12 May 2013


Roy Bainton. The Mammoth Book of Unexplained Phenomena. Constable and Robinson, 2013.

This is yet another of those monster books from Constable and Robinson that try to cover as much as possible, with the inevitable result that some parts are better than others. For me the best part of this book was the one dealing with sea mysteries, because it is clear that this is a topic that Bainton, a former merchant seaman with multiple family connections to the fishing industry, knows and cares about, and his comments here are always critical and to the point.
He provides an excellent summary of the Eilean Mor lighthouse mystery, exposing the myths generated by generations of writers from the poet W. W. Gibson to the American mysterymonger Vincent Gaddis. He also takes on the story of the Philadelphia Experiment and the mystery of the Ourang Medan, whose crew were said to have been found dead with a look of terror on their faces. It proved impossible to track down the ship, but Bainton wonders if its origins lay in the secret transport of nerve gas out of the ruins of Nazi Germany. Throughout this section he shows a willingness to concede where he has been taken in, in the past. He is also a poet, which shows in this little paragraph, which sums up the essence of the sea and its mysteries:

“Passengers on cruise liners, mistakenly thinking that they that they are spending their dollars on some luxurious floating hotel, will rarely stop to think between the changing shoreline scenery that below the thin steel hull keeping them afloat lies a deep, dark graveyard. Between this cemetery’s tragic, tombstone wrecks swim bizarre creatures; things with tentacles, singing whales, chattering dolphins, flying fish, creepy crabs and rapacious sharks, all part and parcel of a variety of earth’s biology whose fantastic limits are still unknown. Down there in the darkness the bones of men disintegrate, but the haunted sunken skeletons of their ships endure.” (pp.365-6)

There are some other really good portions; the critical examination of the activities of various mediums and psychics, especially those who go in for endless merchandising, and a lovely little piece on the cranky world of Cherie Blair; the legions of weird archaeology, and an excellent round up of panics and paranoia, covered with journalistic good sense.

There are some weaknesses; the section of cryptozoology is often reduced to half page features, that on Near Death Experiences relies far too much on Ms P M H Atwater (her “honorary doctorate” comes from something called Medicina Alternativa based in Sri Lanka, denounced as a diploma mill HERE.
The ufology section is rather superficial also, and I was surprised to see Bainton recommend the arch-credulous Tim Good (a guy who even now takes the tales told by George Adamski seriously) as a paragon of ufology. I suspect these problems are due to adding material on which he has not made much of a study to bulk out the work.

But the good outweighs the bad and much of this makes a good inexpensive introduction to Fortenea.
-- Peter Rogerson.

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