21 January 2013


Jerome Clark. Unexplained! Strange Sightings, Incredible Experiences and Puzzling Physical Phenomena. Visible Ink, 2013 (Third edition)

This is the third and much updated edition of Jerry Clark’s round-up of a variety of Fortean topics. This time he has ditched such well covered topics as UFOs and the Pacific Bigfoot to concentrate on a variety of lesser known anomalies, ranging from a variety of cryptozoological mysteries including sea serpents, lake monsters, hairy hominids in very improbable places, almas, living dinosaurs etc., through to spooky things like phantom black dogs, flying humanoids, encounters with MIB, and strange events such as unusual ‘meteors’, green fireballs, moving coffins, anomalous clouds and so on.
There is also a section on false mysteries, including the Cottingley Fairies, the various disappearances of people walking through fields, the Bermuda triangle, hollow earth and the mysterious untraceable ‘Thunderbird’ photograph, which various people nevertheless claim to have seen.

The great feature of this book is Clark’s unearthing of mounds of nineteenth and early twentieth century newspaper clippings covering a wide range of alleged phenomena and experiences. He clearly excels at this kind of archival research, even though he once condemned it as “the cult of librarianship”. Indeed I think that essentially Jerry’s forté, of a piece with his interest in folk and roots music, is that of a folklorist. I can’t help feeling that in an alternative life in which he had not become bogged down in the office politics of ufology, Clark could have had a great time touring the back roads of America collecting stories and songs from all sorts of almost lost communities!

A theme that runs through the book is that the experiences related here in many (indeed perhaps most) cases cannot really be events and phenomena which occur in the collective world of physics and geography. Equally they cannot be just wished away as errors of perception or memory as sceptics would have it. They are things which only have existence in their perception. Perhaps the main problem here is that there is no acceptable vocabulary to describe such experiences - hallucination still contains the stigma of the pathological, vision has a rather saccharine religious connotation and apparition evokes notions of ghosts and the paranormal. Perhaps the best we can do is ‘anomalous personal experiences’ or ‘virtual experiences’.

It is perhaps here that there is a lacuna in the book, in that Clark does not touch ghosts or other paranormal experiences, but clearly the mechanism behind much ghost experience might well be the same as that behind encounters with hairy hominids, aliens, merfolk and the like. I would tend to think that all of these experiences are telling us something interesting about human perception, and how much of it is constructed by the brain. Clark would probably disagree.

At times he becomes impatient with scientists for not studying some of these claims seriously, but unless there is public evidence that scientists could examine it is not clear what they could do, other than avoid making silly impromptu explanations. For all Clark’s calls for open mindedness and tolerance of ambiguity, I rather suspect that if scientists came up constantly with the reply “ I wasn’t there and in the witness’s head, so I could not possibly comment”, he would not be entirely happy.

He recounts two of his own personal experiences, though not the notorious encounter with ‘The Lady’ in 1968. One is genuinely puzzling, his encounter with, if not a phantom black dog, then something very like it on his porch. On one occasion his wife also saw it. Can virtual experiences be infectious by suggestion or some other process? The second concerns his looking for some CDs and finding them in an unexpected drawer with no recollection of having put them there. It happens to all of us, it's called 'getting on a bit! The number of very odd places I have found my spectacle-case for example, but Clark seems to be seriously suggesting that the alternatives are something paranormal or that a joker had broken into his house and moved his things.

Though aimed as an introduction to Fortean phenomena, this contains lots of material which will be new to even the seasoned Fortean. 
  • Peter Rogerson.

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