Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Strange Creatures from Time and Space

John Keel Strange Creatures from Time and Space (1975)
I read this when I was a kid, as borrowed from a friend at school whose dad was obsessed with such things and had a UFO detector in his back garden - procured through the classifieds in Abduction Monthly or something of the sort. I found a copy in Hay-on-Wye when in my twenties I'd taken to reading more or less just comic books and UFO literature. This changed when I discovered Richard Dawkins around 1995 and went a bit fundamentalist for a while. I got rid of all my crackpot paperbacks but always regretted ditching this one, plus a few by Brad Steiger. Keel and Steiger always seemed to deliver the goods, regardless of whether or not you actually believed any of it.

Here John Keel takes the position that UFOlogy and related paranormal investigations have been historically held back by a desire for logic, or at least for accounts which we can just about believe because they hint at some sort of science-fiction narrative with which we are already familiar - visitors from the stars and so on. Clearly he has a point, and it seems that many well-known accounts of unexplained phenomenon have often left out the weirder details for fear of ridicule; leaving us with the amusing possibility that the more hypothetically probable accounts are going to be the least plausible because anyone feeling inclined to just make something up for chuckles isn't going to bother trying to fence some of the wacky shit related herein as anything which could really happen - therefore maybe it did. John Keel is very much in the tradition of Charles Fort as one who chronicles the improbable or impossible for the sheer joy of contradicting consensus reality.

That said, whilst he writes well and generally stands head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries, Keel is himself not without his blind spots. Much literature of this kind has an unfortunate habit of fixating on established science as the enemy so as to forge a bond with the more paranoid readers who never trusted those book-learnin' guys in the first place. It needs science to be its enemy to the point of refusing even to negotiate, because negotiations will inevitably work in the favour of the other side. Most crucially, science as a scapegoat shifts focus from the fact that there's really not much to say about the bloke who insists he saw a strange light in the sky and it didn't seem like a plane and then he felt a bit funny.

Keel tends not to dwell on the sceptics so much as others often do, but still descends to pointless sniping at what he describes as Type B scientists. Type A are the ones who invent shit, the guys you're not going to pick a fight with because you'll end up looking like a fucking idiot - Edison, Einstein and so on. Type B scientists are the university types which television stations call in when something needs denouncing as light from the planet Venus refracted through swamp gas; or in one specific case to suggest that something weird found washed up on a beach might be the supposedly more prosaic remains of a recently defrosted mammoth, prompting Keel to fume accordingly:

The iceberg hypothesis is not merely unscientific, it is moronic. So far as is known, no animal - modern or prehistoric - has ever been found encased in a floating iceberg.

Which is great except that he invokes the same frozen in an iceberg explanation for some other peculiar beastie discussed a couple of pages later, so it's fine when he makes certain suggestions...

Happily, there's not too much of this kind of defensive argument, and even if he doesn't state it directly, I would guess that Keel appreciates there's not much joy to be had in pouring scorn upon the laws of physics. Indeed, his strength is that he thinks about his subject and even engages in a degree of scepticism over and above that which is customarily adopted by UFOlogists aspiring to present a ludicrous veneer of scientific rigour, a veneer of scientific rigour which tends to exclude all the wackier tales.

The buffs tend to lump everything hopelessly together and try only to categorise the descriptions of the objects which are, as we pointed out earlier, so varied that the data negates itself. We must, to be successful, turn our attention to studying the witnesses and the psychological and physiological effects they experience. The answer to the whole mystery probably lies in that direction, not in the stars.

Leaving aside the major problem that what we have here are essentially anecdotal accounts of anecdotal evidence, this book works because much of this stuff is bananas - hence hugely entertaining, even thought-provoking, and genuinely scary in a few cases - and because while Keel speculates aplenty, he avoids didactic conclusions and never assumes the reader to be either an idiot, or even necessarily on his side.

As to whether I've just re-read a couple of hundred pages of nothing at all, I just don't know. A great many of these accounts describe events which seem to have the logic of a dream or a hallucination - winged creatures rising into the air without said wings actually flapping, for one example - but hallucinations shared by a number of people; and then there are the parallels - similar stories of similar occurrences told by people who have never met. In certain respects we don't actually know much about the human brain and almost certainly hold an excess of faith in what is generally regarded as objective experience, as distinct from the imagined. I'm inclined to wonder if visions of - for example - mothmen with glowing red eyes, might simply turn out to be a glitch of consciousness, just as certain phantom odours can sometimes signify more serious neurological problems; but there doesn't seem to be a single simple explanation for any of this stuff which covers everything, not even the possibility of it all having been made up. The best that can be said is that one hell of a lot of people appear to have experienced something weird, regardless of whether that experience was real in objective terms; and of all people, John Keel does a great job of trying to beat some sense out of the subject.

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