Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Reader feedback - why "Fortean Zoology"? Well, are there any, then? And a premonition

I've already had some questions from readers.

1) Why "Fortean Zoology"?
Fair enough, the bit at the back of Pygmy Elephants on its publishers, the Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ), doesn't explain this in much detail.

The CFZ chose "Fortean Zoology" because its founders (Jon Downes in particular) came to conclusion that some - a minority - of the mystery animals that people are reporting couldn't possibly be flesh and blood animals. Jon coined the term "Zooform Phenomena" to describe some of the phantom animals, manimals (half-man, half animal) that witnesses describe, that according to our current understanding of evolutionary biology couldn't exist. The Mothman and Owlman that allegedly caused alarm in New Jersey and Cornwall respectively could not have been real animals, at least as we understand them. Many have argued that the fossil record precludes the possibility of great apes in America such as Bigfoot, and that it would have to be some kind of phantom rather than a flesh-and-blood hominid. While "Alien" Big Cats reported in the UK appear to act like real animals - they leave scat and hairs, and react to people and their dogs, for example - the Black Dogs or "Black Shucks" reported down the ages and until modern times seem to be otherwordly - they transform, change size and shape, disappear and so on.

What are these Zooform Phenomena? Thought projections? A product of the unconscious? Something very exotic to do with quantum entanglement or particle physics hitherto unexplained? Mass hysteria or something else in the "pyscho-social realm"? Particular mental states or environments triggering hallucinations? We don't know. Impossible though these phenomena are, they are none the less being reported by witnesses. Hence "Fortean Zoology."

"Fortean", now in the Oxford English dictionary, is defined as "of, relating to, or denoting paranormal phenomena". It comes from American writer and philosopher Charles Hoy Fort (1874-1932) who spent way too much time in the New York Public Library, and then the British Library, cataloging strange phenomena, mostly from newspaper reports. Falls of frogs and fishes, spontaneous human combustion, poltergeist phenomena and the like were among his favourite topics. Fort coined the phrase "teleportation". He was particularly keen on "damned data," data suppressed or ignored for being embarrassing to the scientific orthodoxy of the day. He also mentioned some mystery animals, such as the "Florida monster" - a decayed carcass washed up on the seashore, possibly a giant octopus of some sort, but more likely a very badly decomposed whale.

Fort compiled all this into some extraordinary books The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo! and Wild Talents. The opening section of the first chapter of Pygmy Elephants, "Elephantine Oddities", references Fort and attempts to imitate his playful and very dense (often dizzying dense) writing style.

Just to be clear, if there are any pygmy elephants, they are (or were) all real physical flesh-and-blood animals - with the possible exception of the esemasas pygmy elephant reported in Equatorial Guinea, said to transform into a human when threatened and to be an "incarnation of the devil".

2) Well, are there any pygmy elephants or aren't there, then?
A question by someone who bought the book and had started reading it. You'll have to buy the book, and read to the end. How are authors supposed to make a living if you all expect me to give away the plot. If you absolutely can't be arsed to read to the end, go straight to page 265 (having bought the book) and start reading the final chapter, "Conclusions, so what?"

And a premonition
One colleague to whom I emailed an invite to the Wood Green book launch party then told me when we next met that they'd had a dream about my book signing (which at the time of writing hasn't yet happened), with me with a pile of books "sitting signing books in the corner." A fortean phenomenon, no less!

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