Singularity | Commentary

Some of that old “sense of wonder” is found far from the racks of science fiction and fantasy. Some of it’s to be had in nonfiction — at least, what the authors believe is nonfiction. For this sort of encounter with the numinous, there's no better destination than . . .

Jack Womack's Library of Oddities

In 1967, as usual, I was eyeing the racks at my local Rexall Drugstore. During that year’s UFO flap, cash-crazed paperback publishers keen to take advantage of a rapidly-expanding nondiscriminatory market were weekly reprinting almost every flying saucer book which had appeared in the Golden Age of Space Brotherdom. Through the agency of Pyramid Books (who favored the titles other houses steered clear of) I discovered Flying Saucers Uncensored, and its author, Harold T. Wilkins. Chapter titles such as “Strange Stories of Colossal Spaceships” and “Mystery of the Martian ‘Death Ceiling’ ” led me to suspect Mr. Wilkins was exuberant even by the standards of the day, and the instant I read his text, I was assured of this.

From his recently reissued Secret Cities of Old South America (Adventures Unlimited Press):

A nightmare vision is he! Even the hardened and acclimatized Meta Indians, not to speak of the fierce llaneros who, as Don Roberto said of the gauchos of the Argentina of his day, hold it merit of a man not to be mean of his throat when the conquering soldier comes to cut it after the losing of the battle, are scared to death of this demon of Satan, lord of the flies! . . . One man who met, but was not seen by this horrid antediluvian world denizen likened his skull to the head of a Mesozoic Age saurian!
Mr. Wilkins is describing a moth. Even as a youth I was drawn to the masters.

H.T. Wilkins (1883-1960) was a multilingual Cambridge graduate who worked as a journalist. His first book, Great English Schools, appeared in 1925. During the thirties he published several volumes on treasure hunting and pirates, all quite entertaining if you’re in the right mood. As was said of Harry Stephen Keller, Mr. Wilkins’ books, to the inexperienced, read as if they might have been written in Choctaw. His stylistic idiosyncracies are evident throughout his work — his fondness for exclamation points, his periodic apostrophes to Mankind at Large, his avoidance of understatement, his tendency to allow the narrative to drift into unrelated tangents (and tangents within tangents) for pages at a time, his desire never to say “cat” when “carnivorous assailant of the domestic rodential kingdom” will do, his propensity to scatter inscrutable foreign words and phrases throughout his text sans translation.

And, most delightfully, his breathtaking willingness to believe anything. I have an inkling that Wilkins would have jumped at the chance to sell his house, his firstborn, or his soul for a seventh-hand account of a lake monster sighting, a treasure map scrawled in crayon on a sheet of typing paper, or a bag of magic beans.

This willingness transfigures into something supernal in his later works — Mysteries of Ancient South America, Strange Mysteries of Time and Space, Flying Saucers on the Attack (a/k/a FS From the Moon, or On the Moon), and the aforementioned books. Anyone who describes themself, as Wilkins does, as “an open-minded skeptic” and proceeds to tell of a Possible Space Alien spotted in a small restaurant in Kentucky wearing five-toed shoes is someone I’d have liked to spend a little time with. Well — Wilkins is gone, but the books live on.

In the early 1950s he also wrote a column for Fate magazine, which seems only natural. A volume of these were compiled in England in the early 1970s, but I have yet to find it. I’m also still looking for his Mysteries of the Great War 1914-1918 (Phillip Allan, 1935), although I’m starting to fear that all copies must have been in a warehouse that went up during the Blitz.

I am aware that Wilkins completed a third manuscript on UFOs, called The Phantom War of the Flying Saucers, for which I would trade any number of bags of magic beans. Evidently it was rejected for being too over-the-top. The mind, as mine yet occasionally does, boggles.

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Copyright © 1998 by Jack Womack and Event Horizon Web Productions, Inc.