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The Ultimate Exploration of the Unknown

by Mike Dash

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 1-87951-724-7
Publisher: Overlook

A teasing, mildly skeptical, occasionally infuriating farrago of bizarre phenomena that struggles to remain intelligent and high-minded as it deconstructs reports of UFO encounters, the Loch Ness monster, telephone calls from the dead, and “abominable swamp slobs.” “If there is an underlying oneness in all things,” claimed Charles Fort, an obscure Baltimore compiler of allegedly true, if inexplicable, occurrences, then we can learn just as much about the human condition from what doesn’t make sense as from what does. In this thick volume of “Forteana,” Dash, a University of London Ph.D. in naval history and researcher for the international journal of strange doings, Fortean Times, takes a phenomenological approach: It doesn’t matter if what has been customarily dismissed as hokum, superstition, or badly digested mutton is a hoax or delusion; what does the occurrence mean for the people who claim to have experienced it, for those who report it, and for those whose eager explanations disguise a more penetrating truth? Is an urge to cling to ancient folk beliefs, for example, animating an urge to see monsters in deep lakes? Why is it that the aliens in UFO encounters tend to resemble science fiction characters? Does a Barnumesque contempt for a gullible public inspire back-country hicks to make circles in wheat fields, or fake Bigfoot prints? Dash can be fascinating as he exposes respected scientists and literary figures—from Arthur Conan Doyle to the hapless meteorologist who believed crop circles were caused by tornados—who dream up “scientific” explanations for outright hoaxes, communications with the dead, and phenomena like ESP that defy laboratory duplication. He becomes annoying only when he (all too often) hams up his cogent analyses with trite Twilight Zone monologues that liken these experiences to a visit to a mythical borderland. A peckishly melodramatic reminder that the source of so much superstition, blissful ignorance, and bad science is an unwillingness to live with mystery.