The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort

Charles Fort (1874-1932) was a collector of unusual news items from a wide variety of sources. Due to his books, he became the man from whom the Fortean Society, as well as the British magazine Fortean Times, derives its name. He is very much like a Victorian Fox Mulder with his X-Files cabinet. Fort was originally a novelist, but The Book of the Damned (1919) was to be a turning point in his career, becoming the first of four books on the paranormal, which are commonly found today as a single omnibus edition.

This first volume is concerned largely with bizarre objects that have fallen from the sky, with the occasional mention of strange markings on the ground and submarine objects, both of which possibly originated in the sky. You won’t find the term “flying saucer” in the book, as this predates the saucer era. What you will find is a catalogue of the most bizarre things that will put furrows of confusion across any UFO ethusiast’s brow. There are falls of frogs, fishes, unknown gelatinous substances, a wide range of inorganic materials, impossibly large hailstones. The “damned” of the book’s title refers to anything that mainstream science cannot explain and therefore seeks to bend into a shape that will fit conventional explanation, or as a last resort, ignore. For instance, science seeks to explain the fall of frogs as frogs that were taken up in a tornado and deposited back to earth in a different location. Fort points out an instance which defies this explanation, such as when a second fall happens at the exact same place on a different date. Science, however, ignores this – damns it, if you will.

Fort proposes something that he terms the “Super-Sargasso Sea” as a quasi-explanation for what’s going on – an invisible realm in the sky populated by all sorts. It’s difficult to tell how much credence Fort himself puts in this theory, as the book is full of wit. Fort presents himself as someone who is more concerned with getting people to admit how little the know, rather than claiming he knows something himself. He calls himself an “intermediatist.”

Fort’s style is the book’s weakest point. Everything is tossed together in a somewhat random fashion, with the author’s rambling commentary flowing throughout, often making the same point over and over in different words. As such, it became tiresome to read at times, and I often felt that a good essay would have suffices in place of such a large volume. But what I loved about the book as a whole is that Fort has the heart of a philosopher, and this shines throughout. This is really a book about the nature of truth, and our relationship to truth. How do we know what we know, and do we really know anything at all for sure? Fort continually points the finger at the “positivists” – those whose attitude is “Well, such-and-such cannot be true, because it defies such-and-such, so we shall damn it,” as if current scientific theory were an unshakeable absolute. The universe according to Charles Fort is a place that keeps thwarting our attempts to “positivise” (as he calls it) – to determine absolute truth in our science.

It’s difficult to know how much or how little of Fort’s catalogue is trustworthy. But Fort himself admits that if only a portion is true, then his point stands. The Book of the Damned is an effective warning against the error of scientism. Far too many sceptics and rational thinkers turn mainstream science into dogma, and completely forget the lesson from history of how knowledge has continually evolved, and will continue to do so, with many corrections to what we “know” along the way. I leave you with a few quotes from the author:

Science of today – the superstition of tomorrow. Science of tomorrow – the superstition of today.

All phenomena are “explained” in terms of the Dominant of their era.