We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Strange Creations:

Aberrant Ideas of Human

Origins From Ancient

We take our crackpots for granted, ignoring them while they write shelves full of books, construct thousands of Web sites, print rant-covered broadsheets, attend conferences, and give lectures. Sometimes they strike gold. Everyone knows Chariots of the Gods?. But how many have taken the time to read it? Chariots was a best seller in 1969 for author Erich von Daniken, and its sequels continue to proliferate today. His thesis is part of popular culture: “God” was actually an astronaut (or a group of them) who visited Earth during man’s prehistory and established a number of landmarks, including the pyramids, the Mayan temples, and a giant airfield on the Plains of Nasca in Peru. Besides re-examining archaeological mysteries, von Daniken reinterpreted myths, folklore, and ritual from around the world as eyewitness accounts of extraterrestrial visitation.

Few realize that the enormously successful von Daniken was a latecomer to the ET-origins game. Nearly as many ancient-astronaut tomes precede as follow his in the long, rich tradition of crackpot literature. This lineage essentially starts in 19th-century esoterica, not surprisingly centered on Helena Blavatsky’s seminal New Age religion, Theosophy. But the ’50s, when nuclear-war hysteria and the space race prompted visions of UFOs come to save us from ourselves, were the real boom time for “starseed” theorizing. Desmond Leslie and George Adamski’s Flying Saucers Have Landed begat George Hunt Williamson’s Other Tongues—Other Flesh, followed closely by works from George Van Tassel, Brinsley Le Poer Trench, and Max Flindt and Otto Binder. Only then do we get to von Daniken. After him: Rael (still with us as a human-cloning advocate and starseed promoter) and Zecharia Sitchin (currently enjoying a resurgence in the popularity of his 12th Planet series, first published in 1976).

It’s all detailed in Donna Kossy’s new book, Strange Creations: Aberrant Ideas of Human Origins From Ancient Astronauts to Aquatic Apes, which surveys the histories of various unorthodox answers to one endlessly enticing question: Where did we come from? Starting with the ancient astronauts’ pedigree, Kossy explores the sources of many misguided ideas that exasperate mainstream society: white supremacy, “survival of the fittest,” Afrocentrism, eugenics, and New Age spirituality. Throughout, Kossy is to be commended for digesting a mind-boggling array of crackpot lit and deciphering its historical context and conceptual cross-pollination. It’s an awesome display of perseverance and organizational skill.

Kossy previously explored these ideas, and plenty of other, less easily categorized explanations of “hidden truths” in Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief, an anthology of articles from her ‘zine, Kooks, which ran for eight issues starting in 1989. The Kooks book was recently revised with previously unpublished material, much of it archived on her Kooks Museum Web site. Kossy’s current ‘zine, Book Happy, reports on esoteric literary thrift scores, but it can’t be any more a monument to her bibliomania than Strange Creations.

Whereas most other kooks chroniclers focus on debunking the pseudoscience, Kossy doesn’t pass judgment on her subjects. Maintaining an unflustered objectivity—as well as a sardonic sense of humor that gently cuts through the oddball esoterica—Kossy doggedly pursues an idea’s genealogy no matter where it may lead. She includes separate chapters on racial supremacists, eugenicists, and creationists, following them past the point of most readers’ patience. Of course, there’s no need for Kossy to condemn proponents of these theories—they hanged themselves long ago. But her effort pays off in unexpected ways. In one dense chapter, she details the long journey from Darwin to his cousin Sir Francis Galton’s eugenics theory to H.H. Goddard’s The Kallikak Family study to Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard’s racial purity idea—which ultimately led to state sterilization laws and federal immigration quotas in ’20s America, making it painfully clear where the Nazis derived their ideas of “racial hygiene” and the Final Solution.

In the case of creationism—the belief that God created the universe just the way the Bible says—Kossy shows how the idea sprang up in the 19th century, died out in the aftermath of 1925’s Scopes “monkey trial,” and then came back with a vengeance as a response to the addition of evolutionary theory to science curricula in the ’50s. In this and similar chapters, readers who expected mere profiles of lovable nuts may have the uncomfortable realization that they’re at the wrong freak show, but such sections provide a clear understanding of where the misguided get their ideas. As the saying goes: Everything old is new again.

Although her coverage is wide-ranging, Kossy doesn’t offer much in the way of psychological insight, even when she’s writing about such tantalizing books as David Barclay’s Aliens: The Final Answer?, an account of humanity’s origin as specially bred pets for sentient dinosaurs. Barclay’s idea is trumpeted on the back cover as a kind of badge of weirdness, but it gets only four paragraphs. Of course, maybe that’s to be expected—he’s not the only author to have championed “reptoid” alien interventions in human history.

The section on Finnvald Hedin’s vanity-press book, The Thorians, also seems too brief. Kossy boasts of possibly being “the only person not related to Finnvald Hedin to own a copy of the book” but gives a summary of this rarity rather than an excerpt. Granted, such books are often more fascinating in abstract than in the rhetorical flesh—reading can be slow going through misguided interpretations of biblical, Babylonian, or other myth filtered through improperly understood science, all bound together in circular logic that fails to conceal the author’s emotional investment in his own ideas. But this is exactly where Kossy should probe: What makes these authors tick? Why did they write this stuff? Are any of them Barnums instead of believers? Is it just an exercise in designing a cosmos governed by a finite set of rules?

Wherever Kossy delves deeper, the book is riveting. Her account of her own limited involvement with the Heaven’s Gate cult—exploring leads for Kooks—is chilling. In 1994, when the group was calling itself Human Individual Metamorphosis, Kossy attended one of their recruitment meetings in Portland, Ore. She printed a recruitment rant in her ‘zine. And she even helped a former member reunite with the cult, learning later that he died with the group in its 1997 mass suicide. After detailing the group’s 22-year education in Marshall Herff Applewhite’s “classroom,” where neophytes practiced separating themselves from material and social concerns, Kossy admits to being shocked by their sudden demise.

Kossy’s look at Elaine Morgan’s The Aquatic Ape and its sequels gains tremendously from her sympathetic approach. Here is one aberrant idea, Kossy admits, that she found herself “preaching” to her friends, while she was investigating the scientific establishment’s failure to acknowledge it. Kossy wasn’t alone; Morgan’s The Descent of Woman was a best seller in the late ’80s, riding its appeal as a “feminist” alternative to the “androcentric anthropology” of humankind’s “hunter” origins, wherein renegade ape women lead a kind of missing-link evolution in the sea. Kossy draws on her own experience to define the attraction of such an idea to nonscientists:

Aside from its merits, the perception of the AAT [aquatic ape theory] as the underdog—a smart, persistent outsider’s challenge to mighty scientific orthodoxy—accounts for the theory’s appeal among feminists, leftists and humanistic psychologists. The image of the watery, female ape…can’t help but appeal to men and women who wish to replace hard-edged male-dominated culture with what they hope will be a softer, female-centered culture….The AAT—though it’s shaky as a scientific theory—is elegantly rational compared to competing aberrant anthropologies, and politically correct as well.

Kossy discusses Oscar Kiss Maerth’s early-’70s book The Beginning Was the End, which proposed that the evolution of human intelligence hinged on an early ape fetish for cannibalized brain tissue, as the source material for New Wave band Devo’s name and philosophy. But this connection to modern pop culture is interrupted by a long history of de-evolution ideas—going back to Babylonian times!—that don’t necessarily add to the back story. And she could have beefed up the discussion of B.H. Shadduck’s anti-evolution pamphlet “Jocko-Homo, Heaven Bound”—the clear source of the song “Jocko Homo” from Devo’s first album. Kossy owns this pamphlet, and interviewed Maerth’s disciple Volker Zotz, but the material is cursory. It’s a missed opportunity to explore the motives of an author, reprint a rare tract, and delineate the role of its ideas in popular culture.

Kossy asserts that although Maerth’s book “rests on a chain of what most would identify as crazy ideas, the underlying message—that Western culture is bankrupt, progress is a dangerous illusion, and modern humanity is degenerate—conforms to the world view of contemporary alternative culture.” But she lets it go at that. The scope of her research is astonishing and enlightening, but the joyride becomes bogged down in the wealth of detail. The real stories lie in individual motives and rewards.

Nonetheless, groundwork such as Kossy’s is sorely needed if we are to make sense of this type of speculative work. The books of von Daniken, Morgan, and Maerth—and similarly unbelievable works that claim to be fact, written by people who clearly aren’t scientists or scholars—don’t seem worthy of study: They look like science fiction as written by frustrated folks who can’t separate their speculations from reality.

But pseudoscience literature more closely resembles outsider art: the insular worldview, the untutored approach, misuse of genre conventions, the need to make an alternate world in which the author is both safe and the controlling agent. These writers adapt popular forms in ways that are novel and exciting, but they consider themselves spiritual seekers rather than artists.

We know outsider artists mainly as workers in visual media. But what if someone decided to make art from the same impulse as, say, Howard Finster but chose a different medium—such as film, or music (as Finster also did, or as Irwin Chusid has documented of many artists in Songs in the Key of Z), or literature? When outsider artist Malcolm McKesson took a break from finely detailed depictions of his fantasies of a girls’ school for boys, he penned his novel Matriarchy, a pseudo-autobiography exploring the same themes. Or think of Henry Darger, considered the consummate outsider for hiding 50 years’ worth of watercolor drawings depicting the imaginary Glandeco-Angelinian Wars between young girls with tiny penises and brutal male soldiers. These actually were illustrations for his 15,000-plus-page narrative, known as In the Realms of the Unreal. And what if an outsider considered himself a scientist—perhaps an archaeologist? His work would fit right in on the shelves of crackpottery represented in Kossy’s book.

Consider Richard Shaver, who wrote “true” letters to Amazing Stories in the late ’40s and ’50s detailing his experiences in an underground world he called Lemuria combating the evil Dero, or “detrimental robots.” Amazing editor Ray Palmer heavily rewrote these epistles into “true stories” that bolstered a phenomenon known as the Shaver Mystery—as well as a dramatic leap in circulation. (Kossy gives a gloss of Shaver’s creation, but for greater detail, David Hatcher Childress’ Lost Continents & the Hollow Earth reprints a key volume of the Shaver mythos and details its history.)

All these outsider authors tend to take an experimental approach to form. McKesson wrote an “autobiography”; Darger wrote a “historical novel” that included himself as a participant. Von Daniken and his ilk, rather than employing the narrative structure of a space opera, an existential-problem novel, a collection of letters exchanged by protagonists, or the pack of tarot cards used by Italo Calvino, appropriate the form of a popular-scientific treatise. The desire of nonscientists to write their own science in an era of democratic information exchange makes sense: For one thing, we listen to our scientists.

And who doesn’t feel the need to be heard, to be respected for originality and ingenuity? Kossy knows she’ll always have plenty of reading material; as she writes in her Kooks anthology, “potentially we all are kooks.” CP