Friday, June 27, 2008

The Legend of Stagger Lee

I'm busy trying to make a web site do what I told it tonight, but in the interest of keeping the schedule I set for myself yesterday, here's an article I wrote a while back.

Anyone who’s ever listened to an oldies radio station has probably heard the story of Stagger Lee, as performed by Lloyd Price. In the song, Stagger Lee loses his money and “brand new Stetson hat” in a dice game with a man named Billy. He then proceeds to kill Billy, despite the latter’s begging and pleading. What most casual music fans don’t realize is that Price’s song is not the first or last musical version of Stagger Lee’s tale.

The events portrayed in Price’s song are based on an actual murder reported in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in December 1895. According to the article, “Stag” Lee Shelton murdered William Lyons after Lyons stole Shelton’s hat during a political argument. However, it is likely that Stagger Lee existed as a figure of African-American folklore before the St. Louis event. A Mississippi bluesman named Charles Hatler claims that he wrote the first Stagger Lee song in 1895, and not all songs and stories about Stagger Lee mention the murder of Lyons. This has led some experts to propose that Shelton gave himself the nickname “Stag” to associate himself with the Stagger Lee of folklore.

The Stagger Lee of early blues songs was an anti-heroic “badman” figure who sold his soul to the Devil in return for a magical Stetson hat that made him invulnerable. Because he could not be killed Stagger Lee was free to take whatever he wanted, usually from his peers in the black community. Despite his evil ways, Stagger Lee was respected in the black community because even the (white) authorities were afraid to tangle with him.

During the civil rights era, Stagger Lee became a role model for black men. Bobby Seale, for example, once identified himself and other civil rights leaders (including Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver) as “Stagger Lee” figures. James P. Hauser, in his article on the AKA Blues connection website, traces this evolution from “badman” to civil rights hero directly to Price’s version of the song. Though Price’s “Stagger Lee” is based on an earlier song by Leon T. “Archibald” Gross, Hauser describes how subtle changes in the song altered the character. The most important of these changes is the line “Stagger Lee threw 7, Billy swore that he threw 8.” This single addition transforms Stagger Lee from a sore loser who murders his opponent to a wronged man who gets revenge after being cheated. Starting with the Price version of the song, Billy Lyons—a black man in the early versions—came to be identified as a white man, and therefore an oppressor of blacks.

Stagger Lee has appeared in songs by over 200 artists, from Bob Dylan to The Clash. While many artists simply cover the Price version of the song, the majority create original versions, often with new themes and political subtext. For example, The Grateful Dead put a feminist spin on the story by having Billy Lyon's wife take her revenge on Stagger Lee. The sheer number and range of artists who have chosen to record Stagger Lee songs makes it unlikely that the legend will fade any time soon.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Just a quick note to those of you wondering why there's not post today: The post-per-day thing was just for the first week, to get some content up here and give everyone an idea of the kind of stuff I'll be covering. For the time being, I'm planning on doing regular updates twice a week--Monday and Thursday. I may also throw int he occasional unscheduled post whenever I run across something that especially annoys or amuses me. I meant to mention this in yesterday's post, but was so bummed by Carlin's death that I forgot.

PS: I know I said I wasn't going to talk about gaming here, but the new, improved, and awesome Hex Games website will be launching later this week. You can take a sneak peek here.

Meet me back here on Thursday!

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Farewell to George

One of the unfortunate side effects of aging is that your heroes start dying off. In the past decade, we've lost Joey Ramone, Joe Strummer, Warren Zevon, Johnny Cash, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, and Robert Anton Wilson, just to name a few. Yesterday, George Carlin joined the list. Carlin's death wasn't all that surprising--after all, he was 71 and had a history of heart problems--but that doesn't make it any less depressing.

When I was in middle school, my friends and I started to discover the world of comedy. Dubbed tapes of Eddie Murphy, Stephen Wright, and countless others made the rounds, references to stand-up routines started to pepper our conversations, and the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live was the hot discussion topic each Monday. At some point, someone handed me a copy of one of George Carlin's tapes. I think it was Playin' With Your Head, but it might have been A Place for My Stuff.

I was hooked. There was something about Carlin that clicked with me. Not only was Carlin funnier than most comedians I'd been exposed to, he was smarter, edgier, tackled a wider range of subject matter, and could make me laugh with any style of comedy, from straightforward stand-up to sketch comedy to sheer absurdity.

Since I never had cable growing up, my awareness of Carlin's physical presence was limited to the photos on album covers. That changed around ninth grade when somebody loaned me a VHS tape of Carlin at Carnegie and I realized that "stand-up" wasn't the right word for Carlin's act. Seeing Carlin's facial expressions, insane poses, and pure energy took my enjoyment of his work to the next level.

By the time I was in college, Carlin had played a big part in shaping (or perhaps warping) the way I looked at the world. During my sophomore year, I got to see Carlin live. Even though I had already practically memorized many of the routines he did that night, the Carlin show ranks right behind Johnny Cash as the best concert I've ever seen.

When I discovered Lenny Bruce, I realized that a lot of Carlin's routines (especially those about language) were the logical continuations of what Bruce had started. Bill Hicks was Carlin's logical successor, but unfortunately Carlin outlived him by more than a decade. To my knowledge, there's not a single comedian working today who seems qualified to continue the tradition. Or, if there is, I'm not familiar with them--if you know who they are, let me know.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

An Open Letter To Wildstorm Comics

[Warning: This post contains spoilers of the Lost Boys: Reign of Frogs comic]

Dear Wildstorm,

I saw The Lost Boys as a teenager, and, like most people my age, I thought it was awesome. Even after the seeing Near Dark (which, let's face it, was a better film) and watching the "cool vampire" thing get out of control in the 90's (culminating in goth's bastard step-child, the Vampire: The Masquerade Role-Playing Game), The Lost Boys still has a special place in my heart.

When I first heard that they were making a Lost Boys sequel (Lost Boys: The Tribe), I'll admit I was a little excited. That is, until I actually learned a bit about the movie: straight to video; The Coreys and that guy who played the other Frog brother returning; Keifer Sutherland's little brother as the head vampire (which is kind of like casting Joey Travolta as Jules Winstead's new partner in crime). I'll still watch the movie, but I know from the start not to expect much.

When I saw the Wildstorm prequel comic, I also didn't expect much. Wildstorm's specialty is flashy, variant-cover comics about anatomically improbable women, and there's nothing wrong with that. Sure, you occasionally give us something like The Authority, or America's Best Comics, but those are the exception, not the rule. And since neither Warren Ellis nor Alan Moore were signed on for the Lost Boys book, I expected at best barely readable fluff.

I wasn't expecting you to take a huge shit on the original movie.

We'll start with David's return. Even if we're willing to accept that nobody noticed his corpse just disappearing (remember, Lost Boys vamps don't "dust" like the ones on Buffy), and we're willing to accept your premise that Max wasn't really the head vamp, there's still a problem (or more accurately, three). If the head vampire wasn't Max, then Michael, Star, and Laddie would still be vampires, which was clearly not the case at the end of the movie.

You know what, since there wasn't a lot of denouement (do Wildstorm writers even know what that means?) to the movie, I'm willing to go along with you and pretend that Michael and friends only appeared to be cured, discovered otherwise, and left town without telling Sam and the Frog Brothers that they were still bloodsuckers. I have no idea why they'd do this, but I'll play along.

I'm not giving you Grandpa, though. According the final page of issue #2, Gramps is the head vampire. I'm sorry, but that's bullshit. I could cite the fact that we saw grandpa out in broad daylight at several points in the movie, but then you could claim that he's extra powerful and can stand daylight or something. But that's not the problem. The problem is that making Grandpa a vampire goes against the nature of the character.

Perhaps I should explain that last sentence. You see, to most writers (regardless of whether they're writing books, comics, or movie scripts), a good character has more depth than "a hot ninja chick with humongous tits." If a character is well thought out and presented well (through writing, art, and/or acting), the audience can guess a lot of things about him that aren't made explicit. In the case of Grandpa, for instance, it was very obvious from the script and Barnard Hughes's wonderful portrayal that he WAS NOT A FUCKING VAMPIRE.

I can't say whether or not I'll buy the final two installments of the mini-series, but at the very least I'll make sure to find out how they end. There is a chance, however remote, that your writers have come up with something truly brilliant that I'm just not getting. It's happened before (I almost gave up on The Invisibles after a few issues). If this is one of those cases I will take back everything I've said.

Of course, that's probably not going to happen, which means that I'll be skittish about purchasing future Wildstorm comics based on licensed properties. In the future, I urge you to pay a bit more respect to the spirit of others' creations, especially creations that are as beloved by so many as The Lost Boys. Doing so will allow your company to build upon the "not always utter shit" reputation that Ellis and Moore have helped you begin to establish.

Yours truly,
Steve Johnson

Saturday, June 21, 2008

We Left In Plastic As Numbered Corpses

Introduction (Now with Shameless Begging for Ad Clicks!)
Like most people (at least based on my Google AdSense stats), I rarely click on web page ads. Earlier today, though, I clicked an ad for a T-shirt, but not because I wanted to buy the T-shirt in question. I clicked because, according to the ad, six states had banned the shirt, and I'm kind of a fan of the whole First Amendment thing we claim to have in this country.

The Site and the Shirt
My click took me to a site called "Carry A Big Sticker," which sells a variety of left-wing T-shirts, bumper stickers, and other stuff. One of the items on the site is a T-shirt that lists the names of soldiers who have been killed in the "War on Terror" along with the message "Bush Lied, They Died." It seems that the shirt has stirred up a bit of controversy (and, ironically enough, probably extra profits for the site's owner, Dan Frazier).

The Controversy
Several different states have, often at the behest of families and friends of the fallen, passed legislation to prevent anyone (ie, Mr. Frazier) from using the names or likenesses of deceased soldiers (or in some cases any soldier) to make a profit or for political purposes. I'm going to ignore the ironic fact that the same friends and family members behind these lawsuits will probably be clamoring to have their loved ones' names emblazoned on a memorial at taxpayer expense in the near future, as well as the fact that they probably wouldn't be "mentally anguished" by the same shirt without the anti-war message. Instead, I'll focus on whether or not Mr. Frazier's shirt is entitled to protection under the First Amendment.

Disclaimers & Warnings
I am not a lawyer. The views expressed here are at best armchair extrapolations based on years of following coverage of First Amendment issues. Anything I say here could be way off base and, in all likelihood, can and will be used against me in a court of law, as I have given up my right to remain silent. Fortunately, I have the right to an attorney (and if I cannot afford an attorney the court will appoint one for me). Void where prohibited. Don't eat yellow snow. May cause drowsiness. If rash develops, see your doctor. Don't run with scissors. Never wear white after Labor Day.

The Coattails of a Dead Man
The names, likenesses, and personalities of American citizens are, as anyone who's seen Chasing Amy knows, protected by law, and you have ask permission (and in some cases pay) to use them. These rights are generally considered property rights, which means they can be passed to a person's heirs. Based on right to publicity (the legal name for likeness rights) alone, Mr. Frazier would in fact need permission from all the dead soldiers' heirs to use their names. Of course, most soldiers probably don't think to include likeness rights in their wills, so determining which relative has final say could be problematic.

Not So Fast!
There are exceptions to the general publicity rights laws for political speech, but most only cover non-commercial use. Frazier donates $1 from each shirt to charities that assist families of fallen U.S. soldiers, but he keeps the rest, presumably making a profit. However, the case of Riley v. National Federation of the Blind established protection for commercial speech that is "inextricably intertwined" with political speech. If a judge decides that the T-shirt meets this criterion, Frazier is entitled to full First Amendment protection. Frazier could also try to claim that soldiers are "public figures" and therefore not entitled to the same personality rights protections as a private citizen. This certainly applies to high-ranking military men (General Patreus, for instance), but convincing a judge that the average grunt is a public figure would be much more difficult.

Those Who Won't Be Prosecuted
If the laws that make the "Bush Lied, They Died" T-shirt illegal are upheld, the real sin will be that they will undoubtedly be selectively enforced, focusing on anti-war protesters like Frazier. Here are just a few people who are not likely to be prosecuted, even though they are using dead soldiers' names or likenesses for profit or political purposes:
  • The news infotainment show that airs a "profile in courage" of a soldier killed in the War In Iraq. If such a piece is being aired, it is being aired because producers believe it will bring in ratings and therefore profit.
  • The newspaper editor who includes a list of the fallen in the Veterans' Day issue in hopes of selling a few extra papers.
  • The politician who tells the story of a fallen soldier in a stump speech.
  • The minister who organizes a candlelight vigil for the fallen. Whether or not the minister acknowledges it, such activities are designed to attract new members to the congregation, which usually means profit for the church. Because religion and politics are so closely tied in this country, increasing the flock could also be considered political.
  • Toby Keith. I normally link all celebrity names to Amazon, but I'm not helping that redneck sell any CDs, even if I would get a cut. Try something by Steve Earle instead.

Of course, the sad fact is that, while Dan Frazier is trying to stop the war, many of these people have an interest in keeping it going, since it makes their jobs a little easier. Taken to the extreme, these laws would even technically allow the family of any soldier named "Charlie" or "Baker" to sue Billy Joel, who I stole the title of this post from. I just hope Billy Joel doesn't sue me.

Friday, June 20, 2008

5 Batshit Crazy Rumors About Barack Obama

Since the beginning of the current Presidential race, a cottage industry has grown up around spreading rumors about candidate Barack Hussein Obama. It seems that any claim about Obama, no matter how poorly documented or patently untrue, receives a disproportionate amount of media coverage. Not one to pass up a chance at free publicity, no matter how undeserved, I've delved into Obama's past and come up with five completely unfounded rumors in hopes that Bill O'Reilly or somebody will decide to run with on of them and send me some extra web traffic.

1) Barack Hussein Obama is the great-great-grandson of Jack the Ripper.
Considerable air time and column space have been dedicated to Obama's Kenyan father, but very few reporters have really delved into the family history of Barack's white mother. As it turns out, Barack's mother is the granddaughter of Abigale Gull, daughter of Royal Physician Sir William Gull. According to some sources (most notably Alan Moore's graphic novel From Hell) Gull was the infamous Ripper.

2) Barack Hussein Obama used to be a Nazi!
Anyone who studies Barack Obama's high school and college transcripts will easily come to this conclusion. In addition to 3 years of German language courses, Obama took such courses as Early 20th Century European History (which, let's face it, revolves around Germany), An Introduction to The Philosophy of Nietzsche, and Films of the Weimar Republic. Also, Obama is from Illinois, and anyone who's seen The Blues Brothers knows that Illinois is crawling with Nazis.

3) Barack Hussein Obama is a Space Alien!
A lot of people believe that Barack won't release his birth certificate because he was born in Kenya. In fact, Obama doesn't have a birth certificate because he was never born. Instead, Obama was produced through a very complicated form of asexual reproduction by a being name Zarcodidle who lives on the western edge of the Crab Nebula. He was then sent to earth to prepare the planet for alien conquest.

4) Barack Hussein Obama is a sexual predator!
According to a former neighbor, Obama is a child molester. The young boy (who asked not to be named because he does not, in fact, exist) claims that Obama used to come over and put on a "puppet show" with his naughty parts. He would then touch the little boy on his "pee-pee." Obama would then masturbate into a bowl of Froot Loops cereal, which he would eat with toast and a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.

5) Barack Hussein Obama is a Werewolf!
On the night of December 20, 1997, while returning from a Kwanza Party, Barack's 1993 Saab slid off the road and into a ditch. As he walked through the snowy winter's night to get help, Obama was attacked by a large wolf-like creature who walked on two legs. Now, when the moon is full Obama transforms into a monster and prowls the countryside in search of prey.

Come and get it, Papa Bear!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Takei, Trek, and Tolerance: A Feeble Attempt At Investigative Reporting

Sulu Wedding Dance
George Takei, best known as Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek series and movies, recently announced that he would marry his long-time partner and business manager Brad Altman. The couple's decision to tie the knot in one of California's first high-profile legal celebrity gay weddings just seems right on a number of levels. For starters, ever since Takei made his sexual orientation public in 2005, he has been a tenacious yet exceptionally good-humored advocate for gay rights. As both a gay man and a prisoner of a Japanese interment camp during World War II it seems only fair that at the age of 71 the actor is finally able to enjoy all of the rights he is entitled to as an American citizen. Finally, his association with Star Trek, a show purported by fans to represent a better future where prejudice and inequality are things of the past makes Takei a perfect representative in the ongoing struggle for truly universal civil rights.

Roddenberry's Legacy
There is little doubt that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had a political agenda when designing the show. The racially and ethnically diverse crew of the Enterprise--not to mention TV's first bi-racial kiss--showed us that in the future we really would, in the words of Rodney King, "all get along." Or at least that's what Trekkies (or Trekkers, to use the "politically correct" term) would have us believe. In reality, there was still a very real "other" on the show in the form of the Klingons, and it's not hard to see them as a stand-in for godless commies that we were supposed to fear during the Cold War era. The fact that the Klingons became Federation allies in the perestroika-era Next Generation series seems to further enforce the Russian connection.

Peace, Love, and Utopia?
While I do believe that Roddenberry had the best of intentions when creating Trek, I have never been convinced that the show is the great teacher of tolerance and diversity that Trek fans claim it to be. In part, this is because, as a game designer and former comic book store manager, I have met a lot of Trek fans over the years. While many do pay lip service to Roddenberry's Utopian dream, most Trek fans, like most members of the more general fan community, tend to be somewhat sheltered and naïve. While they may believe themselves to be tolerant and worldly, most Trekkers have had little experience with people who are not very much like themselves (which is to say middle class white males). As a result, they are frequently guilty of racist, sexist, or homophobic comments or actions without even being aware that what they're doing could be considered offensive. In addition, they often exhibit an obvious nervousness or change in attitude when interacting with a person of another race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Trek Fans And Gay Marriage
Getting back to George Takei, I have little doubt that some Trek fans will point to the community's support of Takei's lifestyle as yet another way in which Trek fandom encourages tolerance. The question, in my mind, is “do said fans have any right to make this claim?” Knowing that Takei's wedding announcement offered a perfect chance to get an idea of whether Trekkers practice what they preach, I Googled up some Trek forums and looked for discussions of Sulu's nuptials and the gay marriage issue in general.

What I Found
Oddly, I didn't find much. Of the five or six boards I looked at, only one ( contained any significant discussion about Takei's upcoming wedding, and many boards (all on the first page of the Google search for “Star Trek forums," and therefore theoretically the top Trekkie discussion forums) didn't contain a single post about gay marriage. In general, posts that were specifically about Takei were mostly positive, containing congratulatory words for the couple. While there was the occasional homophobic post, most of the controversy within these threads involved the guest list—specifically the fact that William Shatner isn't on it. The Trek BBS did, however contain one general thread about gay marriage in California, and the discussion was not as genial without Sulu as the focus. The thread was 670 posts long, compared to an average of about 20 posts for Takei/Altman wedding announcements. While the majority of posters were in fact pro-gay marriage, there were still enough homophobes (most citing Christianity as the reason for their anti-gay views) to keep the discussion going.

When I started this little experiment, I expected to find that Trek fans were in fact generally (but not universally) tolerant. While the thread on the Trek BBS was slightly more accepting of homosexuality than I expected, it was reasonably close to my hypothesis. Of course, that was one thread on one board. The fact that so many Star Trek fans are seemingly not talking about Takei's upcoming wedding may be more interesting (and frightening). Is it really possible that hardcore Trekkies are so isolated from everyday world that they simply haven't heard the news?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Top Twenty Three Twenty Threes

The 23 Enigma
The "23 Enigma" was first popularized by Robert Anton Wilson (R.A.W.), but Bob credits author William S. Burroughs with discovering the phenomena. The 23 Enigma is, simply stated, that "the number 23 shows up in the damnedest places." R.A.W. freely admitted that the 23 enigma is a self-fulfilling prophecy--if you feel that any number is significant, you'll pay more attention when it comes up, which will make the number seem all the more significant. Of course, knowing that doesn't make the enigma any less fun (and occasionally spooky).

Robert Anton Wilson has cataloged hundreds of 23's over the years and countless web sites have added their own discoveries to the list. Trying to put together a comprehensive list of 23's would be fruitless. Instead, I'm going to tell you about the instances of 23 that I personally find most interesting and/or amusing.

1. Burroughs 23's
This is the 23 that started it all. According to R.A.W., Burroughs knew a ship captain named Clark who bragged that he had never had an accident in his 23 years of sailing. Later that day, Clark's ship wrecked, killing everyone on board. As Burroughs considered the irony, he heard a report on the radio about a plane crash: Flight 23, piloted by a Captain Clark.

2. Jim Carrey and JC23
According to, actor Jim Carrey was introduced to the 23 enigma by a friend and started noticing the number everywhere. Eventually, he was inspired (by the 23rd Psalm) to re-name his production company "JC23." Not long afterwards he landed the lead role in the movie The Number 23. The movie began filming on January 23, 2006.

3. April 19th
A.k.a. 4/19 (4 + 19 = 23) was the last day of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the date of Charles Manson's sentencing, the final day of the Waco siege, and the day of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Conspiracy theorists, start your engines!

4. The Bard
William Shakespeare was (many believe) born on April 23, 1564 and died on April 23, 1616. The First Folio, which contains the most reliable versions of many of Shakespeare's plays, was first published in 1623.

5. DNA
Human beings have 46 chromosomes--23 from the mother, 23 from the father. Gender is determined by the 23rd chromosome.

6. 23 Positions In A One Night Stand
If anyone's studied this kind of thing, it's Prince.

7. John Dillinger
Dillinger is a character in R.A.W. and Robert Shea's Illuminatus! Trilogy, one of the early works that popularized the 23 enigma. In the books, Dillinger often used the phrase "23 Skidoo!" (an actual 1920's slang expression meaning roughly "get out while the getting's good"). In real life, the Chicago theater where Dillinger was killed by the F.B.I. was located at 2323 Clark Street.

8. Et Tu Brute'?
Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times.

9. Air 23
Michael Jordan was #23.

10. Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall
The earth's axis is tilted just a bit over 23 degrees (23.5, to be exact). The earth's tilt is the reason for seasonal variations in temperature.

11. Geometry
There are 23 axioms, according to Euclid.

12. Men on the Moon
The first moon landing was at 23.63 degrees East. The second landing was at 23.42 degrees West. The missions were Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 (11 + 12 =23)

13. The Templars: Not Just Characters In A Crappy Book By Dan Brown!
The organization had 23 Grand Masters. Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master was arrested (along with many of his brothers) by Phillip IV of France on October 13, 1307 (10 + 13 = 23).

14. Fire Walk With Me
In Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer's murder took place on February 23.

15. Freeeeeedoooom!
William Wallace was executed on August 23, 1305.

16. More Illuminati Connections
Adam Weishaupt founded the Bavarian Illuminati in 1723.

17. The (Decimal) Number of the Beast

18. A Beautiful Mind
John Forbes Nash (of Russell Crowe movie fame) was obsessed with the number 23. He published 23 scientific articles.

19. Hail Eris!
2 + 3 = 5, which is a sacred number to the Discordians. Discordianism, of course, was a major inspiration for the Illuminatus! Trilogy.

20. Biblical 23's
The Creation concludes in Genesis Chapter 1, Verse 23. Adam and Eve had 23 daughters. Psalms 23, ("The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.") is one of the most commonly quoted Bible verses.

21. AOL Illuminated?
The maximum number of users allowed in an AOL chat room is 23.

22. 9/11
9 + 11 + 2 + 0 + 0 + 1 = 23

23. The End of The World?
December 23, 2012 marks the last day of the Mayan calendar. According to some people, the world will end on that day.

Other Numerical Enigmas
As stated previously, any number assigned significance will seem to show up more frequently than other "insignificant" numbers. Kevin Smith fans will notice 37's wherever they appear. Readers of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy know that 42 is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, and are bound to take note of it. Potheads, of course, will note occurrences of 420 (42 x 10). Finally, some folks are prone to notice numbers that are associated with birthdays, anniversaries, and other important dates.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Who Is Charles Fort?

As I mentioned last time, "Forteana" (a catch-all word for weird stuff) gets its name from Charles Fort, an early 20th Century American author and thinker. Fort spent his time compiling and commenting on anomalies. His books (Lo!, Wild Talents, The Book of the Damned, and New Lands, now also available as The Complete Books of Charles Fort) collect stories of teleportation (according to most sources, Fort coined the term), strange lights in the sky, rains of frogs, and other strange occurrences. In addition to cataloging strange phenomena, Fort commented on them with keen wit and often very subtle humor.

At the heart of Fort’s philosophy is the idea that too much faith in anything, even established science, is ultimately counterproductive. All things should be evaluated according to the rules of evidence and the scientific method, even when they contradict what is generally accepted to be “truth.” In a way, the Fortean worldview is a form of agnosticism that doesn’t limit itself to questions of faith. Absolute proof or disproof can never truly be found, because we can never know anything with 100% certainty. There is always room for new discoveries that will alter what we perceive as reality. This way of thinking is very similar to the "Maybe Logic" of Robert Anton Wilson, who Fort certainly influenced. Fort summed up this way of looking at the world when he said “I conceive of nothing, in religion, science, or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.”

Though Fort did comment on traditional religion, he reserved his most pointed criticisms for the “religion” of established science. Fort believed that scientists are tainted by their own brand of faith and tend to ignore, discredit, or explain away data that does not fit the accepted “dogma” of science. He called these inconvenient pieces of information “the damned,” and his books are filled with "damned" information. Fort sometimes attempted to offer explanations for these anomalies—for example, he was likely the first person to suggest that strange lights in the sky might be alien spacecraft. More often, however, he crafted wild, tongue-in-cheek explanations designed to highlight the pomposity and overconfidence of the scientific establishment.

Fort was interested in all sorts of anomalies, but tended to focus on a few specific types of phenomena, especially strange things seen in or falling from the sky. Today, the term "Forteana" refers to a wide range of anomalies, unusual events, and fringe topics, from cryptozoology (the study of unverified, often quasi-mythical animals) to the study of unusual powers like remote viewing and telepathy. The word "Fortean" can be used as an adjective to describe Forteana (for example, "Fortean phenomena") but is more often used as a noun to mean "people who think Charles Fort had some good ideas."

Though Forteans tend to gravitate toward fringe topics, they should not be confused with “true believers” who accept such things at face value. At the same time, they should not be lumped in with skeptics like The Amazing Randi and Penn Gillette who deny the existence of weirdness with an almost religious fervor. Forteans walk the fine line between these two groups, tempering with the open-mindedness of the believer with the skeptic’s highly valued (but often less than admirably practiced) objectivity. In addition to Fort's books, anyone interested in learning more about Charles Fort, Forteana, and the Fortean philosophy should take a look at Britain's Fortean Times magazine, or at least their web site.


Hi, I'm Steve Johnson. You may know me from my work on QAGS (the Quick Ass Game System), Spooky: The Definitive Guide to Horror Gaming and other fine gaming products from Hex Games. If you're into that gaming crap, visit the Hex site or our soon-to-be-relaunching sister site, The Death Cookie. This blog isn't about gaming, it's about other stuff.

"What kind of other stuff?" you ask, and I've got an answer. Outside of gaming, my interests fall into three broad categories: Forteana, Pop Culture (especially music), and Politics. Most readers will already be familiar with the latter two, but may wonder what the heck "Forteana" means. Again, I have the answers you seek. Forteana is a catch-all name for all kinds of weird stuff: fringe science, ghost hunting, ufo lore, medical oddities, urban legends, oddball religion, etc., etc. The term gets its name from Charles Fort, an early 20th Century writer and philosopher who you'll learn more about in my next post.

While most posts here on Goat Head Gumbo will focus on one of the three aforementioned topics, from time to time we'll run into cases where two, or even all three, subjects intersect in interesting ways.