2 June 2011


Ulrich Magin. Investigating the Impossible: Sea Serpents in the Air, Volcanoes that Aren't and Other Out of Place Mysteries. Anomalist Books, 2011

Ulrich Magin is a Fortean writer very much in the Magonia mould as his introduction to this collection of essays shows, where he contrasts the various approaches to reports of anomalous experiences. The skeptical one simply says that the witnesses are lying, or drunk, or crazy or just mistaken, or there is a 'rational' explanation and that is that, end of the matter.
The second approach is perhaps what we might call the mysterian approach: it is all literally true, the Loch Ness Monster is a surviving plesiosaur or some such, UFOs are space ships from other planets, apparitions are spirits of the dead and so forth. Everything is taken at face value, and writers of this persuasion usually just present a list of mysteries where the only response is to say "gee whizz". A somewhat more sophisticated version attributes everything to some all pervading mysterious force or entity (The Control System or The Phenomenon) which seems to be a secular version of either God or a trickster devil.

Magin argues for a third way, one which acknowledges that most anomalous experiences are indeed based on experience, but experiences moulded and fashioned by culture and expectation, both by the experiencers themselves and subsequent reporters. Fortean phenomena are essentially cultural phenomena, though grounded in empirical events.

This collection of essays illustrates this approach. The first looks at how ufologists have interpreted a woodcut (illustrating a pamphlet) depicting an aerial battle which allegedly took place over Nuremberg in 1561 as a UFO event. He shows how this print updates traditional motifs of aerial battles to include the then modern devices of cannons and cannon balls, which ufologists have then proceeded to interpret as a cigar-shaped mothership emitting disc-shaped UFOs. He also makes the important point that early works like this are not interested in what we would call reportage, they are theological works aiming to make theological points.

Magin shows that this was also the case in the famous story of the 'Mowing Devil', so beloved of crop circle enthusiasts. A second version of the story significantly appeared in a pamphlet which also featured a story of a young woman possessed by the devil. I have no doubt that the same applies to the oft-repeated story of the phantom re-enactment of the Battle of Edgehill. The whole point of that pamphlet is God's wrath at the terrible sin of civil war, such that the dead must keep on fighting, presumably in hell.

In more secular times, more political anxieties take the place of religious ones. He notes the existence of a number of phantom airship reports among Germany's neighbours from 1892, as they increasingly feared Prussian militarism. There were none such in Germany itself. But in 1959, with Federal Germany feeling itself in a much weaker position, a phantom battle of the modern kind was reported at Cuxhaven on the Saxony North Sea Coast, an aerial bombardment, which local authorities feared was part of a secret Nato exercise they had not been told about. Magin suspects that this was just misperceived cloud and spray, though I wonder if it is possible that it might be due to the activities of a local Hermann Orbeth Rocket Society which conducted experiments in this area in the 1950s and 1960s according to Wickipedia.

The transient nature of most Fortean phenomena means that it is always open for true believers to insist that the stories might indeed be true, but this can hardly be the case with out-of-place volcanoes, the subject of another set of essays. Here volcanoes were reported where there are none, and their is absolute geological evidence that they were never there, at least in historic times. As Magin notes, volcanoes can't just up and leave without a trace like UFOs! While some of these may be based on other natural phenomena such as rock slides or gas fires, these are interpreted (and in some cases nothing much is interpreted) in terms of volcanoes.

Other phenonomolgical topics include much of a cryptozoolgical nature, from the role of Alex Campbell in literally creating the Loch Ness Monster out of nothing - as Magin points out, there was no prior tradition of monsters in the Loch, a point many locals made pointedly in the press at the time - to alleged monsters in the Rio Genil and Lago Maggiore, and a mothman at Lake Garda.

As an example of the role of culture and expectation in Fortenea he examines the rival perceptions of 'sea monsters' off the Spanish coast in Spanish and British accounts. The Spanish accounts contain none of the specific features found in the British accounts, they have not been encultured to the popular perception of the long necked sea serpent. As a bit of light relief there are the tales told by Mr Spencer/Spicer of the SS St. Andrew, who by his own account managed to find time between the occasions that wild animals ran amok on the ship on which he was mate, to see a group of meteorites crash into the ocean and to see the sea serpent. No doubt between these adventures he was abducted by aliens and forced to mate with a mermaid, who in return gave him a map proving the US was discovered by the lamas from Atlantis.

Something that Magin constantly emphasises is the need to go back to original sources, and critically analyse them in terms of their cultural context, and not, as is so often the case, just repeat stories from one secondary source to another, often not citing the source at all. This is of course especially true of reports from distant parts of history.

Magin's historical pieces, on tales of petrified ships, ghost roads in old Germany and the history of sacred landscapes are perhaps rather more removed from Magonia's own interests, but they demonstrate his huge range of scholarship, which puts most Forteans (yours truly among them) to shame.

The only downside to this book, is that it is a collection of previously published essays, several of which have appeared in Anomalist or Fortean Times, of which a fair proportion of the potential audience of this book are likely to be readers. I hope then that it is taster for much more from Magin. -- Peter Rogerson

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