Still Sane After All These Years

Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman. The Unidentified and Creatures of the Outer Edge, the Early Works of Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman, Anomalist Books, 2006 -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

These books were among the seminal classics of the so-called new ufology, long out of print; they are known to fetch some very nice prices on the secondhand book market. It was rumoured that Clark in particular was eager to buy up all remaining copies to expunge all evidence of their so-called ‘youthful folly’. Now here they are presenting the books again under one cover.

How well have these books stood up to thirty years, and are they as bad as the authors sometimes made out? The answer is generally reasonably well, and not really. Of course there are some toe-curling passages in The Unidentified in particular: the half-support for the reality of the Cottingley Fairies for example, or the claim that an abductee teleported himself from one end of Brazil to another using his telekinetic powers. These passages point to one difference between now and the early 1970s. Then parapsychology was a much more respectable discipline than it is now. The Parapsychological Association had been invited to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1969 with the backing of the then iconic anthropologist Margaret Mead. Respected scientific figures were involved with the subject, and some surprising figures were taken in by what today look like the crude magic tricks of Uri Geller.

There is, of course, the rather mechanical and very literalistic version of Jungianism. Already Jung was becoming a marginal figure, but his demolition at the hands of Richard Noll and others was still years away.

However, as a collection of American folklore these joint volumes still hold their own, their argument that many different kinds of anomalies are different cultural glosses on the same essential experiences still holds good, and they show how the same themes crop up in fairy lore, religious miracles, and modern-day paranormal and UFO stories. Their strictures against the literalist interpretations of both nuts-and-bolts ufologists and paws-and-pelts cryptozoologists still hold good. The combined volume still shows how complex these subjects can be.

They also provide for today’s audience a fascinating picture of what ufology looked like in its essential pre-Roswell and pre-alien abduction days. True, a couple of alien abduction stories are mentioned, but they bear little resemblance to the narratives produced by Hopkins and Jacobs. Of course the 1970s Clark and Coleman would have had no problem in assimilating these new narratives to their vision; think what a Jungian could have made of Betty Andreasson for example. The Unidentified also contained one of the first mentions of George Ritchie’s seminal near death experience. NDEs were a field which could come just as The Unidentified was being published, but were to contain many of the same themes. Similarly we can see in Creatures of the Outer Edge just how unlikely it is that many of these cryptozoological experiences are occasioned by encounters with actual paws-and-pelts animals. Time again demonstrates how true that was; for example we have even more accounts of urban bigfeet, even of them shambling down English motorways. Then there was the reappearance of angels.

Curiously, however, as time went on, both authors began to support the very traditional views they had once excoriated. Perhaps as their faith in the paranormal began to recede, they were forced to a starker choice – either consider the possibility that these anomalies were in some way the products of the human imagination, artefacts of the processes by which human beings perceive, remember and narrate the world, or that they were much more tangible anomalies. So Clark began to assert that the ‘truth’ lay in ‘multiwitness physical trace reports’, while Coleman went on to argue for the paws-and-pelts reality of a whole range of curious animals. The physical evidence never came along, however, no genuine alien hardware, no cryptozoological remains. Endorsing a variety of claims every bit as dubious as the Cottingley Fairies, such as Roswell, the Linda Napolitano/Cortile abduction and the Gimlin/Patterson film proved to be diversions which got nowhere.

Two themes fuelled this, both having their roots in traditional Christianity. One was the doctrine of eyewitness inerrancy. For Clark in particular the world became divided sharply into the realm of unproblematic, accurate recalls of actual historical events and works of complete fiction. Any suggestion that a particular UFO or Fortean story was anything other than a 100 per cent accurate recall of an actual historic event became anathema; to suggest otherwise was to personally insult the witness. On the other hand, those stories which failed to meet the canon, such as tales told by contactees, became ‘nothing but’ made up, and therefore valueless stories. Only unproblematic historical facts had value.

Beyond this, however, was another motivation from the Christian tradition. Clark recalls that in his boyhood “I heard first- and second-hand accounts of angelic visitations…as a deeply religious and impressionable little boy awaiting the imminent Second Coming, I took the stories literally and saw them as proof of God’s intimate concern with the affairs of us mortals.” These collections of what theologians call ‘evidences’, were important parts of the Christian tradition; tales of ghosts, witches, sudden deaths and miraculous survivals, of strange sights, sounds and portents, were collected as proof of God’s ‘miraculous providences’. Fortean stories function very much in that way, as evidences of a transmundane realm breaking into the world of daylight, reason and common sense. The Christian sociologist Peter Berger called these intimations of a transmundane world ‘rumours of angels’. ‘Anomalies’ become just such ‘rumours of angels’, even though the ‘angels’ might masquerade as things as mundane as smelly hairy bipeds, curious machines and falls of periwinkles.

To deny the historical accuracy and inerrancy of such rumours of angels is therefore to deny the existence of the sacred transmundane realm. As a number of UFO UpDates exchanges indicate, for Clark neither wild nature nor the human imagination are worthy objects of awe. Again this comes from the puritan tradition which asserts equally the worthless and fallen nature of both the natural world (the almost literally God-forsaken howling wilderness) and the perverse human imagination. The rumours of angels must come from outside, from a realm of the non-human.

Perhaps the most haunting theme of The Unidentified (which also had echoes in Creatures of the Outer Edge) is the idea of the return of the repressed. In the early 1970s the idea of the triumph of the secular held its highest sway. The future was in the secular city, replete with tower blocks, monorails and day trips to the Moon. Clark and Coleman argue that this secular city has expunged the idea of the sacred, but that which was repressed will return with a vengeance. Please note that this was written years before the Iranian revolution, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the American religious right, the killing fields of Kampuchea, Bosnia and Rwanda. In this vision ‘the collective unconscious’ becomes a metaphor for untameable wild nature itself. By the end of Creatures of the Outer Edge this has become a vision of ecological collapse and the revenge of Gaia. Any tour of bookshelves today will show that such themes are predominant; killer asteroids, vengeful super-volcanoes and global warming.

What of the folklore which fills these books? What these stories almost certainly are not are unvarnished 100 per cent accurate accounts of actual historical events, nor carefully crafted fictions. They inhabit grey zones between reality and the imagination, between dreaming and waking, between truth and fiction, which are probably never ever really separate. They are myths which hint at the irreducible ‘others’ of a world which is never going to be summed up in a neat little formula which can be printed on a tee-shirt. They hint that our perceptions of the world can be subversive, that things are not always what they seem. They are stories which tell us far more about ourselves than any inhabitant of Zeta Reticulae, uncatalogued denizen of the forest, or shape-shifting boggart.

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