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Sunday 12 May 2024

Fortean-themed music, from opera to metal

Prompted by some comments on a previous post, I thought I'd write something about "UFO-themed songs". But after looking into it, I decided there isn't really anything I can add to the many times it's been done before (even Wikipedia has a list of songs about close encounters with aliens). Instead, I've decided to focus on a selection of more substantial musical works (e.g. operas and concept albums, such as those pictured above) that fit my broad definition of "fortean". These include several less well-known items, including some I discovered while researching my two books about music - SofSFM (2020) and SofM (2023). Here's what I came up with, grouped under the 6 headings of Aliens, Ghosts, Atlantis, Esoteric Traditions, Science Fiction and Comics.


Christus Apollo (1969) by Jerry Goldsmith. An obscure work by a far-from-obscure composer, this was one of several interesting discoveries I made while writing SofSFM. It's a religious cantata with words by SF writer Ray Bradbury, portraying Christ as a spacefaring super-being known by different names on different planets.

Alien Encounter (1996) by Phil Thornton - a purely instrumental album with tracks including "Arrival of the Mothership" and "Visions from the Homeworld". It comes from one of my all-time favourite CD labels, New World Music, which was particularly popular in the 1990s. I've got quite a collection of these  - other artists on the label include Medwyn Goodall and Terry Oldfield (brother of Mike Oldfield).


There's never been any shortage of operas with supernatural themes - several of them featured in my Fortean Opera post. Here are two more:
The Lighthouse (1980) by Peter Maxwell Davies - another discovery I made while writing SofSFM. It's based on the same real-world "Flannan Isle incident" as the 1977 Doctor Who serial "Horror of Fang Rock". In the latter, the mysterious disappearance of the lighthouse-keepers is down to an alien; in the opera, it's caused by a series of ghostly apparitions.

The Turn of the Screw (1954) by Benjamin Britten. This is based on the classic "psychological" ghost story of the same name by Henry James - but whereas the ghosts turn out to be imaginary in the original version, in the opera they're very real.


Eagle-eyed readers will notice that one of the CDs pictured above also featured in my recent post about Lemuria - and that's the 2004 album of that name by the symphonic metal band Therion. But there are two other albums worth mentioning in this category that I only have in intangible form in my Spotify library:

Atlantis (1969) by Sun Ra. A fascinating individual who claimed to come from the planet Saturn, Sun Ra featured prominently in SofSFM. But not all his albums are about outer space - this one has tracks called Mu, Lemuria, Yucatan and Bimini, as well as the really excellent 22-minute title track.

Atlantis Ascendant (2001) by Bal-Sagoth - another symphonic metal band, and definitely my favourite (their music always makes me think of a Masters of the Universe cartoon, for some reason). Their concept albums also have really great plots; according to Wikipedia, this one "centres on the exploits of a fictional 19th-century archaeologist and adventurer who has dedicated his life to the field of antediluvian anthropology".


Voyage of the Acolyte (1975) by Steve Hackett - the esoteric tradition in this case being the Tarot. All the tracks are inspired by specific Tarot cards, such as "Hands of the Priestess", "The Hermit" and "Shadow of the Hierophant". There's also a Tarot connection in The Lighthouse, as PMD explains in the liner notes: "The structure is based on the Tower of the Tarot, whose number symbolism is present in all the music".

Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) by Yes, based on Hindu mysticism. In its original form as a vinyl double album, each of the four sides comprised a single "movement" relating to the four categories of Hindu scripture: the shruti (revealing), the smriti (remembering), the puranas (ancients) and the tantras (rituals).

Zos Kia Cultus (2002) by Behemoth. A previously unsuspected music genre I discovered while writing SofM was what you might call "highbrow" metal, and of the bands I listened to, Behemoth was the one I liked best. This particular album is based on the occult writings of Austin Osman Spare, who I first heard of when he featured on the cover of Fortean Times in March 2001.

Masonic Music (1783-91) by Mozart. I mentioned last week that The Magic Flute was featured in my Fortean Opera post, one reason being its inclusion of a Masonic-style secret society. Mozart himself was a Freemason, and this CD contains several works incorporating Masonic ideas. One in particular, the "Little German Cantata" of 1791, must have seemed as blasphemous to some listeners as Goldsmith's Christus Apollo, with its reference to "the creator of the universe, whether named Jehovah, or God, or Fu, or Brahma" (Fu being a Chinese deity and Brahma a Hindu one).

Also featured in my Fortean Opera list was Wagner's Parsifal, which could equally fit here with its strange fusion of the Grail legend with the mystical writings of Schopenhauer. It features quite strongly in Philip K. Dick's novel VALIS (1981), which brings me neatly to the next item...


VALIS (1987) by Tod Machover - a short opera based on Dick's novel. Most of PKD's writings are fortean to some extent, but none more so than the mishmash of metaphysics, religion, alien super-intelligence and conspiracy theories that is VALIS. As for the opera, it's discussed in some detail in SofSFM, so all I'll say here is that anything that combines Wagner and rock music has got to be worth a listen.

The Chronicle of the Black Sword (1985) by Hawkwind. There's always been a close connection between Hawkwind and the writings of Michael Moorcock, but this album (their best, in my opinion) has particularly strong fortean credentials, being based on the adventures of Moorcock's sword-and-sorcery hero, Elric of Melniboné.

(Fortean) COMICS

The Power Cosmic (1999) by Bal-Sagoth. No excuses for mentioning this band a second time, as even the album title reflects one of Marvel's more fortean superheroes, the Silver Surfer. He's also referenced, under his real name of Norrin Radd of Zenn La, in the song "The Scourge of the Fourth Celestial Host", together with several other Marvel characters, including Arishem of the Celestials - the archetypal "ancient alien".

Miss Anthropocene (2020) by Grimes. There were two reasons I sought this album out while writing SofM: (a) I was under instructions to include popular young artists, and (b) she'd spoken out in praise of AI in music, which was one of the topics in the last chapter of the book. I have to say I enjoyed her style much more than I expected, and was pleasantly surprised to find two songs inspired by the distinctly fortean comics that Jack Kirby did for DC in the 1970s: "Darkseid" and "New Gods".

While I could have found plenty more items to go in the preceding categories, that's not true here, as beyond those two albums I'm not aware of any other fortean comic-inspired music (unless you want to include "Grimly Fiendish" by The Damned). But there's a picture of Doctor Strange on the cover of the Pink Floyd album A Saucerful of Secrets (1968), and he's as fortean as superheroes get (see my post Master of the Mystic Arts). The picture, drawn by Marie Severin, is taken from Strange Tales #158, and it's quite hard to see unless you peer very closely. Here's a photograph I took of my CD version, where I've  contrast-enhanced the relevant part (and outlined it in red), to make it a little clearer:

Sunday 5 May 2024

More (free) AI creativity tools


The above may not be great comic-book art, but it's passable enough, and (with a couple of caveats I'll come to later) I created it with a single mouse-click on a website where I didn't even have to log in, let alone pay any money. And until I press "Publish" on this post, no one but me has ever seen it before. Even after a year of playing around with AI software, this still strikes me as incredibly cool (and even slightly frightening, if you stop to think about all the implications).

This particular page came from the Comic Factory website, one of two new AI discoveries I want to talk about in this post. First, however, I thought I'd summarize a few things I've written elsewhere about the "creative" use of AI. This is becoming a major hobby of mine, and I suspect it will feature increasingly often on this blog. Don't worry, though - all the applications I'm going to talk about have at least a tenuously fortean connection.

To start with, there's the article I wrote for Fortean Times last year called "AI, Art and Forteana" (FT 433, July 2023). This included a couple of imaginative fabrications from Bing's AI chatbot: first, an account of the Roswell Incident written in the unmistakable style of Charles Fort (who actually died 15 years before Roswell), and then a (hopefully entirely fictitious) conspiracy theory about Fortean Times itself.

The magazine article also contains two pieces of artwork courtesy of Bing's Image Creator. One takes the form of a two-page comic (with each of the panels having been generated separately, and then put together and captioned by myself), which also turned up in a guest post I did for Kid Robson's "Crivens" blog called Nostalgia Meets Modern Technology.

The other piece of art included in my FT article was "an engraving in the distinctive style of William Hogarth, 'proving' that he witnessed a UFO hovering over the streets of London in the 1730s". The same image also appears in a long post I did on my professional blog, 6 experiments in creative AI. As the title suggests, the "Hogarth" image was just one of several experiments discussed in that post - to read about the others, just click on the link.

Although I've occasionally found Bing's chatbot useful as an "ideas generator", the most impressive use I've found for it is in writing song lyrics, which it's surprisingly good at. I've put a couple of examples on YouTube:

  • Zen Matrix - a mystical/hippie song that I think is really great (so you probably won't click on it)
  • Demonic Tarot - my attempt at a "blackened death metal" song in the style of Behemoth, which really isn't very good (so you probably will click on it)

As well as AI-generated lyrics, both those videos use AI-created artwork - as do most of the recent videos on my YouTube channel. And as for this blog - you can see how often I've used Bing's Image Creator by looking at "AI art" in the tag cloud in the right-hand sidebar.

Besides being free, Bing Image Creator is also impressively high quality. But it has disadvantages, too - the biggest being that it has no memory from one image to the next. This limits its usefulness in creating comics - hence my decision to check out the AI Comic Factory. To ensure full consistency of characters and locations you need to set up a paid account, but there's a free "playground" where you can try it out without doing that.

The prompt box says "story", which seems to invite you to type quite a lot, but I just settled for a two-word prompt, "ancient aliens". The resulting artwork is noticeably less sophisticated than Bing, but it does have the advantage of being laid out like a comic - and, despite being the free version, having some vague continuity from one panel to the next.

There were just a couple of things I didn't like: the page had a broad 4:5 aspect ratio, rather than the 2:3 of a normal comic, and one panel was in a jarringly different style from the others. So, to produce the version you see at the top of this post, I deleted the dodgy panel and rearranged the others into the correct aspect ratio. But contrary to what you might think, I'm not responsible for the clumsily cropped right-hand edge of the lower panels. That was the computer's fault, and it looks like a bug to me (as opposed to the "unreadable" text captions, which I don't think are a bug, but just placeholders to add your own words).

While I won't be signing up for a Comic Factory account, I still think it's great that they let you play around with the free version (which it's best to do first thing in the morning UK time, before the server slows down as more people start to use it).

A point that was raised in the comment thread to my aforementioned Crivens post was the role of AI in creating last year's "new" Beatles song, "Now and Then". Specifically, AI was used to separate John Lennon's voice from the instrumental accompaniment on a demo tape. This brings me to the second thing I wanted to talk about in this post - because, as of a few weeks ago, exactly the same functionality is now available to anyone, free of charge, as part of a new toolkit called OpenVINO for Audacity.

I've tried a few experiments with this already, including Ozzy Osbourne singing "Paranoid" with the band muted and replaced by a classical string quartet, and a groovy Sgt Peppery remix of "A Hard Day's Night". Unfortunately, copyright laws mean the wider world is never going to hear them! Instead, you'll have to settle for my electronic remix of the Queen of the Night from Mozart's Magic Flute - the fortean credentials of which I discussed in a 2013 post on Fortean Opera (I scarcely need to add that the image in the video is c/o Bing Image Creator):

Incidentally, I'm always puzzled as to why some of my YouTube videos do much better than others in terms of views. For example, the totally brilliant Very Model of a Modern UFOlogist has only collected 20 views in the 2 weeks since I posted it, and "Zen Matrix", which I also like, has had a mere 56 views in 11 months. On the other hand, "The Doctor Who Theme in the Style of Handel", which I did at the suggestion of regular follower Colin Jones a month ago, has had a very respectable 460 views in that time - and now my version of Mozart's Queen of the Night is already well past 400 views only four days after posting it. Oh well, I guess it's just that "Doctor Who" and "Mozart" are more popular search terms than "Zen" and "UFOlogist".

Sunday 28 April 2024

Colin Wilson, Philosopher of the Paranormal

Back in the 1970s, Colin Wilson was one of the big names of what might be called "mass-market forteana". But while I did borrow a copy of his 600-page blockbuster The Occult circa 1978, it was only much later that I started to discover just how interesting his ideas are. It began in 2001, when I bought a book by Fortean Times contributor Gary Lachman called Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius (which I'm sure everyone spotted in my recent shelfie post, towards the right-hand end of the middle shelf). Colin Wilson made an appearance in Lachman's book in the context of the H. P. Lovecraft revival of the 1960s - including the wonderfully surreal cover of Wilson's 1967 novel The Mind Parasites. As evidenced by the photo above, I bought a second-hand copy as soon as I could find one, as well as two later novels in the same vein, The Philosopher's Stone (1969) and The Space Vampires (1976).

The other paperback shown above is a non-fiction one, The Psychic Detectives (1984), which I bought in 2016 when I was researching my own book, Pseudoscience and Science Fiction. Here's what I said about Wilson there:
As his career progressed, he became increasingly fascinated with the world of strange powers. A recurrent theme throughout his fiction and non-fiction is that most people live a robotic existence far below their real potential.
That use of the word "robotic" brings me on to the main subject of this post, which is the Kindle book shown in the above photo - Gary Lachman's Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (2016). I only became aware of it last month, when Gary posted the following on Facebook:
I've just heard that the paperback of Beyond the Robot, my book about Colin Wilson, is now out of print. If you are among the many who didn't buy a copy, there's still time to not get the Kindle edition too.
Since I'm a chronic sufferer from the "Why do friends never read my books?" syndrome, I clearly had to buy it immediately! I'm glad I did, as I found it a fascinating and information-packed read which got 5 out of 5 stars from me on Goodreads. However, this post isn't really a review of the book, so much as a summary of a few things I found particularly interesting from a fortean point of view.

To start with, Fortean Times (as well as some of the "Unconventions" they organized) makes several appearances in the book. At one point Lachman specifically mentions "writing pretty regularly for the Fortean Times", and after Colin Wilson's death in 2013 Gary's obituary of him appeared in FT 310 (the same issue as my review of a comic-strip book about particle physics, FWIW). Although I've never actually met Gary, I did spot him at a couple of Uncons - and, I think, in the audience at the "Aliens and the Imagination" event I mentioned on this blog in 2011. Way back in 1978, in the guise of his musical alter-ego Gary Valentine, Lachman also wrote Blondie's paranormal-themed hit "I’m Always Touched by Your Presence, Dear".

As for Colin Wilson himself, he only came on to fortean-type subjects a decade or so after he started writing. His original focus was on existential philosophy, and his first book on that subject, The Outsider, was published in 1956 when he was just 24. It received a lot of rave reviews, including one in The Observer - which Lachman describes as one of Britain's "highbrow Sunday papers" (which pleased me a lot, since they published a two-page feature by me just a couple of months ago).

In hindsight, it's not surprising that Wilson's own personal take on philosophy eventually led to an interest in the paranormal, since it's ultimately all about widening human consciousness beyond the normal trivialities of everyday life. That's why he was drawn to the Lovecraftian style of fiction - he had no time for the more mainstream kind of novelist "who, in the service of realism, simply portrays life as it is". Another fortean favourite who made an impression on Wilson was Aleister Crowley. According to Lachman, Crowley was the model for one of the characters in Wilson's early novel Man Without a Shadow (1963) - Carradoc Cunningham, an occultist and master of "sex magic". Apparently Wilson himself harboured interests along the latter lines, believing that sexual orgasm can unlock higher states of consciousness and "open the doors of perception".

When Wilson came to write about the paranormal - The Occult (1971) being his first and best-known, but far from only, book on the subject - he did so in a way that was almost diametrically opposed to the standard approach for the genre. As Lachman puts it:
If scientists and other skeptics were ever going to broaden their minds about the occult, then it had to be presented to them logically, in a way that made sense, not in a sensational "believe it or not" manner.
As with his first book about philosophy, Wilson's first book on the paranormal also got rave reviews. In part, this was because "highbrow" readers were far more open to such topics at that time than they are today. Referring to a favourable review that New Scientist gave of Wilson's follow-up book Mysteries (1978), Lachman says:
Such acclaim from a scientific publication for a book about the paranormal is unusual today, and shows that in the 1970s, the paranormal was treated with respect by many scientists, unlike in our more narrowly skeptical times.
Another thing I remember myself from those times, is that interest in fringe topics was much more wide-ranging and eclectic than it is today. The "paranormal", for example, meant a lot more than just ghosts and poltergeists. Listing some of the topics that Wilson covered in Mysteries, Lachman includes "plant telepathy, psychic surgery, transcendental meditation, biofeedback, Kirlian photography, multiple personality and synchronicity". All great stuff - makes me feel more nostalgic than ever for the 20th century!

Colin Wilson was an incredibly prolific author, and I kept noting down titles of books of his that I ought to seek out. The most intriguing-sounding of all is Atlantis and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals (2006) - something I should have known about already, as Wilson mentioned it in an article he himself wrote for Fortean Times, called "A 100,000-year-old Civilization?" It appeared in FT 272 in March 2011, and I have to admit I'd forgotten all about it (although I looked back at it just now, which is how I know it mentions the Atlantis book). In any case, I've already acquired my copy of Atlantis and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals from eBay, as you can see here:

Sunday 21 April 2024

UFO song #2


Image by Bing AI

The album pictured above doesn't exist yet (and probably never will), but at least I've now got a second song for it. It's basically an electronic arrangement of Gilbert & Sullivan's "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" from The Pirates of Penzance, with reworded lyrics covering all the clichés of modern ufology that I could think of. The synthesized vocals aren't always clear, so you need to see the words on the screen to follow them, but apart from that I'm really quite proud of this one. So do please have a listen to it before reading any further!

A typical song has 8 syllables per line, with pairs of lines rhyming on the last syllable. But this one has 16 syllables per line (which isn't a problem) and rhymes on the last three syllables - which is a problem, at least for me. In the original by W. S. Gilbert, he makes it look easy, with rhymes like "lot o' news ...  hypotenuse" and "Sir Caradoc's ... paradox". In my version, I was quite pleased with "Zeta Reticuli ... particu'ly" and "there was a clash ... saucer crash", but a lot of the others are distinctly strained (such as "correct approach ... rectal probe" and "disastrous course ... astronauts"). Then again, I think there's a sense in which these almost-but-not-quite rhymes add to the humour!

As I often do with these musical experiments, I beta-tested it on five friends - and this was the first one that's ever come back with five "yeses". One person (who liked it enough to share it on Twitter/X, despite describing an earlier song of mine as "tuneless wibbling") raised the interesting question of what a "ufologist" should be called, now that the US government has deprecated UFO in favour of UAP. I suspect the answer is that UAP will very soon (if not already) come to be associated with "debunkers" who seek to explain sightings in non-extraterrestrial terms, leaving UFO for the true believers - who will thus always be ufologists.

Also on the subject of feedback, I can't resist including this nice comment from my cousin - I never knew such specialized emojis existed!

The singing synthesizer I use is a Japanese one called Sinsy, which is actually a deep neural network (i.e. AI) that gets better the more it's exposed to training data. It's been updated a couple of times since I started using it in 2020, and has improved noticeably in that time. For example, the synthesized voice doesn't sound nearly as good in my previous UFO-themed song, which I did in 2022 for my book The Science of Music.

One of the topics in that book is "algorithmic composition" -  specifically the use of Markov chains. If that's something you've never heard of, it simply means analysing a piece of music to work out its "transition matrix" - the probability that any given note will be followed by any other particular note - and then getting a computer to generate a new piece of music using the same transition probabilities.

Since the editors wanted a focus on well-known music, the transition matrix I used came from Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You". This was something of an in-joke, since he was busy extricating himself from a plagiarism accusation at the time, so I thought he wouldn't mind if I borrowed his transition probabilities (the fact that his song only uses five different notes made the maths easier, too). For the lyrics, I dug out some UFO-themed limericks I wrote ages ago, and called the result "Mark of (Markov - get it?) the UFO". Apart from the rather strange synthesized vocals, I think it sounds quite good. Here it is:

Sunday 14 April 2024

Charles Fort, UFO pioneer?


Charles Fort is most commonly associated with the more offbeat end of the anomalous spectrum - things like frogs falling from the sky - and for his many surreal/poetic/philosophical quotes such as the one in the graphic above (which is a screenshot from an arty video of mine, Charles Fort on Frogs). Oddly, however, his ahead-of-their-time speculations on UFOs and extraterrestrial visitation, going all the way back to The Book of the Damned (1919), aren't as well known as they might be.

So I was pleased to see Fort getting a mention in this context in a 2021 episode of Ancient Aliens called "The UFO Pioneers". There's a short clip from this episode on the IMDB website, in which one of the show's contributors, Mitch Horowitz, says the following about him:
People had written about strange lights in the sky before, but Fort was probably the first person in modern life who assembled the stories into his books in a systematic way.
As well as cataloguing UFO sightings, Fort's theoretical speculations on the subject are also of interest. I'll focus on some of the more intelligent among these - though I have to admit they're interspersed with a lot of highly dubious concepts too (such as his assertion, easily disproved by any schoolchild with a rudimentary understanding of parallax, that "the stars are not trillions nor even millions of miles away").

I'll start with a "speculation" that is now so widespread that most people don't even see it as a speculation, even though it wasn't at all common prior to the end of the 1940s. This is the "extraterrestrial hypothesis", that unusual objects seen in the sky are craft piloted by intelligent beings from other planets. Here's what Fort says in chapter 1 of New Lands, first published in 1923 (all the quotes in this post are taken from the version of Fort's work on the Sacred Texts website):
Ships from other worlds ... have been seen by millions of the inhabitants of this Earth, exploring, night after night, in the sky of France, England, New England and Canada.
As for the many UFO-related quotes from The Book of the Damned, I used some of them in the comic strip "Charles Fort in Space" that I did for Fortean Times last year (FT 433, pp 54-5 - also reprinted in a guest post of mine on Kid Robson's blog). The most interesting of these quotes relate to the possibility of artificial "megastructures" in space created by highly advanced aliens - a topic of genuine scientific study these days, as recounted in my own Astrobiology book. Here's what Fort had to say on the subject more than a hundred years ago:
Data we shall have of round worlds and spindle-shaped worlds, and worlds shaped like a wheel; worlds like titanic pruning hooks; worlds linked together by streaming filaments; solitary worlds, and worlds in hordes; tremendous worlds and tiny worlds; some of them made of material like the material of this Earth; and worlds that are geometric super-constructions made of iron and steel.
That's from chapter 12 of The Book of the Damned. In the same chapter, Fort makes the observation that, for reasons of their own, alien visitors have a general tendency to covertness:
Nothing in our own times ... has ever appeared upon this Earth from somewhere else, so openly as Columbus landed upon San Salvador... But as to surreptitious visits to this Earth in recent times, or as to emissaries, perhaps, from other worlds, or voyagers who have shown every indication of intent to evade and avoid, we shall have data as convincing as our data of oil or coal-burning aerial super-constructions.
This begs the question of why the aliens should always be so careful to hide their presence. Fort's favoured answer is embodied in his famous phrase "I think we're property". His assertion seems to be (in this chapter of The Book of the Damned, anyway - he was never very good at maintaining consistency of ideas across all his writings) that, of all the many alien species that visited Earth in the distant past, one group took "ownership" for special reasons of their own. Since then, all visits to our planet have been carefully stage-managed.

Another of the standard tropes of modern ufology that Fort anticipated is the idea of a special relationship between the aliens and certain members of Earth's human population. Today, the group in question is normally assumed to be the United States government, but for Fort it was some even more shadowy organization. Here's what he says in chapter 10 of The Book of the Damned:
Some other world ... has been, for centuries, in communication with a sect, perhaps, or a secret society, or certain esoteric ones of this Earth's inhabitants.
By this point, it probably won't come as much of a surprise to find that Fort was also something of a pioneer of "ancient astronaut" theory. Here's a quote taken from chapter 18 of New Lands:
Many appearances upon this Earth that were once upon a time interpreted by theologians and demonologists, but are now supposed to be the subject-matter of psychic research, were beings and objects that visited this Earth, not from a spiritual existence, but from outer space.
He also entertained the idea that humans were created, or at least helped along in their evolution, by extraterrestrial visitors. In the following extract, coming from chapter 7 of The Book of the Damned, he gives the name "Genesistrine" to the home planet of these particular ancient aliens:
That the first unicellular organisms may have come here from Genesistrine - or that men or anthropomorphic beings may have come here before amoebae... That evolution upon this Earth has been induced by external influences; that evolution, as a whole, upon this Earth, has been a process of population by immigration or by bombardment.
A point I've made in the past is that, unlike modern ultra-literal UFO theorists, Fort tended to think and write more like an avant-garde poet than the pseudo-scientist he's usually portrayed as. This comes across in a few of the quotes I've already given, and even more so in others - such as the following from Chapter 36 of New Lands:
We have conceived of intenser times and furies of differences of potential between this Earth and other worlds: torrents of dinosaurs, in broad volumes that were streaked with lesser animals, pouring from the sky, with a foam of tusks and fangs, enveloped in a bloody vapour that was falsely dramatized by the Sun, with rainbow-mockery.
I found this difficult to visualize, so I copied and pasted it as a prompt into Bing's AI image creator. I didn't add any other words of my own, but for some reason the AI has chosen to render the picture in the style of Rubens (something that's particularly obvious if you look at the human figures at the bottom). Anyway, I think the result is pretty good, for a machine:

(courtesy of Bing Image Creator)

Sunday 7 April 2024

Fake Physics and Dubious Statistics


 With April Fools' Day last week, it brought to mind a book I wrote a few years ago called Fake Physics. Around a third of the books I've written weren't actually my idea, but originated in a suggestion from the editors - and Fake Physics is in this category. It arose when an editor at Springer Books drew my attention to the ArXiv website, which is normally home to serious physics papers but has a tradition of publishing spoof papers on the first day of April each year. Some of the more fortean-sounding examples include "On the Influence of the Illuminati in Astronomical Adaptive Optics" (2012), "Conspiratorial Cosmology: the Case against the Universe" (2013) and "Astrology in the Era of Exoplanets" (2016).

I chose the title Fake Physics to echo the "fake news" that everyone was talking about at the time, but it's very much about fakery for the purposes of entertainment rather than deception. The scope is made clearer in the book's subtitle, which is "Spoofs, Hoaxes and Fictitious Science". In the latter category are science-fictional creations ranging from the carefully explained (but entirely made-up) Blackett-Dirac equations of James Blish's Cities in Flight novels to the throwaway technobabble - "subspace field stress" and the like - of Star Trek.

As for hoaxes - in the world of academic physics, their most common purpose is to catch out gullible editors while amusing fellow scientists. These include such things as littering papers with references to popular culture from Star Wars to Rick and Morty, or using an AI-style computer program to generate convincing-looking technical jargon. As an example of the latter, specially created for this blog post, I used an online tool called MathGen to produce a paper on abstract mathematics by Charles Fort and H. P. Lovecraft. The result is 9 pages long, highly academic-looking and incomprehensible in a thoroughly realistic way. I won't inflict the whole thing on you, but I'll attach a screenshot of the opening to the bottom of this post.

Perhaps the most amusing items in Fake Physics are the numerous scientific spoofs, whether done specifically for April Fools' Day or not. These include an entire book called Mathematical Modelling of Zombies, published by the University of Ottawa Press in 2012 and featuring chapters with titles like "When Humans Strike Back: Adaptive Strategies for Zombie Attacks" and "An Evolvable Linear Representation for Simulating Government Policy in Zombie Outbreaks".

Even the most upmarket journals aren't above printing the occasional April Fool piece. A case in point is Nature, which Wikipedia describes as "one of the world's most-read and most prestigious academic journals". In April 2015 it printed a short article called "Here Be Dragons", which begins as follows:
Emerging evidence indicates that dragons can no longer be dismissed as creatures of legend and fantasy, and that anthropogenic effects on the world's climate may inadvertently be paving the way for the resurgence of these beasts.
The authors back up their claim with a graph - based on genuine, unaltered statistical data - showing a definite correlation between global temperature and the occurrence of dragons in fiction. This is an example of another category of "fakes" discussed in the book - ones that use valid data, but deliberately misinterpret it to humorous effect. There's a whole website devoted to such things - Tyler Viglen's Spurious Correlations - which is packed with bizarre relationships that his software has found while trawling through a vast database of statistical data. Here's an example, showing an indisputable correlation between UFO sightings in Massachusetts between 2011 and 2021, and patents granted to the Sony Corporation over the same period:

Despite the website's name, correlations like this aren't "spurious" - they're perfectly real. Where the error arises is in assuming (as is common among conspiracy theorists, for example) that, if two quantities are correlated, there must be a cause-and-effect relationship between them. As Viglen's strapline puts it, "correlation is not causation". If you go to the page where I found that graph, he gives a detailed explanation of what's shown, where the data came from, and what can and can't be deduced from it. You'll also notice that, just below the graph, he seems to imply that he's in the process of developing an AI that can fabricate its own explanations for all these correlations!

Finally, before I forget, here's the snippet from that maths paper by Fort and Lovecraft that I promised:

Sunday 31 March 2024

Popular Culture in Fortean Times

In the comment thread to last week's post, I mentioned that Fortean Times occasionally touches on various aspects of popular culture, from cult TV and movies to comics and pop music. So I thought I'd do a quick run-through of a few examples today.

To start with some very obvious topics, there are the three shown above. The X-Files (FT 82, August 1995) was not only one of the most fortean TV shows of all time, but its first appearance in 1993 coincided with the wider distribution of FT to "mainstream" retailers like WH Smith, and almost certainly contributed to the magazine's popularity at that time. Around a decade later, Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code (FT 193, March 2005) was a publishing phenomenon, bringing fringe theories that had previously been the realm of specialist writers (and FT contributors) like Lionel Fanthorpe and Lynn Picknett to a much wider audience. Just over a century earlier, Bram Stoker had done something similar in his novel Dracula - the title character of which went on to become one of the most recognisable and ubiquitous pop-culture icons of them all, as recounted in the cover feature of FT 257 (January 2010).

At a less obvious level, you can find references to popular culture in almost every issue of FT. Taking the one I discussed last week, for example - FT 73 from February/March 1994 - there's an interview with cult author William Gibson, generally credited as the originator of the cyberpunk genre. And I spotted something else in that issue, too: a book review by comics legend Alan Moore. I don't mean a review of one of his graphic novels - I mean a review written by him of someone else's work. Looking online, I see he actually did quite a few reviews for FT in those days - which pleases me enormously, as I've done over 40 of them myself. It's always nice to discover that you have something in common with a famous person!

Sticking with books and comics for a moment, here are three more covers that caught my eye. No apologies for a second appearance of The Da Vinci Code (FT 212 this time, from August 2006) - both because it's one of my favourite novels, and because I love the illustration on the cover. In addition to people like Picasso and Orson Welles, it features Da Vinci himself in the act of strangling Dan Brown! The middle cover (FT 256, December 2009) features Dennis Wheatley - best remembered today for The Devil Rides Out (the only one of his novels that I've read), although in his day he was Britain's most prolific author of occult fiction. Finally there's the only comics-themed cover I could find - FT 320 (November 2014), relating to the Fredric Wertham-inspired anti-comics paranoia than swept America in the 1950s.

I found a few shorter comic-related pieces on interior pages as well. The most interesting of these was an article in FT 277 (July 2011) called "The Morning of the Mutants", speculating that Stan Lee and/or Jack Kirby got the idea for the X-Men from the seminal (though now largely forgotten) fortean conspiracy book The Morning of the Magicians, written in 1960 by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. There's also a feature about Marvel Comics' Doctor Strange in FT 349 (January 2017, to tie in with the movie), which discusses the character's origin and fictional predecessors.

Regarding the "popular culture" of the mid-20th century, I can't resist mentioning a couple of pieces by myself - in fact the only two full-length feature articles I've had in FT. First there was "Fanthorpe's Fortean Fiction" (FT 297, February 2013) about the large number of mass-market paperback novels that Lionel Fanthorpe churned out in the late 1950s and early 60s. This was followed by "Astounding Science, Amazing Theories" (FT 355, July 2017), looking at fortean themes in the pulp science fiction magazines of the 1940s.

Pulp magazines were a huge part of popular culture in the first half of the 20th century, but - with a few notable exceptions - they're only of interest to die-hard fans today. Of those exceptions, perhaps the most important is H. P. Lovecraft, whose Cthulhu Mythos first took form in the pages of Weird Tales in the 1920s and 30s, before going on to develop a life of its own to rival that of Bram Stoker's Dracula. I found no fewer than three Lovecraft-inspired FT covers: FT 184 (June 2004), FT 369 (August 2018) and FT 390 (March 2020 - this one tying in with the movie adaptation of The Color Out of Space). Here they are:

As regards cult TV shows, I've already mentioned the most fortean of all, The X-Files - which not surprisingly made several further appearances after the one pictured at the top of this post (including FT 85 from February 1996, which had a rundown of all the fortean references in the show's first season). Three other TV-related covers are shown below, the middle of which - FT 215 from October 2006, celebrating 40 years of Star Trek - needs no introduction. The other two relate to the screenwriters (both with wider fortean interests than you might expect) behind two of Britain's most famous sci-fi icons: Kit Pedler, who created Doctor Who's second-most-famous villains, the Cybermen (FT 209, May 2006), and Nigel Kneale, creator of Professor Quatermass (FT 418, May 2022). The latter may no longer be a household name, but back in the 1950s he was really the first great TV sci-fi hero, in this country at least.

Turning to movies - I was spoiled for choice here, so I've picked out three covers that really speak for themselves. First there's a celebration of 50 years of Hammer Horror films (FT 223, June 2007), then a look at one of the mainstays of those films, Peter Cushing, on the 100th anniversary of his birth (FT 301, May 2013), and finally a 40-years-on retrospective about The Exorcist (FT 313, April 2014):

To be honest, my favourite thing about The Exorcist is the music - the snippet from Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells that it uses, I mean - which brings me neatly onto the next subject. When I talk about "pop culture" on this blog, I most often mean fairly specialized things like pulp magazines, comics (from the pre-multimedia franchise days) and cult TV shows such as The X-Files. But to most people, pop culture means just one thing, and that's pop music. This is such a pervasive part of modern life that it's acquired a plethora of fortean connections - so much so that I'm going to split them into two distinct parts.

To start with, here are three cover features that deal with direct fortean influences on musicians. The first, from FT 88 back in July 1996, describes how various pop stars from David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix to Kate Bush and The Orb absorbed ufological and similar speculations into their music. Second, there's a somewhat more arcane take on the same subject by Ian Simmons (FT 244, January 2009), featuring the likes of Stockhausen and Sun Ra - a much-referenced source for my own book The Science of Sci-Fi Music. Finally, in the immediate wake of David Bowie's death, there was a cover feature about the numerous fortean influences on his work (FT 338, March 2016) - including the aforementioned Morning of the Magicians by Pauwels and Bergier.

Another aspect of pop music that's of fortean interest is the way weird conspiracy theories grow up around the subject. So to round off what I honestly believed would be a shorter-than-usual post when I started it, but has ended up as probably my longest ever - here are three cover features addressing this aspect. The one on the left (FT 166, January 2003) deals with the numerous legends and conspiracy theories associated with Elvis, while the one on the right (FT 384, October 2019) does much the same for the Beatles. As for the one in the middle (FT 258, February 2010), it concerns the notion that the "Illuminati" employ popular music - and the musicians themselves - to manipulate the thoughts, beliefs and behaviour of the general public. But that's not really a conspiracy theory, is it? I mean, if you substitute "global media" for "Illuminati", I'd say it's an indisputable fact.


Saturday 23 March 2024

30 years ago in the Forteanverse


I decided to dig down close to the bottom of my Fortean Times collection to have a look back at issue 73 from February/March 1994, 30 years ago. As you can see from the picture above, its eyecatching cover features an enormous shark that's apparently crashed down from the skies into a suburban house. That's something that would undoubtedly have caught the attention of Charles Fort himself, who was fascinated by reports of fish (usually much smaller ones than this) falling from the sky. But this one, of course, is a fake - made from fibreglass, and created as an artistic statement in 1986. Located in the Oxford suburb of Headington, there's a lot more to be said about this shark - but fortunately I don't have to, because there's a detailed account of it on Paul Jackson's blog Random Encounters with the Unusual, together with several pictures Paul took himself in 2016. You can find his blog post here.

Opening the magazine and turning to the editorial, there's an item that really brings home just how much the world has changed in the last 30 years:
We now have an e-mail address on Internet ... which will mean nothing to those without a modem, but everything to the very strange people who cruise the computer bulletin-board and news services.
I'd forgotten until I read that, but there really was a time when anyone who used the internet was considered "very strange"!

As for the fortean content of the magazine, less has changed than you might think. One of the main features deals with phantom hitch-hikers and similar roadside ghosts, while another concerns rumours of large, out-of-place animals (such as the alleged Beast of Bodmin) roaming the British countryside. Those are exactly the kind of "modern folklore" stories that still loom large in the pages of FT today.

The magazine also contains the results of a reader survey, which I found particularly interesting for a subsection of questions about conspiracy theories. Thinking back, I was only just becoming dimly aware of the existence of such things in 1994 (largely thanks to FT itself), and I'd guess the majority of the wider population had never even encountered the concept yet. But FT readers were clearly way ahead of the game. Regarding belief in high-level conspiracies to suppress the truth about various subjects, here are some of the results:
  • Inventions that would undermine big business and government - 64.3%
  • Crashed UFOs being studied by the military - 52.3%
  • International conspiracies above government level, e.g. Illuminati - 39.6%

Towards the end of the magazine, my eye was caught by a rather dubious-looking ad for "2-way mirrors". On looking closer, I saw that the same firm was offering other equally questionable items such as skeleton keys and electronic bugging equipment, as well as advice on how to beat slot machines and avoid paying TV licence fees, parking fines, road tax etc. Somehow I doubt that a similar ad would be allowed today! So for posterity's sake, here it is (just to be on the safe side, I've blacked out all the company details):

Sunday 17 March 2024

Medieval Monsters


A few years ago I discovered (by reading about it in a book, I'm sorry to say, rather than actually noticing it with my own eyes) that several of the village churches around where I live have strange demonic or cryptozoological-looking creatures crawling over their upper reaches. Colloquially you could refer to these as "gargoyles", although strictly speaking that word only refers to fancifully decorated waterspouts. The proper term for the non-functional ornaments I'm referring to is "grotesques" (which can be used as a noun as well as an adjective).

The main purpose of this post is to show off some of the photographs I took after my attention was drawn to these bizarre medieval carvings (a good excuse to give my 75 - 300 mm zoom lens an airing). Before that, however, it's interesting to speculate as to their purpose, since no one seems to know just why they were produced in the first place. Explanations I've seen include heraldic symbols relating to the local gentry, and depictions of local folklore - which here in Somerset would mostly mean dragons (as discussed in a previous post). But while some of the carved figures may well conform to one or other of those theories, they don't explain all of them - particularly the more demonic-looking ones.

By "demonic" I don't necessarily mean overtly so, in the sense of having horns and pointed ears or whatever, but just generally malevolent-looking - like the ape-headed, cloven-hoofed figure shown at the top of this post. This, and many of the other examples I've seen, are basically "chimeras" - fanciful combinations of two or more unrelated species. These were common in the mythology of ancient Greece and Egypt, but by the Middle Ages they'd become firmly associated with Hell (Dante's depiction of it, which I talked about last week, includes several chimera-like demons).

The decorations in and around medieval churches were, almost invariably, a form of communication with the congregation, who could understand imagery even if they were unable to read. So my own personal theory is that these demonic - or otherwise "ungodly" - creatures were depicted on the exterior of the church simply to emphasize that they weren't inside it. In other words, if you came into church you were safe from such monsters, but if you stayed outside you were at their mercy.

All the pictures in this post were taken on the same day in August 2019, at three different churches - Langport, Long Sutton and Huish Episcopi - the carvings on which date from circa 1450, 1490 and 1500 respectively. The ape-demon shown above, for example, is clinging to the tower of Long Sutton church - as you can see more clearly in the following wider-angle view, which also includes a vaguely pig-like face looking straight at you:

Here's another figure from Long Sutton, which reminds me a bit of a Chinese lion-dog statue:

Now two examples from Huish Episcopi. I've no idea what the first one is meant to be, partly because it's so badly weathered, but I'd say it's definitely in the demonic category. As for the much better preserved second one, it clearly depicts a chimera with a human face and four-legged body:

 Turning to Langport church, this one is absolutely covered in inter-species hybrids! Here are a couple of striking ones:

 ... and a few more:

 Langport also has a human head, but it doesn't look at all happy - possibly a soul tormented in Hell? Though it's difficult to make out from this angle, it's actually depicted wearing a crown, suggesting that maybe it's some recently deceased (and presumably unpopular) king. I mentioned last week that Dante used his description of Hell as a vehicle for political satire - perhaps that's what's going on here too! (incidentally, what looks like a bad case of chromatic aberration around the upper part of the head is actually a lead cover that's been added to protect it from the elements).

Sunday 10 March 2024

The Gates of Hell (with music video)

A long time ago on this blog, I did a post about Dante's Inferno - Hunt Emerson's comic-book adaptation of a 14th century epic poem set in Hell. As I said there, the comic does wonders for clarifying the whole point of Dante's original -  i.e. that it's basically a satire on Italian political history, rather than a serious attempt to depict the landscape and geography of Hell. But it does a strikingly vivid job of the latter even so, which has inspired a multitude of subsequent works from Sandro Botticelli's 15th century illustrations of Hell to Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle's SF novel Inferno (1976), which uses the same basic setting (and, of course, Hunt Emerson's 2012 comic-book version).

On the musical side, there's a distinctly horror movie-esque portrayal of Hell in the Dante Symphony (1857) by Franz Liszt (who featured in another early post on this blog, Lisztomania). This begins with a dramatic depiction of the Gates of Hell, which inspired me to create the following video. I've added four electronic tracks of my own (demonic voice, drum machine, saw bass and synth pad), but otherwise it's just a digitally distorted vinyl recording of the opening of Liszt's symphony. Visually the gates and demons are courtesy of Bing's AI image creator, while the depiction of Hell itself is by Botticelli. When it's all put together, I think the result is pretty cool ((even though I say it myself):

I've twisted the original a bit in having the words spoken by demons. In Dante's poem, these are phrases that (in their original Italian form) are inscribed over the gates of Hell, while Liszt has them depicted by orchestral instruments, rather than being spoken or sung. But since I like playing with free software, I couldn't resist adding the synthesized voice.

The other software I used here was Tracktion Waveform Free, together with various free instrument and effects plugins (or ones that came free with Computer Music magazine, anyway). These are all great toys to play with, as I discovered a few years ago when I was doing a book called The Science of Music. I was asked to do that one because I'd previously written The Science of Sci-Fi Music - but while the latter was about a subject I knew something about (avant-garde classical music of the mid-20th century), the new one strayed way outside my comfort zone into modern digital music production. And the quickest way to learn a new subject is to try doing it yourself!

One thing I mentioned in passing in The Science of Music is that, if people who aren't fans of classical music have heard of Franz Liszt at all, it's most likely through the rhyming slang phrase "Brahms and Liszt". And as it happens, Brahms is another composer I've swiped a vinyl sample from. Unlike The Gates of Hell, there isn't even a tenuous fortean connection in this case, but I think the result is one of the most musically successful things I've done (in a chilled-out "lo-fi" sort of way). Here's the result:

While I was writing this post, I suddenly remembered that I've actually seen the "Gates of Hell", or at least a monumental bronze representation of them by the sculptor Auguste Rodin. This was at the Rodin Museum in Paris, which I visited in 2013 - the photograph below is one I took at the time. If you look closely at the panel above the gates, you'll see Rodin's most iconic image - "The Thinker" - in its original setting.


Sunday 3 March 2024

The Evolving Treasure of Oak Island


(courtesy of Bing Image Creator)

This is basically a sequel to last week's post, about the way certain "fringe" topics evolve and adapt to changing times. There's another link to the previous post too, in the form of Britain's most fortean free-to-air TV channel, Blaze. This is home to Ancient Aliens, which prompted last week's musings, and The Curse of Oak Island, which set me thinking about this one (both shows originated on America's History channel, then came over to the UK's subscription-only Sky History, before ending up on Blaze where cheapskates like myself can enjoy them).

Wikipedia has a fairly substantial entry on the Oak Island mystery, which begins as follows:

The Oak Island mystery is a series of stories of buried treasure and unexplained objects found on or near Oak Island in Nova Scotia. Since the 18th century, attempts have been made to find treasure and artifacts. Theories about artifacts present on the island range from pirate treasure to Shakespearean manuscripts to the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant.

As cool as that sounds, the legend of Oak Island isn't widely known, even in Canada (my cousin in Montreal said she hadn't heard of it until I asked her yesterday). Probably most people who have heard of it did so through the TV show, which is now in its 11th season. In contrast to Ancient Aliens - which is hugely entertaining, but ultimately mostly nonsense - The Curse of Oak Island is a really great show. I can see why some viewers are cynical about it (because it's a TV show first, and a serious archaeological project second) but this really doesn't bother me. I find it fascinating to watch them digging up the island's history even if, treasure-wise, it's mostly all dead ends. On top of that I really like all the participants, who strike me as much nicer people than the cast of most TV shows (several of them remind me of the sort of people I've worked with over the years).

Browsing through various online forums, I get the impression some viewers think the Oak Island "treasure legend" was artificially created for the series, simply because the people behind it own the island and wanted a premise for a reality show. But I was aware of the Oak Island mystery long before the TV series hit the airwaves in 2014. I first encountered it in the 1990s, either in a talk that Lionel Fanthorpe gave at one of the Fortean Times Unconventions, and/or his short-lived but fondly remembered Fortean TV series. It also features in a book I've got by Lionel and his wife, Mysteries and Secrets of the Templars (2005), as well as another book I read around the same time. That was when my then-work colleague (and subsequent co-author on Random Encounters on the London Tourist Trail) Paul Jackson lent me his copy of The Secret Treasure of Oak Island by D'Arcy O'Connor.

So I can vouch for the fact that most of the speculative theories (as well as historical snippets, such as the fact that future US president F D Roosevelt took part in an Oak Island dig in 1909) that crop up in The Curse of Oak Island were around long before the show started. Of course, there's nothing intrinsically fortean about a legend of buried treasure, but what makes Oak Island so fascinating is the sheer number of theories associated with it. While none of these are really far-fetched - nothing paranormal or involving aliens or other dimensions, I mean - several of them are sufficiently fringy to make them interesting. To paraphrase a list from the Fanthorpe book, here are some of the explanations put forward to explain Oak Island's elusive treasure vault:

  • Constructed by the British during the American war of independence to protect their army's payroll;
  • Built by Sir Francis Drake and his men to hide gold they'd seized from the Spanish;
  • Dug by William Kidd or some other pirate in the 17th century;
  • Designed to house precious manuscripts, possibly ones proving the true authorship of the plays commonly attributed to Shakespeare;
  • Constructed by ancient Celtic or Norse sea rovers as a burial place for a great chief;
  • Built by the Knights Templar to protect the secret treasures they'd uncovered beneath Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

What jumps out is that some of these theories are more exciting than others. To be specific, the first three (which personally I'd class as boring) could comfortably fit inside the scope of accepted history, while the last three (all of which I find a lot more interesting) are way outside it. Not surprisingly, the TV show gives more prominence to these "exciting" theories - as do the Fanthorpes in their book, where they firmly align with the Templar hypothesis.

The thing that worries me slightly (and the main point I wanted to make in this post) is that the exciting theories came into existence after the boring ones. The earliest speculations and "legends" were solely about pirate treasure (yawn), with no Templars, Celts or lost manuscripts in sight. As the Wikipedia article says:

According to the earliest theory, the pit held a pirate treasure buried by Captain Kidd; Kidd and Henry Avery reportedly took treasure together, and Oak Island was their community bank. Another pirate theory involved Edward Teach (Blackbeard), who said that he buried his treasure "where none but Satan and myself can find it".
So the rational part of my brain tells me that, if there's any truth at all behind the Oak Island treasure, it was probably nothing more dramatic than a pirate hoard. On the other hand, my mystery-loving side insists it could have been the Templars' secret hiding-place for the Holy Grail, or the Ark of the Covenant, or something equally spectacular!

Half-way through writing this post, I realized it could do with a picture of the two books I mentioned. The only problem was that one of them belongs to Paul Jackson, who lives 60 miles away. But thanks to the miracles of modern technology, he'd taken a photo of it and I'd saved it on my computer within 3 minutes of me asking him for it! So here's Paul's copy of The Secret Treasure of Oak Island, alongside my copy of Mysteries and Secrets of the Templars:

Sunday 25 February 2024

The Changing History (and Geography) of Lemuria

A peculiarity of certain fortean topics is the way the details develop and change over time. To pick an example, there's the legend (which, as we'll see, didn't even start out as a legend) of Lemuria. As lost continents go, it's far less well known to the general public than Atlantis, but just as intriguing to those in the know. It's been featured in at least a couple of Ancient Aliens episodes, in "They Came from the Pleiades" (2020) and "The Mystery of Mount Shasta" (2021).

In the first of these, we're informed that Lemuria was a now-sunken continent located in the Pacific, which Hawaiian folklore links to benevolent visitors from the Pleiades star cluster. In the later episode, we're told that survivors from Lemuria may still be living inside Mount Shasta - one of California's best known UFO hotspots. As with most things on the show, these ideas are wonderfully entertaining, and surprisingly credible-sounding if you restrict your knowledge of the subject to what you're being told by Tsoukalos, Pope, Childress et al. But as soon as you do a little independent research, things get a lot murkier (the Pleiades, for example, didn't even exist until the Earth was billions of years old and swarming with Cretaceous-era dinosaurs - so hardly a likely home for ancient astronauts).

My first encounter with Lemuria was probably in the Marvel Comics adaptation of Lin Carter's Thongor stories, though I've subsequently read the original 1965 Wizard of Lemuria novel, pictured above. A much more controversial novel was Richard Shaver's I Remember Lemuria (1945), which purported to be based on fact rather than fiction. My copy (edited by Ancient Aliens regular David Hatcher Childress under the title Lost Continents & the Hollow Earth) is also pictured above, together with a novel I've previously mentioned on this blog, Ron Goulart's Hello Lemuria Hello (1979). Also featured in the picture is the album Lemuria (2004) by symphonic metal band Therion.

In the lyrics of that album's title song, the name Lemuria is used interchangeably with Mu - as indeed it was on Ancient Aliens. But originally Mu and Lemuria were completely separate, and disentangling them involves going quite a way back into history. An excellent source in this context is the final book pictured above, Lost Continents (1954) by L Sprague de Camp. Best known as a fiction author, he turns his hand here to non-fiction - and does his background research far more conscientiously than Ancient Aliens ever bothers to.

The surprising fact, as I mentioned at the start, is that Lemuria didn't start out as a legend, whether in Hawaii, California or anywhere else. It began as a short-lived scientific hypothesis, developed in the latter half of the 19th century, to explain similarities between Mesozoic fossils found on the Indian subcontinent and in south-east Africa. The idea was that there used to be a land-bridge joining these two regions, stretching right across the Indian Ocean. Now mostly sunken, all that remained would have been the island of Madagascar - famous for its lemurs, from which the land-bridge got the name Lemuria.

You'll notice a couple of significant features here - first, that we're talking about a time millions of years before humans existed, and secondly that we're nowhere near the Pacific Ocean. What's more, we don't even need this hypothesis any more, because we know that, back in Mesozoic times, India was attached to southern Africa instead of being in its current position.

But instead of going away, the idea of Lemuria adapted and evolved. And it did so in a way that was peculiar to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In those days, the notion that sensitive individuals could pick up valid information by psychic means - by going into a trance and "channelling" messages from spirit entities - was well accepted in certain quarters. And that's how a lot of the key facts about Lemuria came down to us.

One strand to the Lemurian story lies within the realm of Theosophy, whose complex and confusing teachings were largely derived through psychic means. In this context, here's a passage from de Camp's book that clearly foreshadows Ancient Aliens:
Beings from Venus, which had already developed a high civilization ... guided faltering humankind to the point where the Lemurians became capable of individual immortality and reincarnation.
Most Theosophists were content to leave Lemuria in its original setting of the Indian Ocean, but several American writers of the time endeavoured to move it to the more familiar (to them) locale of the Pacific Ocean. An important development in this context came in the form of a book, A Dweller on Two Planets (1894). A cynic might describe this as a work of fiction, but it's actually presented as the channelled autobiography of a spirit entity called Phylos the Tibetan. Here, too, the second planet in question is Venus, but Lemuria is now indisputably located in the Pacific - and the connection with California's Mount Shasta is also made for the first time.

The final step towards the modern "legend" of Lemuria came in the 1920s and 30s, with a series of books by James Churchward concerning a sunken continent called "Mu", which he proposed as a counterpart of Atlantis in the Pacific. Churchward's arguments were based (albeit shakily) on the interpretation of purely physical evidence, in contrast to the earlier mediumistic channellings relating to Lemuria - but the distinction didn't last long. The legend soon crystallized into the form most often encountered today - that Mu and Lemuria are alternative names for a single lost continent, situated in the Pacific Ocean and having strong links both with Mount Shasta in California and with benevolent aliens from outer space.

Since I love showing off my book collection, here are a couple of classics to round the post off - James Churchward's The Children of Mu (1931) and Ignatius Donnelly's Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882):