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Thursday 24 February 2011

The Hierophant Mystery

The Hierophant, besides being the name of a Tarot card, was a "paranormal gossip columnist" for Fortean Times. Back around the turn of the millennium, when weird beliefs and crackpot theories were hitting a global peak, this anonymously written column was one of the magazine's most popular features, and was its only really successful foray into the world of satire. The great mystery surrounding the column's author, however, was not "Who was he?" but "Who were they?" -- since the Hierophant had two separate incarnations, with almost diametrically opposed personalities.

To the best of my knowledge, the Hierophant (pictured at left on a Fortean Times mug) first appeared on page 60 of FT103 (October 1997), in a column headed Fortress of Arrogance... and with his name rendered anagrammatically as "Heirophant". From the next issue onwards, however, the column assumed its definitive and orthographically correct title of The Hierophant. Right from the start, the column hit on a winning formula: four or five snippets of "gossip" occupying half a page or so, presented with a mixture of bemused detachment and humour, and describing the seemingly endless stream of "differently sane" ideas emanating from the wackier fringes of the Fortean world. Starting with issue 146 (May 2001) the Hierophant's column was given pride of place on the last page of the magazine, before moving to the Strange Days section in May 2003.

The last column from the "old" Hierophant appeared in FT192 (January 2005). The next issue's editorial carried a small and unsettling item headed Hierophant MIA (exactly what "missing in action" means in terms of Fortean journalism was clarified a couple of issues later -- the Hierophant was believed to have been abducted by aliens!).

Before moving on to the Hierophant's second (and much more bizarre) incarnation, it's worth considering just who was behind the first incarnation. I've found three suggestions on the internet: [1] Daev Walsh, the editor of (who produced what is alleged to be an online interview with the Hierophant in January 2004), [2] Joe McNally, who worked as an assistant editor at Fortean Times (his name appeared in the magazine credits from the start of 1996 to the end of 2005... thus neatly encompassing the first Hierophant's tenure), [3] a corporate effort by the whole team of FT editors. I could believe any of these... it seems fairly certain that Hierophant 1.0 was both a natural Fortean and a professional journalist. But as for Hierophant 2.0 -- well, that's a different story altogether.

Things really took a turn for the weird with FT208 (April 2006). Virtually the whole of that issue's editorial ("The Return of the Ascended One") was occupied by a long, rambling letter, written in sub-Lovecraftian polysyllables, purporting to be from none other than the Hierophant himself. The editors sounded skeptical ("Is the Hierophant back? Or are we the victims of a rank impostor, delusional fraud or unscrupulous mountebank?"). Nevertheless, this "new" Hierophant was given a full page (more space than the old Hierophant ever received) in the following issue, and indeed in every issue for more than a year. These new articles are a complete departure from the old "Gossip Column" format -- each one being a lengthy diatribe that is short on humour and long on Big Words. The writing isn't bad, but it's in a rather turgid academic style that is quite unlike the easy-to-read journalism of the old Hierophant. But it's not just the writing style that has changed -- it's the whole personality of the author. He now comes across as a humourless, ill-tempered Professor of Sociology (or Liberal Arts, or something of that ilk), and he's aggressively skeptical of anything he considers nonsense... in other words, he's completely un-Fortean.

The new Hierophant made no attempt to emulate the style or subject matter of his earlier namesake. In perhaps his most bizarre rant (from FT214) he says: "almost wherever one looks in the fragmented and slightly demented subculture that swirls under the general heading 'Fortean', one is struck by the scarcity of humour". It's enough to make you throw your copy of the magazine at the wall! (I did the next best thing, by writing a letter to the editor -- which needless to say wasn't printed). The whole point of the Hierophant's column is that it's supposed to BE humour... its author should be providing humour (which his predecessor did month after month for seven years), not complaining about the lack of it!

The new Hierophant was belatedly killed off in FT221 (April 2007). His final paragraph (a return to the sub-Lovecraftian pastiche of his original letter) has him meeting some nameless horror which may (or may not) be Hierophant 1.0. It's difficult to understand why the editors of FT put up with Hierophant 2.0 for so long, given that he was so consistently off-message. But perhaps the articles weren't as bad as they seemed -- they might even have gone down quite well if they'd been published under the author's real name. What was so bizarre was the fact that he chose to take on the persona of another writer whose style and interests were the diametrical opposites of his own!

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