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Posted by lahar9jhadav on September 20, 2011

So it wasn’t just me who thought the late and great John Keel made stuff up…..


by Jerome Clark

[published in Fortean Times 156 (2002), pp. 39-42]

John Keel

[published in Fortean Times 156 (2002), pp. 39-42]


On March 17, 1969, John A. Keel, occult journalist, composed a three-page letter to James E. McDonald, atmospheric physicist. Except for their mutual fascination with the UFO phenomenon and their outsized personalities, it would be difficult to imagine two men less alike. Between them they personified the extremes of 1960s ufology.

One addressing himself almost exclusively to radical ufologists and Forteans itching for an exciting alternative to the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) harked back to the 1940s, to Richard S. Shaver and N. Meade Layne, and, even earlier, to classical demonology and supernatural folk belief. The other allying himself with the most conservative ufologists and speaking to his fellow scientists and to elite institutions possessing the wherewithal to fund UFO research and to overcome entrenched resistance to the phenomenon sought to drag ufology out of its marginality and to transform it into a branch of normal science. Barely more than two years later, McDonald would be dead by his own hand, and Keel would live on to write The Mothman Prophecies and other books and to remain an active presence into the 1980s and an enduring influence even now.

It can be fairly said that if McDonald wanted to domesticate UFOs and place them in the mainstream, Keel preferred them so wild and woolly that the ETH would pale into banality by comparison. The whole structure of post-Enlightenment civilization itself would collapse before Keel’s shape-changing ultraterrestrials demons with a fancy new moniker became a generally recognized species. In Keel’s view, McDonald, an accomplished and (at least until he took up UFO advocacy) well-regarded member of the University of Arizona’s Institute of Atmospheric Physics, needed educating and not just about the supernatural reality underlying UFOs and allegedly related manifestations: poltergeists, fairies, Sasquatch, Republicans, in short just about anything else not immediately explainable. Keel, using a rhetorical technique that over the years would become wearily familiar, remarked that

“McDonald suffered from a regretable [sic] emotionalism & apparent in many of your public statements.”

Moreover, Keel observed,

“You often tend to substitute speculation for facts.”

McDonald was associating with the wrong people, for example the ufologists associated with NICAP (National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, a relatively cautious, pro-ETH private group headed by UFO author and retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Donald E. Keyhoe). These sorts were buffs who adopted a conclusion before they had any evidence. Keel, on the other hand, drew on extensive field studies and personal experiences, not to mention the valid, independent studies he had conducted outside the buffery sphere of reference. Among other things, he had established conclusively that known poltergeist cases and known UFO waves  correlate precisely with each other, thus substantiating Keel’s theory that the poltergeist phenomenon is a UFO effect.

Keel declared that his comprehensive study of all religious traditions proved divine miracles and UFO contacts also to be identical at their root. No specifics accompanied these assertions, though he did urge McDonald to look up recent Keel articles in such august journals as the pulp cheesecake-and-adventure magazine Male and Ray Palmer’s pulp hollow-earth-championing Flying Saucers. On the last of his three pages, he did mention West Virginia contactee Woodrow Derenberger. Highly qualified psychiatrists had given Derenberger a completely clean bill of health. Even more revealingly, one of the doctors involved experienced direct contact himself!

McDonald’s restrained response, written on March 24, observes mildly that

“you’re not in a particularly strong position to criticize someone like myself for speculating on the UFO problem. I might tick off, but won’t take time to, a pretty long list of your own speculations that are not well supported in your writings. As a matter of fact, it is not your own speculations that I find disquieting, but your practiced style of writing as if you had some deep insights into baffling mysteries that no one else has plumbed.”

Writing back with a long letter dated April 2, Keel portrayed himself as the one man who had broken through all the buffery myths and nonsense, conducted not just the field work but the statistical and scientific studies others (such as McDonald, who had only emotional involvement, or NICAP’s obsessive-compulsive paranoid schizophrenics ) had not even thought to try, and found a definite conclusion based upon hard facts.

“The UFOs are transmogrifications. The UFO entities are  variations on the age-old elemental types.”

In a much shorter reply McDonald, refusing to rise to the bait, remarked that Keel simply was not making himself clear. When he talked about transmogrifications and age-old elemental phenomena, he wrote,

"I simply do not understand you. You just spin one mystery inside another and never get anything across in any concrete terms."

In a note to himself —McDonald was a compulsive note-taker— he said that he was disinclined to engage in further correspondence.

It was a wise decision. Keel had already declared that the celebrated scientific method has proven to be totally unworkable where UFO investigation and interpretation are concerned.[i] Those who have had access to McDonald’s massive UFO files (housed at the University of Arizona in Tucson) have seen abundant evidence of his commitment to the scientific method.[ii] McDonald, alas, merely a passive observer; could only interview witnesses, weigh testimony, study radar records, consider alternative explanations for sightings, and all the rest. Keel, on the other hand, could actually control UFO events. Once, he claimed, he had conjured up the notion of gillmen, and not long afterwards according to Keel anyway someone actually encountered a gillman. Who, where, or when Keel never let on.

If you believe John Keel, you also believe this: Supernatural gods (ultraterrestrials, hereafter UTs) once ruled directly over the earth but then returned to their abode, the superspectrum (the upper reaches of the electro-magnetic spectrum ), after human beings began to populate the planet. Displeased with the intrusion, the UTs engaged in protracted conflict with Homo sapiens in an effort to resolve this territorial dispute. (Keel does not explain why such presumably superior entities would have to wage the dispute over thousands of years.) The UTs also battled each other, and one group assumed human form so that it could more easily communicate with the Neanderthals, whom it sought to enlist in its physical army.

“The unintended result was sexual intercourse and the creation of the human race as we know it.[iii] This produced strange responses in the offsprings materialized nervous system,” Keel wrote. “Emotions were born. Frequencies were changed. The direct control of the superintelligence was driven from their bodies. They were trapped on Earth, unable to ascend the electromagnetic scale and reenter their etheric world. With the loss of control, they became animals, albeit highly intelligent animals.” [iv]

According to Keel, humanity’s long interaction with the supernatural, as well as the timely intervention of enigmatic, unearthly strangers in the lives of historical personages such as Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X, testifies to the continuing presence of the gods of old, including God, who dwell in the superspectrum. Its manifestations include UFOs and their occupants, monsters, demons, angels, poltergeists, ghosts, and voices in the head.

“The Devil’s emissaries of yesterday have been replaced by the mysterious men in black,” he stated. “The quasi-angels of Biblical times have become magnificent spacemen. The demons, devils, and false angels were recognized as liars and plunderers by early man. The same impostors now appear as long-haired Venusians.” [v]

“Thus you swallow all but the benign slant of testimony from such notorious characters as George Adamski, Howard Menger, Aladino Felix (aka Dino Kraspedon), and Ernest Arthur Bryant (of the notorious Scoriton episode, in which a reincarnated Adamski returned via spacecraft to rural Devonshire), all contactees of the 1950s and 1960s, all of them with at least to other observers – very serious, some might say fatal, credibility problems.[vi]And then there’s the already-mentioned Woodrow Derenberger and, on the other side of him, Thomas F. Monteleone.”

From November 1966 until he dropped out of sight a few years later, Derenberger, a late-middle-aged sewing-machine salesman, challenged the credulity of even the most slack-jawed with ever more expansive fables of interactions with space people and of jaunts to their home planet, Lanulos ( near the Ganymede star cluster [vii]). Given conservative ufology’s antipathy to contactees, NICAP’s Pittsburgh Subcommittee led a remarkably vigorous, open-minded field investigation into Derenbergers early claims as they were occurring — or, more accurately, evolving — until it arrived at the only conclusion possible: that Derenberger’s yarns owed everything to human invention, nothing to extraterrestrial intervention. A local psychologist drawn into the probe — the one who, Keel told McDonald, experienced direct contact himself! — suffered something of a breakdown, seeing saucers invisible to other family members, meanwhile channeling failed prophecies.

Derenberger’s tall tales figure largely in Mothman Prophecies (1975).  Keel, who spent time with Derenberger, rejects any notion that the man was just making it up as he went along. He also cites as supporting evidence the adventures of a University of Maryland student, Tom Monteleone, who claimed also to have met denizens of Lanulos and to have traveled to the home planet, whose inhabitants cavort about it in the nude. Monteleone surfaced after he called a Washington, D.C., radio station on which Derenberger was appearing. As Keel writes in Mothman, Even Woody was surprised by such direct confirmation of his own experiences. After meeting Monteleone personally, Keel determined that Monteleone was privy to subtle details about such things that only true UT encounterers would know about; “thus, I finally had to conclude Tom was on the level.”

Except he wasn’t. Monteleone was, one, a psychology major — that alone ought to have raised a red flag or at least a Keelian eyebrow — and, two, an aspiring (and later successful) science-fiction writer. He had conjured up the story on a lark, as a hoax on a hoaxer. Writing in the May 1979 issue of Omni, he crowed, “I contradicted Mr. Derenberger’s story on purpose, claiming to have seen totally different things on my visit to Lanulos. But on each occasion, he would give ground, make up a hasty explanation, and in the end corroborate my own falsifications. He even claimed to know personally the UFOnaut who contacted me!” [viii]

When these revelations saw print,[ix] Keel did not, no surprise, graciously concede that all those conservative ufologists buffs and cultists in Keelian had been right all along. Keel insisted not only that he had known Monteleone was lying from the start, but that anybody who read what he had written on the subject could see that.[x] Well, not so. To the contrary, Keel had been so wowed by Monteleone’s Lanulosian friend Vadig’s customary farewell “I’ll see you in time” that he cited it as evidence that UFOs come from outside our time frame and [Keel’s italics] “from outside the environment of the known universe.” [xi]

It should be stressed, too, that Keel does not always use the word hoax as the rest of us do, to denote humans fooling, or attempting to fool, other humans. In Keelian, hoaxing more often represents what UTs do to us. Since UTs are virtually all powerful, they can represent themselves as just about anything. Consequently, even the most manifestly preposterous encounter claims are real paranormal events, even if not what they seem to witnesses. Thus, Adamski and Derenberger are telling the truth as they saw it; thus, too, the airship inventors of 1896/97 were disguised UTs (even though practically every sober investigator of the airship period has deduced that such figures did not exist outside the fictions of journalist-pranksters). Thus, anything, and I mean anything, goes.

I have a personal history with Keel, whom I have known since if memory serves early 1967, when Charles Bowen, then editor of Flying Saucer Review, brought us together. We entered into correspondence. I was young, impressionable, modestly read, uncritically minded, and in the fashion of the period susceptible to paranoia. In Forbidden Science: Journals 1957-1969 (1992) Jacques Vallee records the following from his entry of April 3, 1969: “Don [Hanlon] believes that Jerome Clark, a young ufologist from Chicago [sic],[xii] has become so convinced that an extraterrestrial [sic] invasion was imminent that he has been driven close to a breakdown.”

Well, not quite — in April 1969 I was more upset about a break-up with a girl friend than about invading UTs — but it is certainly true that I suffered both an unhealthy degree of fright and an overblown imagination. I was hardly alone. Earlier, in December 1967, I had visited Keel at his Manhattan apartment, where he and a young couple caught up in the excitement were trying on gas masks, anticipating an imminent UT strike on New York City. Reading the correspondence I had with Keel and others back then, I can only cringe at the youthful folly painfully in evidence. At least, I suppose I could say in my defense, I had the excuse of being rather younger than Keel.

In any event, I grew up, and away from Keel, though once he had confided his hope that one day I would be the next generation’s John A. Keel. Though I had thought the parting was amicable, I was wrong. As late as the 1990s, long after our personal interaction consisted in its entirety of no more than the rare pleasant note and the even rarer crossing of paths, he was madly spreading slanders whose subject was lapsed Keelist Jerome Clark. When at last I confronted Keel on the matter, he replied that he was only pointing out the obvious, which is that I… "live in a world of paranoid conspiracies and illiterate misconceptions. To curb this you may need extensive psychotherapy, coupled with drug treatment. You are ill and have been haunted by this illness all your life." And so on. In short, the usual charming way of dispatching critics: they say those things because they’re crazy, in the most clinical sense of the adjective. For good measure, he added the to-me-amusing observation that I have fallen for hoax after hoax. [xiii]

None of this matters much, and my annoyance over this strange little episode passed quickly. Still, besides demonstrating Keel’s often-shown preference for vituperation over reasoned discourse, it underscores his crankiness, in both senses of the word. It’s not that Keel will not lightly abide fools; it’s colleagues he objects to. And come to think of it, why given his medieval-demonologist outlook, his relentless credulity, his charm-challenged anti-intellectualism, and, well, his bad manners — would anybody want to be a colleague of Keel’s?

Contrary to general impression, which is wont to credit him with a more creative imagination than he in fact has, he is not a particularly original thinker. His mentor Meade Layne, founder of the occultish (the uncharitable would say crackpotish) Borderland Sciences Research Associates, got many of his ideas from medium Mark Probert, who channeled teachings from, among others, a 500,000-year-old Tibetan.[xiv] If this is your idea of a reliable source of information, God bless you, but I suspect most of you would elect to look elsewhere. Layne, I might mention, thought the etherians UTs were a generally benign lot. It was Trevor James Constable, a student of Layne’s, who first discerned the dark reality beneath the sunny exterior: The spacemen finally begin to emerge as coteries of unethical invisibles, exerting a psychic despotism over innocent and well-meaning people. [xv]

But Keel has been more widely read, and it is largely through him that ufologists and Forteans, or at least some of them, have plunged into the thickets of occultism and obscurantism, into a realm where words like elemental and superspectrum and ultraterrestrial and transmogrification are actually supposed to mean something.[xvi] Into, in other words, a domain of incoherent theory and dubious data and, finally, numbing irrelevance. If Keel were a humorist like Charles Fort rather than a windmill-tilter like Tiffany Thayer,[xvii] one could smile and shrug it off as an ongoing, offbeat joke. No Fortean, to my knowledge, has ever championed Fort’s sky islands or Ambrose-collectors, knowing that Fort wasn’t championing them, either. But Keel is deadly, gloomily, blusteringly, spittle-spewingly in earnest. Though usually politer and calmer about it, so are the legions of acolytes who since then have dropped a ton of Keelist doctrine on all our heads.

Let me close, however, on a mostly positive note. To the best of my recollection, I have been in Keel’s company three times, possibly four. Even with that limited exposure, I think I can safely testify that there are few more entertaining dinner companions. Though it’s hardly something one would infer from his writing public or private, in restaurants he has a dazzling and wicked sense of humor. I also think Mothman Prophecies is a hugely fun book, even if there are whole chunks of it no sensible human would take seriously for a nanosecond. I hope that the movie based on it is a huge success and that Keel makes a ton of money from it. He deserves to retire in peace. And, if the truth be told, the rest of us deserve to be left in the peace of Keel’s retirement.

i. A New Approach to UFO Witnesses, Flying Saucer Review, May/June 1968.
ii. As well as McDonald’s correspondence with a dizzying range of UFO personalities, from the sane to the certifiable.
iii It is surely pointless to mention here that no living physical anthropologist believes that Neanderthals were the ancestors of Homo sapiens.
iv. Our Haunted Planet (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, 1971).
v. UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970).
vi. Keel’s explanation for conservative ufologists rejection of claims like these is characteristically ad hominem. In The Flying Saucer Subculture, Journal of Popular Culture 8 (1975), he writes, Interestingly, the hard-core believer [sic] & tends to be over-skeptical & and has an extremely suspicious nature, perhaps because he/she has created an imaginary self-image and constructed the necessary lies to maintain it. Thus they tend to believe that everyone else shares these personality flaws. They often project or transfer their own problems to the UFO witnesses they interview, and many sincere percipients and contactees have been branded liars by UFO enthusiasts who thought they detected their own behavioral problems in them.
vii. Ganymede, of course, is usually thought to be a moon of Jupiter.
viii. Monteleone has his own credibility problems. The Omni confession, devoted chiefly to the ridicule of those foolish enough to believe him, gives the impression that his role as hoaxer was brief and limited. In fact, as late as January 1970, he was making public appearances. In an August 11, 1970, letter to Keel, he stated that the experiences I had with Vadig [his contact from Lanulos] were completely true. This was, of course, long after he had made whatever point he originally intended to make.
ix. Not only in Omni but in a better (and more restrained) piece by Karl T. Pflock; see Anatomy of a UFO Hoax, Fate, November 1980.
x. For example, see Mark Opsasnick’s amusing account in Strange Magazine (Spring 1995). Confronting Keel on his curious assertion that hed always known Monteleone was a fraud, Opsasnick asked, reasonably enough, why, knowing as much, he had still chosen to present it in Mothman Prophecies. Keel snapped, The chapter is about hoaxes! Read the whole chapter! Don’t read one sentence! The whole book says it’s all a crock of shit! Opsasnick notes, I decided to leave it at that. I reread the chapter. It is not about hoaxes. I could only hope that Keel s
statement the published word doesn’t mean anything applies only to this chapter.
xi. The Time Cycle Factor, Flying Saucer Review, May/June 1969.
xii If it matters, I was living in Moorhead, Minnesota, at the time.
xiii. Letter dated March 27, 1996.
xiv. See, for example, Layne’s Mark Probert, Baffling San Diego Medium, Fate, May 1949.
xv. Scientists, Contactees and Equilibrium, Flying Saucer Review, January/February 1960.
xvi. As veteran ufologist Richard Hall once wittily observed (MUFON UFO Journal, August 1977), for all the meaning terms such as these and extra-dimensional, psychical, Magonia, and the like bear, one might as well say that UFOs emanate from the chronosynclastic infindibulum.
xvii. The late James Blish once wrote of Thayer, founder of the Fortean Society, that he advocated almost every imaginable crazy belief. At bottom, he added, every one of these beliefs & turned out to rest on some form of personal devil theory. Cited in Damon Knight’s Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1970).


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