There really are things that go bump in the night. Some folks make it their business to look under the bed, into the closet or follow those strange lights into the woods. John A. Keel was one of those people. He was an indefatigable investigator into the strange, uncanny, weird and downright spooky reports that seemed to have plagued the American landscape from the late 19th century to the present.
UFOs, alien abductions, Bigfoot, Mothman, cattle mutilations, hauntings, conspiracies in and out of government, Keel investigated it all and shared it with his readers in taut, pensive, and often ironic prose honed from years of free lance ‘legitimate’ writing for a number of ‘big city’ papers.
Even though Keel’s books, Eighth Tower, Operation Trojan Horse and Mothman Prophecies became underground staples for many erstwhile readers and researchers in the realm of paranormal studies, his books never gained the wide readership that they deserved.
This was largely because Keel walked his own beat. He refused to follow the popular cultural narratives that began to build around UFO communities in the 1950’s. He did the leg work and interviewed witnesses himself, and then scouted neighborhoods for more witnesses. He took nothing at face value and eschewed membership in the various UFO investigative organizations that sprang up during the sixties and seventies. Basically, Keel was an iconoclast, and as such tended to alienate people. But it left him free to develop his own ideas about things.
Keel became most known for his book Mothman Prophecies (1975) which told of the widely attested accounts of strange sightings and visitations reported around Point Pleasant, WV, in the months prior to the tragic collapse of Silver Bridge, a busy thoroughfare span linking West Virginia to Ohio, on December 15, 1967, which killed 46 people during evening rush hour. Keel’s account of the truly strange circumstances surrounding this nationally covered event propelled him into some notoriety and eventually a very mediocre movie was made, based loosely on his narrative.
As a result, Keel began to develop a following, and Flying Saucer to the Center of Your Mind, and its companion book The Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone, both edited by Keel protege and equally obsessed Mothman investigator, Andy Colvin, are cases in point.
Colvin grew up in West Virginia, in the shadow of the Mothman stories, and having had some strange experiences himself, found in Keel a thoughtful theorist, sounding board and sometimes critical prod encouraging further investigations. Colvin, who refers to himself as the Mothman’s photographer, due to his obsession with this elusive subject, has diligently attempted to follow up on Keel’s research for many years now, searching for additional Mothman witnesses and interviewing individuals connected in one way or another with the story. Fortunately, for all of us, Colvin befriended Keel in his final days and was given permission to edit and republish some of the rarest of Keel’s articles, conference presentations and interviews.
The two books really should be read together because as a unit they truly display the range of Keel’s interests. Flying Saucer to the Center of Your Mind focuses more specifically on UFOs, contactees, abductions and attendant narratives. Here Keel discusses some of the more arcane and yet under reported aspects of reported human-alien interaction and provides practical advice and warning.
For example, he is adamant that most UFO sightings are explainable. Keel is much less critical of rank and file military personnel than of overly credulous investigators who annoy witnesses into silence. Most striking are his personal observations of the Men in Black (MIB) reports, which, contrary to the tenor of the popular movies, are often some of the scariest urban accounts ever told, Gray Barker’s fictional elaborations notwithstanding. Significantly, Keel came to the dual conclusions, very early in his investigative career, that ‘flying saucers’ were probably not extraterrestrial in origin and the MIB were not the CIA, neither of which endeared him to the UFO mainstream.
Noting that many of the accounts he collected had direct antecedents in folklore and tales of religious miracle, Keel tended to believe that the strange objects and entities humans were reporting were not new, but merely current spins on mysterious but ever present phenomena. He never came to firm conclusions, but rather played with ideas, such as the planet itself being a conscious entity that dreams and whose nightmares we might somehow share, or that there may be other forms of sentient life present that exists in a quasi-physical state and so is not always visible to us. In fact, some of our experiences with “them” might be be completely accidental.
Keel also speculated, in a manner similar to that of Jacques Vallee, another famous but rather maverick UFO investigator, that since so many paranormal reports are similar to events depicted in religious miracle stories, the whole arena of such things might constitute a kind of mind control, exercised on humanity by a planetary consciousness, either singular or plural, which is intent on molding the human psyche in some fashion. In his last full book, Keel referred to that possibility as The Disneyland of the Gods, and such avenues of thought did tend to make him more than a little paranoid and angry.
Complementing Flying Saucer to the Center of Your Mind, The Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone more specifically treats Keel’s other investigative ventures: Mothman, strange aerial noises, odd hoaxes, hauntings, medical mysteries, reported psychic phenonmena and how some of these are also related in interesting ways to UFO events. Keel was unique in how he was able to see patterns underlying seemingly diverse events. He didn’t always know what the patterns meant, but he had a sense that weird here and weird there are probably connected somehow, even if only in the narrative mind of the experiencer.
Keel was also interested in how human creativity might play a part in either the generating or experiencing of such things, so Outer Limits also includes some of his thoughts about the brilliant but sometimes scary SF writer, Philip Dick and a more recent presentation he made about, well, excretion.
Colvin frames each volume with thoughtful introductions by Dick’s widow, Tessa B Dick and Dr. Leon Davidson and reprints yet another written long ago by Keel’s old buddy in arms and occasional nemesis, Gray Barker. This reader felt herself gently slip into the mind set of that 11 year old who first read Keel years ago and found herself transported, mesmerized and terrified by the strangeness of the world that he reported. At night his book would get tucked under the pillow and every creak in the house would be interpreted as a possible otherworldly intruder.
For those of us who have always loved Keel, these two volumes are simply indispensable. Still in the works is a third volume, Searching for the String, which will include further Keel revelations and correspondence; promising still more late night reading sessions. So, for those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of reading a no nonsense reporter nailing them to the chair with a true minute by minute account of when some of those lights in the sky turned their attention to him, well, you just haven’t read anything scary enough yet. Not only has Colvin collected some of the best, most interesting examples of Keel’s writing and speaking, he has assembled them in a manner that takes the reader back to a time when even gumshoe journalists like Keel could actually write well about truly weird stuff while making intelligent literary references. Those were truly the days.