by Tania Scott
Charles Fort (1874-1932) was a mysterious figure, a man fascinated by the esoteric and unexplained, an eccentric and a master wit who loved to mock authority. He wrote fiction, most of which was never published, and a series of books that were part records of paranormal research and part disjointed musings on the failings of rationalism and scientific positivism. Fort’s current fame however rests largely on the Fortean Society which bears his name, but the books themselves are little remembered and barely read outside the ranks of occultists and aficionados of the unexplained. Yet there is a strong case for their relevance to literary history – particularly the horror and supernatural genre – and it may be time for them to be reconsidered as more than mere curiosities.
Fort’s first published work was a novel called The Outcast Manufacturers (1909) but he never gained the reputation he desired for fiction. The novel contains hints of what is to come in his later works. It combines a realist narrative of the gritty lives of poor Americans with typical Fortean taste for the bizarre: the novel opens with some street urchins using a dead horse as a makeshift trampoline; ‘boys jumping on it, enjoying the elasticity of its ribs’. This work anticipates many of the eccentricities of content and style that characterize Fort’s later works, especially the author’s macabre sense of humour.
The Book of the Damned (1919)
Although Fort continued to write novels and stories, it was The Book of the Damned (1919) that brought him public recognition. By ‘damned’ Fort does not refer to religious judgement; instead he is denoting paranormal phenomena and anything excluded from the remit of modern science. Indeed, for Fort the ultimate authority that he wishes to question is always contemporary science and rationalism. The opening to the book sets out Fort’s manifesto:
A procession of the damned.
By the damned, I mean the excluded.
We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.
Battalions of the accursed, captained by pallid data that I have exhumed, will march. You'll read them -- or they'll march. Some of them livid and some of them fiery and some of them rotten.
Some of them are corpses, skeletons, mummies, twitching, tottering, animated by companions that have been damned alive. There are giants that will walk by, though sound asleep. There are things that are theorems and things that are rags: they'll go by like Euclid arm in arm with the spirit of anarchy. Here and there will flit little harlots. Many are clowns. But many are of the highest respectability. Some are assassins. There are pale stenches and gaunt superstitions and mere shadows and lively malices: whims and amiabilities. The naïve and the pedantic and the bizarre and the grotesque and the sincere and the insincere, the profound and the puerile.
The power that has said to all these things that they are damned, is Dogmatic Science.
But they'll march.
Even in these early lines we can see the literary pretentions of Fort’s work, where he embraces the horror images of twitching corpses and animated skeletons as metaphors for his literary approach. The Book of the Damned and its successors deliver on the promise of this statement. Fort presents to the reader his research on impossible possibilities, a cacophony of alien stories presented in a wandering literary style that gives no certainties, only eternal doubt. The works themselves are fragmentary – disparate collections of studies and anecdotes collected from a range of sources. These books are charming nonetheless and there is a narrative throughout, one that demands scepticism of scientific reasoning.
The Book of the Damned and New Lands (1923) deal in the main with strange geographical and meteorological phenomena such as lost continents and weird rains (a lifelong obsession for the author). Fort’s later books are more relevant to the horror genre. There is hardly a horror trope that Fort does not consider in Lo! (1931) and Wild Talents (1932). The earlier volume considers unexplained disappearances, werewolves and other strange creatures, ghosts and even human combustion. He is credited with inventing the term teleportation, and suggests that there may be unknown beings or even individuals who are responsible for the disappearances and appearances of anomalous objects. In Wild Talents Fort turns his attention to possible abnormal traits within human beings. This book reads like a guide on how to make a superhero film, featuring telekinesis, poltergeists, witches, vampires, werewolves and even talking dogs.
Fort spends a considerable amount of Wild Talents on accounts of vampirism, always with his characteristic dark wit and macabre sense of humour:
The fun of everything, in our existence of comedy-tragedy […] mania without the smile. Every fiendish occurrence that gnashes its circumstances, and sinks its particulars into a victim, wags a joke. In June, 1899, there was, in many parts of the U. S. A., much amusement. Something, in New York City, Washington, and Chicago, was sending people to hospitals. I don't recommend the beating of a gong to drive away a hellish thing: but I think that that treatment is as enlightened as is giving to it a funny name. […]
"The kissing bug," it was called.
The kissing bug was a theory used to explain the appearance of several victims of unidentified bite wounds that were found across America in 1899. The irony of the name appeals to Fort’s mischievous side, along with the stubbornness of scientists that are determined to find a rational explanation for everything. Fort teases the reader, never once positing that there are true vampires, but giving tantalising hints at the possibility. All the while his personality leeches into the text, continually self-conscious and self-questioning: ‘I don't know whether I am of a cruel and bloodthirsty disposition, or not. Most likely I am, but not more so than any other historian. Or, conforming to the conditions of our existence, I am amiable-bloodthirsty. In my desire for vampires, which is not in the least a queer desire, inasmuch as I have a theory that there are vampires, I was not satisfied with the "kissing bug".’ Fort may be unsatisfied with the kissing bug, but he refuses the temptation to give any other definite explanation. For explanations are not Fort’s style: he wishes merely to give us multiple possibilities so that we might embrace doubt itself.
In these works Fort’s questioning of science anticipates a form of scientific postmodernism. The Book of the Damned appeared eight years before Heisenberg’s work on the uncertainty principle was published and just two years before Einstein won the noble prize. Fort is ahead of the curve, demanding that uncertainty needs to be a part of science, rather than systematically excluded from it. Like the quantum physicists, Fort’s works challenge scientific positivism, refusing to accept the tenets of authority and tradition. He puts this neatly in Wild Talents, stating that: ‘Conservatism is our opposition. But I am in considerable sympathy with conservatives. I am often lazy, myself.’ The laziness of those in authority who are happy to accept the status quo is challenged by the frenetic radicalism of Fort’s oeuvre.
The strangeness and changeability of his literary works was reflected in his own life. He suffered from depression, was possibly bipolar, and prone to burning all his notes when in one of his depressed periods. The nature of his work understandably leads critics to question his sanity, something Fort acknowledges wryly in Wild Talents when he states: ‘my madness has been over-emphasized’. Late in his life he became subject to something of a cult following, and the Fortean society was set up by fans who wanted to continue his work. According to his biographer, Damon Knight, Fort was highly amused by this turn of events, and steadfastly refused to join the society that bore his name. The notion of an organised, hierarchical society must have seemed a complete anathema to the author who refused to accept any authority, even his own.
One of the issues that Fort would have had with the members of the Fortean society was their commitment to believing in the paranormal phenomena that he researched. Fort never categorically confirms whether he believes in any of these supernatural creatures and events, indeed in Lo! he firmly states, ‘I believe nothing’. He refuses to draw a line between fact and fiction:
I am so obviously offering everything in this book as fiction. That is, if there is fiction. But this book is fiction in the sense that Pickwick Papers, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Newton’s Principia, Darwin’s Origin of Species, Genesis, Gulliver’s Travels, and mathematical theorems, and every history of the United States, and all other histories, are fictions. A library-myth that irritates me most is the classification of books under “fiction” and “non-fiction”. (Wild Talents)
Fort declines to distinguish between fact and fiction as they are one and the same. It is notable that he mentions Gulliver’s Travels in this list as Fort often described himself as a humourist and satirist in the style of Swift. The modern day reader may wonder if perhaps the issue that he had with the Forteans was that they failed to get the joke.
There is a legacy of Fort’s work beyond the Forteans and their peers. His extensive research on supernatural and paranormal subjects has left an enduring legacy across different media. Television shows like The Twilight Zone and The X-files owed more than a little to Fort’s cataloguing of the unexplained and unexplainable. In fact, Fox Mulder bears more than a passing resemblance to Fort himself, with his office full of newspaper clippings and exile from the establishment. Superhero narratives, whether in film or comics, would be very different without Fort’s work; for example X-Men which features humans with abnormal – or wild – talents. Parts of his work read like a plot for an epic movie, as in Wild Talents when he considers the possibility of supernatural beings being used for warfare: ‘I conceive of powers and the uses of human powers that will some day transcend the stunts of music halls and séances and sideshows […] military demonstrations of the overwhelming effects of trained hates – scientific uses of destructive bolts of a million hate-power – the blasting of enemies by disciplined ferocities.’ Fort’s armies of telekinetic super-humans are pure science-fiction, another genre that has been influenced by his writings.
Once we accept the lasting influence of Fort’s work it becomes imperative that we rediscover the books themselves. What we find there is a delight. Fort’s writings are engaging and thought-provoking, and imbued with a mischievous strain of humour. He repeatedly states that he is both humourist and scientist, and that is perhaps how the modern reader should approach his works: in a spirit of scientific investigation and with a keen sense of humour.
by Jon Towlson
Jeff Lieberman (perhaps best known for Squirm, 1976) remains a critically neglected director within the horror genre. Although maybe not in the same ‘league’ as George A. Romero, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper or David Cronenberg, his films are like the mortar between the bricks of these film-makers, extending and enriching sub-genres within horror cinema. Squirm is one of the best ‘ecological’ horror films derived from Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963); Blue Sunshine (1977) spans the zombie-satire gap between Shivers (Cronenberg, 1975) and Dawn of the Dead (Romero, 1978); Just Before Dawn (1981) develops the tropes of both The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper, 1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (Craven, 1976); and Satan’s Little Helper (2003) riffs intriguingly on Halloween (Carpenter, 1978).
His films bristle with quirky intellect. Perhaps more than any other director, Lieberman has the ability to crystallise the essence of a horror sub-genre in a single striking image. In Blue Sunshine we have the murderous baby sitter stalking her young charges with a large knife; her ‘invasion-metamorphosis’ is signified by her bizarrely bald head – her ‘possession’ by the visual reference to Rosemary’s Baby (1968). In Just Before Dawn, Lieberman’s heroine fends off her backwoods attacker by thrusting her fist down his throat – a gender subversion of the rape/violation imagery redolent in the ‘urbanoia’ film (most notably the gun-in the-woman’s-mouth scene in The Hills Have Eyes). In Squirm, we have three such moments, neatly encapsulating the three stages of progression in the ecological apocalypse horror film: proliferation – the scene where worms infest the face of the antagonist, Roger; besiegement – where the worms threaten to erupt from a showerhead on to the heroine (also, a sly nod to Psycho – linking via The Birds to Hitchcock); finally, annihilation – when the worms invade the house and finally engulf Roger, who sinks into them like a man disappearing into quicksand.
These iconic images encapsulate the narrative conventions of their sub-genres unlike any other. Perhaps that is why, despite a lack of recent critical attention to the films, these images featured so often in the horror film books and magazines of the 1970s.
It is, however, a measure of the neglect in which Lieberman currently stands that his films have received patchy distribution on DVD in the UK. Only Just Before Dawn and Satan’s Little Helper are available in the UK (the former transferred from a very shoddy print). MGM released Squirm in 2003 in the States and parts of Europe, excluding the UK. Blue Sunshine received similar treatment. Lieberman’s minor 1987 sci-fi horror Remote Control has yet to secure a DVD release. Indeed, without the DVD releases of Squirm and Blue Sunshine, which alerted his existence to the modern horror fan, Lieberman would probably not be remembered at all.
Lieberman was born in 1947 in Brooklyn, New York, but spent his formative years in Valley Stream, a predominantly white suburb over the border from Queens. “All the demented ideas formulated in Valley Stream” he has said. A nerdy Jewish kid, Lieberman was gifted at comedy and drawing, which helped him make friends. He thought for a while that he would become a cartoonist but was disabused of the notion in his first year at art school when he realised that some of the other students were better than him. For a while he was at a loss for a career, and then exposure to Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) turned him on to the possibilities of film.
Enrolling for a BFA in Film at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Lieberman came under the mentorship of veteran director Ernest Pintoff, who made Lieberman aware that he could write. They collaborated on the screenplay for Blade (1973), “a little detective picture” that Pintoff went on to direct. Lieberman cut his own directing teeth on two commercials and a documentary on abortion, before receiving an invitation to make an anti-drug film to be shown in American high schools, called The Ringer (1972).
Like other horror film directors of the era such as Romero and Craven, Lieberman’s political radicalism has informed his work from the start. “I am a baby boomer,” Lieberman has stated in an interview with Rue Morgue magazine. “I was in the drug culture of the 60s and I saw everything first hand. I was at Woodstock. I did acid. Marched against the war in Vietnam. Saw Easy Rider. I was immersed in all that in New York. I was at the right place at the right time, at the vanguard of all that stuff. However, I have an innate cynicism so I don’t ever really buy into anything.” It is therefore not surprising that Lieberman gravitated towards horror for the same reasons as Romero and Craven. “It’s naturally subversive and allows you to say and do things that you can’t do in other forms.” Belonging as he does then to the ‘subversive’ school of horror, Lieberman’s cynicism - comparable to Craven’s nihilism and Romero’s pessimism - can perhaps be seen most clearly in Blue Sunshine, which depicts the baby boomers ‘selling out’ to the consumerism of the 1970s. However, his first horror film, Squirm, about an infestation of flesh-eating worms in small-town Georgia, is a more traditional ‘creature feature’, albeit it one heavily influenced by the sci-fi films of the 1950s which left a major impression on Lieberman as a child. “As a kid, I thought I was shrinking”, he recalled of Jack Arnold’s classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), “because government was instilling this fear of radiation – you can’t imagine how they frightened my generation with this radiation”.
Lieberman’s films can be seen as variations on the 1950s sci-fi movie in their outward projection of fears instilled by governments. In his lecture at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies in 2011, Lieberman outlined his modus operandi, stating that the atomic age fears of the 1950s gave way to fears of the effects of LSD in the early 1970s and then later the effects of manmade pollution. Throughout the years he has continued to employ the basic story telling formulas of the early ‘radiation movies’, simply adapting them to the changing times.
Thus, the fear of ecological pollution underpins Squirm - be it in a functional way. In the film, an electricity pylon collapses and ‘electrifies’ a harvest of carnivorous bloodworms which go on to crawl amok through a backwoods Southern town, feasting on the various inhabitants. Lieberman wrote the script in a frenzied six weeks, after putting it off for two years due to family commitments. The days of Woodstock had ended prematurely for Lieberman - he fathered a child early and “had to be responsible”. Instead of writing screenplays, he found a job at Janus Films, the ‘pre-eminent distributor of foreign and classic films’ editing films in the archive for rent to children’s film festivals and CBS.
After Lieberman finally found the time to write Squirm, he sold the script immediately to producers Edgar Lansbury and Joseph Beruh, who, on the strength of the script, allowed him to direct. Lieberman considers Squirm to be his ‘on the job training’ in directing, and learned the make Squirm, as he said, “one shot at a time”. It became his crash course in the exigencies of low budget film-making.
Many reviewers rightly identify Squirm as character-led, that the worm ‘story’ is secondary to a portrait of small-town tensions. Reminiscent of the Melanie-Mitch plot in The Birds, events in Squirm are kicked off by the arrival of a stranger in Fly Creek who arouses the suspicion of the townies. Played by Don Scardino, Mick is a nerdish city-slicker, visiting his girlfriend Geri who lives on the outskirts. When bodies of worm victims are found, distrust falls – implausibly - on Mick. He and Geri are forced to investigate the killings themselves and then try to save the disbelieving townsfolk from the marauding polychaetes. Finally it the small-mindedness of the townsfolk, as much as the threat from the worms, which brings about the demise of the town.
With its Deep South setting and its broad Southern accents, there is more than a little ersatz-Tennessee Williams in Squirm. The repression within Geri’s family, characterised by her neurotic mother, and in the townsfolk generally, evokes the intensity of Williams, but also: the worms represent the eruption of that repression, which is brought to a head by Mick’s arrival. A crucial moment in the film concerns Roger, the ‘hick yokel’, who is secretly smitten by Geri and therefore resentful and jealous of Mick. After a scuffle on board a boat where he tries to kiss Geri, Roger falls into a box of bait worms which burrow into his face. Later, Roger is literally ‘consumed’ by the worms when they infest the house. In the same scene, Geri’s mother is shown to have been consumed also, with only the shell of her body left. Repressing the writing of Squirm for two years may well be one of the things that helped to give the film its queasy power: Squirm feels very much like an outpouring of the young director’s own stifled creativity.
Blue Sunshine (1977)
Fortunately, Lieberman did not have to wait as long to make his second film. Blue Sunshine (1977) takes its title from the fictitious strain of LSD which, in the film, turns its users into psychotic zombie killers a decade after it is taken. Further example of Lieberman’s ‘radiation cinema’, Blue Sunshine draws on the same government-instilled anti-drug hysteria of the early 1970s that prompted The Ringer. “The whole idea that LSD could cause chromosome damage, make people freak out and jump off roofs, came from the anti-drug government establishment”, Lieberman told Videoscope’s Rob Freese in 2006. “Just saying ‘what a load of crap’ is not entertaining. But trying to visualise what it would look like if these bozos were right was a kick”. Blue Sunshine is, according to Lieberman, a satire of that point of view, along with the send up of his entire generation who, in the 1970s, were right in the middle of the process of crossing over to ‘the other side’ – the ‘straight world’ of that ‘establishment’ they claimed to dread during the golden hippie times.
Like Squirm, Blue Sunshine includes elements of the detective story, as the protagonist, Jerry Zipkin, goes on the run after becoming the prime suspect in a series of murders. Investigating the crimes, Zipkin discovers that old college associate Ed Flemming, now a politician, is trying to cover up his past as a drug dealer who sold his friends the experimental ‘Blue Sunshine’. The film builds to a confrontation between Zipkin and Flemming’s henchman in a discotheque and shopping mall, symbolising the new age of rampant consumerism that the ‘baby-boomers’ - having compromised the ideals of the 1960s for their own gain – had helped to usher in.
Blue Sunshine was an immediate hit at Cannes. It was invited to the London Film Festival and Edinburgh Film Festival. However, it was poorly distributed in the States and quickly disappeared. Then, in the early 1980s, Blue Sunshine began to enjoy a growing cult following when the legendary New York nightclub CBGB featured it regularly as background footage on its screens. Lieberman attributes its subsequent popularity among the underground hardcore punk scene to the discotheque sequences which “shit over disco”.
Despite the growing cult status of Blue Sunshine, Lieberman had all but given up horror by the time he was offered the script that would become Just Before Dawn (1981). Even if this backwoods horror film does not quite live up to the promise of Squirm and Blue Sunshine, Lieberman brings his customary intelligence and genre savvy to the run-of-mill premise: campers in the woods are terrorised by a machete-wielding killer; only one of them survives, by drawing on her own animal instincts. Borrowing heavily from Deliverance (1972), Lieberman highlights the survivalist aspects of the story, emphasising the conversion to savagery of the heroine, Connie. “Women pushed to the brink will tap into their animal survival mode faster than men” Lieberman told Rob Freese “That was my focus, along with the sheer beauty and potential horror of Mother Nature.”
Whilst perhaps not his most interesting or original film, Just Before Dawn is Lieberman’s best executed. Showing greater film-making ‘chops’ than he did in Squirm and Blue Sunshine, Lieberman uses the Oregon locations masterfully to build suspense and create atmosphere.
Although some reviewers of the time appreciated the director’s skill and artistry, Just Before Dawn was doomed by its marketing as a ‘slasher’. Demoralised by the state of horror in the 1980s, Lieberman started to write in other genres, including science fiction and comedy. Eventually he would move to Los Angeles and write for the studios, including the screenplay for Neverending Story 3: Return to Fantasia (1994). By his own admission he made more money for scripts that didn’t get made than for the horror movies that did.
In 1988, he wrote and directed Remote Control, which he considers his worst film. This sci-fi thriller was another attempt to satirise contemporary fears in the style of the 50s ‘radiation movie’: namely, growing concerns about the phenomenon of home video and questions about its influence on children’s behaviour. In the film a videotape clerk stumbles upon an alien plot to brainwash people with a bad 1950s sci-fi movie and attempts to stop the tape from being distributed worldwide. Despite the obvious nod to the sci-fi movies of his youth, Lieberman has little affection for Remote Control. Although he was working with a relatively high budget ($3 million) the production was rushed and Lieberman didn’t feel in control of the film. Thematically, however, Remote Control invites comparisons with Videodrome (1983) and predates The Ring (1998).
Satan's Little Helper (2004)
In 2004, buoyed by a modest revival of interest thanks to the release on DVD of Squirm and Blue Sunshine, Lieberman returned briefly to the horror field with Satan’s Little Helper; a film which also marked a partial return to the social commentary of Blue Sunshine and another attempt at ‘radiation cinema’. “Satan’s Little Helper is an allegory of our times” according to Lieberman, “that the characters and violence in video games and movies are bombarding our youth constantly, and the line between fantasy and reality is blurred like never before.”
In the film a small boy obsessed by the video game, Satan’s Little Helper, encounters a serial killer dressed as Satan on Halloween. The boy enlists ‘Satan’ to kill his sister’s boyfriend (whom he is jealous of). The killer obliges and the boy thereafter becomes ‘Satan’s Little Helper’. Shot on HD for a low budget, Lieberman went back to grassroots for the film’s production and the result was his freshest work in years. Since then he has directed, for television, several episodes of the tongue-in-cheek murder series Love You To Death (2006-2007) but has produced as yet no further horror output. He does, however, have horror projects in development, including a television series entitled Scream School.
At 64, there is still time for a late flowering of Jeff Lieberman, as has happened with his contemporary, George A. Romero. Lieberman’s best films, like Romero’s, are fascinating social satires on the American malaise of the 1970s/1980s. In the current climate, dominated as it is by reactionary remakes and ‘torture porn’, we need film-makers like Lieberman who take a subversive approach.