctions were real auctions, and the end-customers were real end-customers. Boring, boring, boring. If I wanted real-life, I wouldn’t switch on the TV, would I? Baggage Battles is fake from beginning to end, but it’s really good escapist entertainment – which is exactly what TV should be.

This particular episode (season 5 episode 5, called “Burial Expenses”) was set in Providence, Rhode Island – and was even more “fake” than usual. All the auction lots were horror-related novelties, from sideshow items to movie props. The weirdest item was a small framed object that appeared to be a tattooed human nipple. You can see it on YouTube if you want to (and I bet you do): just click here.

At the start of that clip, you can just see one of the buyers, Valérie-Jeanne Mathieu, winning a lot at $275 (actually that figure is meaningless, since the under-bidder was fellow cast member Billy Leroy trying to give her a hard time, rather than a genuine bidder). Although you can’t see it in the video clip, that particular item is the “Bigfoot kit”. At the end of the show Valérie gets it appraised by a local Bigfoot expert, Dina Palazini, who puts its value around $400 – although she doesn’t explain what it is (other than confirming the obvious fact that it’s not real).

The label inside the lid has a still from the Patterson-Gimlin film, together with an inscription saying “Cryptozoologist Roger M. Allen, Chief Investigator, has found long sought after evidence that a so-called Bigfoot (Gigantopithecus) does in fact exist. New DNA, a small finger digit and hair samples conclude positive results.” There is also a date, 1999. Inside the box there are two small glass jars, one labelled “hair sample – human/animal hybrid” and the other, containing what appears to be a finger, labelled “unknown being – possible human hybrid”.

I deciphered those inscriptions from a set of HD screenshots that Paul Jackson was kind enough to send me. One of them was shown above, and here are two more. First, a clearer view inside the box:
… and a close-up of the “finger”, when Billy was inspecting it earlier in the show:

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Who was Kirk Allen?

One of the chapters in Nick Redfern’s Science Fiction Secrets is called “The Strange World of Kirk Allen”. I’m fairly sure I’d read about this case somewhere before, though I can’t remember where. It was originally written up in 1954, under the title “The Jet-Propelled Couch”, by a psychologist named Robert Lindner. It concerns a client who was sent to him for treatment several years earlier – a young man whose identity is hidden behind the pseudonym “Kirk Allen”.

Taken at face value, it’s a fascinating – and rather scary – case. At the time Lindner met him, Kirk Allen was working as a physicist on an ultra-secret government project – from the timing it might even have been the Manhattan Project. But Allen wasn’t the sort of person you’d want to see anywhere near an atom bomb. At the age of 14 he came across a series of science fiction books, whose larger-than-life hero had the same name as him (whatever his real name was). Allen became obsessed with the books, convincing himself they were accounts of real adventures he was going to have in the future. But it was only after he started working at the government lab that things got seriously weird. He discovered he could teleport to this alternate existence where he was “lord of a planet in an interplanetary empire”.

Fortunately Lindner managed to cure Allen of his delusion, by pretending to go along with it and making him see how ridiculous it was. No-one has ever worked out for certain who Kirk Allen was, but according to one theory he was a man named Paul Linebarger – who went on to write science fiction himself under the pen-name of Cordwainer Smith.

The full version of “The Jet-Propelled Couch” can be read online – Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Both parts are 13 pages long, but there’s a lot of psychological padding. If you’re in a hurry, the important bits can be found on pages 1, 6, 7, 11, 12 and 13 of Part 1 and pages 1, 8, 10, 11 and 12 of Part 2. Forteans will be particularly interested in page 12 of Part 1, where Allen wonders whether he has “what Charles Fort called a wild talent”!

Reading through Lindner’s account, there are a couple of fairly obvious problems with it (this is why I used the phrase “at face value”). Firstly, he was based in Baltimore – so why on Earth would he have a client who worked at Los Alamos, 1500 miles away? Secondly, he says that Allen was born in 1918, which would mean it was 1932 when he encountered the series of science fiction books featuring the hero who shared his name. But there were almost no SF books in 1932. The only possibility I can think of is the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, featuring the hero John Carter (a common enough name – or even commoner if just one of those names was shared). But the Barsoom novels are all set on Mars, whereas Kirk Allen’s adventures take him on “an expedition to a planet in another galaxy” and into contact with “the Intergalactic Institute”. Stories with that sort of scope did turn up later in the 1930s, but only in the form of magazine serials.

[As an aside, I can’t resist pointing out that if Kirk Allen was his real name, not a pseudonym, then the larger-than-life hero he identified with might have been Captain Kirk of Star Trek. But since Star Trek didn’t appear until more than a decade after “The Jet-Propelled Couch”, that would require time travel as well as space travel.]

Another article I found very interesting (and which clarifies some of the issues I just mentioned) is “Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch” by Alan Elms – another psychologist who happens to be a strong advocate of the “Cordwainer Smith” theory. The most important thing I learned from his article is that when psychologists write up case studies for publication, they don’t just hide their client behind a pseudonym. They change every little detail that might be taken as pointing at the client’s true identity. So in the case of Kirk Allen, there is no way he could have been a physicist who worked at the Manhattan Project, because the hints pointing in that direction are too strong. Similarly, it’s extremely unlikely that he shared one or both his names with a science fiction hero – which again is too clearly hinted at to be true. On her website, Cordwainer Smith’s daughter mentions another investigator who “examined another one of Lindner’s stories, figured out who the person actually was, and found out that Lindner fictionalized the stories far more than you might think”.

So I don’t think Kirk Allen’s fantasy world was based on any specific book or series. It seems more likely that, having immersed himself in SF from an early age, he created his own intergalactic scenario out of his own imagination. And reading “The Jet-Propelled Couch” it really was one heck of a scenario and one heck of an imagination. That makes it even more believable that after he’d rid himself of his delusion, “Kirk Allen” went on to become a successful science fiction writer.

Elms makes a pretty good case for Kirk Allen being Paul Linebarger, aka Cordwainer Smith. Linebarger wasn’t a Manhattan Project physicist – but he served as an intelligence officer during the war, which is almost as sensitive. Conspiracy theorists will be gratified to see where Elms says one of his informants “implied that I was reaching for secret government stuff and had better back off”.

I read half a dozen Cordwainer Smith stories back in the 1970s, when I used to read a lot of SF anthologies. They’re highly imaginative, galactic in scale … and distinctly weird. Take the picture below, for example. It’s the cover of an anthology I read when I was still at school: Spectrum 4, edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest. You might assume the image is an exercise in Daliesque surrealism… but actually it’s an objective depiction of a “A Planet Named Shayol” by Cordwainer Smith.