15 September 2010


Jerome Clark. Hidden Realms, Lost Civilizations, and Beings from Other Worlds. Visible Ink, 2010.

In compiling his various encyclopaedias Jerome Clark must have read more UFO and UFO-related books and magazines, and other general weirdness, than anyone on Earth, with the possible exception of Hilary Evans. This latest book is further evidence of that achievement.

Clark has scoured obscure books, forgotten magazines, hidden newspaper reports, to produce an encyclopaedic survey of fringe beliefs about the place of mankind in the universe, and his alleged interactions with other beings and civilisations.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, 'Earth's Secret Places' looks at those hidden races and civilizations that are supposed to share the planet with us. This topic has taken on a bizarre new lease of life recently, with the proposition being put forward by one or two ufologists that an undiscovered advanced technological race is the source of 'structured craft' UFOs. A persistent theme in these stories links them to the legend of Atlantis. When Atlantis was destroyed, their proponents claims, surviving remnant escaped to various hidden parts of the globe to re-form their civilization.

One location which recurs in these stories is Mt Shasta in the US North West. Shasta rose to fame in the writings of Fredrick Spencer Oliver, in his book A Dweller on Two Planets. This was written in 1886 and first published privately by Oliver's mother in 1905. It tells how a gold prospector finds a secret civilization hidden in the depths of the mountain, who reveal to him his previous life in Atlantis.

The legend of Mt Shasta seems to have guided American occultist thought for decades, involving characters such as the founder of the AMORC Rosicrucians and originator of the 'Lemuria' legend Lewis Spence, and Guy Ballard, founder of the I AM sect. The Shasta legend later developed into a complex of claims and beliefs involving hidden cities, lost races and underground saucer bases. It was obviously a considerable influence on the 'Shaver Mystery' and more recent claims of hidden technological civilizations, which Clark develops further in chapters on Shaver and the 'holes in the poles' claims. Many of these stories appeared in Ray Palmer's Fate magazine, which is looked at in some detail.

The second division of the book examines claims of life on, and contact with, all the planets of the solar system. Some of this, such as Adamski's claims, will be well know to most readers, but claims made for the other seven planets by writers claiming physical or psychic voyages will be less familiar. What is perhaps most surprising about this section is just how widespread belief in extra-terrestrial life was amongst the 'respectable' scientific community, and how early such ideas developed -- and how late they persisted.

It is clear that there is a distinction between what one might consider scientific speculation, and the wilder claims of contactees, spiritualists and psychics who have claimed to be in communication with inhabitants of the solar system, but in some cases perhaps not quite a wide a gap as either side might wish!

It is when we get to the third section of the book, 'Between Our World and the Next' that I detect an agenda beginning to creep in to Clark's analysis. The four chapters here deal with what Clark describes as "experience anomalies" - those creatures and worlds that exist not in the pages of books or songs and legends, but are actually seen and described by living people. In the past Jerome Clark has criticised some of the writers associated with Magonia of indulging in 'literary criticism' -- looking at the structure and narrative of UFO reports, rather than dealing with them as actual experiences. I, and other Magonian writers, have rejected this criticism, and agree with writers such as David Hufford that many of these stories are reports of actually experienced events - although this does not, in itself, mean that they cannot also be discussed in terms of structure and narrative.

The four categories of 'experience anomalies' that Clark discusses are: elves and fairies, spectral armies, flying serpents and mystery airships.

I will leave aside the chapter on flying serpents, as this is a phenomenon completely new to me, and I do not feel informed enough to comment. The author has summarised the contents of the chapter as an article in a recent edition of Fortean Times.

The chapter on elves and fairyland raised rather more questions. Clark gives a good summary of the accounts of encounters with the world of 'faery' in historical times and amongst indigenous populations. He also finds some remarkable contemporary or near-contemporary stories. I was amused to see that one report came from a town called Canby, but this Canby was in Oregon, and not the one in Minnesota that many of us are fascinated by. It's worth quoting this at length:
"... an April 1950 report from Canby Oregon, where a woman named Ellen Jonerson, working on her lawn, happened to glance over to her neighbor's [sic] yard. There, to her considerable surprise, she spotted a tiny male figure, perhaps a foot tall, with his back to her. The figure was of stocky build, clothed in overalls and a plain shirt, with a skullcap on his head. Moments later, when he turned around, Jonerson saw that his face was heavily tanned. She dashed inside to call a friend, then ran out to see the figure walking away with a waddling motion toward a parked car. He vanished underneath it. This story is sometimes cited in the UFO literature"
The last, almost throwaway, sentence is important as it seems to confirm that Clark sees some sort of distinction between entities encountered within the context of the UFO phenomena and the more traditional 'faery' creatures. Further on in this chapter he criticises Jacques Vallée's contention that "the modern global belief in flying saucers and their occupants is identical to an earlier belief in the fairy-faith"

Clark claims: "It is true that on infrequent occasions fairy-encounter claims do call close encounters of the third kind - at least in a very broad sense - to mind." Here one must take issue with the word 'infrequent', because as it has been shown time after time (not least in the pages of Magonia) that there is a close and very frequent overlap between UFO encounters and other 'experience anomalies', and very little, other than date and location, that distinguishes them.

The distinction between 'actually experience' and 'literary criticism' becomes even more problematical in the next chapter, which discusses the phenomenon of 'phantom armies'. Reports of aerial clashes between spectral armies are surprisingly common in chronicles and early histories, as well as in the pamphlets and 'Books of Wonders' which were published in considerable numbers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

These accounts must be read in their historical and cultural context, which is often difficult for modern commentators. Most of the English 'spectral armies' are reported from the time of the Civil War and are usually coded political commentary. This would be understood by contemporary readers, but is often misinterpreted as an objective record by later writers. An example is the fall of strange hailstones during the English Civil War, noted by Paul Devereux and John Harney, and discussed as part of the Earth Light debate: http://magonia.haaan.com/2010/the-earth-lights-controversy-john-harney-responds/.

It is probably significant that many of the later, nineteenth-century tales that Clark recounts here come from a similar period of deadly fratricide, the American Civil War. Although these accounts sometimes seem to involve two or more witnesses, in nearly all cases the descriptions are given on the word of one person, or even anonymously through newspaper accounts which are impossible to verify. It is clear that some of them are seen in a visionary and quasi-religious context which suggests that they are intended for a particular audience, who will understand the imagery rather more easily than we can at this remove.

I find Clark's statement "That people believed they had seen these things is beyond dispute" impossible to accept. He seems to base this claim solely on the fact that 'phantom army' stories "continued well past the Middle Ages and into at least the nineteenth century", otherwise, he asserts "there would be little reason not to view them with suspicion". I think here he is falling into the fallacy that the more the witnesses are 'people like us', the more value we should give to their accounts, and of course nineteenth century Americans are much more 'like us' than twelfth-century ecclesiastical chroniclers or seventeenth century revolutionaries.

The final chapter deals with mystery airship reports, largely from the 1897 American wave. He has done some excellent research into a series of airship sightings and landings in Texas with careful examination of local papers and town records to track down the alleged witnesses and confirm their reality and reliability. This chapter is a model of historical research, but it is here that Clark's agenda becomes most overt.

One witness of an airship in the town of Beaumont, Texas, was the Rabbi Levy. He certainly seems to be the sort of witness any UFO investigator would give their eye-teeth for: well-known and respected in his community, his good character and his work in religious and charitable fields well documented. The New York Times reports "The New Orleans Picayune has been interviewing Rabbi A. Levy of Beaumont, Texas, and quotes his as declaring, with all the solemnity a ministerial position and unimpeachable character will give, that he has himself seen the sky boat close at hand and has conversed with its passengers". Clark adds, "Levy would have been a mature 49 years old at the time.

Now, is this account in any way different from the dozens - hundreds - of accounts we have had from 'reliable witnesses', 'trained observers', 'pillars of the community' and all the other fine, upstanding folk who have told us of their observations, close encounters and contacts with flying saucers and their denizens? I can't see that it is, and so conclude that the airship wave was a mass phenomenon, mediated through newspapers, rumour and gossip, and driven by 'virtual experiences' and 'radical misperceptions'. The only other interpretation of stories such as that of Rabbi Levy, is that one or more actual undocumented airships were travelling around the USA at the time. (A theory which, having read this chapter, I might be a bit less willing to dismiss than previously - but only a bit!)

And, of course all this applies to UFOs as well. But Clark will not accept this, despite the evidence he himself has uncovered. For Clark, the airships are an internal experience, real enough to the percipient, but having no external, 'objectively existing' reality, whereas UFOs are 'structured craft'. Indeed, in the very last sentence of this book, Clark makes the distinction clear, in a remarkable sentence: "it is likely, in other words that if mystery airships are not poorly described UFOs, they are something almost infinitely stranger".

Consider for a moment that phrase "poorly described UFOs". This can only mean that Clark believes there is something called 'a UFO' - not a meteorological phenomenon, not a radical misperception, not a mirage or an astronomical object, not a piece of space debris, not a hallucination or an 'experience anomaly' - not even an extra-terrestrial craft! It's just a 'UFO'.

Despite my doubts about the subtext in parts of this book, it is a fascinating compilation. Dense with information, but easily readable, everybody will find something new and intriguing in its pages, and there are enough references and bibliographical details to assist further research on any specific topic. It is an essential component of every Fortean's book collection. -- John Rimmer.

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