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Sunday 10 March 2013

Charles Fort in Fiction

At the end of February, Nick Redfern wrote a blog post about The Lurker at the Threshold – a novel that is purportedly by “H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth”, although it’s generally considered to be almost pure Derleth, worked up from just a brief fragment by Lovecraft that was discovered after his death. Like Agatha Christie’s N or M, which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, The Lurker at the Threshold is a book I’d had sitting unread on the shelf for years. I was finally prompted to read it by Nick’s very positive words about it... and particularly because he mentioned that it “cites the work and books of Charles Fort”.

I happen to have a special fascination with that small and exclusive sub-genre of fiction which mentions Charles Fort by name... if for no other reason than that the first few times I ever came across Fort’s name was in works of fiction. I can’t be absolutely sure, but I think the very first time was in a short story by R.A. Lafferty called “Nor Limestone Islands”, which was part of an anthology entitled Universe 1 that was published in 1971, although I read it in 1977 (I know, because I used to write down the title of every book I read and the year I read it... in fact, I still do). Often when a fiction writer namedrops Fort it’s just to say “look, weird things really do happen” – but Lafferty’s “Nor Limestone Islands” is a genuinely Fortean tale. The limestone islands in question are islands in the sky, from which mysterious things sometimes fall to earth. And you can’t get more Fortean than that.

As a general rule, the notion of “citing a reference” is much commoner in non-fiction than in fiction. One prominent exception to this rule is H.P. Lovecraft, whose fiction is often packed with citations. Sometimes the works cited are themselves fictitious, such as the Pnakotic Manuscripts or the infamous Necronomicon, but often they are real works – the books of Charles Fort among them. So it’s no surprise that August Derleth—who was a master of imitation—copied this aspect of Lovecraft’s fiction in The Lurker at the Threshold and some of his other Lovecraftian pastiches. But H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t the only writer that Derleth strove to imitate – he also wrote numerous Sherlock Holmes pastiches featuring his own Holmesian detective, Solar Pons... and Charles Fort is mentioned in at least one of these stories too!

Over on my website devoted to Astounding Science Fiction magazine, there’s a page entitled Charles Fort and Astounding. This was originally intended to describe appearances of Fort’s own work, and discussions thereof, in that magazine. However, as time went on I started to add in any other allusions I found to Fort in various works of fiction. Since the resulting list is hidden away in a fairly obscure location, I thought I’d reproduce it here (in slightly abbreviated form):
  • Two or three fanatical extremists went so far as to hint at possible meanings in the ancient Indian tales which gave the hidden beings a non-terrestrial origin; citing the extravagant books of Charles Fort with their claims that voyagers from other worlds and outer space have often visited the earth. (H.P. Lovecraft: “The Whisperer in Darkness”, from Weird Tales, August 1931)
  • If there are extra-terrestrial races further advanced than ourselves, why haven’t they visited us already? Charles Fort gave me what may well be the answer. He said “I think we’re property”. (Eric Frank Russell: “Sinister Barrier”, from Unknown, March 1939)
  • A very large, though usually suppressed, body of occurrences antipodally contradictory to the total scientific knowledge of mankind, which occur daily in all parts of the world, some of which have been collected and chronicled in two remarkable books by a comparative unknown named Charles Fort—The Book of the Damned and New Lands. (H P Lovecraft and August Derleth: The Lurker at the Threshold, Arkham House 1945)
  • Charles Fort was one of those who came closest to guessing, or knowing the mysteries contained in the artificial cave world beneath this Earth’s surface. He thought that we were ‘fished for’, or that the possibility existed that we were fished for.... Before the reader dismisses the question with “ridiculous!” let him read any of the daily papers of the past few years, or the books of Charles Fort for literally thousands of unexplained ‘disappearances’. (Richard Shaver and Bob McKenna: “The Return of Sathanas”, from Amazing Stories, November 1946)
  • He believed that science, orthodox science, especially astronomy and meteorology, was screwy, that it had gone off the beam somewhere and led us astray. He gathered facts—mostly in the form of news clippings from everywhere—of things that didn’t fit in with the current opinions of the scientists and are therefore ignored or explained away. Rains of frogs, rains of fishes, mysterious appearances and disappearances, werewolves, spaceships, sea serpents, earthquakes and meteors... Take something that happened comparatively recently—this flying disk business. That would have been meat and drink for Charles Fort. (Fredric Brown: Compliments of a Fiend, Dutton 1950)
  • Yet Fort himself assuredly made exciting reading, as Danny found out directly afterward at the public library. He could see why writers loved the man. He wrote in a continuous and highly poetic display of verbal fireworks, superbly controlled, intricately balanced, witty and evocative at once... But his explanations for the things he had observed, collected at second hand, or simply collated were deliberately outrageous. Every now and then Danny found in one or another of Fort’s four books a glimmering trail toward something useful—and every time Fort took the developing insight and stood it on its head. (James Blish: Jack of Eagles, Greenberg 1952)
  • The fictions of H P Lovecraft had, it seemed to me, the same relation to truth as the facts, so inexplicable to science, reported by Charles Fort. (August Derleth: “The Seal of R’lyeh”, from The Mask of Cthulhu, Arkham House 1958)
  • She had seen photographs of Fort. He was a big bear-like man, rather shy, and boasting of a brown, walrus moustache. His eyes peered out at the world from behind thick glasses. Those who knew him said his apartment was filled with shoe boxes crammed with notes and clippings.... His fourth book was called “Lo!” The title was suggested by his old friend Tiffany Thayer, because, he said, astronomers are for ever calculating and pointing to the sky where they figure a new star should be, and then saying “Lo”, and there is nothing whatever to be seen where they point. (Lionel Fanthorpe, writing as John E Muller: The X-Machine, Badger Books SF-74, 1963)
  • Ah, there was a man! There was a man who knew how to doubt, and what to doubt! Fort was a rebel; like all rebels he was impetuous and he probably went too far in a number of directions, but basically, what he said and did was good—which takes us back to what we were saying earlier—Truth cannot hurt the truth. (Lionel Fanthorpe, writing as Bron Fane: UFO 517, Badger Books SF-115, 1965)
  • I suddenly had a definite suspicion that Karel had gone insane. In my youth, I had read the books of Charles Fort, with their suggestions of giants, fairies and floating continents. But Fort’s extraordinary farragoes of sense and nonsense have an air of humorous exaggeration. Karel Weissman’s ideas sounded as mad as Fort’s, but they were obviously advanced in all seriousness. (Colin Wilson: The Mind Parasites, Panther Books 1969)
  • We haven’t the exact citation of this. It’s from Charles Fort or from one of his imitators. It’s of a scientist who refused to believe that several pieces of limestone had fallen from the sky, even though two farmers had seen them fall. They could not have fallen from the sky, the scientist said, because there is no limestone in the sky. (R. A. Lafferty: “Nor Limestone Islands”, from Universe 1, Ace Books 1971)
  • A favourite gambit of investigators, like Charles Fort, of curious, unexplained facts: that of strange, motiveless disappearances... as vanishings into ‘holes in space’ or into other dimensions, or some such phenomenal ‘openings’ in time and space. (August Derleth: “The Adventure of the Missing Tenants”, from Chronicles of Solar Pons, Robson Books 1975)
  • Orthodox science ignores these events, of course. They don’t fit into the scheme anywhere, so they can’t have happened... All that Charles Fort did to earn your scorn, my dear, was simply collect reports from perfectly respectable sources—annual registers, weather reviews, meteorological reports. He never invented a damn thing. (Ian Watson: Miracle Visitors, Gollancz 1978)


Peni R. Griffin said...

You want to read "Chasing Vermeer," by Blue Balliett.

Trust me.

Andrew May said...

Well, I guess I do trust you, so I'll add it to my list... although as you've probably noticed, I hardly ever read fiction that was written after 1980. However, I can probably manage a Young Adult book from 2004, which is what I see from Wikipedia this one is. Which reminds me... I really need to read one of your books one of these days. Feel free to recommend one of those as well, if you like!

Peni R. Griffin said...

Well, it's not gonzo Fortean, but what I wanted to do in The Ghost Sitter was write a fictional ghost story that worked like a "real" one, picking one common theory of how ghosts work (that they're "people who don't know they're dead") and work out what exactly that would mean for the ghost. So it might be the one you find easiest to get into.

Andrew May said...

Thanks, Peni - I've added that to my list too!

taraNcognita said...

I can HIGHLY recommend the collection "To Charles Fort with Love" by Caitlin R. Kiernan! She also references Fort in later works. And she is awesome. thanks!

Andrew May said...

Sounds like another book I should add to my "must read" list. Thanks very much for the suggestion!

Ross said...

R. A. Lafferty's "Nor Limestone Islands" also appears in his 1974 collection, DOES ANYONE ELSE HAVE SOMETHING FURTHER TO ADD?: STORIES ABOUT SECRET PLACES AND MEAN MEN. Another story in that collection, "Boomer Flats," mentions Ivan Sanderson, the famed Fortean and cryptozoologist.

Andrew May said...

Thanks for the info. According to my records (!) I did read "Does Anyone Else..." in 1981, but it was a library book and I don't have my own copy. The Ivan Sanderson reference would have gone over my head at the time. I'll have to look out for another copy of the book so I can re-read it!

Ross said...

Lafferty's "Boomer Flats" can also be read in an anthology edited by Kim Stanley Robinson, FUTURE PRIMITIVE: THE NEW ECOTOPIAS (Tor, 1994).

The reference to Ivan Sanderson is in the first sentence of the story: "'In the tracks of our spiritual father Ivan Sanderson we may now have trailed a clutch of ABSMs to their lair,' the eminent scientist Arpad Arkabaranan was saying in his rattling voice."

An "ABSM" is an Abominable Snowman.

Andrew May said...

Thanks - sounds great. I used to like Lafferty a lot when I started reading SF in the 1970s. He was one of the high profile authors in those days (when the focus was on short fiction anthologies rather than novels) but he's rather fallen into obscurity since then.

Ross said...

It's tragic that Lafferty has fallen into obscurity, since he was such a gifted, brilliantly imaginative author. He was an "American original" if there ever was one.

Yes, the focus is more and more on novels in the SF world. Unfortunately, SF novels these days are too often bloated and over-padded. When I started reading SF in the 1970s, SF novels were much leaner and (generally) much better than they are today. Lafferty wrote a number of SF (and non-SF) novels, all of which are quite worth reading, but I always preferred his short stories.

Daniel Petersen has an excellent R. A. Lafferty blog, "The Ants of God Are Queer Fish" (

Andrew May said...

Thanks for the link to the Lafferty blog -- and looking at it just now I see that there is another one called "Continued on Next Rock". Definitely ones to start following!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Fairly randomly running into this. I'm the bloke behind the Ants of God blog. Just a quick note to say that Fort comes up by name frequently in Laff. I don't have the references to hand, but I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say I've seen him name-dropped at least a dozen times in Laff's fiction. One Lafferty novel I can think of that mentions Fort by name (and Fortean skies) is Not To Mention Camels (1976).

If you download this e-book: - you can type in 'Fort' and see every instance of it in Laff's short stories. (The e-book is legit - I've downloaded it on several devices and use it all the time.)

Andrew May said...

Thanks very much, Daniel - especially for the link, which is an amazing find. Here in the UK it's almost impossible now to get hold of any of Lafferty's collections, so apart from a couple that I read as library books long ago, I only have access to a dozen or so stories in magazines and anthologies. So I will do a lot more than search the ebook for references to Charles Fort - I'll eagerly read the whole thing!

Ran Ben Nissim said...

The quotes are very interesting. But what do they mean? How exactly did Fort influence Lovecraft?Or is the "Fortean" a real-life parallel of Lovecraftian horror?
Looking forward to your comments,

John said...

"He Walked Around the Horses" is a short story by H. Beam Piper that was inspired by a Charles Fort entry about the disappearance of Benjamin Bratthurst.