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Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural

by Jim Steinmeyer

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The seminal biography of the twentieth century’s premier chronicler of the paranormal, Charles Fort—a man whose very name gave rise to an adjective, fortean, to describe the unexplained.

By the early 1920s, Americans were discovering that the world was a strange place.

Charles Fort could demonstrate that it was even stranger


The seminal biography of the twentieth century’s premier chronicler of the paranormal, Charles Fort—a man whose very name gave rise to an adjective, fortean, to describe the unexplained.

By the early 1920s, Americans were discovering that the world was a strange place.

Charles Fort could demonstrate that it was even stranger than anyone suspected. Frogs fell from the sky. Blood rained from the heavens. Mysterious airships visited the Earth. Dogs talked. People disappeared. Fort asked why, but, even more vexing, he also asked why we weren’t paying attention.

Here is the first fully rendered literary biography of the man who, more than any other figure, would define our idea of the anomalous and paranormal. In Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, the acclaimed historian of stage magic Jim Steinmeyer goes deeply into the life of Charles Fort as he saw himself: first and foremost, a writer.

At the same time, Steinmeyer tells the story of an era in which the certainties of religion and science were being turned on their heads. And of how Fort—significantly—was the first man who challenged those orthodoxies not on the grounds of some counter-fundamentalism of his own but simply for the plainest of reasons: they didn’t work. In so doing, Fort gave voice to a generation of doubters who would neither accept the “straight story” of scholastic science nor credulously embrace fantastical visions. Instead, Charles Fort demanded of his readers and admirers the most radical of human acts: Thinking.

Editorial Reviews

Theodore Dreiser
The most fascinating literary figure since Poe.
New York Times
The enfant terrible of science.
H. G. Wells
One of the most damnable bores who ever cut scraps from out-of-the-way newspapers.
Michael Dirda
Steinmeyer's engrossing biography dwells a little too long on Fort's childhood as the son of a well-off Albany merchant, but it makes up for this by briskly recounting the author's youthful adventures (riding the rails all over the East Coast, shipping out to England and South Africa) and describing his desperate years as a magazine short story writer, somewhat in the vein of O. Henry…[Steinmeyer's] biography, drawing heavily at times from Damon Knight's pioneering life of Fort, balances neatly between skepticism and sympathy.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Ben Hecht saw iconoclastic author Fort (1874-1932) as an "inspired clown" who thumbed his nose at science as well as religion, and Fort's imaginative books exerted a strong influence on science fiction, notably novelist Eric Frank Russell. Stage magic historian Steinmeyer (Hiding the Elephant ) captures Fort's wry humor, skepticism and wildest notions. Surviving fragments of Fort's unpublished autobiography illuminate his strict Albany, N.Y., childhood. In 1892, Fort became a New York City reporter and editor before his world travels and 1896 marriage. He was befriended by Theodore Dreiser, who shepherded Fort's short stories and first novel into print. Fort also pored through diverse journals to document the paranormal and anomalies rejected by the scientific establishment. Shoe boxes packed with 40,000 slips of paper served as a basis for The Book of the Damned (1919), which saw print because Dreiser threatened to leave his publisher unless the company also published Fort. As more compilations of oddities appeared, Fort developed a cult following, and the so-called Forteans issued journals long after their leader's death. Steinmeyer has emerged from the archives with a wonderful, prismatic portrait of the man who once wrote, "To this day, it has not been decided if I am a humorist or a scientist." 8 pages of b&w photos. (May)

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Library Journal

Steinmeyer (The Glorious Deception), a preeminent stage and TV designer of magical illusions, shows himself a gifted biographer with this moving study of a 20th-century original. Decades after his death with a cultish following that began in his lifetime, Charles Fort (1874-1932) remains a thinker whose motivation and compositions (e.g., The Book of the Damned of 1919, still in print) maintain their fascination. Despite his subtitle, Steinmeyer knows that the supernatural as a concept existed before Fort; Fort, in effect, brought it back to earth. Assiduously, he culled from the periodical record countless observed instances of the inexplicable: showers of frogs, a rain of blood in North Africa, a flurry of flakes of beef in 1876 Kentucky. Then he ruminated upon the data-not as proof of miracles but as palpable occurrences disregarded by science. To Fort, these hundreds of phenomena that flew (often literally) in the face of accepted theory demonstrated that science was the blinkered religion. His work attracted the enthusiasm of Theodore Dreiser. Steinmeyer is an elegant and unobtrusive author who shows us an entirely fascinating, shy, and witty man. The unpublished autobiographical fragments that Fort penned about his Albany, NY, childhood, achingly poignant, display, as much as his books, a prose stylist like no other. This book is not to be missed. P.S. Have reprints of Fort's work on hand, too!
—Margaret Heilbrun

Kirkus Reviews
Stage-magic historian Steinmeyer (Art and Artifice: And Other Essays of Illusion, 2006, etc.) examines the quirky life of Charles Fort (1874-1932). Fort's books, writes Steinmeyer, are filled with "data that Science has excluded," and laid the groundwork for modern science fiction as well as belief in the paranormal, alien abductions and other quasi-supernatural phenomena. Fort grew up in Albany, left an abusive home early and nearly starved in New York City before discovering a talent for fiction. Between 1900 and 1920 he wrote short stories to scrape by, attracting enthusiastic support from Theodore Dreiser (then better known as a magazine editor than a novelist). Despite Dreiser's influence, Fort remained on the edge of poverty, and his only novel flopped. Always fascinated by weird events, he began spending days at the public library, poring through books and journals. In 1919 Dreiser persuaded his publisher to bring out Fort's first collection of oddities, The Book of the Damned; it turned out to be mildly successful, and three more followed. All listed myriad marvels: blood or frogs raining from the sky, ghosts, UFOs, talking animals, telepathy, etc. Fort was no skeptic; if someone witnessed a corpse return to life, he wrote it down. He had no overall philosophy except to ridicule the authority of science and, more occasionally, religion. Since scientists quarreled, disagreed and were sometimes wrong, he assumed that one theory was as good as another, and paranormal events as likely as any others. Clearly an admirer, Steinmeyer avers that Fort's writing foreshadowed a respectable philosophical school that asserts that all truth is relative. The biographer shows little interest inpointing out that Fort's implausible anecdotes remain implausible today, or that his disbelief in such scientific triumphs as the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics hasn't held up. An uncritical but colorful picture of a offbeat character who convinced many that he was a genius. Agent: Jim Fitzgerald/James Fitzgerald Agency
From the Publisher
"This is how biographies should be written: Steinmeyer is the ideal host, introducing us to a fascinating stranger, and sliding into the background...Here is a storyteller with a glint in his eye. Pull up a chair, you won't be disappointed." —Mark Stafford, Times of London

"An engrossing biography." —Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

"Perceptive and entertaining." —Ed Park, Los Angeles Times

"Steinmeyer is a gifted biographer, an elegant and unobtrusive author who shows us an entirely fascinating, shy, and witty man, a 20th-century original. This book is not to be missed." —Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal

"Steinmeyer conjures up his subject's world with wit and empathy, and subtly tracks the events that formed Fort's singular character. The man emerges as eccentric, funny, self-effacing and contradictory. Even the most devoted skeptic will enjoy his company." —Harry Pearson, The Daily Mail

"Fort can easily be lampooned as the man who wrote about rains of frogs, but as Jim Steinmeyer emphasizes in this intriguing biography, he trod a narrow tightrope between belief and skepticism. His life, as graphically portrayed in this book, was often frustrated and unfulfilled. But the legacy he left makes the world a brighter place: paradoxically, both saner and sillier." —David V. Barrett, The Independent

"While American history has relegated Fort to the same curiosity file he so deliberately plumbed, Fort's influence has outstretched his literary contributions. Steinmeyer conjures both the image and mind of Fort in such a way as to mirror Fort's own writings. In doing so, Steinmeyer offers readers a psychological profile of Fort, as well as a glimpse into the culture and history that birthed the supernatural interests of our nation." —Michael Mason, Tulsa World

"Steinmeyer captures Fort's wry humor, skepticism and wildest notions. He has emerged from the archives with a wonderful, prismatic portrait. Publishers Weekly

"This odd, unique character emerges fully rounded in Jim Steinmeyer's fascinating, sympathetic biography." —Richard Lingeman, author of Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey

"A colorful portrait of an offbeat character." Kirkus Reviews

"A delightful book." —Robert Ito, Los Angeles Magazine

"A jolly biography." —Damian Thompson, London Telegraph

"Steinmeyer has produced a meticulously researched, marvelously readable window on the life of this extraordinary man. Was he a genius or a crank? Fort's message is that we should not always seek solutions, because there might be none. That is Steinmeyer's verdict on the man himself." —Andrew Crumey, The Scotsman

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Penguin Group
File size:
1 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Jim Steinmeyer is the critically acclaimed author of The Glorious Deception, Charles Fort, and Hiding the Elephant, a Los Angeles Times bestseller. He is also a leading designer of magic illusion who has done work for television, Broadway, and many of the best-known names in modern magic. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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