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I was almost conceived in a haunted house in New Jersey.

This was not because my parents had a fetish for ghost hunting, strange old buildings, or wild, knock-over-the-lamps-and-pitch-your-underwear-over-the-bedside-lamp sex while listening to the rattling chains and howling grief of the restless dead.  No, it was because my father, who had very much enjoyed his graduate education at Columbia University, got a job in the Garden State just across the river from New York and moved himself, Mum, and their fox terrier to that blessed realm sometime in 1958.

I never learned the exact town they lived in, let alone the address of the house.  All I know is that it was a very ordinary two story suburban house, that they had liked it very much when the local realtor gave them a tour, and that it had a ghost.

Mum and Dad didn't know about the ghost when they bought it, obviously.  Ghost/murder/general weirdness disclosure clauses did not start popping up in deeds until after the fuss over the Amityville Horror, and they still aren't common.  As far as my parents knew, they were getting a fine, reasonably new property in a town with good schools, good jobs, and good access to New York.  It seemed like a decent place to settle down and make a life, and as the first few months of their residence passed, they set out to do exactly that.

There were disappointments - Dad's new job wasn't nearly as good as he'd anticipated - and some less than savory events - the exploding mailbox on Mischief Night was unpleasantly reminiscent of certain experiences Dad had had as an employee of the United States Army early in 1945 - but there were compensations.  New York with its theaters and jazz clubs and shopping was right over the river, and they went when they could.  The area they were in was bland but pleasant, and if the local teenagers were little hooligans, well, at least they weren't outright delinquents.  It could have been worse.

Then Mum went back to Pittsburgh for a few days to see her relatives, and Dad realized that someone who was neither his wife nor his dog also lived in the house.

It was a quiet Saturday afternoon sometime in the fall, one of those lazy days when the average person wants nothing more than to relax with the beverage, victuals, and entertainment option of choice.  The house was spotless - Mum was German-American, after all - the refrigerator was stocked, the dog was walked, and the only chore that was pending was the week's laundry.  And since he was a good man, and a good husband, Dad decided to make Mum's weekend complete and wash the sheets, towels, and underwear while she was nattering with Betty and their brothers.

The laundry facilities were in the basement, so down Dad went.  He started the first load of whites, trotted back upstairs, and settled down with his beverage of choice (probably Budweiser, or maybe Michelob if he was in a mood to splurge) to listen to whatever college football game was on the radio.  He might have walked Terry the oh-so-imaginatively-named terrier, or tinkered a bit on the electronics he loved, but eventually he went back downstairs, moved the clean laundry into the dryer, set the timer, and went returned to his entertainment and beverage while that wonderful labor saving device called a "dryer" thumped and tumbled.  It wasn't until he went back downstairs to retrieve the clean, dry laundry that things got weird.  

That was because he heard footsteps over his head.  

Dad stopped folding the sheets and looked up at the ceiling.  He was alone in the house, remember; Mum was in Pittsburgh and wasn't expected back until the next day, and no one else had a key to the house.  As far as Dad knew, the only living creatures in the house were himself (in the basement) and Terry (asleep in his dog bed).  What was going on?

The footsteps stopped, and for a moment Dad wondered if this was simply the house settling on its foundations...and then they started again, deliberately circling the dining room table.

Dad put down the sheets and started up the stairs.  He was no coward - remember, he'd been in combat - and if there was an intruder he wanted to know about it.

He paused at the top of the stairs, cautiously made his way into the dining room -

And saw nothing at all.

He checked the entire house:  living room, dining room, kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, attic, and back down to the basement.  He checked the garage, the car, the backyard, the front yard.  He checked every closet and crawl space, every storage area, every possible spot where a human being could conceal himself.

Nothing.  He was alone in the house except for the dog.

Dad decided eventually that he was imagining things.  Mum was gone and he was lonely, and maybe he'd had one too many of those beverages of choice.  His mind was clearly paying tricks on him.  It was time to head back downstairs, finish folding the laundry before the wrinkles set, and then make himself some dinner.

So he went backstairs, returned to folding the sheets and underwear and pillowcases and Mum's bras even though he was never completely sure of how those worked....

And it happened again.

This time Dad grabbed the laundry, shoved it in the basket, and folded it upstairs in the  master bedroom.  Enough was enough.

Mum came back the next day, relaxed and happy after a weekend with her sister and brothers.  There was plenty of news to share, and Dad, an only child, was genuinely interested in the doings of the huge family he'd acquired when he'd said "I do."  It wasn't until after Mum had unpacked, changed into something comfortable, and made dinner for them both that Dad hesitantly mentioned his unseen visitor.

"I thought I was hearing things," he explained.  "But then it happened again."

Mum set her fork down with perhaps more vigor than normal.  "Footsteps?  Walking around the dining room table?"

"Yes.  It happened twice.  At first I thought you'd come home early but you would have called and - "

"Walt."  Mum reached across the table for his hand.  Her eyes were very wide and her face very pale.  "Adult footsteps?  You're certain?"

He frowned.  "Of course I'm certain.  I know what I heard."

She took a deep breath.  "I didn't tell you this when it happened - "

"When what happened?  Martha?"

" - but remember when you had to go out of town a few weeks ago?"  Mum held onto his hands for dear life.  "I was up in the attic looking for something and - "

"No.  No!"

"I heard footsteps walking around the dining room table."

Is it any wonder Dad started looking for a job back in Pittsburgh almost immediately?  And that they sold the house and were back in Pleasant Hills the next spring?

This incident, which was unnerving enough that my parents fled back to Pittsburgh in plenty of time to make sure that I was not only Pittsburgh born but Pittsburgh bred, was not their only encounter with the odd, the strange, or the otherworldly.  Dad's aunt had quit a good job as a governess when a ghostly visitor showed up in her bedroom one fine night, and my mother's father, a mining engineer, had a reputation as a dowser.  One ancestor reportedly could heal burns with a little help from prayer and the sort of charms found in Long-Lost Friend, and even my aunt Betty, nutty as she was, had an uncanny knack for predicting just when relatives in other states were about to come down with some sort of illness.

I'll tell you about the UFO I saw near Scranton, Pennsylvania some other time.

Stories like this may be why I've always had something of a fascination with the occult, the paranormal, and the just plain peculiar.  I tend to be pretty rational in my daily life, a few minor superstitions aside, but that prevent me from reacting to books about strange phenomena roughly the way Gil the Wonder Cat does when I sprinkle catnip on the kitchen floor.

Tonight I bring you a writer who did more than anyone else to gather together stories of weird happenings, people, and places.  A tireless if credulous researcher, he set the stage for subsequent authors as diverse as Colin Wilson, Rev. Ivan Stang, and the nameless scribes who produce those books of weird, outrageous, and inexplicable incidents that show up on the remainder table of fine bookstores across this great land of ours.  He's not the worst writer I've profiled in these diaries, but he's certainly one of the most influential.  

I refer, of course, to the one, the only, the utterly unique chronicler of the excluded, the strange, and the just plain weird:  Charles Hoy Fort.

Fort, born to an abusive bully of a grocer in Albany, New York, in 1874, fought back not with his fists but with his wits.  Intelligent and quick witted, if not necessarily a good student, Fort was early fascinated by natural history, and before long was collecting rocks, minerals, bird's nests, and whole (stuffed) birds.  He was also realizing that his talents lay not in groceries, nor in assaulting his relatives, but in writing, reading, studying, and defying authority at every turn.

This why Fort set off as soon as he turned 18 to experience as much of the world in all its beautiful, inexplicable, contrarian glory as he could.  He started small, with a long journey to the American West, but eventually started working his way through the British Isles.  Soon thereafter he ended up in South Africa, where he stayed until he developed an illness so severe that he had to return to Albany to recuperate.  

There Fort found himself attracted to an old friend, the delightfully named Anna Filing.  Anna, who loved exotic parakeets but was not much of a reader, helped nurse Fort back to health, then married him despite being a scandalous four years older.  The couple, who spent a couple of years in London being desperately if unromantically poor while Charles spent his days working at the British Museum's glorious library, had a mutual passion for films, and if they couldn't talk about books, well, they usually managed to scrape together the price of admission to the local picture show.

Eventually the Forts returned to New York, where they settled in the Bronx while Charles eked out a living as a journalist and occasional short story writer.  He completed ten novels, only one of which, the social realist The Outcast Manufacturers, ever got into print.  

Charles was not discouraged.  He managed to carve out a space on the fringes of New York literary society thanks to his friendship with Theodore Dreiser (yes, that Theodore Dreiser), and spent many a merry night eating and drinking and talking with his friends while Anna tended her parakeets.  Even better, life in the Bronx meant that Fort had access to the stacks at the New York Public Library, which were stuffed with the sort of material that had attracted Fort for years.  He spent uncounted hours there taking tens (or possible hundreds) of thousands of notes on everything that interested him, and by 1919 he was ready to present the fruits of his labors to the public.  

The Book of the Damned was unlike anything else published that year.  Not only did it contain copious, and copiously annotated, accounts of oddities such as black snowfalls, yellow rain, showers of frogs, shower of blood, Roman coins found in North America, and similar intriguing if vaguely disturbing phenomenon, it demolished the assertion that the eruption of Krakatoa had been accompanied by strange lights in the sky (the lights preceded the eruption by several months).  It wasn't particularly well written - Fort seems to have taken his notes, thrown them into the air at random, and added the least amount of connecting phrases necessary to count as English prose) - but the sheer volume of information, and the facts contained therein, had its own fascination.

More than anything else, The Book of the Damned was a clarion call for what one might call "orphaned facts":  information that didn't fit in anywhere else, and so had been ignored or dismissed by conventional science.  As Fort wrote in the very first chapter:

A procession of the damned.

By the damned, I mean the excluded.

We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.

Battalions of the accursed, captained by pallid data that I have exhumed, will march. You'll read them—or they'll march. Some of them livid and some of them fiery and some of them rotten.

Some of them are corpses, skeletons, mummies, twitching, tottering, animated by companions that have been damned alive. There are giants that will walk by, though sound asleep. There are things that are theorems and things that are rags: they'll go by like Euclid arm in arm with the spirit of anarchy. Here and there will flit little harlots. Many are clowns. But many are of the highest respectability. Some are assassins. There are pale stenches and gaunt superstitions and mere shadows and lively malices: whims and amiabilities. The naïve and the pedantic and the bizarre and the grotesque and the sincere and the insincere, the profound and the puerile.

A stab and a laugh and the patiently folded hands of hopeless propriety.

The ultra-respectable, but the condemned, anyway.

The aggregate appearance is of dignity and dissoluteness: the aggregate voice is a defiant prayer: but the spirit of the whole is processional.

The power that has said to all these things that they are damned, is Dogmatic Science.

But they'll march.

The little harlots will caper, and freaks will distract attention, and the clowns will break the rhythm of the whole with their buffooneries—but the solidity of the procession as a whole: the impressiveness of things that pass and pass and pass, and keep on and keep on and keep on coming.

The irresistibleness of things that neither threaten nor jeer nor defy, but arrange themselves in mass-formations that pass and pass and keep on passing.

__________

So, by the damned, I mean the excluded.

But by the excluded I mean that which will some day be the excluding.

Or everything that is, won't be.

And everything that isn't, will be—

But, of course, will be that which won't be—

It is our expression that the flux between that which isn't and that which won't be, or the state that is commonly and absurdly called "existence," is a rhythm of heavens and hells: that the damned won't stay damned; that salvation only precedes perdition. The inference is that some day our accursed tatterdemalions will be sleek angels. Then the sub-inference is that some later day, back they'll go whence they came.

I think you can see why Fort's works quickly attracted a cult following that included some of the best known and most influential writers and thinkers in America.  In addition to Theodore Dreiser, who actually helped Fort find a publisher for The Book of the Damned, early fans included Sherwood Anderson (author of Winesburg, Ohio), Booth Tarkington (author of Penrod), and even Clarence Darrow, the crusading attorney.  

That Darrow's nickname, "Attorney for the Damned," may have originated in his love for Fort's writings is not clear, but it sure wouldn't surprise me.

Fort's position improved substantially in the mid-1920's, when he inherited enough money to quit his day job and devote himself full time to writing and researching.  His next book, New Lands, was honored with an introduction by no less than Booth Tarkington, who had evidently been introduced to The Book of the Damned while confined to bed during an illness.  Fort himself was not in the best of health, but that didn't stop him from beginning his new book with this stirring manifesto:

LANDS in the sky —

That they are nearby —

That they do not move.

I take for a principle that all being is the infinitely serial, and that whatever has been will, with differences of particulars, be again —

The last quarter of the fifteenth century — land to the west!

This first quarter of the twentieth century — we shall have revelations.

 

and went on from there to chronicle yet more weird rainfalls, out of place objects, and strange coincidences (or were they?) for the next several hundred pages.  

Needless to say, Fort's fans were delighted.  Soon they included even more literary lions, including screenwriter Ben Hecht (The Front Page) and critic Alexander Woollcott, as well as British novelist John Cowper Powys (whose early magical realism novels Porius and A Glastonbury Romance show signs of Fort's influence).  Hecht was so enraptured by Fort's work that he co-founded the Fortean Society at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel in New York in 1931 -

Which was also the year that Fort's third book of the damned, Lo!, was unleashed upon the adoring public.  This book, which is largely a scathing attack on conventional astronomy, is notable not only for expanding upon Fort's usual compendia of strangeness (which included the hypothesis that all those falling frogs, blood, and so on were part of a Super-Sargasso Sea hovering above the Earth that occasionally broke off and went plop) but for postulating a reason for it all.  A mysterious force  would "teleport" things and people from one place and time to another, rather like a TARDIS occupied by a drunken and very playful Time Lord.

(And yes, for those keeping score at home, Fort is one of the first, if not the very first, to use the word "teleportation."  Star Trek fans, please take note.)

That Fort chose to call this force  "the cosmic joker" may offer a clue as to his actual motives in writing his books; there's been widespread speculation for a very, very long time that Fort's tongue was firmly embedded somewhere between his upper molars and his mucous membranes, and given how very, very strange some of the facts he unearthed were, it's not hard to draw such a conclusion.

Alas, Fort had but little time to enjoy his new fame.  His health hadn't been good for years, probably because his contrarian streak and suspicion of conventional science also made him skeptical of doctors.  He collapsed suddenly in 1932, surviving only long enough for his publisher to show him advance copies of his last book, Wild Talents.  This book, which proved to be hugely influential among science fiction writers (most notably Robert Heinlein, Ron Goulart, and Philip K. Dick), dismissed the idea of the cosmic joker in favor of strange psychic powers manifested by certain gifted individuals, the aforesaid "wild talents" of the title.  

Fort's notes ended up in his beloved New York Public Library, where the bemused cataloging department found that he'd managed to accumulate over 60,000 handwritten accounts of weird people, places, things, and (of course) showers of everything from black rain to dead amphibians.  His influential upon future writers, some of whom see him as a great satirist, others as a prophet, has been immense (if largely unacknowledged); in addition to Heinlein, Dick, and Powys, Fort also inspired Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider and several books on the occult, and conspiracy theorist Robert Anton Wilson (no relation...but is anything really a coincidence in this vale of tears?).  There's even a slick, glossy, fascinating magazine called Fortean Timesdevoted to continuing Fort's work, and if it weren't imported (and thus hideously expensive) I'd be shelling out for it every month, believe thee me.

If that weren't enough, Fort's insistence on looking outside the box, both in philosophy and in considering even the tiniest and most damnable of facts worthy of attention, has indirectly influenced the study of history, both for good (Renaissance historian Joscelyn Godwin) and bad (cryphistorian Graham Hancock).  Books written by his disciples, knowing or not, have featured more than once in these diaries, and for that alone Fort deserves our thanks.  

As to whether Fort actually believed any of this...well, you'll just have to draw your own conclusions, won't you?

%%%%%

Do you have any Fortean books at home?  Have a wild talent?  Were you conceived in a haunted house?  Have you seen a UFO?  Are you laughing hysterically at the mere thought that anyone could take this seriously?  Pull up a chair and join us at the fireside, for lo!  it's Saturday night and you know that that means....

%%%%%

Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule:






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alternate Thursdays (on hiatus) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
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SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat May 24, 2014 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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