Encyclopaedias of Mystery

  • James R Lewis (ed.) UFOs and Popular Culture: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary Myth. ABC CLIO, 2000.
  • Jerome Clark. Extraordinary Encounters: An Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrials and Otherworldly Beings. ABC CLIO, 2000.
These two new encyclopaedias from ABC CLIO chronicle the impact of ufology and ideas of extraterrestrials on the popular imagination. ranging from the metaphysical subculture to B movies. Both books give extensive coverage to the contactee subculture and the channelling movement. Lewis's compilation organises its entries around the names of organisations and individuals, while Clark takes the names of the various entities as one of his main set of entries. There is however some fair degree of overlap, often giving interesting and differing perspectives.

For example Lewis and many of his co-contributors regard the contactees and their groups as examples of new religions, and products of the religious imagination, while Clark perhaps tends to see at least the well known popular contactees as essentially hoaxers, drawing a very sharp distinction between them and the abductees. Yet the contents of these two books as much as anything else show that the situation is very different. By no means all contactees sought fame and fortune, and Clark relates the interesting slory of Keith Macdonald a silent (or at least a non-commercial) contactee, who constructed a vast and elaborate cosmos centred around the world of 'Lands'. The story evokes those of 'Helene Smith' and 'Kirk Alore'.

These imaginary worlds and personalities appear to have some connection with Caraboo Syndrome. Clark suggests that Macdonald was somehow able to have waking access to hypnogogic and dreamlike states of high creativity. A similar suggestion was made by Peter McKeller in his study of authors such as Enid Blyton.

In his foreword to Lewis's compilation Eddie Bullard notes the stereotypical nature of abduction tales, and re-poses his old question of why they don't spread in many different directions and show greater elaboration. The same seems to be true of the contactee-channeller movement. As we go through the names of imaginary beings from imaginary worlds we see the same pseudoexotic names, which are often just variants on each other - AFFA, Ashtar, Anoah, Arthon, Orlhon, Ramu, Rama, Khauag, Korton, Mark and Meloria and on and on and on. The narratives and teachings derive from a very narrow subculture. Compared with this, the abduction narratives show more versatility. Other contributors suggest that the mass media nature of the reporting process leads to this flattening. However the main cause is that these are not unmediated stories, they are presented via and through 'investigators' who have been accused of manipulating and editing the stories to suit their own beliefs and conceptions.

Lewis and colleagues' approach to the UFO narratives and modern religious experiences and literature seems an interesting way forward. The narratives aim to make sense of a senseless world. These movements give meaning in particular to extraordinary personal experiences, and give them cultural shaping and expression. As our society tends to either pathologise or paranormalise such experiences, it is not surprising that so often they are given a paranormal explanation.

In his introduction to the Lewis compilation Eddie Bullard shows the folkloric roots of much UFO lore, and argues that whatever the `real' UFOs are - misperceptions or genuinely novel phenomena - they are "lost behind the UFOs of belief, to be glimpsed only in distorted versions. No-one can hope to study UFOs without recognising the role of human beliefs and concerns in UFO lore". Which is what we in Magonia have been saying for years. Bullard also makes the point that the UFO myth, the beliefs that UFO reports have generated, seeks to answer the big questions of the world and to restore a human dimension.

Jerry Clark makes a similar point; that if their is a signal behind the noise, it is very faint indeed. More likely the other-world is a 'world of dreams', fine to receive visits from, to dip into, but not one to try and live in. "If extraordinary encounters are occurring only with otherwise hidden sides of our selves they are still - or surely all the more so - worth having." We in Magonia couldn't agree more.

Both the Encyclopaedias maintain generally very high standards (the only serious exception being a couple of pieces by one Kay Holzinger in the Lewis compilation), my temptation would be to look the Lewis for broad vision and the Clark for better factual accuracy. There can be the odd grumble: some of the film entries in the Lewis are rather banal comments on banal films, and why no reference to Village of the Damned with its missing time, the freezing of whole communities, the hybrid children with hive minds: all themes that would occur in the much later abduction literature.

The absence of reference to Betty Andreasson in either work is a bit puzzling, and Clark's entry on Spring Heeled Jack omits Mike Dash's authoritative treatment and still includes the fictitious story from the Everton district of Liverpool. These are however very small quibbles with what are two excellent works. well above the pop encyclopedia level. The only trouble with such a high standard is that it comes with a high price, one which may deter many buyers Can one hope for more affordable paperback editions?  -- Peter Rogerson

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