Borderlands by Mike Dash (the Overlook Press, 518 pages, $27.95)
I have never seen Bigfoot. I have never seen anything even remotely resembling any kind of extraterrestrial contraption in the sky. No little grays, no hail of toads or minnows, no crop circles, no phone calls from the dead. On New Year's Eve in Charnita, MD, 1971, a number of people claimed to have seen me change into a large, colorful monster. I believe the word they used was "werewolf."
For a few weeks in 1975 some really weird poltergeist-type occurrences dogged me and my sado-lesbian roommates in an apartment in West Philadelphia, but it could have been some bizarre geological phenomenon or CIA- or crazy sex-induced mass hallucination. We'll never know; it's like the JFK assassination: the landlord burned the place down before we could figure it out.
All of the weirdest stuff I ever saw was of purely human origin. People are damn strange. There is no end to human perversity. We don't need Bigfoot. On the other hand, it would be comforting to know that we are not the pinnacle of peculiarity.
Every bonehead serial killer wannabe knows about the zodiac. Not the little retarded beaner copycat here in New York, but the real one, the scary one, the California version that took serial murder as far as it could be taken as an art form, taunting the idiot cops with codes and movie reviews, quoting Gilbert & Sullivan and Lewis Carroll. The one that got away. Fuck the Loch Ness Monster, this is a scary case. Colin Wilson came up with an unusual twist on the serial killer fad in his Order of Assassins: The Psychology of Murder (Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd., 1972). He goes against the cretinous limbic-obsessed biodeterminists, positing a motivational syndrome based on thwarted creativity. That's an interesting idea, because it doesn't stop at serial murder. It lends itself to pranks, to the Coyote/Trickster archetype. As H.P. Lovecraft was wont to point out, there are things worse than death.
Take the infamous "SBR" case, Maryland 1989: An elderly couple awoke one morning in their rather ordinary home in the suburbs of Baltimore to find their precious wooden bunny-rabbit lawn ornament missing. They'd had this tasteless thing on their lawn for nigh unto 20 years, and took great umbrage at its sudden disappearance. They reported the theft to the local police, who took the report with all the gravity it deserved.
One year later, to the very day, the couple stepped outside and found the ornament on the hood of their car, along with a large manila envelope filled with photographs. Each photograph was inscribed on its backside with the handwritten letters "SBR" (thought by police to stand for "Stolen Bunny Rabbit"), and the pictures themselves documented a world tour of Phileas Fogg proportions, with the precious lawn ornament photographed at the pyramids of Giza, Mt. Fuji, Niagara Falls, Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Disneyland, Disney World, the Berlin Wall, in the arms of Baltimore's Mayor Kurt Schmoke, at the UN, dozens and dozens of pictures of this stupid wood-shop project lawn ornament carefully posed at world-famous sites and landmarks or in the presence of celebrity entertainers and politicians. The case was never solved.
Mike Dash, a chief researcher at Fortean Times since 1983, has collected a wide range of unexplained anomalies and known hoaxes and posited a disciplined way of addressing these phenomena in his fabulously researched Borderlands. In these times of crumbling belief systems and cultish nonsense, there has arisen a cottage industry of counterfeit skepticism, exemplified by the likes of Elaine Showalter, Phil Klass, the Amazing Randi and other pseudoscientific posers in the business of defending consensus reality. Consensus reality is itself a hoax, and a pernicious one at that. Fortean Times is the real thing, a journal of strange phenomena with no agenda to promote, addressing hoaxes, mass delusions, urban legends and authentically unexplainable anomalies with equal objectivity.
Dash has collected a stunning range of cases of crashed UFOs, cryptozoological sightings, unlikely things raining from the sky, spontaneous human combustions and other collisions with generally accepted notions of how reality should proceed and attempted to get to the causes of these occurrences in an unprejudiced and genuinely scientific way. The results are often hilarious and occasionally very unsettling.
The Aurora Case is a classic example. On April 19, 1897, the Dallas Morning News reported that a mysterious airship had crashed in Aurora, TX, replete with a little dead alien pilot. This event became a part of the UFO canon when it was rediscovered by the saucer crowd in the 60s and inspired the comedy group Firesign Theatre to create what is perhaps their greatest work, Everything You Know Is Wrong. Dash dispatches it thus:
"The ailing craft had apparently flown low over the town before smashing into a windmill owned by one Judge Proctor and exploding into tiny fragments. The body of its pilot?a strange little creature who the locals assumed was probably a Martian?was reportedly recovered and interred in the local cemetery.
"The rediscovery of this story in the 1960s brought several ufologists to Aurora armed with spades and a determination to prise an exhumation order from the local authorities, but it too was eventually discovered to be a hoax. The perpetrator on this occasion appeared to be a local telegraph operator named S.E. Haydon, who span the yarn to while away the hours on a boring shift and in the hope of attracting visitors to a town dying after being by-passed by the railway."
Dash also manages to include my very favorite UFO incident of all time, Joe Simonton's pancakes:
"In one of the most bizarre cases on record, a plumber named Joe Simonton, who lived at Eagle River, Wisconsin, looked out of his window on 18 April 1961 and saw a silvery UFO land in his back yard. A hatch opened and three small 'men' wearing black uniforms stepped out. One wordlessly indicated that he wanted Joe to fill a bucket full of water for him. When Simonton complied, the entity went back into the UFO and emerged with four warm and greasy pancakes. When he cautiously tasted the extraterrestrials' breakfast, Simonton discovered that it tasted like cardboard, but a chemical analysis later showed that the objects were indeed ordinary oatmeal pancakes. Ufologist John Rimmer seems to explore all the possibilities when he observes: 'Now this might prove that Joe Simonton was a fraud. On the other hand it might prove that pancakes are pretty much the same wherever they come from...'"
Dash's subject matter is by no means limited to or dominated by the UFO subject. In the course of this wonderful compendium of pranks and oddities he touches on the work of Michael Persinger, a Laurentian University neuroscientist researching the possibility that certain unusual experiences along the lines of UFO abductions and apparitions could be due to "microseizures" in the temporal lobes, perhaps triggered by frequencies generated by tectonic shifts. However wild that notion may be, Persinger has come up with a nifty psychotronic gadget, the Persinger Helmet, which induces damn weird experiences in those who try it on. I must get my head in this thing; I am bored with drugs and addicted to altered states.
Mike Dash has done us all a great service with this well-rendered, brilliantly researched and thoroughly entertaining account of challenges to consensus reality. The most wonderful thing about life is its mystery, and Dash serves that mystery up very well in Borderlands.