Category Archives: Unexplained

Book Reviews: The Gambler, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, The Song of Eve, At The Drive-In Volcano

All right, so, on the downside, I haven’t updated my Goodreads 2012 reading challenge progress in a while (currently 26 out of the 52 goal by the way). On the plus side, though, my delay has given this review some range. For a couple of years now I’ve had the practice of rotating my reading between fiction, nonfiction and spiritual. I also am reading at least one poetry collection at any given time. Today’s review will have examples of all four!

The Gambler  (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1867, 100 pp.)
Some years ago, I was taking a writing workshop. When it became my turn to present excerpts of a novel I was working on that involved sexual and romantic addiction, one of the other participants commented that she almost stopped reading, because it seemed too prurient. But then she continued, and said it reminded her of The Gambler. That was both one of the most gratifying things I ever heard in a writing workshop, and the source of a mental footnote to check out Dostoyevsky’s- Really long short story? Rather short novel? Novella? -one day. And what a great day it has turned out to be! I always marvel at his ability to write from the point of view of a thoroughly un-admirable character and yet remain sympathetic and compelling. That is in fine display here, and in fact the whole piece seems to be devoid of any admirable characters at all. And yet the descent into obsession (and one could argue that a love addiction precedes any gambling addiction for him) of the young Russian tutor and the tangled fortunes of the Russian aristocrats he works for as they vacation at a German resort is so tenderly and accurately rendered that it works. Nobody presents the darkness of the human heart with as much love and forgiveness as Dostoyevsky. There is obsidian humor and twisted beauty throughout this small masterpiece, and I thoroughly recommend it.        

The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects  (Edward J. Ruppelt, 1956/1960, 260 pp.)
When I saw that I could download this classic of Ufology for a pittance on my Nook, I was very excited. Edward Ruppelt was the head of the Air Force’s UFO investigation, Project Blue Book, from 1951-1953. After leaving that post and retiring from the Air Force, he wrote a book reviewing his tenure. And it makes for very fine reading- I was particularly impressed by his fluid conversational style, it kind of makes we wish he’d written more before his untimely death from heart attack at age 37. Or, you know, lived more. Throughout the book he maintains a great balance between irresponsible credulity and knee-jerk skepticism, and in fact derides both. What one comes away with principally is three things. 1. Because of bureaucracy and miscommunication, the Air Force’s attitude toward the investigation, and the resources devoted toward it would often lurch in different directions. This produced a lot of the behavior that outside observers attributed to “cover-up”. 2. When the investigation was taken seriously and conducted thoroughly, a lot of seeming mysteries could be identified, but a significant portion of unidentifieds remained. 3. These undientifieds never produced the kind of “proof” that could definitively settle the question of what they were (you can sense his frustration with this intangibility growing throughout his tenure with Blue Book), but many unknowns had excellent, multiple witnesses, and were clearly things outside of any conventional explanation. This is where his original analysis in 1956 more or less ends up. The 1960 edition includes an additional three chapters that have always been controversial since they A) are much more skeptical and B) came out just before his death. Reading them here, I have to say, it is notable how they not only strike a totally different tone than his original ending, they actually put forward multiple statements directly contradicting positions he took earlier, with little explanation of the change in his thinking. I’d be curious to see the last three chapters put through some kind of word-choice/sentence structure analysis to see if the same person even wrote them. And on that note, I will leave you with the mystery!      

The Song of Eve: Mythology And Symbols of The Goddess  (Manuela Dunn-Mascetti, Simon & Schuster, 1990, 239 pp.)
As documented in earlier reviews, in the last few years I’ve become increasingly interested in exploring the feminine side of the divine.  So when I came across this book at a Friends of the Library used book sale in San Francisco a few years back, I eagerly snatched it up (especially eagerly at the price of $3!). Well worth it-the book itself is lushly beautiful, full of color illustrations drawn from classical and contemporary works of art. These are used to visually highlight the text, which utilizes the structure of Jungian archetypes and examples from throughout world mythology to explore aspects of the feminine, and relate them back to passages and stages in life. While I did feel a little gender excluded from the party at times since it is explicitly written to address women navigating the stages of a woman’s life, I found a lot that was moving and meaningful to anybody leading a human life. And one can hardly begrudge making women the focus here as a counter-point to a few millennia of male-dominated spiritual institutions. A beautiful book, inside and out.              

At The Drive-In Volcano  (Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Tupelo Press, 2007, 85 pp.)
As I said, I’m always reading at least one volume of poetry. Sometimes I have a pipeline built up, but in this case, I was without follow-up when my previous volume wound down. Browsing at a bookstore, I was drawn to this volume by the candy heart on the cover and the poetry of the poet’s name. It also had a plug on the back by Naomi Shihab Nye, who I’ve become a fan of lately. I was not misled- the 57 poems in this volume beguile with their mix of travelogue, journey through a personal past and present, and unashamed mixture of pop culture and more mythic sources into the trip. Aimee Nezhukumatathil has pulled off a mixture that I myself often aim for in my poetry. Which is not just inspiring, but also moving, and really darn pretty to read. 

And there we are! It seems unlikely to me that I’m going to hit 52 books, with only two months to go. But hey, I’m not giving up, and you always get further with an ambitious aim than with no aim at all…


Book Review: Paranormal State

Paranormal State  (Ryan Buell and Stefan Petrucha, A&E/It Books, 2010, 372 pp.)
I just finished reading the book pictured above, but I have not yet identified the apparition that appears in the photograph. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed it! As a fan of the show (and the whole 2000s paranormal research TV bumper-crop- Ghosthunters, Destination Truth, Fact or Faked, et al), I was already well-disposed going in. But being as the whole thing could have easily gone in a cheesy or sensationalistic direction, it was a special pleasure to find it both down to earth and balanced. It’s hard to know with a co-written work how much of Ryan’s voice actually comes through, but it certainly feels like the guy that you see on the show- shy, humble, and as interested in helping his clients as he is in exploring the unknown. It’s also nice to see his skepticism in play- being leery of psychics and mediums unless they bring compelling information, talking about the uncertainties of interpreting evidence from the equipment, and pushing himself and his clients to look for alternative explanations instead of just assuming everything that goes bump in the night is genuinely paranormal. It’s also nice to see that, while he’s very up-front about how his Catholic faith informs his interpretation of cases, he’s not at all doctrinaire about what’s behind the phenomenon he encounters, and discusses multiple possibilities of what “the unknown” might be. The book largely consists of the behind-the-scenes story of the series being accepted by A&E and the filming of the episodes from the first season. It’s definitely interesting to see how several days of preparation and 48 hours of investigation get turned in to a half hour episode, and all the complexities that get “smoothed out” in the storyline as aired. As a paranormal geek and a film-production geek, I really enjoyed that perspective. Along the way, there are some nice side articles on the history of paranormal investigation, topics in research (including psychological phenomenon that are often mistaken for being paranormal), and interviews with the team. My favorite parts, though, were the insights into who Ryan is and why he does what he does. If I have anything resembling a “criticism”, it’s that I’d like to have seen even more of that. As it is, if you’d like a book on the paranormal from a believer’s perspective that still makes room for skepticism, with a conversational tone and a great big heart, I’d recommend Paranormal State

Book Review: The Field Guide to Bigfoot and The Romminghouse Madrigals

Goals, I hear, help give life direction and purpose. And while I have to tone down my own relentless goal-orientation at times to rediscover the joy of just being, I do find goal-setting to be a useful tool.

One goal that I’ve taken up for this year is a self-challenge to read 52 books. I’m being fairly liberal in my definition of “book”, including comic trade paperbacks, for example. I’m also being fairly liberal in my definition of “read in this year”, including books I began in 2011 but am finishing in 2012. All appropriate disclaimers now aside, you can track my progress on my Goodreads profile, and so far I’m doing pretty well. With these two that I’ve just finished, I’m at 5 out of 52! And now, for the reviews…

The Field Guide to Bigfoot and Other Mystery Primates (Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe, Anomalist Books, 2006, 205 pp.)

I’ve had my eye on this book for a while, but after recently visiting the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine headed by the book’s author Loren Coleman, it became even more of a priority. I’m glad I got around to it, because it’s loads of fun. Originally written in 1999, and with two forwards now bringing it into the 2000s, the front section, in fine field guide fashion, aggregates worldwide reports of different kinds of mystery hominids to produce profiles (with track outlines and range maps) of nine “types” of possible undiscovered primate. This actually is very useful in that it clarifies how some dissimilar sightings that are lumped together as “Bigfoot” or “the Yeti” for example, may actually result from more than one species or variant. The bulk of the book then has two page descriptions of over 50 sightings, arranged by continent, one page being a full-page line drawing, and the other describing the details of the sighting, which subtype it corresponds to, and a general setting of related sightings, legends and fossil finds that resemble the case in question. The final section goes over the science of proving or disproving unknown primates, and makes some best guesses about which might soon be discovered. While one could certainly have a quibble or two (I, for example, would have liked range maps for the individual sightings, and was also left wondering why semi-legendary material about giants and mermaids was fair game, but equally widespread fairy lore was not) the book is fun and well-done. As with most books on the unexplained, it’s worth further research on what you read, as some things mentioned turn out to be less than meets the eye after further reading. The authors have generally been careful with their facts, though, and there are loads of things here that even an aficionado of cryptozoology like me had never heard of before.           

The Roominghouse Madrigals (Early Selected Poems 1946-1966) (Charles Bukowski, Black Sparrow Press, 1988, 256 pp.)

Speaking of goals for the year, one of mine is to finish putting together a collection of what I like to think is my best poetry from 2001-2010 and finding a publisher for it. As with many different kinds of writing and editing, one of the best things to do for inspiration is to read in the same genre, and I usually have a volume of poetry that I’m currently reading. Like this one that I just finished, which I LOVED. I’ve long been a fan of Bukowski, who is in the happy position of being an equally good poet, novelist and essayist. Interestingly, given the picture of him as a grizzled barfly, he’s like a classic 19th century man (or woman) of letters in that respect. And the fact that he focuses his powers on the gritty facts of urban life and the inner blight of wrestling with bitterness and failure makes it all the more glorious. This volume features his early poems, from before his success and wider fame of the late 60s/early 70s. Anybody who has ever spent time in the roominghouses of rough streets and/or their own soul will find things here that they recognize in their beauty, ugliness and honesty. And isn’t that what poetry, at it’s best, can do for us?    

I love packages from Amazon!

Even when, no, especially when, like this one, I already know what’s in them. Birthday and holiday gift cards are a beautiful thing, because they allow me to go on shopping sprees for things that have been piling up in the back of my mind for a while.

Sometimes, like in this case, I enjoy giving it my shopping expeditions a thematic spin. My purchases were:

The Big Book of Conspiracies I got the The Big Book of the Unexplained several years ago, I think in the excellent used comics section at Aardvark Books in the Castro in SF. Ever since then, I’ve been on the lookout for this volume on conspiracy theories from the same series. The basic format is a series of short articles on different topics, all written by the same person but illustrated by different comic artists for each section. The BBotU certainly alerted me to some aspects of the paranormal that I hadn’t known about previously, while also reacquainting me with some old friends. I’m looking forward to the same here. Despite the obviously tongue-in-cheek presentation in terms of form, the content is actually quite well cited. And there’s something about the juxtaposition that gets it further under the skin than reading or seeing something on TV alone would do. I’m also looking forward to the hours of joy in further researching online new things I run across in this book. I’ve found one can both do some instant debunking, and crawl further down the rabbit hole this way.

The Field Guide to Bigfoot and Other Mystery Primates This volume is co-authored by Loren Coleman, leading cryptozoologist and proprietor of the International Cryptozoology Museum that Abbey and I visited recently in Portland, Maine. It’s set up as a pretty straightforward field guide in some ways- illustrations, species descriptions, range maps, footprint outlines, etc. It just happens that the subject matter is a little more exotic and/or possibly nonexistent. Could come in handy, since I plan to doing a lot of tromping through the woods in these parts. Bonus question: Is the creature next to the book a mystery primate? I don’t know, but now that I have the field guide I can find out!

The Mysterious Monsters I am especially excited about this volume, as you can see. But hey, you’ve gotta understand! I got this book as a kid, around 10 years old, from a book fair at elementary school. The Mysterious Monsters in question are the Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, and the book was actually pretty low on sensationalism and strongly evidence-focused in its treatment of the subject. This was one of my first forays into the world of the unexplained which, obviously, has had a lifelong effect on me. The beloved volume vanished at some point, along with a lot of things that were in my childhood room, as things from one’s childhood room will tend to do. Over the years I’ve tried to track it down, but was hobbled by the fact that I couldn’t remember two key pieces of information: the title, or the author’s name. I did try googling based on my recollection of content many times, but to no avail. And then, a week or so ago, for whatever reason, I found a combination of search terms that led me straight to it. I’m looking forward to re-reading it, and seeing what I make of it now that I’m about 4x as old as the first time I read it. Talk about unexplained phenomenon!

Greetings from the International Cryptozoology Museum!

This past weekend Abbey and I went to the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine. Cryptozoology, for those who may not be hip to the field, is the study of (as yet) unknown animals. In other words, the Zoology of animals that are not yet documented by science, but some day may be. Here to the left, for instance, is the cabinet for Yeti artifacts. The museum is the brainchild of Loren Coleman, who founded it in 2003 to house some of the many objects he’s collected in decades of work in the field. In-between teaching public policy and being one of the world’s foremost experts on the copycat suicide phenomenon, he’s spent a lot of time on the trail of unknown animals, and authored over 20 books on the subject.

Coleman is widely regarded as a serious and careful researcher, which befits Cryptozoology, since, of all the paranormal disciplines, this is the one that is most like conventional science. While there certainly are cryptids (unknown creatures) that seem supernatural, and researchers that specialize in the more paranormal aspect of the field, most people who work in it would say that these are animals that live, breathe, eat and poop like any others, it’s just that science hasn’t gotten a proper hold of them yet. The museum itself keeps a good balance of appropriate seriousness and whimsy. Like the giant beaver diorama to the right featuring guest appearances by Indiana Jones and Steve Irwin. Delightfully cute and silly. And yet, there were 8 foot long beavers around in North America as recently as 10,000 years ago, so who’s to say that in some remote mountain lakes in Canada or the U.S. West, surprises may not linger?

Bigfoot, of course, as the marquee North American cryptid, gets proper treatment here.  Besides posing for a picture with Abbey and I…

…there were some quite interesting displays on the footprints, hair samples and other leavings of our possible native ape. I also really enjoyed the cabinet of artifacts related to the 1967 Patterson film,  which is either a thorough fake, or some of the best evidence. I’ve gone back and forth on that question myself, but I have to say that lately computer enhancements and  scientific studies of the gait and body proportions of whatever’s walking in the film have me leaning towards “best evidence”.

The museum itself definitely doesn’t ignore hoaxes or issues of fakery. There are several exhibits devoted to the subject, one of the creepiest of which has to be the recreation to the left here of the Feejee Mermaid. Said “mermaid” was a fixture of P.T. Barnum’s traveling show. While the original was lost in the 1860s, the consensus is that it was probably the dried hairless remains of the upper half of a monkey sewed together with the lower half of a fish. More recent hoaxes and misidentifications are covered as well.      

And speaking of recent, Maine is apparently getting its very own cryptid sightings right up to the present day. The color-coded pins in the map to the right display the locations of sightings of various cryptids. Some are more prosaic, like the ongoing sightings of big cats that indicate that the Eastern Cougar may not be quite as extinct as advertised. Then there are your star cryptids, like lake/sea monsters and Bigfoot, of which there are actually a significant number of New England sightings. Abbey and I observed a cluster of pins in Baxter State Park and have accordingly decided to vacation there. My favorite, though, is the Specter Moose. It was apparently a huge whitish-gray moose with antlers that spanned ten feet wide, and was seen a lot around the turn of the last century. I hope he (or she (or descendants)) is still out there!

So, to sum up, cryptozoology is fun, and so is the museum. On top of which, Loren Coleman is there in person most days, and how often do you get to meet a real cryptozoologist? Plus, Portland is a beautiful town, with ridiculously pretty harbor views. Go visit when you have a chance!


America’s Stonehenge

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself."
-Robert Frost, "Mending Wall"

Yesterday my lovely bride Abbey and I went to America’s Stonehenge, a possibly archeological site just outside of Salem, New Hampshire. (Salem, NH, by the way is an unnecessarily confusingly close 37 miles from Salem, MA. Manchester, NH and Manchester, MA, and Concord, NH and Concord, MA are in a similar vein. As are Burlington, MA and Burlington, VT, although those last two at least have the decency to be separated by 200 miles. But that’s not what we’re here today to discuss…)

A short trail through the woods…

…leads to the main site…

which contains a maze of stone walls and chambers…

…about which several theories have been floated.

Some claim it to be a Native American megalithic site, for which there’s some decent evidence. Charcoal pits, pottery and other artifacts found on site have been dated to between 2,000 and 100 BC. There’s even evidence of a a stone slab being quarried in situ nearby.

Some researchers have even lined up walls and standing stones on the site with astronomical alignments, as a map there explains:

This stone, for example, would have had the summer solstice rise directly above it circa 1,800 BC:

As always, there are a few wrinkles with this theory, such as the fact that, given enough stones or lines, some are always going to line up with something. When I visited the Nazca lines in Peru in 2009, museums and guides in the area noted that 20% of the lines could be lined up with astronomical occurences. 20% could be lined up with sources of water. 20% could be lined up with mountain peaks and other features of the landscape. In other words, there were so many of them that 20% could be lined up with almost anything you choose.

It’s also worth noting that many of these stones have been “set up” from presumed “fallen” locations, and that 20th century clearing of the trees has occurred to create openings in the skyline. I.e., it would be very difficult at this point to know what the exact arrangement of stones, or view of the sky from them, was when the site was originally inhabited.

Further muddying the waters, the site was the location of the farm of one Jonathan Pattee (and family) in the early 1800s. Historical records show he used stone structures there for storage (cellars etc.) and also rearranged and cleared a lot of stone off of the site. Signs there also made reference to more stone being carried of in the 19th century when the site was used for quarrying purposes.

In the 1930s, the site, already of interest to picnickers, occultists, and my dear friend H.P. Lovecraft, was purchased by William Goodwin, who “restored” many of the structures there. Some people seem to be of the opinion that Goodwin only did maintenance-type work, setting up obviously toppled stones, restoring rocks that had been scattered from walls, etc. Others have the suspicion that he extensively rearranged things to support his pet theory, that Irish monks had established a settlement in the area around 900 AD.

Barry Fell, a subsequent researcher, believed that the site may have been even older, and contained evidence of Phoenician occupation. There is a small museum on site, which includes petroglyphs said to resemble Old World languages including Phoenican and Celtic:

Whatever one makes of all these claims, somebody clearly built a lot of something there. My own personal feeling is that there was some kind of original megalithic site in the area. Subsequent occupants made such extensive changes, though, that it’s very difficult at this point to determine what was there, or how it was arranged. Whatever it was or is, though, it’s pretty damn neat!

My favorite was the Oracle Chamber, guarded below by the lovely Abbey, which really is kind of eerie inside, and features some advanced drainage and acoustics:

I’d kind of like to go back there for a ghost hunt sometime:

It should be noted that the current owners since the late 50s have been careful stewards, making restorations only according to historical photographs, and sponsoring archaeological research at the site. On top of which, they have an alpaca farm there, which firmly establishes them as awesome in my book:

The opening quote, by the way, besides being suitably stone wall and elf-themed, was inspired by the fact that Robert Frost wrote “Mending Wall”, and many other of his most well-known poems, at a family farm in Derry, New Hampshire, right next-door to Salem. If you should happen to be in Derry you might, as Abbey and I did, stop off at the super-yummy Windham Junction Country Kitchen:

Some might fine meatloaf there, let me tell you!

APOD, NDEs & the Omega Point

One of my favorite web sites is Astronomy Picture of the Day. I think the name is pretty much self-explanatory, but if it isn’t, take a look at the site and you’ll quickly get the picture. (Heh heh, I made a funny…)

Today’s post got me thinking in a meta-science vein. I say meta-science to place my ramblings in a field of thought that some might call pseudo-scientific, but I think of as being science that we just haven’t gotten around to yet. Rather like what Aristotle considered “metaphysics”, literally, “that which is beyond the physics” as it stood in his day. The clip in question is of what approaching the speed of light would look like in terms of its visual effects:

It occurred to me that what things looked like with all three effects (visual aberration, doppler and intensity) was remarkably similar to what people report in Near Death Experiences- seeing objects from a distorted, “floating above” perspective, shadowy indistinct figures and rushing toward a tunnel of light. This makes me wonder if those visual effects could have something to do with a speeding up of mental process that somehow approaches the speed of light.

If something like that was going on, it reminds me a little of Frank Tipler’s speculations about the Omega Point. In short, he saw consciousness eventually permeating the entire physical universe as the universe approached its “end” in a singularity, such that an infinite amount of thought processing could occur, and the subjective time experienced by this consciousness would be practically infinitely greater than the objective time of milliseconds it occupied. Could this be something like what human consciousness is doing in the instant before death, thus producing visual effects similar to what would be observed as one approaches the speed of light?

Don’t ask me precisely how, that’s for quantum physicists and neuroscientists to puzzle out, I’m just here to point the way. In all seriousness, I think (and history attests) that thought experiments and being open to flights of fancy is often the way that new perspectives emerge. It’s a noble pursuit. I just wish I had the nth dimensional math skills to take it further!


Bonus image! Also from Astronomy Picture of the Day, and having nothing to do with the above topic, but it sure is purty. A mosaic of the MESSENGER probe’s images of Mercury from its first “day” there, the Mercurian day being 176 days long: