Good in Parts


  • Bob Rickard and John Michell. The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena (2nd ed.) Rough Guides, 2007.
  • Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained, edited by Una McGovern. Chambers, 2007.
  • Mark Pilkington. Far Out: 101 Strange Tales from Science’s Outer Edge Disinformation Company, 2007.

In my review of the first edition of The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena written in Magonia 72, seven years ago, I wrote words to the effect that while it was a great testament to the “cult of librarianship” in Fortean studies, in that it collated together a vast collection of anecdotes for a huge variety of obscure sources and excellently illustrated, and preserved the Fortean spirit of connecting all sorts of themes together. Yet, based as it was on a couple of books originally written in the 1970s, it now appeared naive and old fashioned. There is little to add to a review of the second edition

There are new anecdotes and sixty or so more pages, yet there is very little that is substantially new, and what there is only adds to the period style, an introductory piece on teleportation, and a toe-curling piece of nonsense on crop-circles. The passage of a few more years just makes the whole thing even more 'So Seventies', a period piece from the age of psychedelic music and flares. There is still very little of the modern age of more critical forteanism. Sadly, co-author Michell is just the sort of anti-science, ‘anti-materialist’ crank whose attraction to these sorts of subjects was one of the reasons given by Fort himself as to why he didn’t want any kind of Fortean Society to be set up..

A much better idea of what modern Fortean thinking is like can be found in the Chambers Dictionary, which covers a much wider ground. This is a dictionary which is really good in some parts and really bad in others. The Fortean parts, which includes the bits on the contemporary paranormal, are the good bits, with contributions from Bob Rickard himself and Fortean Times regulars such as Karl Shuker, David Barrett, Jenny Randles, Gordon Rutter, Alan Murdie, Peter Lamont etc. There are dictionary style articles, lots of them, and some really good essay pieces on parapsychology, ghosts, Forteanism, Hoaxes etc. Some of the contributors plug there own agendas, but usually lightly, and most seem aware that an encyclopaedia needs to give various sides to the topics covered. In general these contributions give a clear idea of the central dilemma of all of these subjects, the presence of a mass of difficult-to-dismiss eye witness testimony and anecdote, and the absence of any actual hard physical evidence.

If this dictionary had confined itself to the realm of contemporary anomalistics, and had overcome its other major failing, the absence of a bibliography, I could have commended it wholeheartedly. Sadly it is let down with the sections dealing with folklore, occultism and ‘popular superstitions’, where the contributors really haven't a clue on how to write encyclopaedia articles, and repeatedly descend into the realms of weasel words of the “it is claimed that”, “it is said that”, “it is believed that”, variety, which gets increasingly grating.

For a cheap and cheerful popular introduction to Forteanism, Mark Pilkington’s survey of the fringes of science and pseudo-science is really good value. Pilkington’s book shows how on the fringes it is difficult to know where science ends and pseudoscience begins. Its 101 brief chapters also generally eschew pop favourites like ufology and cryptozoology for some of the lesser know fringes of experience and human invention. He is one of the genuinely Fortean writers, in that he does not seem to have any great emotional or ideological commitment towards dogmatic belief or scepticism, or some kind of reactionary opposition to science as such.   --  Peter Rogerson

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