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John Keel: Father of Modern Forteana, or Just Another Guy?

Hands down, when it comes to my favorite investigators of the strange and unusual, two names immediately leap into mind: Jacques Vallee, the computer scientist, ufologist, and author of his famous Alien Contact Trilogy. The other figure that manifests is, of course, that famous explorer and master-journalist of the unexplained, the late John Keel.

In fact, while many following in the footsteps of researcher Charles Fort have adopted for themselves the title of “Forteans,” let it be known here and now that I would personally be as proud to carry the title of “Keelian” in the line of research I do. So let it be written, and verily, so let it be known: “Micah A. Hanks: Keelian Researcher.”

Indeed, it was Keel’s strange ramblings through Point Pleasant, West Virginia, during the late 1960s that resulted in public knowledge of the so-called “Mothman”: that ominous and lingering winged presence of cryptozoological and possibly ultradimensional origin that still haunts many of us to this day. Keel was also heralded as one of the finest examples of modern ufologists in his day, much like his contemporary Vallee; but as is often the bane of many investigators of the unexplained, Keel often found his literary contributions overshadowed by the strange nature surrounding the growing body of his work. Thus, it’s interesting to look back on the man himself, and consider Keel’s own feelings toward the state of ufology during his lifetime, and how seriously he took all of it as the years progressed.

At the John Keel blog (and for any who didn’t know this site existed, it’s a must-see for fellow “Keelians” like myself), I recently discovered this reprint of an obscure interview with Keel, dating back to 1985, which appeared in the Shavertron Magazine. This was a magazine devoted (as the name implies) to the work of Richard Sharp Shaver, who during the late 1940s contributed a multitude of psychotic ramblings in the form of longwinded essays he sent to one Ray Palmer, editor at the Ziff-Davis publication Amazing Stories. Shaver’s strange–albeit unique–interpretation of a race of underground beings that enslaved and manipulated mankind formed the nucleus of what would eventually be Amazing Stories‘ greatest triumph: the so-called “Shaver Mystery.” This entire mythos would later spill over into early ufology, especially after Palmer, who went on to found FATE Magazine in 1947, would begin to draw parallels between Shaver’s wild claims (Palmer accepted these, at least partially, as fact) and the emerging reports of “flying saucers” seen around the same time.

In the interview, which can be viewed here, it’s interesting to note that Keel, by this time somewhat disillusioned with the idea of UFOs and ultra-terrestrials, seems more cynical than anything. Despite this, there are moments of utter clarity that stem from the master, where glimpses of the more important aspects of this field of study become sublimely apparent.

For instance, when Keel is asked about being an authority on UFOs, he replies that, “NOBODY is an authority on UFOs. I expect to be remembered as a novelist and a playwright, if I am remembered at all.” At many points throughout the interview, Keel expresses sentiments such as these, lamenting somewhat the fact that so much of his work outside the realms of the unexplained seems have been overlooked by the UFO audience. Toward the end of the interview, Keel notes that, “I have a couple of books slated to appear in the next year. They have nothing to do with UFOs. It’ll be interesting to see how many UFO fans even realize they exist.”

Fortunately, Keel seemed to be wrong about a few things. When asked about the future of ufology, he retorted that ufology “has no future,” and that it would be “totally dead by 1987, the fortieth anniversary of the Arnold sighting.” This, of course, was not the case: but one thing can certainly be argued: that little, if anything, has changed about the field since the subject was first broached in Arnold’s day. Despite the predictions of Edward J. Ruppelt and the like, who supposed back in the 1950s that the UFO mystery would be solved, “in the next few decades,” this simply hasn’t been the case. Perhaps, as all this pertains to Keel’s rather bleak outlook on the subject in 1985, it’s really a matter of how you define “totally dead.” In my opinion, stagnant may be a more accurate description of what Keel was trying to express. True, though UFO books have continued to be published, the majority of them re-hash the old encounters–and the researchers who investigated those encounters–ad nauseam. Once could easily argue that there has been little growth in the field in the last few decades.

Regardless of what can be discerned about Keel and his feelings from this interview, it provides a fascinating (and sometimes rocky, if not altogether crass) portrait of the author at age 55, and of his perception of the future of this research. Somewhat remarkably, despite the influence his work has had on so many since the publication of books such as The Mothman Prophecies, Keel seemed utterly detached from the stranger things he had written about in his lifetime.

Some might view his disposition as slightly desperate, or merely disenchanted. Others might see Keel as having lacked faith in the body of his own work… but there is also a zen-like sense of “no-mindedness” which could be perceived from this: a man who, while a master of his craft, was all-too careful about giving himself to it entirely. Some might call him a master of Forteana, while I, on the other hand, would prefer to rectify the “Keelian” title in his honor. Keel himself on the other hand, looking back on all this posthumously, might be every bit as happy considering himself “just another guy”: another wanderer who, while inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, sought answers in his lifetime to something he couldn’t reconcile with entirely.

A wanderer perhaps… but evoking the immortal words of Tolkien, “not all who wander are lost.” This, we can say with utter certainty, was very much the case with Mr. John Alva Keel.

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  • I’ve only read Mothman Prophesies, but it stands as my favorite non-fiction.  I can understand his lack of enthusiasm late in life; considering how he walked into this fantastic situation, the following years must have paled in comparison.  Mothman was one of those rare books where I could almost hear the author reading it to me.  The theories he raised could almost be seen as an all-encompassing theory of the paranormal.

  • Doug Skinner

    Ah, I’m glad to see you found that interview; I was fascinated by it I maintain the Keel blog).  Part of John’s disaffection was professional: he was finding it harder and harder to make a living writing about Forteana.  The bit about his novels and plays was wishful thinking: he pitched several novels in the ’80s, all rejected by his agent, and his plays were not produced.  He continued to be quite interested in Forteana, but did feel that much of the literature rehashed what he and others had already written.  

  • Clairebear

    Of all the writing done on ufos, and I have read a LOT of it, Keel and vallee really do stand out as thinkers who transcended the obvious and mundane and turned a riddle into a true philosophical enigma. Both men evolved over time and were unafraid in their work to revise past assumptions. Both men’s work reveals the deeply subjective aspect of the phenomenon, yet understanding that “subjective” is not the same as “made up”.

    These days, listening to coast to coast or watching shows about the paranormal or reading about these crypto topics is so often banal, dull, prosaic, etc. This blog is an exception, so is Loren Coleman, some of the synchromysticists, the anomalist, and a few others. A life without mystery, with scientific explanations for that massive and varied set of phenomena we call the human experience, would be dull indeed–Friedman, snoory, the skeptics, and the dogmatics fail to understand the heart of the universe. The magic is in oursel es, and ourselves create the known and unknown landscapes of the infinite.

  • Red Pill Junkie

    This is pure speculation from my part, but often I’ve wondered by Keel’s late rejection to the UFO subject was in fact a sort of psychic defense he used in order to keep the mysterious forces that haunted him during the writing of Mothman at bay.

    The more you pay attention to the unknown the more attention it pays back at you, so maybe the opposite is also true.

  • Jeff Davis

    The thing that sat Keel apart from so many within the Fortean sub club was the fact he was NOT a “true believer” like so many. He never attempted to turn his passion for the unknown into a religion or a clique.

  • Doug Skinner

    One of John’s favorite maxims was “Belief is the enemy.”  Of course, he didn’t always live up to that (none of us do), but he did his best…

  • Alice Merlin

    I definitely share your admiration to Jacques Vallée and John Keel as the best of the best in this field, but definitely you are missing someone: Spanish author Salvador Freixedo. I hope you can find some of their books translated to English, so you can judge for yourself.
    By the way, I like very much your work at MU. Way to go.