Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The man who created the supernatural

The supernatural frogs falling from the sky, mysterious airships, spontaneous human combustion... it all fascinated Charles Fort, whose appetite for the paranormal lives on today in sci-fi, conspiracy theories and that quirky chronicle of the unknown, the Fortean Times. No one knew what to make of The Book of the Damned, which appeared in bookshops across America in January, 1920. At Brentano's Bookstore on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the cardboard cartons containing it had arrived from the publishers Boni & Liveright during the Christmas rush. They were quickly pushed into the storeroom with other new titles, to make room for the illustrated children's picture books and popular romance novels that were displayed as ideal gifts. The cover price was one dollar. It was a fat little volume covered in bright red fabric and adorned with neat gold stamping: the title, The Book of the Damned, the author's name, 'Charles Fort', and a pretty decoration of a planet spinning merrily amid a cluster of stars. On the dust jacket was an endorsement from the novelist Theodore Dreiser - 'It is wonderful'- and a promise of what was inside: 'In this amazing book - the result of 12 years of patient research - the author presents a mass of evidence that has hitherto been ignored or distorted by scientists... Things that [seem] incredible support the author's argument, which he develops with strong touches of sardonic humor and flashes of sheer poetic insight.' Nothing else identified the contents as fantasy, religion, science, or philosophy. The attention-grabbing title presented an arresting mystery, and the modest paper wrapper made it all the more beguiling: simple block letters and swirling grey and pink shapes suggesting planets, surging lava, and a solar eclipse.

Customers stopped, picked up the book and turned it over in their hands. With sidelong glances, they cracked the cover to peer inside. They wondered if the author was promising immorality or criminality, hedonism or atheism - in 1920, it was possible to find any of those subjects between the covers of a new book.

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