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Sunday 26 July 2015

Old Books of the Fortean Kind

Pictured above is a genuine piece of retro-forteana – Phenomena: A Book of Wonders, produced way back in 1977 by John Michell and the founding editor of Fortean Times, Bob Rickard. It’s one of several books I picked up for a pound each from the Bookbarn shop, just off the A37 about half-way between Shepton Mallet and Bristol. Until a few years ago, this was the best bookshop in Somerset – literally a giant warehouse packed with second-hand treasures. Unfortunately the main warehouse was closed to the public after they catalogued all their decent stock and put it online. But visitors can still browse through the leftovers – the books that were too uncommercial to be worth cataloguing – in a smaller warehouse next door. Everything is a pound – which sounds cheap, although I somehow managed to spend a total of £18 on my visit last week!

You can get a pretty good idea of the contents of the Phenomena book from the words on the cover. It’s a pretty standard compendium of all the usual fortean topics – frog and fish falls, spontaneous human combustion, cattle mutilations, levitation, teleportation, cities in the sky, entombed toads, werewolves and so forth. The last two items on the list are rather more cryptic – “Arkeology” is shorthand for the archaeology of Noah’s Ark, while “Accidents to Iconoclasts” refers to mishaps that befall people who dare to interfere with ancient sites. The “Mummy’s Curse” is the best known example of this, but another case described in the book occurred less than five miles from the place where I bought it.

Everyone has heard of Avebury and Stonehenge, but far fewer people know of England’s third largest megalithic site, consisting of three prehistoric stone circles at Stanton Drew in Somerset. The reason for the site’s relative obscurity may be that, in spite of its sprawling size, it’s not really that impressive to the eye – the individual stones are quite small, and the overall plan of the circles is difficult to make out. But perhaps that’s the way it’s meant to be. According to Michell and Rickard, the first person to attempt a detailed survey of the site was the architect John Wood in 1740. The locals told him that merely counting the stones was a bad idea: “Several have attempted to do so, and proceeded until they were either struck dead upon the spot, or with such illness as soon were carried off”. Ignoring such superstitions, Wood continued with his task “and as a great storm accidentally arose just after, and blew down part of a great tree near the body of the work, the people were then thoroughly satisfied that I had disturbed the guardian spirits of the metamorphosised stones.

Here is one of my own pictures of Stanton Drew:

Another of the books I bought for a pound was a 1978 paperback called Explorations of the Marvellous, containing the text of a series of lectures given by various scientists and science fiction writers. Featured among the latter is John Brunner, who I’ve written about on at least one previous occasion. Brunner lived in Somerset for many years prior to his untimely death in 1995, and I suspect that some of his personal library may have found its way to the Bookbarn. On a previous visit there (about ten years ago, before they went onto the internet) I bought a hardback anthology that was neither edited by John Brunner nor had a story by him in it – yet it has his signature inside. So maybe it was his own copy of the book (it was a collection of science fiction erotica, if you must know).

By a further coincidence, Brunner’s lecture is all about forteana. More specifically, it’s about how shockingly sloppy some well-known fortean writers are when it comes to research and fact-checking. One of the most amusing examples he cites relates to a book I’ve never actually read, although it’s a classic of the genre – The Morning of the Magicians, by Pauwels and Bergier. Apparently they make the claim that one Professor Ralph Milne Farley “has drawn attention to the fact that some biologists think that old age is due to the accumulation of heavy water in the organism. The alchemists’ elixir of life might then be a substance that eliminates selectively heavy water.”  Brunner recognised this idea as coming not from a serious scientific treatise but from a science fiction novel he’d devoured when he was 12 or 13! The book in question was called The Immortals, and it was indeed by Ralph Milne Farley... but the latter was neither a professor nor a scientist. In these days of Wikipedia, it’s easy to do the fact-checking that Pauwels and Bergier failed to do:
Roger Sherman Hoar (April 8, 1887 – October 10, 1963) was a state senator and assistant Attorney General, state of Massachusetts. He also wrote science fiction under the pseudonym of “Ralph Milne Farley”.
The other fortean book I acquired last week came via eBay. This was The Fickle Finger of Fate, which I mentioned I’d ordered in last week’s post about Satirical Superheroes. The most fortean thing about the book is its author, John A. Keel – who as I said last time went on to write about Mothman, UFOs and Men in Black. But this novel from 1966 is just a lighthearted superhero parody featuring Keel’s own creation, Satyr-Man. It has a couple of mildly fortean elements – one character believes he is under a “Mummy’s Curse” (see above), and there’s a running joke about swamp gas and weather balloons (the most common ways the authorities used to debunk UFO sightings).

A satyr is a mythological half-man, half-beast with an insatiable sexual appetite. Coupled with the “ADULTS ONLY” warning on the cover, you might imagine this is a somewhat dirty book. But 1966 was still a year before America abolished its obscenity laws (see The Man who Helped to Free the World), so the book is heavily censored. For those who are only interested in such things, here is its one and only explicit sex scene:
“C’mere,” she grunted, pulling him to her as she ****** her **** and ****** ******** until he ***** ******* ***** and they **** *****. He lifted his **** ****** to **** ******, rolling across the rumpled bed with his mouth pressed to her ***** ********. Then she ***** his **** ******* and her hands ***** ***** ***.

“Ooooo,” she said.

“Ahhhhhhhh,” he said.

“Ummmmmmm,” she said.

“Hmmmmmmmmm,” he said.

Finally they **** ********** **** *** ******* **** *******. And then he **** ***** ******* *****. She **** *** ************! Outside the window, the surf continued to pound the beach.


Dave1949 said...

I have "Phenomena" from way back in the days when I parted with a lot of my hard-earned dosh to give to Readers Digest in exchange for "proper" books, well-recorded CD's and vinyl prior to that. Ah....those were the days!

Andrew May said...

Interesting, Dave - I saw quite a few Fortean books in the late 70s (mainly because one of my mother's friends was an avid collector of them), but I don;t think I was aware of this one at the time.

Anonymous said...

On the subject of Avebury and stone circles - I recently watched (via YouTube) the entire series of 'Children Of The Stones' for the first time since its' original broadcast in early 1977. I remembered it as being really quite scary (I was nearly 11 at the time) but although I didn't think it was scary on seeing it again it was still an enjoyable drama. I don't suppose those censored sex scenes would seem all that shocking now - a few years ago I bought a paperback of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' out of curiosity just to see what all the fuss had been about, it had been banned for 30 years after all but it was laughably tame, nowadays you'd find racier stories in Woman's Own !!

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - I was 19 when "Children of the Stones" was shown, so "too old" for children's TV - I don't think I was even aware of it. Perhaps I ought to check it out now!

Yes, I thought the sex scene was much funnier with the asterisks than it would have been if all the words had been there! Based on the tongue-in-cheek tone of the rest of the book, I'm sure that was the effect Keel wanted to produce!

Peni R. Griffin said...

I doubt very much he wrote any of the words. When you're being censored in text, the censor doesn't blot out the words. He excises the whole paragraph. This is a joke about censorship, and a pretty funny one, too.

Andrew May said...

I agree, Peni. That's what I was getting at when I said it was the effect Keel wanted to produce - I'm sure the asterisks were his, not the editor's. The whole book is end-to-end tongue-in-cheek slapstick, so an unexpurgated sex scene at that point would have been completely out of place.