January 29, 2009
Showers of Blood: The Cosmology of Charles Fort
— P. Genesius Durica
In December 2008 scientists working in France announced the discovery of sugar molecules in the far reaches of the Milky Way. Soon to be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, these findings increase the odds that life exists on other planets. Someone who'd not have been surprised by sugar in space was the journalist and author Charles Fort, an early twentieth century Fox Mulder, who made it his mission to challenge a scientific establishment as rigid in its doctrines, he believed, as organized religion.
Near the end of his life, the forward-looking Fort experienced a loss of vision. This weakening of his eyesight was not surprising given that every day between 1905 and 1925 he had left his Bronx apartment for a carrel at the New York Public Library. There he'd pored through American, British, and French journals on science and medicine, like Astrophysical Journal Letters, in search of reports of phenomena-such as a shower of blood over Piedmont, Italy, in 1814-which could not be explained by or assimilated into existing theories. "A procession of the damned," he wrote of the material he collected and recorded on thumb-sized scraps of paper. "By the damned, I mean the excluded. We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded."
This "procession" made up the contents of The Book of the Damned (1919), and after its publication readers began sending Fort clippings of similar occurrences, like a rain of frogs on Dubuque, Iowa in 1882, some of which he investigated personally. When he began to notice a blurring and then a diminishment of his eyesight, he gave up the daily library trips to develop a game called Super Checkers, which had thousands of squares and hundreds of pieces. He played it nightly, and the game could last all night. He jotted down the results on the same-sized scraps of paper on which he'd recorded his research. Miraculously, his vision improved. That he should turn to something as rule-bound as Super Checkers would surprise his readers except that over the course of his work, Fort, ever the challenger of authority, had been displacing the prevailing order with his own evolving cosmology.
So how does one account for a shower of blood or Chinese jade seals unearthed in medieval mounds in Ireland in 1852? Science can't explain these meteorological occurrences or the existence of these artifacts, so Fort conceived of a Super Sargasso Sea hovering above the stratosphere, a repository for all the world's lost objects but also subject to occasional disturbances whereupon these objects fell back to earth. Extraterrestrial cargo fleets sometimes ran aground above the Earth, Fort also claimed, with the frogs or blood or whatever drifting down like flotsam. New Lands (1923) introduced the idea of whole continents adrift in the Super Sargasso Sea, but it was in Lo! (1931) and Wild Talents (1932, published posthumously) that Fort coined the term teleportation and developed the idea of parallel Earths. What about the rain of frogs? Well, they were teleported from a pond in Davenport and reappeared in Dubuque. What about those Chinese seals in Ireland? Clearly, there exists a rift between our world and an Earth where China had invaded and conquered Ireland. Did Fort believe any of his theories? "I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written," he proclaimed. "I cannot accept that the products of minds are subject-matter for beliefs." Others, including Theodore Dreiser, who had become an admirer after reading Fort's X, an unpublished novel about Martians, responded differently to these theories.
Dreiser served as the first president of the Fortean Society, which used a series of fake telegrams to lure Fort to its first meeting at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel in January 1931. Other founding members included Sherwood Anderson, Clarence Darrow, Ben Hecht, and Booth Tarkington. The Society's secretary Tiffany Thayer published the journal Doubt, which continued to collect reports of unexplained phenomena and promote such innovations as the thirteen-month calendar (the additional month, between August and September, was named Fort) and a new way of numbering years (for example, Doubt was published between 6-28 FS, or Fort Style, compared to 1937-1959 OS, Old Style). In setting himself in opposition to science and organized religion, Fort inadvertently encouraged the development of other systems of belief that have become almost as dogmatic: crypto-zoology, UFO-ology, as well as conspiracy theories of all stripes. For as Fort understood, whether skeptic or believer, the desire endures for the truth to be out there.
P. Genesius Durica is a PhD student in the English Department at the University of Chicago, and Managing and Fiction Editor of Chicago Review.