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Sunday, 9 October 2016

Pseudoscience and Science Fiction

It doesn’t seem that long ago (February and March this year) that I wrote a couple of posts featuring motley arrays of offbeat science fiction and pseudoscience books, which I described as research for a book I was writing. So I’m really pleased to be able to follow up those posts with the array of books pictured above – my author’s copies of Pseudoscience and Science Fiction, which has just been published by Springer. This is one of the world’s biggest academic publishers, based in Germany, and they really do have a very slick and streamlined system for getting books out quickly and to a very high professional standard.

I know what you’re thinking. Why should a prestigious academic publisher want to touch a book about such non-academic topics as pseudoscience and science fiction? Well, they do popular science books as well, and one of their ongoing lines is called Science and Fiction. Aimed at “science buffs, scientists and science fiction fans”, the series is a mixture of fiction (often written by professional scientists) and non-fiction. The latter primarily looks at the “real” science in science fiction, in a similar vein to some of Brian Clegg’s books (cf. From Science Fiction to Science Fact). But I felt there was a gap in the market that needed to be filled. What about the pseudoscience in science fiction? After all, pseudoscience is a lot more exciting – and much easier to understand – than real science, and hence much more fiction-friendly. On top of that, there are numerous examples of explicit interactions between science fiction and pseudoscience – much more than between either of those disciplines and academic science.

This is a subject I felt eminently qualified to write about. My house is filled with books, and perhaps two-thirds of them are science, pseudoscience or science fiction. Not to mention my vast collection of Fortean Times magazines, going back more than twenty years. I just searched the final text of Pseudoscience and Science Fiction for “Fortean Times”, and it appears 55 times in 180 pages! So I had great fun writing the book, and I really hope it will appeal to the target audience of “science buffs, scientists and science fiction fans”.

Here is the publisher’s blurb (I had nothing to do with the last paragraph!):
Aliens, flying saucers, ESP, the Bermuda Triangle, antigravity … are we talking about science fiction or pseudoscience? Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference.

Both pseudoscience and science fiction (SF) are creative endeavours that have little in common with academic science, beyond the superficial trappings of jargon and subject matter. The most obvious difference between the two is that pseudoscience is presented as fact, not fiction. Yet like SF, and unlike real science, pseudoscience is driven by a desire to please an audience – in this case, people who “want to believe”. This has led to significant cross-fertilization between the two disciplines. SF authors often draw on “real” pseudoscientific theories to add verisimilitude to their stories, while on other occasions pseudoscience takes its cue from SF – the symbiotic relationship between ufology and Hollywood being a prime example of this.

This engagingly written, well researched and richly illustrated text explores a wide range of intriguing similarities and differences between pseudoscience and the fictional science found in SF.
For some reason the publishers put a 2017 date on the book, but don’t let that put you off – it’s out now. It’s available both as a paperback and an ebook, and there are lots of ways you can get hold of your copy. Here are a few links (the Amazon preview is particularly generous, if you want to get a flavour of the content and style of the book):

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Astronomical debunking

ESA’s Gaia spacecraft was in the news a few weeks ago, when it produced a detailed map of the Galaxy (pictured above). But images like these don’t really reflect Gaia’s main mission, which is to measure accurate positions and velocities for millions of individual stars. That’s something I was interested in 30 years ago, and in fact I co-wrote a paper on the subject in 1986. Tucked away in an appendix to that paper is my one and only all-out attempt at scientific “debunking”. It probably isn’t of much interest to anyone but me – but then I thought last week’s post (about a popular video game) would have mass appeal, and it only got 81 views. So I really don’t care any more. I’m going to indulge myself.

The paper in question was co-written with James Binney, who was my boss at the time, and quite an authority on galactic dynamics (he co-authored the standard textbook on the subject, and I think he’s now involved in the Gaia project itself). After I’d dug out a hard copy of May & Binney (1986), and carefully scanned it into my computer, I discovered that all my astronomical papers are freely available online. There’s one about Black Holes from The Astrophysical Journal, and seven others from Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Among the latter, there’s one called “Solar-neighbourhood observations and the structure of the Galaxy” – and that’s the one I’m talking about here.

The title may sound odd, because the “solar neighbourhood” is usually taken to be about a thousand parsecs across, while the Galaxy as a whole is fifty times that size. But it’s only in the solar neighbourhood that we can measure the velocities of other stars with any accuracy. You have to extrapolate from these measurements to work out what’s happening elsewhere in the Galaxy. That’s helped by the fact that the oldest stars in the solar neighbourhood – sometimes called “halo stars” or “Population II” – tend to move on wide-ranging orbits that take them all over the place.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, an American astronomer named Olin Eggen claimed that some of the halo stars in the solar neighbourhood were moving on very similar orbits, even though they were physically separate from each other – not gravitationally bound in a tight cluster. That’s known to occur with some young stars in the Galactic disc – they’re called “moving groups”, made up of stars formed in the same gas cloud which haven’t had time to disperse – but the idea of equivalent moving groups of halo stars is something else altogether. It’s not “bad astronomy” in the Velikovsky league, but it’s the kind of brash, attention-grabbing claim that really needs to be examined closely. And that’s what we did in Appendix B of our paper (at this distance of time, I can’t remember if it was my idea or James’s – probably his, though in either case it would have been me who did all the calculations).

Like I said at the start, we ended up debunking the whole idea, using a mixture of statistics and dynamical calculations. You can see the whole appendix in the scan at the bottom of this post. I have no idea if anyone actually read this part of the paper, or paid any attention to it (according to Google Scholar, the paper has only collected 41 citations in the last 30 years). I don’t know what the current thinking about “halo moving groups” is, either. My guess is that (with the Galaxy being a more complex place than it used to be) they’re not as a-priori impossible as we thought – although I’d still put money on the specific halo groups “found” by Eggen being nothing more than wishful thinking.

I just had a quick look at Wikipedia’s article about Olin Eggen. It says “He first introduced the now-accepted notion of moving groups of stars” ... but I imagine that refers to Population I groups, not Population II. I did pick up another interesting snippet from that article, though. It says “After his death he was found to have been in possession of highly significant historical files and documents that had apparently gone missing for decades from the Royal Greenwich Observatory”.

No comment.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Contradiction - the All-Video Murder Mystery

Here’s another great adventure game that should be of interest to retro-forteans everywhere. Steam has it listed as “Contradiction: Spot the Liar” – which almost put me off buying it, because I assumed it was all about politicians. But the official logo says “Contradiction: the All-Video Murder Mystery Adventure”, which sounds much more promising! It’s not an old game (it only came out last year), but it has a nice retro feel – a cosy, puzzle-style detective story set in a small English village. And there’s plenty of fortean stuff going on in the background, as I’ll explain later (no spoilers – I promise).

Contradiction is an unusual sort of game, certainly in comparison to other recent adventure games I’ve played. Generally I hate cut-scenes and dialogue, because they slow things down and hardly ever tell you anything you need to know to solve the puzzles. Of course, they’re important if you want to follow the plot – but in most adventure games the plot is about as sophisticated as a Saturday-morning cartoon. Contradiction is completely different. It’s at least 90% cut-scenes and dialogue – but you have to pay close attention to them, because the whole point is to spot contradictions in the various characters’ testimony. And the plot is absolutely first-rate – it would be worth watching even if there wasn’t a game to play.

Another thing that makes Contradiction such a pleasure to play is its seamlessness. Perhaps it’s my computer, but in most games of this type I’m used to sitting through long pauses while the next scene loads (another recent detective mystery, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments, was almost ruined for me by that sort of thing). But there’s none of that in Contradiction – everything runs as smoothly as if you were watching a film on TV. That’s true of the professionalism of the video-making too, with things like lighting and camera angles, and the authentic country village locations. And the acting is perfect for the context, too.

The most famous actor in Contradiction – for people of my age-group, anyway – is Paul Darrow (top left of the screenshots above). He played Avon in Blake’s 7 – which was a brilliant series, even if everyone wasn’t able to appreciate it. People who missed the point often criticized it for “ham acting” – but that style of acting was absolutely essential to match the over-the-top, space-operatic plots. And Contradiction needs exactly the same kind of calculated, deliberate ham acting – not because it’s a space opera, but because it’s a video game. That’s particularly noticeable with the protagonist, Detective Inspector Jenks (played by Rupert Booth, top right). He had to record the words “And what do you know about this?” (and sundry variations thereof) literally dozens of times, in different settings and with reference to different objects. And you can tell he enjoyed every minute of it!

The most fortean character in the game is James Wilson, played by Stephen Mosley (bottom left). In fact, he comes across as pretty much the archetypal Fortean Times reader. A former student of plant science, he now ekes out a meagre living selling scrying mirrors and specialist herbal tea (you know the kind – made with ingredients like Salvia Divinorum and poppy pods). James is convinced the government is spying on him, and that anyone with a lot of power and/or money must be a practicing Satanist. All in all, James is the most normal and likeable person in the village.

At the opposite extreme – and much more interesting – is Ryan Rand, played by John Guilor (bottom right). The son of Paul Darrow’s character, Ryan is a posh millionaire who runs an unorthodox training course for business executives. Surprisingly, there’s a fortean element here too. Ryan’s gimmick is to mix the usual management bullshit-bingo with a heavy dose of New Age nonsense. There’s trance-like meditation and doll-burning, triple goddesses and third eyes, and role-playing exercises that border on pagan rituals. The ultimate aim of the training course is to transform ordinary people into ruthless and ambitious business leaders. And Ryan delivers it all with such over-the-top sincerity you end up believing it might actually work! Ryan Rand has to be one of the greatest video game characters of all time – it’s worth playing Contradiction just for his scenes alone.

But I’m left with a nagging doubt. I can’t help thinking that if they’d put all the same ideas on a DVD, and marketed it as a straight management training video, they would have made a lot more money than they’ll ever get from this game!

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Sacred Porn

As you can see from the screenshot above, I’ve been doing some more online research. Just why I decided to do a Google search for “walter fritz hotwife bareback gangbang porn” will become clear in due course. You’ll be relieved to see, however, that the search results are entirely Safe for Work. You can also see that it’s rather old news, dating back three months. However, I only belatedly encountered it in the latest issue of Fortean Times (FT 345, October 2016) – and I’m glad I did, because it’s part of an ongoing (and increasingly bizarre) saga that I’ve been following off and on for a quarter of a century now.

When I first joined the Civil Service in 1991, my boss was a loveable old bloke who was full of eccentric ideas (sadly he’s no longer alive). One of his favourite hobby-horses was the theory that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. At first I assumed this was his own idea (that was the way he presented it), but before long I discovered it was quite widespread in certain circles. I read about it in Fortean Times, and even saw a couple of talks on the subject at FT Unconventions. Then in 2003 Dan Brown put the idea at the heart of The Da Vinci Code and it entered mainstream consciousness.

In its most developed form (à la The Da Vinci Code), the theory goes way beyond Jesus simply being married. It holds that Tantra-style “sacred sex” rituals were at the heart of early Christianity, just as they are in certain forms of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and many other non-western traditions. If true this would be an astonishing revelation – implying that all round the world, there is an inextricable and fundamental link between religion and copulation.

For a long time, this was just a fringe theory based on speculation and wishful thinking – with no real hard evidence. That suddenly changed in September 2012, when the religious historian Karen King (a professor at Harvard University, just like Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code) announced the discovery of “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”. Despite its grandiose title, this was really just a tiny, business-card-size scrap of papyrus bearing a few words written in an ancient Egyptian language called Coptic. But among those few words was the phrase “Jesus said to them, my wife” – potentially turning conventional Christian scholarship on its head.

Needless to say “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was a controversial discovery. Harvard accordingly subjected the papyrus to a barrage of forensic tests – all of which indicated its authenticity. Strangely (from the point of view of an outsider), the one thing they didn’t bother to scrutinize was the back history of the fragment. Apparently the issue of “provenance” isn’t something academics normally bother about, so it was left to a journalist named Ariel Sabar to do the necessary detective work. His findings are written up in a long article in The Atlantic magazine – and this is where the story starts to get really bizarre.

After considerable effort, Sabar traced the original ownership of “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” to a Florida businessman and amateur Egyptologist named Walter Fritz. The exact nature of Fritz’s “businesses” – some of them at least – almost defied belief. I’m going to have to quote Sabar’s own words here, or you’ll think I’m making it up:
Beginning in 2003, Fritz had launched a series of pornographic sites that showcased his wife having sex with other men – often more than one at a time. One home page billed her as “America’s #1 Slut Wife”.
This was lucrative stuff – at one point about a third of the couple’s income was coming from porn site subscriptions. But it wasn’t just sex and money – there was a spiritual dimension too. Fritz’s wife told Sabar “that she was clairvoyant and had channelled the voices of angels since she was 17” ... and then added “I’m here to do God’s service”. Fritz claimed that during sexual intercourse his wife often muttered phrases in Aramaic – the language spoken by Jesus, which she had no conscious knowledge of.

Although Fritz talked openly about his sexual and pornographic activities, he continued to maintain that “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was the real thing. But after publication of the Atlantic article his credibility seems to have taken a nose-dive, and even Professor King herself now considers that the papyrus is most likely a hoax.

And what about that sacred porn? Sabar says in his article that “all of the sites seem to have been taken down in late 2014 and early 2015 ... but archived pages and free images and videos were easy to find online”. This brings me back to my starting point – the Google search pictured at the top of this post. I tried all sorts of keywords drawn from Sabar’s article – but frustratingly they all led back to that article, or to things written about it. Of course some of the search terms threw up porn images, but nothing I felt sure was Walter Fritz and his Aramaic-channelling wife.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Astronomical computers (old ones)

Most people think of astronomy as a very modern science, because of its association with things like space travel, UFOs and science fiction. But it’s really one of the oldest sciences, especially when it comes to quantitative calculations and mathematical modelling. That’s because astronomical objects generally move in a very regular and predictable way. It’s tempting to say “like clockwork”, but that’s putting things back to front. A clock is basically a simple analog computer that models the apparent motion of the Sun across the sky – a fact that was much more explicit in the early “astronomical” clocks that can be found in some old churches (such as this one from Paul Jackson’s blog).

I was reminded of this on a visit to Greenwich last week. It’s the home of the old Royal Observatory (pictured above, with the large red “time ball” clearly visible). By the time it was built, in the 17th century, mechanical clocks were well established. But in earlier times, people had to resort to things like sun-dials. But what if you wanted to know the time in the middle of the night? A short distance from the Royal Observatory, in the National Maritime Museum, I saw a display which explained how you could do just that using an ingenious mediaeval gadget called an astrolabe.

You can see a selection of astrolabes in the picture below. They’re shiny, highly desirable pieces of technology, and I’m sure no fashion-conscious geek would have been seen without one back in the Middle Ages. Like a lot of sexy modern tech, they do something that’s basically very simple in a ridiculously complex (but satisfyingly elegant) way. All you really need to do is measure the elevation angle of a known star. You could do this using a simple sextant made from a protractor, a plumb bob and a drinking straw (Mark Watney makes one in exactly this way in the novel version of The Martian). Then, assuming you know today’s date, you can consult a set of printed look-up tables to interpolate the exact time. All an astrolabe does is remove the need for paper and pencil – you just twiddle its various knobs and dials (it has five moving parts in all), and it automatically tells you the time. But who wouldn’t prefer dial-twiddling to looking things up in a book? If this was 1492 I’d want an astrolabe ... and I bet you would too.
An astrolabe, like a clock, is essentially an astronomical computer. Nowadays we tend to think of computers in terms of information processing, but the word originally comes from the Latin computare, meaning “to calculate”. And in the old days, one of the few things that was amenable to mathematical calculation was astronomy. The famous Antikythera mechanism, which is over 2000 years old, is described by the (never knowingly hyperbolic) Wikipedia as “an ancient analogue computer ... used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses”.

Today it goes without saying that a computer is a machine, and to describe someone as a “human computer” is a pejorative – suggesting they are machine-like and soulless. But the earliest use of the word computer was to refer to a person who carries out calculations. During the 19th and early 20th century, “computer” was actually a job title in some astronomical institutions. That’s a fact I discovered a couple of years ago when I watched Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. One of the episodes, Sisters of the Sun, described the work of the “Harvard Computers” – who as the episode title suggests, were all women. Apparently Greenwich was more egalitarian, employing computers of both sexes – as the following information board in the observatory museum indicates (although the one pictured is female).

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Superheroes, Funny Animals and Sequential Art (circa 1600)

Montacute House near Yeovil in Somerset was built around 1600, at the height of the English Renaissance (Shakespeare’s Hamlet dates from around the same time). While the renaissance influence can be seen in the style and grandeur of the architecture, many of the sculptures adorning the interior and exterior of the house retain a mediaeval quaintness that is distinctly cartoony in places. I wrote about some of these a few years ago on the Montacute House blog, but since that blog seems to have disappeared from the internet I thought I’d dig out the relevant info and pictures and repost them here.

The Skimmington Frieze

This large plaster frieze (pictured at the top of this post) is one of the most distinctive features of the Great Hall at Montacute House. At first glance it looks like a single panel, but actually it’s an early example of “sequential art”, telling an amusing rustic story in two scenes. In the left half, you can see a wife hitting her hapless husband over the head with a shoe (she must have brought this along specially for the purpose, since she already has shoes on both feet!). It seems she caught him drunk in charge of the baby – which he’s still holding onto, despite all those kegs of beer he’s been working his way through. The scene is witnessed by the man’s neighbour, who proceeds to rat on him to the rest of the village. The second scene, on the right, shows the unfortunate husband being paraded through the streets in a form of ritual humiliation known as a Skimmington ride (for the background to this obscure bit of West Country folklore, see the Dark Dorset website).

Two Left Hands
The picture above shows another plaster carving at Montacute House, this one an overmantel in one of the bedrooms. Like the Skimmington Frieze, this dates from the time the house was built – but it shows a more “mainstream” subject in the form of a Biblical scene (the praying figure is meant to be King David). Nevertheless, it’s still very naïve in its execution. The cherub on the left clearly has two right hands, while the one on the right (though it’s not quite as obvious) has two left hands! As Kid Robson has pointed out (here and here and here), the “two left hands” syndrome is one that occasionally afflicted Marvel Comics artist Jack Kirby.

Hunky Punks

Moving to the exterior of Montacute House, and looking up at the parapet running around the roof, you can see a lot of strange little animals sitting on it (a couple of examples can be seen in the following photograph). The technical term for these is “hunky punks”, which according to Wikipedia is a local dialect word for a grotesque stone carving. Hunky punks are most often seen on churches, but Montacute has them as well. Montacute’s hunky punks take the form of rather cute-looking animals – either chimeras (combinations of different animals) or completely imaginary species. Presumably they were the 17th century equivalent of funny cartoon animals!

The Nine Worthies

High up on the East Front of Montacute House, you can see the statues of nine figures in armour (see images below). These represent the Nine Worthies – great military leaders of history and legend, including three from classical Greece and Rome (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), three from Hebrew tradition (Joshua, King David and Judas Maccabeus) and three from European Christendom (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon). The Nine Worthies were popular throughout Europe (see their Wikipedia article) and can be thought of as a kind of crusading super-team – a bit like a mediaeval version of the Avengers!

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Ron Goulart's Cheap Thrills

If you’ve come across the name Ron Goulart the chances are it was as a historian of 20th century popular culture – comics and pulp magazines in particular. But Goulart was a poacher as well as a gamekeeper, churning out over a hundred short and easy-to-read novels of his own (the small selection that I’ve read so far is shown above). One of his best-known non-fiction books is called Cheap Thrills (pictured below) – and the same phrase sums up his fiction too!
Ron Goulart was born at the height of the pulp era in 1933, and began his full-time writing career in the 1960s. His novels are an intriguing blend of the straightforward plots and larger-than-life characters of the thirties with a satirical take on the consumerism and hippie zeitgeist of the sixties. As far as I know he’s still alive, and I hope he won’t be too offended if I describe him as the late 20th century equivalent of a pulp magazine hack. His novels are all very short – typically 40 to 50,000 words – and were clearly written with the aim of meeting deadlines rather than getting onto award shortlists. All of them came out as paperback originals, and very few of them ever saw a second edition. Inevitably, the quality is variable – some of the ones I’ve read are pretty dire, but others are really very good.

A couple of years ago I wrote a long post about Goulart’s 1979 novel Hello Lemuria Hello. This is still by far my favourite of the ones I’ve read, both for its fortean themes and its “superhero” style protagonist – Jake Conger of the Wild Talents Division. I subsequently tracked down two other Jake Conger novels – A Talent for the Invisible (1973) and The Panchronicon Plot (1977). They’re both enjoyable, especially the latter, although much less fortean. The same is true of a couple of other offbeat “near future” (actually 2002) adventures I’ve read – Calling Dr. Patchwork (1978) and Hail Hibbler (1980) – which feature a husband-and-wife team of private investigators called Jake and Hildy Pace (Goulart seems to like the name “Jake” for protagonists – there is also Jake Cardigan in Tek War, which he ghost-wrote for William Shatner in 1989).

I also enjoyed the three Vampirella adaptations I read (he wrote six in all, but I’ve only got the ones that were reprinted in the UK). After Hello Lemuria Hello, these are probably the most fortean-themed of his novels that I’ve read. He’s also done a couple of other comic-book adaptations – Challengers of the Unknown (1977) and a Hulk novel called Stalker from the Stars (also 1977, co-written with Len Wein and Marv Wolfman under the pseudonym of Joseph Silva). I still need to track those down – along with Goulart’s novelization of that archetypally fortean movie, Capricorn One.

All the Goulart novels I’ve read (except the Vampirella adaptations) have the same basic plot. They start with the protagonist(s) reluctantly accepting an assignment to track down some nefarious criminal or criminals. They’re given an initial lead, which in due course puts them onto a second lead, and so on through half a dozen wacky and often outright comical scenes until the final showdown. This is a perfectly good plot structure, as long as the hero is constantly racing against the clock, falling into traps, getting double-crossed, chasing after red herrings, etc, etc. In Goulart’s best novels, that’s exactly what happens ... but in some of the others he forgets to do this, and the protagonist sails through the story with no real obstacles to overcome. The result in these cases is inevitably dull, no matter how original and imaginative the incidental details are.

I’ve been looking for a pattern, to give me a better idea what to look out for in future. Based on my experience so far, the novels that involve series characters (either Goulart’s own creations or franchise characters) and are set here on Earth are all pretty good. Novels set in Goulart’s fictitious Barnum system (of which I’ve read three – The Fire-Eater, Shaggy Planet and Flux) were rather dull and forgettable in my opinion – as was the one that was set on Earth with a non-recurring protagonist (After Things Fell Apart). I suspect in reality it’s not as clear-cut as this, and – as with 1930s pulp fiction – you just have to accept that some of the novels are good and some are bad.

The dozen books pictured at the top of this post were purchased second-hand on various occasions over the last ten years. The one in the bottom right – the embarrassingly-titled Hail Hibbler – came from a paperback book fair in 2009. It contains a hastily scrawled signature on the title page, which I assume is Ron Goulart’s autograph:

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: