Sunday, December 30, 2007

BOOK: Larry Kusche, "The Bermuda Triangle Mystery - Solved" (cont.)

Lawrence David Kusche: The Bermuda Triangle Mystery — Solved. London: New English Library, 1975. 252 pp.

[Continued from last week.]

Bill Verity, a solo sailor, is sometimes reported as having disappeared in the Triangle near Puerto Rico. However, it turns out that he was merely blown off course by a hurricane, and turned up a few weeks later in San Salvador. Kusche even spoke to him by phone (p. 212). Similarly, the cabin cruiser Jillie Bean ‘disappeared’ in 1970, was sought for three days, not found — and then it sailed into port, the three crewmembers “were in no trouble and had no idea they were being sought” (p. 214). In short, anything unusual that happens in the area of the Triangle is quickly blamed by some authors on the supposed paranormal phenomena inside it (p. 230).

There's an chapter on the sinking of the tanker V. A. Fogg in 1972. It turns out that the tale was much embellished in the telling, but in this case the events were recent enough that Kusche was able to find out the truth directly from the people who were involved in the discovery of the ship (p. 225). Another interesting example is the sinking of the twin ships Norse Variant and Anita in 1973. They would have been perfect Triangle material if it hadn't been for the inconvenient fact that one of the crewmen of the Norse Variant survived and explained what happened (“a 40- by 40-foot hatch cover had been ripped off by the storm” and the ship sank in five minutes); p. 226.

There's also an interesting chapter on the Marine Sulphur Queen. Although the disappearance has not been definitely explained, there certainly seems to be no shortage of possibilities of explosion and structural failure (pp. 177–83).

The 63-foot fishing boat Sno' Boy sunk in unexplained circumstances in 1963. However, the event becomes a little less mysterious when we learn that on board the ship there were 55 people (the ship was intended for seven), not to mention 19 tons of ice :))) (p. 185).

Airplane-related cases

Pro-Triangle accounts of airplane disappearances often emphasize the fact that no debris has been found. But in several of these cases it turns out that the search started relatively late, because it took a while before the plane was missed at all; besides searching cannot be done at night, which sometimes causes yet more delay. Sometimes pilots of small planes neglect to file flight plans (where they would have to state the expected time of arrival, and a search would then be started as soon as the plane became overdue). And in the case of the passenger plane Star Ariel, flying from Bermuda to Kingston, the pilot told the Bermuda air traffic controller very early in the flight that he would be communicating with the Kingston air traffic controller from then on; Bermuda said OK, but Kingston never heard from him (p. 148). The problem is that Kingston didn't expect to hear from him until much later in the flight anyway, so that it was hours before anybody noticed that Star Ariel wasn't radioing its hourly position reports as it was supposed to. Even when the search eventually started, nobody had any clear idea of where along its course to look for the plane. Other cases of planes where the search started late were a Martin Marlin in 1956 (p. 165) and a KB-60 in 1962 (p. 172); however, in neither of these two cases was it possible to determine what exactly happened to the planes, so that in a way it wouldn't be fair to say that these two cases are “solved”. Something similar can be said of several small planes that disappeared in January 1967 (p. 199).

The chapter on Flight 19 is wonderfully detailed. In Kusche's view the whole event is rather mundane; a number of little things went wrong, all of which combined to result in the accident as we know it (p. 118). “Taylor [the leader of the group] had transferred to Fort Lauderdale not long before the flight” and wasn't yet quite familiar with the area; he couldn't decide whether he was west or east of Florida; “as a result he changed direction a number of times” (p. 115); he also stubbornly refused to change his radio frequency to 3000 kHz, although this would considerably improve the chances of successful communication with the ground stations (pp. 108, 115); the weather was also deteriorating throughout the afternoon (pp. 105, 116). “The dilemma was not that the men couldn't tell in which direction they were going, but rather that they couldn't decide which direction was the proper one to take.” (P. 116.) At some point the ground stations were able to compute the approximate position of Flight 19, but weren't able to report it to the pilots; first there was a delay because of a broken teletype machine, then the planes were no longer responding to messages from the ground (apparently they couldn't hear them, even though the ground stations could still hear the conversations between the planes); p. 110.

Regarding the Martin Mariner that disappeared as it went to search for Flight 19, Kusche points out that “Mariners were nicknamed ‘flying gas tanks’ because of the fumes that were often present, and a crewman sneaking a cigarette, or a spark from any source, could have caused the explosion.” (Pp. 116–7.) In the transcripts of the conversations quoted by Kusche, there isn't any sign of the statements commonly attributed to the Flight 19 pilots by the pro-Triangle authors (along the lines of “We don't know which way is west. Everything is wrong . . . strange . . . we can't be sure of any direction. Even the ocean doesn't look as it should!”, p. 99).


There's an extremely interesting chapter on the “Devil's sea” — an area near Japan with supposedly similar characteristics as the Bermuda Triangle. Kusche found that all mentions of the story in the West trace back to a handful of New York Times articles from 1952–55. He then made extensive enquiries in Japan and little by little found a mundane enough explanation for the whole thing. One ship was sunk by underwater volcanic activity (p. 233); several other ships were small fishing vessels and, as was common in those poverty-stricken years soon after the war, they were in poor condition and tended to lack radio equipment, so that disappearances all around Japan were nothing unusual (p. 234). The term ‘Devil's sea’ is almost unknown in Japan and seems to be a local appellation for a certain area of the sea (location and size not very clear); pp. 235, 237. “The story is based on nothing more than the loss of a few fishing boats twenty years ago in a 750-mile stretch of ocean over a period of five years. The tale has been reported so many times that it has come to be accepted as fact.” (P. 239.)

Finally there's a chapter about Ivan Sanderson's “Vile Vortex” theory, i.e. the idea that there are twelve “anomalic regions” around the world, one being the Bermuda Triangle, another the Devil's Sea, the others located around the world so as to form the vertices of an icosahedron. Kusche's debunking of this ridiculous bullshit is truly a delight to read (p. 242). “The writings that tell of the Vile Vortices show that the researchers first ‘suspected’ where the areas were and that evidence of any kind of ‘incident’ had ever occurred in the area was proof that it was ‘anomalous’. [. . .] All the parts, assumed or ‘proven’, were then joined to form the corners of equilateral triangles, and the creators marveled at the ‘orderliness of Nature’. ” (P. 242.)


All in all, this was a very, very interesting book. It was great to see how many of the events commonly mentioned in the Triangle lore actually have fairly probable everyday explanations. It was also amusing to see some examples of how the peddlers of the paranormal often treat the reports of anything even remotely unusual within the Triangle, inflating and embellishing and obscuring the stories beyond all reasonable bounds. And, finally, it was also very interesting to see that some few events nevertheless remain mysterious and quite unexplained. This, of course, does not mean that there must be any paranormal phenomenon at work behind them; it does, however, mean that these are the cases that are the most deserving of our attention and curiosity. So for me perhaps the greatest value of a book such as this one is that it helps you separate the really unexplained events from the ones that are only presented as such by the unscrupulous (or naive) promotors of the Triangle.


  • Rupert Gould: The Stargazer Talks (1944). Mentioned here on pp. 52–3 (“Gould was a skeptical and dilligent researcher who made authentic attempts to solve the mysteries that he encountered”).

  • Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall: The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst. Mentioned on p. 208. Crowhurst was participating in a sailing race but his boat, the Teignmouth Electron, was eventually found abandoned. It turned out that he had been cheating during the race and, realizing that this would certainly be discovered, he ended up committing suicide.

  • Gian Quasar's criticism of Kusche's book: link 1, link 2. Quasar later wrote his own pro-Triangle book, Into the Bermuda Triangle, where he peddles paranormal theories no less shamelessly than Berlitz, but at the same time he seems to have made honest and very thorough efforts at collecting archive material related to the various Triangle incidents, so I am inclined to think that there is some merit in his criticism of Kusche (although he is perhaps sometimes too hard on him).

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

BOOK: Larry Kusche, "The Bermuda Triangle Mystery - Solved"

Lawrence David Kusche: The Bermuda Triangle Mystery — Solved. London: New English Library, 1975. 252 pp.


Among the better-known books about the Bermuda Triangle, this is (as far as I know) the only skeptical one. Kusche's main message is that most of the incidents that are often described by pro-Triangle authors as mysterious and unexplained (and presumably in need of a paranormal explanation) turn out to be not quite so mysterious if you look at the known facts closely enough. The pro-Triangle authors, according to Kusche, often overlook (or perhaps wilfully ignore) facts that would make the events less mysterious, and they often copy their stories from one another (possibly also embellishing them in the process) rather than doing their own research from their original sources.

This book is divided into a number of short chapters, each of which discusses one particular Triangle-related incident. Kusche first describes each event as it has been presented in the pro-Triangle literature; then he shows extensive excerpts from original reports of the event: sometimes newspaper articles, sometimes reports of official bodies such as the navy or the coast guard. (I was especially impressed by the huge amount of effort that he clearly must have spent in searching through old newspapers — sometimes he was rewarded with some interesting facts, but sometimes he sadly has to conclude that after searching through half a year's run of a certain newspaper he couldn't find any reports of this or that missing ship.) Anyway, based on such reports and newspaper articles, he is often able to conclude that the event has been substantially misrepresented by the pro-Triangle authors and that it is not quite so mysterious as they have made it appear to be.

I enjoyed this book a lot; it's a very pleasant antidote to the typical pro-Triangle authors, who tend to have much less patience for studying (and citing!) original sources. However, it still seems to me that the title of the book is a bit of an exaggeration. He doesn't really provide a solution for all the accidents described here. For some he is simply content to show that the event cannot have possibly occurred anywhere in or near the Bermuda Triangle. This shows that some pro-Triangle author was clearly very sloppy to have discussed it, but the accident itself may remain relatively poorly explained (e.g. the Freya, which was found abandoned on the Pacific coast of Mexico, pp. 56–7). Likewise, he mentions the case of a British transport plane, which disappeared in 1953 and is sometimes associated with the Triangle; the event actually happened 900 miles north of the Triangle, and although the exact cause is unknown, it is known that weather was bad and it may have been a perfectly ordinary accident (p. 155).

Unexplained events

For some events he wasn't able to find any good explanation whatsoever. For example, the chapter on the Mary Celeste concludes that “today the fate of the occupants of the Mary Celeste is still as much a mystery as the day the ship was found deserted at sea” (p. 44). It's true that at least he presented a good thorough overview of such facts as are available, and thus the chapter about the Mary Celeste was still quite interesting and well worth reading; but nevertheless this particular event remains an unsolved mystery.

Likewise he says on p. 59: “The fate of Joshua Slocum and the Spray is truly a mystery of the sea.” But he at least mentions some reports that neither Slocum nor his ship were in as good a shape as on some previous voyages; solo sailing is a risky sport, and he may have finally had an accident the likes of which he had been successfully avoiding all the time until then.

On pp. 76 he says: “The story of the Carroll A. Deering is unique in maritime history, and it can truly be said that the more that is learned about it, the more mysterious it becomes.”

“The disappearance of the Star Tiger thwarts all explanation as each of the suggested solutions seems too unlikely to have occurred. It is truly a modern mystery of the air. [. . .] In any case, whatever happened to the Star Tiger will forever remain a mystery.” (P. 132.)

Another case that remains a mystery is the disappearance of a Super Constellation plane belonging to the U.S. Navy, with 42 people on board, in 1954. Kusche includes two newspaper articles, but neither he nor the Navy seems to have formed any concrete idea as to what exactly happened to the plane (p. 158). The disappearance of a C-119 plane in 1965 is likewise unexplained (p. 193).

Kusche mentions the yacht Connemara IV., found abandoned in 1954, but doesn't provide any explanation what exactly happened to its crew. However, he says that a hurricane passed through the area.

The nuclear submarine Scorpion disappeared in 1968; it was later found, but the cause of its sinking was not ascertained. Kusche mentions two other disappeared submarines on p. 206. But admittedly these are hardly Triangle-type incidents; there's no reason to assume that anything else than accidents are involved here.

The disappearance of a the 338-foot freighter El Caribe in 1971 does not seem to have been adequately explained either.

There are also some cases, especially older ones, where he wasn't able to find first-hand reports about an accident, usually because the mentions of that accident in the pro-Triangle books are so brief and don't contain enough details. See e.g. pp. 54 (the Lotta, the Viego and the Miramon), 83 (the Stavenger), 216 (the Elizabeth — this one is fairly recent, in 1971). The disappearance of a Piper Apache airplane over Nassau in 1962 seems to have been invented out of whole cloth, as Kusche found when he wrote the director of civil aviation at Nassau Airport (p. 173).

Criticism of pro-Triangle authors

An interesting example of how the pro-Triangle authors copy from one another is the story of a drifter found by another ship, the Ellen Austin. Kusche found that all mentions of this event can be traced back to a 1944 book, The Stargazer Talks by Rupert Gould (p. 52). Kusche wasn't able to found any earlier information about the ship, and Gould doesn't report where he got his information either. So this event remains a mystery, but at least the reader can have a better perspective of the current state of our knowledge about it.

In several cases it turns out that the weather was worse than one would imagine after reading about those cases in the pro-Triangle books. See e.g. pp. 80 (the Cotopaxi), 81 (the Suduffco), 135 (the disappearance of Al Snider), 154 (the Sandra), 169 (the Revonoc), 201 (the Witchcraft).

Some interesting ship-related cases

The chapter on the Cyclops is very interesting. Kusche proposes a possible mundane explanation for the ship's fate: there exist reports of a heavy storm near Norfolk, the Cyclops' destination, just around the time when the ship would have been nearing that port. This might very well explain the ship's disappearance (pp. 66–7). Regarding its sister ships, the Proteus and Nereus, which disappeared in 1941, the most likely explanation seems to be that they were sunk by German submarines (p. 95).

There's an interesting if very short section on the Japanese ship, Raifuku Maru, which is often said to have sent a very weird request for help by radio, something along the lines of “It's like a dagger! Come quick!” (P. 77.) Kusche cites a more sober report: the ship was battered and sunk by a heavy storm; its mayday message turns out to have been “Now very danger. Come quick.”; the ship that heard the message reached the Raifuku Maru before the latter had sunk completely; however, it wasn't possible to rescue any of its crew. At any rate there doesn't seem to be much of a mystery left in this story. See also this page for more details. Incidentally, even if the “dagger” version of the text is real, it isn't necessary to resort to any paranormal explanations for it — it may be simply an error in translation. If serious Japanese companies after sober reflection come up with the stuff that you see on, surely we can excuse a distressed and overwhelmed radio operator on board a sinking ship for producing a slightly garbled message.

There's an interesting chapter about La Dahama, which was supposedly found drifting and crewless by another ship (the Aztec), towed into port, whereupon the finders learned that several days earlier, yet another ship (the Rex) saw La Dahama sink and had even rescued its crew. Well, the newspaper reports found by Kusche explain this mystery in a much more mundane way: “The passengers on the Rex did not watch the yacht sink, they left it in a ‘sinking condition’ in a calm sea. The captain said the boat would not float more than two days, but the water was so still that it lasted at least five days, when it was discovered by the Aztec.” (Pp. 88–9.) But I wish that La Dahama's captain had left a note somewhere in his cabin, before transferring to the Rex; just a couple of lines saying “we're all moving to the Rex, bound for such and such a port” — surely he had enough time for that, and then there would never have been any mystery about it at all.

[To be continued in a few days.]

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

BOOK: J. W. Spencer, "No Earthly Explanation"

John Wallace Spencer: No Earthly Explanation. New York: Bantam Books, 1975. (First ed.: Phillips Publishing Co., 1974.) x + 179 pp.


A few weeks ago I read Spencer's Limbo of the Lost, a book about the disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle (see my post about it). I thought it was a fairly good book, as far as pro-Triangle books go; Spencer wrote quite soberly, always emphasized the facts and didn't waste much time on discussing silly paranormal theories (unlike e.g. Berlitz in his Bermuda Triangle).

However, Spencer also left no doubt of the fact that he believed that the incidents in the Bermuda Triangle are connected to UFOs. His main idea was that aliens must be regarding humankind as a kind of subject of a scientific study, one that they want to observe but otherwise leave it unaffected. This is why they make no clear and official contact with governments, but on the other hand they do occassionally kidnap a few people and a ship or an airplane for their research purposes.

Of course all of this is perfectly bizarre, but in Limbo of the Lost Spencer mentions it just briefly and very matter-of-factly, as if this was a perfectly reasonable thing to say. Anyway, I saw that he later wrote another book, No Earthly Explanation, in which he discusses these UFO theories of his at greater length. After the good experience with Limbo of the Lost, I didn't hesitate to give this other book a try as well.

Unfortunately, I was greatly disappointed. I was looking forward to seeing what sort of yarn he would spin to justify his claims about UFOs and the alien activity, but in this book I found nothing of the kind. It's little more than a mixture of dogma, unsubstantiated claims and irrelevant scientific facts.

One of the strengths of Limbo of the Lost was its emphasis on facts and details about the incidents in the Bermuda Triangle; I was hoping that here he would present notable UFO-related incidents in a similar way, but in fact only the first chapter (pp. 1–38) focuses on these things. And even here I found that the bare relation of facts was just barely enough to keep me interested.

Touched by His Noodly Appendage...

Things take a turn for the worse in the next chapter, where Spencer turns out to be a staunch creationist. He bluntly rejects the theory of evolution in just a few sentences (pp. 40–1), using the sort of half-baked ‘arguments’ that were undoubtedly already laughed at during Darwin's lifetime, let alone now. He describes his position as ‘divine evolution’: “through special creation each species or organism was originally created independently by God. Through the process of evolution, at a specific, proper moment in time, every basic life-form was specially created.” (P. 40.)

“The entire theory [of evolution] is composed mainly of gaps loosely woven by broken sequences. Most scientists are aware [i.e. Spencer is implying that most scientists disagree with the theory of evolution!] that new species of life and nearly all new categories suddenly appear without any lead-up by known gradual evolution.” (P. 40.) “Changes to certain life forms do occur but they never produce new structures such as feathers or horns. Mutations like color, length, and shape have been noted but extra legs, wings, or other structural changes have never been observed. To the best of my knowledge, not one scientist has come forward with fish eggs about to hatch into amphibians; a reptile growing even one feather; an ape or monkey that gave birth to a primitive-type man.” (Pp. 40–1.)

Really, this is so silly, so unsophisticated; I don't really care much for the creationism-vs-evolution debates, but I don't doubt that these things have progressed considerably since e.g. Darwin's time. A kind of evolution works in the sphere of ideas too, after all; under the pressure of the defenders of evolutionary theory, the creationists have been obliged to resort to ever more intricate and subtle (though undoubtedly still just as wrong as ever) arguments. But anyway, what I'm trying to stress is that in Spencer's book there is none of that sophistication; his creationism is just creationism 101, and I do not see how it can hold any interest whatsoever for a present-day reader. But this is not the main reason why this part of the book disappointed me; if I wanted to read good evolution-vs-creationism debates, I would pick up some other book anyway, or maybe I should have gone and read the newsgroup; the big disappointment for me here was the fact that Spencer was a creationist at all. In Limbo of the Lost, as well as in many parts of No Earthly Explanation, he gives the impression of being a reasonable, science-minded person, but here in this chapter he writes like a dogmatic with a downright medievally closed mind.

Hilarity ensues

Unlike some creationists, however, Spencer is not of the ‘young Earth’ type. He agrees that the Earth is approx. five billion years old, and includes a perfectly decent section about “dating techniques” (in geology, not in romance :); pp. 46–47) and an overview of the geological history of the Earth (pp. 48–54, interspersed with passages from the Genesis, selected and arranged so that they seem to agree with the findings of geological science) and the evolution of hominids (pp. 55–60). These last two things contain a few real gems, such as: “Some people believe an absurd story about birds evolving from reptiles, that the earliest type of primitive birds were really flying dinosaurs which throughout the centuries developed feathers./ The major flaw in that theory is that following the appearance of the first birds, the next forty-five million years in the bird's evolutionary process are lost.” (P. 52.)

And: “The highest order of life to develop so far in the animal kingdom is a different tpye of mamal, ‘primates’ that live in trees. Prior to this creature all mammals gave birth to their young through an egg-laying process. Primates are born alive through a structure called the ‘placenta’ and are cared for by the mother until the offspring are strong and wise enough to take care of themselves.” (Pp. 53–4.) In the immortal words of a famous webcomic artist: dear sweet mother of god, noooooo! *headdesk* *headdesk* *headdesk*

He cites two anthropologists who say that they have no idea where the Cro-Magnon man came from, and merrily concludes that “with the foregoing factual information provided it is quite obvious that man, alone and unaided, could not have undergone such a transformation, that is, to jump the evolutionary span from late Homo erectus and Neanderthal man to Homo sapiens sapiens. Therefore, the only logical explanation is that beings from some other advanced civilization outside of this world, who had much earlier evolved into Homo sapiens sapiens, came to this planet with the sole intent to assist Earth man in compressing the evolutionary scale by millions of years, probably through interbreeding.” (P. 59.)

Oh, yeah. The super-advanced aliens popped into their saucers and travelled billions of miles just to help us lonely benighted earthlings get it on in some hot interplanetary man-on-alien action. Yup. Quite obvious. It doesn't get much more logical as that. “Honey, this is not what it looks like — this lady in my bed is an alien who's come all the way from Planet X495Z27, and we were just compressing the evolutionary scale — why are you getting so worked up over a little thing like that?”

(P.S. Diagonal copulation comes to mind... :])

Yet another ancient astronaut theory

In chapter 3 he suggests that the aliens also influenced the next big step in the progress of humankind, namely the rise of the first civilizations (p. 62). He describes the early history of Sumerian, Egyptian, Indian and Chinese civilizations, and falls into the familiar trap of claiming that the Egyptian civilization mysteriously sprung into life fully-formed and advanced (p. 64). How little has changed since the days of Donnelly! Except that he blamed it on Atlantis, and Spencer blames it on the aliens.

Another fine example of the rigorous style of argumentation that is such a strong point of this book: “How could the ancient Chinese discover and develop a medical procedure as complex as Acupuncture without the benefit of a higher education and the research facilities of a medical university. The answer is — they could not; but we know they did... but how?” (P. 70.)

And, on the Indus valley civilization: “They communicated by writing as indicated by a small amount of written material that was found. The strange part is that twentieth century scholars are still unable to decipher their writings.” (P. 70.) Holy fucking shit! How much more obtuse can he pretend to be? He admitted in the previous sentence that the amount of material is small; besides, we know next to nothing about the language, and the closest probably related language that we do know is a distant cousin 2500 years later than the Indus valley culture. It would be strange if the Indus valley writing had been deciphered; that it hasn't been is normal. See the interesting book Lost Languages for more about the decipherment of ancient writing systems.

And the grand finale on p. 71: “Twentieth-century scholars continually uncover evidence that certain people of pre-historic times were taught a high degree of scientific information. This is the only way it could have happened because the people of the day were not capable of the kind of accurate examining and separating of ideas that educated men and women of today possess./ The instructors may have been an inter-stellar team of scientists whose assignment was to provide the necessary information so that civilization on Earth would get underway. The evidence that such information suddenly existed is very impressive and the aliens had to have exercised prehistoric man's intellectual powers beyond his natural abilities.”

It is hard to resist picturing an alien babe from planet X495Z27, curling up with Spencer's book to get a sense of how far humankind has progressed intellectually since the days when they helped us skip a few steps on the evolutionary ladder. On seeing the quality of his arguments, she would probably slap her forehead and think “I slept with Zog the caveman 10000 years ago for *this*?”

Chapter 3 ends with a table of the world's most populous countries, some projections of future population (assuming 2% growth per year: 6,4 billion in 2000, 12 billion in 2073 — IIRC it was a very popular topic in the 1970s), and some Spengleresque remarks about the rise and fall of civilizations.

To bolster his claims that aliens have been involved with humankind since ancient times, Spencer describes some of the usual ancient sites for which it is often claimed that they cannot have been built by ‘primitive’ people: Stonehenge, the Easter Island, Tiahuanaco (p. 78: “High on a plateau, 30,000 feet above sea level in the Andes mountains of Bolivia” — ROFLMAO!!!!), Silbury Hill.

And on p. 75: “The evidence is very strong that Earth has been visited over many centuries by at least one, technically superior civilization. Engraved marks on bones, designs found in caves, paintings and prehistoric space junk tell us part of the story.” I cannot help being impressed by this casual reference to prehistoric space junk, as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world :)

He claims that in a few instances, bones of anatomically modern people have been found in layers more than two million years old. “A logical theory expressed by many scientists is that the remains could be those of extraterrestrial scientific observers, some in family groups, who were stationed on Earth millions of years ago.” (P. 83.) You really can't make this shit up. However, I personally prefer the theory that they were really all just a bunch of hobbits who reached southeast Africa on the run from the witch-king of Angmar...

The Bermuda Triangle

Chapter 5 connects his UFO theories to the Bermuda Triangle, saying that the alien scientists are “sampling” people and their equipment (ships, airplanes) on an occassional basis. Well, at least he took the trouble to explicitly reject the other commonly suggested Bermuda Triangle ‘explanations’ (Cayce-style radiation from the sunken Atlantis; magnetic aberrations; space-time warps; giant waves; giant squid; etc.).

On pp. 98–9 there's an interesting description of a possible UFO sighting by Thor Heyerdahl's Ra II expedition (a bright light on the horizon, acting unusually). I read Heyerdahl's book The Ra Expeditions quite some time ago, and I don't remember whether this sighting is mentioned there or not.

Space Exploration

Much of the second half of the book (chapters 6 through 8) contains information about the universe (especially the Solar system) and about space exploration. In stark contrast to the creationist and UFO bullshit I've mentioned above, these things are quite sober and reality-based. (There are still a few weird passages here; he's quite sure that faster-than-light travel will eventually become possible, p. 114; and he promises to prove that “life on Earth is part of a tremendous universal plan and not just simply the result of a rare disease that attacked only Earth”, p. 127; as far as I can tell, he doesn't prove anything of the sort. On p. 144 he talks of a quasar “some 10-trillion light years away”, but surely if the universe is 13 billion years old, nothing can be more than 26 billion light-years away from us...)

I'm not exactly a space-exploration buff, but these chapters were nevertheless not uninteresting to read. Spencer talks about the various space missions that have been done until then (the Pioneer 10, for example, had just recently passed by Jupiter), and even discusses some of the plans for the near future; for example, the Space Shuttle was just on the drawing boards at the time when he was writing his book (p. 164). It's always interesting to see how people in the past saw the future, especially those parts of the future that have already happened by now. “Man is expected to land on the surface of Mars by 1980. However, a trip of this kind is based on the development of a reusable Space Shuttle [. . .] Between 1980 and 1990 NASA is planning over seven hundred test flights with the Orbiter.” (P. 165. Alas! as we know, the Shuttle program didn't go quite so well as it was originally planned...) Anyway, much of this part of the book is a perfectly decent example of popular-science writing about space exploration, and Spencer doesn't even plug his UFO-related theories all the time.

His sections about the Solar system are also in the same vein; the only exception perhaps is that he devotes an unusual amount of attention to discussions about whether this or that planet or satellite could support life or not. In some instances he seems unreasonably optimistic about the possibilities of life, but I'm not sure if this is because of his pro-UFO bias or because of the fact that much less was known about those planets in 1974 (when he was writing that book) than known now. See esp. p. 131 on Mars.

Still, although these chapters about the Solar system and space exploration are interesting, it isn't particularly clear whether they say anything in support of his idea that technologically advanced aliens are visiting Earth and kidnapping people and their machinery. These latter things he simply asserts (as we saw earlier) and pretends as if there was no need to prove them or even provide some additional arguments in their favour. This was really a disappointment; it's as if he was satisfied with just preaching to the already-converted, and as if he was hoping that, as long as he simply brazens it out, people won't be bothered by the lack of arguments supporting his views.

There's a crazy paragraph on p. 150: “Most all creatures on Earth, with the exception of certain insects, aquatic, amphibian, and microscopic life, are basically the same with respect to anatomy.” [Excellent, he just discarded like 90% of all species in one fell swoop, pretending that it's nothing :))] “To prove my point, allow me to select a cross section from the animal world. On one end of the spectrum take the elephant and giraffe and on the other, man and a Mexican Hairless dog.” [Great, now he implicitly discarded birds and reptiles, and even within the mammalian order he didn't exactly kill himself trying to get a maximally diverse sample...] “With the obvious exceptions all four creatures are basically the same; one head, two eyes, [etc., etc.]” [Hardly surprising after he limited himself to mammals.] “Despite the fact that the various species of earth life evolved independent of each other, the similarity apparently holds true and yet there is no logical scientific earthly explanation.” [Ah, no *earthly* explanation. Uncle Darwin must have been an alien! And Spencer gets bonus points for blithely ignoring the fact that the species he listed very much did *not* evolve independent of each other...] “There is no evidence or logical reason to believe that the inhabitants of any other planet would not resemble earth life. The only difference would be their position in the scientific and technological evolutionary scale.”

Now, don't get me wrong — I think that exobiology is a perfectly worthwhile pursuit, although it belongs perhaps more to speculation than to science; but anyway, to go about it in such a ham-fisted way is simply ridiculous. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if alien life forms did indeed resemble those on the Earth in some ways. The eye, for example, is something that has evolved on Earth several times independently, so it's clearly a very useful thing that could very well evolve elsewhere as well. I'm guessing that a nerve system would be another good candidate.


The book doesn't have any very clear conclusion. The UFO sightings continue, space exploration will also continue, and Spencer clearly hopes that, after all his hand-waving throughout the book, he has managed to get the reader to somehow believe that these two things have got something to do with one another and that the book has managed to prove some sort of point. (But it hasn't.)

What to say at the end? I'm fairly new to the UFO genre, so I can't really judge how this book compares to others in the same genre, but I very much hope that the others are better rather than worse :) Regardless of whether you are a UFO believer or, like me, just read these things for entertainment (and as an alternative kind of science fiction), I can't really recommend you to read this book, except if you don't mind the risk of being disappointed, just like I was.


  • We see that Spencer's theory in this book is a close relative of the ancient astronaut theory. I intend to eventually read a few books by the grand master of the AAT, von Däniken — I hope that they aren't quite as bad as this one. I know, I know — you can't prove a mistaken theory; but at least you could try to put up a decent fight...
  • Spencer mentions Ralph and Judy Blum's book Beyond Earth — Man's Contact with UFOs, which also sounds potentially interesting (p. 107). Apparently it was published by the same company that also published Spencer's books, and of which he was the owner.

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Saturday, December 08, 2007

BOOK: James Nelson, "The Early Nineties"

James Nelson: The Early Nineties: A View from the Bodley Head. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971. SBN 674222253. xvii + 387 pp.


The Bodley Head was a London publishing house, started in 1887 as a partnership between Elkin Mathews and John Lane. They became famous in the early 1890s for both the content and the production values of their books, many of which were written by young avantgarde authors of that period — aesthetes, decadents, and the like. In addition, the Bodley Head books were typically produced to a high standard, often on handmade paper, issued in limited editions, illustrated by daring and innovative artists such as Ricketts and Beardsley, etc. Thus, these publishers were one of the main representatives (and instigators) of the 1890s trend for books that were self-consciously aesthetic and elitist not just in terms of content but also technical aspects, print runs, and often in price.

This book is a history of the Bodley Head from the beginning until 1894, when the two partners split and went their separate ways (though they both continued to work as publishers). I first heard of this book a couple of years ago, when I read James Nelson's 2000 book about Leonard Smithers, Publisher to the Decadents. There I saw that Nelson had also written two other books about notable 1890s publishers, namely The Early Nineties (1971) and Elkin Mathews: Publisher to Yeats, Joyce, Pound (1989). So now I've read the Early Nineties, and I plan to read his book about Elkin Mathews eventually as well.

Overall, The Early Nineties was a fairly interesting read. My main complaint is that a lot of the material here, maybe as much as half of the text (after you exclude the appendices and the notes and the like) deals with the authors and contents of the books published by the Bodley Head, rather than just with the aspects directly related to the publishing and production side of the books. Along the way we learn a little bit about a large number of English fin-de-siecle writers and poets, many of whom are relatively little known nowadays. Nelson often quotes passages from their works and discusses the responses of the critics. All this is interesting in a way, but often I was also bored and felt that the author was going into more detail than I cared to read about. My general impression of these parts of the book is that they were pleasant in moderate doses, but if you try to read too much at once you might get bored. But anyway, I shouldn't complain; the title of the book is honest enough: it isn't purely a book about the Bodley Head, but about the early 1890s in English literature, as seen through the books published by the Bodley Head.

The business side of publishing

My favourite chapter is probably chapter 3, which focuses on the economics of the Bodley Head's publishing. See e.g. p. 77: “Toward the close of the 1880s there were signs which suggested that there was a relatively large group of persons who were willing to buy not only rare and exotic volumes from the antiquarian bookseller but also choice limited editions of contemporary authors. [. . .] I have already shown that in the 1880s there was an increasing interest in antiquarian books. Auction records and sale catalogues amply indicate the fact that prices for book rarities were rising rapidly because of a surprisingly widespread demand.” Mathews would have been aware of these trends, having been an antiquarian bookseller himself.

Later, the vogue for “rare and exotic volumes” even gave a new lease of life to some older books. “So certain was the Bodley Head of its ability to sell these books that it was later to buy up the remainders of books which, having been published in the early 1880s and therefore lacking the advantage of vogue, did not find sufficient buyers.” (P. 79; for example, they bought 220 copies of Oscar Wilde's 1881 Poems, from its original publisher, who had gone bankrupt.) Similarly, the Bodley Head had considerable success with reissues of works by Lord De Tabley which had all largely flopped in the 1880s (p. 132). The story of the Bodley Head's publication of De Tabley's poems is told at great length on pp. 132–47; I doubt I have ever seen an author express such pessimism about his own work and its chances of success. When trying to decide which poems to include in the book, De Tabley made two lists titled “Dustbin I” and “Dustbin II” (p. 135) :)

Publishers such as the Bodley Head also benefited from the relatively low production costs of the time. “Although today it is an extremely expensive — almost prohibitive — affair to print fine editions of belles-lettres in very small quantities, the cost of book production in the early nineties was so low that the Bodley Head not only printed editions of 350 copies and made a profit but charged on the average no more than five shillings net per copy.” (P. 84; see more about production costs later on the same page.)

This is really remarkable; according to this inflation calculator, five shillings in 1890 is equivalent to approx. £19 nowadays — which is quite a typical price for a new trade hardcover of non-genre fiction, but a fine-press edition would be much more expensive.

Another interesting thing was that poetry books were cheaper to produce than books of prose, because the printers charged less for setting type in larger sizes and with more spacing, both of which was more likely to happen with poems than with prose (p. 85).

Lane and Mathews also sold some of their books in the USA, through various U.S.-based publishers such as Copeland and Day. Interestingly, “these copies sold at considerably higher prices than those on sale in England” (p. 105). Nowadays we are used to seeing books cost considerably less in the U.S. than in Britain.

“The costs of materials and labor were very low, and authors asked very litle in the way of payment so that the average price of the Bodley Head book was a very competitive five shillings [. . .] These factors plus a literary and artistic milieu which fostered an interest in belles-lettres and a desire for beautiful things were the grounds for success” (p. 106). For further interesting details about their prices, see p. 108. Their typical books cost less than comparable books earlier in the 19th century. Of course, there were also exceptions: their most expensive book was Wilde's Sphinx, which cost two guineas for the ordinary issue and five for the de luxe issue. Wilde's Salome was also more expensive thatn the average (15 and 30 shillings, respectively).

Although the Bodley Head is nowadays usually remembered for publishing the works of ‘decadents’ and similar then-controversial authors, it is only fair to point out that they also published many mainstream books: “it is doubtful that the firm could actually have survived if their ‘nest of singing birds’ had been made up solely of those whom the English public considered as one with the French poètes maudits.” (P. 211.) The more conventional works were more popular and sold better (p. 215).


A hilarious passage from a letter that the writer Le Gallienne wrote to John Lane, complaining about Lane's partner: “If there is, & decidedly there is, one person to blame in this matter it is that incarnation of all that is vacillating, procrastinating, old-maidish & [?] in human nature, that Elkin Mathews that never answered a letter till it was a month overdue, that attends to no report without the prod of a telegram, that — well, god knows you should know him” (p. 32).

Nelson's somewhat cruel opinion of Le Gallienne: “most of the pleasure his earliest books of verse afford us today comes from their external appearance, which derives from the pre-Victorian book” (p. 71) :-]

Norman Gale's 1893 book, Orchard Songs, is described on p. 65 as “a mediocre little book of verse about glow-worms, nightingales, first kisses, budding orchards and babies” :))

The poet Lionel Johnson was apparently a very nocturnal person and slept through most of the day. “Calling on Johnson one afternoon about five, Yeats, much to his surprise, was told that his new friend was not up. ‘He is always up for dinner at seven’ the servant added by way of encouragement.” (P. 179.)

On p. 211, Nelson quotes from a letter of Le Gallienne's thus: “carcas[s]es”. I'm not sure why he thought it necessary to insert the ‘s’; after all, ‘carcase’ is (or at least was) a perfectly regular alternative form of ‘carcass’.

Another good thing about The Early Nineties are the illustrations — there are many reproductions of title pages (and sometimes also of cover designs) of Bodley Head books.

The book also makes some unusual design decisions: in a typical book there would be page headers showing the title of the current chapter, but here this is shown in the footers instead. Additionally, on the first page of each chapter, the chapter title is not at the top of the page, above the text, as you would expect, but at bottom, below the text of that page. I suppose this was somebody's idea of bold, avant-garde design. I can't say that I was terribly excited by it.

Incidentally, this book also carries a price on the dust jacket — I thought it was uncommon for books published by academic presses to include a price on the dust jacket. Now I remember that the two volumes of Amadis of Gaul, published by Kentucky University Press in the 1970s, also carry prices on the jackets. So maybe this habit of not showing the price on the jacket of academic-press books is a relatively recent thing. Anyway, the other interesting thing about the price on the DJ is that it shows us that this book cost $15 in 1971! According to the inflation calculator, this would be equivalent to approx. $75 in present-day dollars, which strikes me as very expensive even for an academic press book. Fortunately I got it via for just $10.


  • Richard Le Gallienne: The Book-Bills of Narcissus. An “autobiographical story” (p. 17). Le Gallienne was a writer; the Bodley Head published several of his books, and he also worked for them as a reader, giving his opinion of the manuscripts they had received.

  • Richard Le Gallienne: Young Lives. An “autobiographical novel” (p. 212).

  • Andrew Lang: The Library (1881); Percy Fitzgerald: The Book Fancier; John Burton: The Book-Hunter. Mentioned here on p. 22 as part of a growing 1880s interest in bibliophilism.

  • Charles T. Jacobi: On the Making and Issuing of Books (1891). By the director of Chiswick Press, the printers of numerous fine-press books, including many published by the Bodley Head. Mentioned on p. 36.

  • Interesting-sounding memoirs:

  • W. H. Mallock: The New Republic (1878). Mentioned on p. 212 as containing a “satirical and jaundiced account of the Victorian intellectual elite”.

  • Florence Farr: The Dancing Fawn. “[A] notable example of the aesthetic novel of the day, which was often difficult to distinguish from novelistic parodies such as Robert Hichens' The Green Carnation” (p. 263).

  • Other parodies mentioned later on the same page: John Davidson's Earl Lavender (1895) and G. S. Street's The Autobiography of a Boy.

  • Katherine Lyon Mix: A Study in Yellow (U. of Kansas Press, 1960). A study of The Yellow Book (p. 298).

  • Ruari McLean: Victorian Book Design and Colour Printing (1963); mentioned on p. 335. And: Modern Book Design from William Morris to the Present Day (1959), mentioned on p. 337.

  • J. Lewis May: John Lane and the Nineties (1936). Mentioned on p. 342.

  • John Russell Taylor: The Art Nouveau Book in Britain (MIT Press, 1966). Mentioned on p. 338.

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