Monday, 14 March 2011

Strange Stories in a World of Wonder part 2

As self-defined prophet and former newsreader Jeron Criswell King, aka The Amazing Criswell, notes in his bizarre prologue to the 1959 film Plan 9 From Outer Space, “ you are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable, that is why you are here.” For many forteans, there was a catalyst in their early life that first kindled their interest in the world of strange phenomena, and set them on the road to a preoccupation with high strangeness. Asked what that formative experience was, a number of today’s forteans now in their forties – at least those who grew up in the UK, Holland or the Commonwealth – would answer that what first got them hooked on “the mysterious, the unexplainable” was reading World of Wonder’s “Strange Stories”.

World of Wonder (WoW) magazine appeared every Saturday – usually dropped through the letterbox by the paper boy – into many households in the first half of the 1970s. WoW dealt with science, history, geography, technology (especially Spitfires and the latest cutting edge developments in “the mighty transistor”). But by far its strongest section was its “Strange Stories” spot. “Strange Stories” presented the kids of the 1970s with a firm grounding all the usual fortean staples - the Marie Celeste, the “abominable snowman”, sasquatch, the Cardiff giant, Kasper Hauser, Indian wolf children, the “Devil’s footprints “of 1855 Devon, the hollow earth theories of John Clere Symmes and others, Spring-Heeled Jack, the man in the iron mask, the Oak Island money pit, James Churchwald and his alleged lost continent of Mu, the Tunguska explosion. (WoW 156 carried an illustration of alarmed Transiberian Railway passengers in Tsarist Russia period beards, stiff shirt collars and all, witnessing the explosion from afar,) Less well known mysteries that seems to have been forgotten about in the intervening 40 years were also given space in the pages of “Strange Stories”, (see, for example the “Strange Phenomena Involving U-Boats in WWI” below.)

World of Wonder was a slightly text-heavier spin off publication from its sister publication Look & Learn, founded in 1962 by Leonard Matthews, who had launched several children’s comics, and brought in some of the best of the comics illustrators to engage the kids with dynamic illustrations that would draw children in to history, geography and science. Both World of Wonder and Look & Learn had to do this while also somehow remaining acceptable to parents – a tall order, and probably the reason why there were so few appearance of any “Strange Stories” on World of Wonder’s cover.

World of Wonder shared several illustrators with Look & Learn. British childern’s comics expert Steve Holland recalls that World of Wonder came into being in an attempt to produce a format that – it was hoped - could be easily translated to be sold on to publishers in Germany, France, Italy, Holland and Yugoslavia. In the event, there was only an English version – under the editorship of Robert Bartholomew - and a Dutch language edition. After a five-year run, the publisher that bought the Dutch edition of World of Wonder from publishers IPC decided to go it alone, commissioning their own material. As WoW had less of a pedigree than its slightly brasher cousin Look & Learn, publisher Fleetway (a division of IPC) absorbed WoW into a new look L&L with some extra pages, and Strange Stories continued in L&L, for a while, at least…

It was the illustrations that “Strange Stories” – and its occasionally fortean sister series “Talking Point” - particularly excelled at, and which made the biggest impression on its pre-teen audience. (See Part One for more on the usually uncredited WoW artists.) “There Are Giant Serpents in Every Sea” declared WoW 26, depicting a collosal long-necked plesiosaur swimming in bright green seas, dwarfing a sailing ship of the Olden Days, as well as one sea serpent spotted by startled straw-boater and blazer wearing holidaymaker and his wife at the northern English seaside reasort of Skegness in 1966. The fearsome Serrano Cay giant octopus featured on the cover of WoW 179, menacing two Mexican lighthouse keepers when it suddenly came out of the depths in 1905. According to “Strange Stories”, the octopus killed one keeper, Diego Alvez, before his colleague Ferdinand Moxo eventually managed to shoot it with a rifle. Another giant octopus, spotted from the French sailing frigate Alecton. (WoW 76) was depicted in brilliant pinks. There’s also the narrative of James Bartley, (WoW 58), a British harpooner swallowed by a sperm whale off the Falklands in 1891, and cut out alive from its corpse the next day (after his funeral). His hair was bleached by “gastric juices” and he went briefly insane, before he resumed harpooning duties. WoW58 filled a whole page with the gaping mouth of the whale closing in on helpless man overboard Bartley, with the large headline SWALLOWED BY A WHALE.

Other “Strange Stories” from the annals of natural history and cryptozoology included (WoW 35) a decade of disbelief at Sir Harry Johnston discovery of the okapi in the forests of the Congo until he finally came up with photos of it in 1909. The Parisian pet derby of 1909 (WoW 78) was a race involving the exotic pets of decadent fin de siecle Parisian aristocratic ladies – contestants included an Egyptian dung beetle, a goose, the Princess of Lucinge’s lion cub, a tortoise and a monkey, with some prize pets depicted held on leads by the Parisian aristocratic ladies with girly bows round their necks. After a short race which descended into mayhem as runners tried to stangle or eat each other, Madamoiselle Yturbe’s monkey won. The illustrator got a little carried away with some of the French gentlemen’s top hats, some of which obscured part of the text.
Stranger still was WoW’s short and wilfully obscure ‘Birds that cannot fly” series, which covered (WoW 224) the “Emu War” of 1932, in which the Australian Heavy Battery artillery unit of the Australian Army attempts to exterminate a huge, crop-devastating flock of emus was outwitted by the nimble birds running around in all directions. An emu-proof fence eventually proved slightly more effective.
Incredible journeys were favourite theme of Strange Stories. In WoW 141, Apsley Cherry Gerrard made the worst journey in the world across Antarctica over five weeks in 1991 to collect three penguin eggs. Mark Poltorctzky, aged 13, walked 700 miles across Russia in 1714, surviving trees falling on him and exposure in the snow to reach Moscow ands take up hiw post as an Imperial Choirboy in Moscow in WoW 146. The coffin containing the body of actor Charles Coughlan, (WoW 135) who was buried in a coastal cemetery in Galveston, Texas in 1899, was swept out to sea in a hurricane the following year to finally come ashore on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, close to his birthplace on 15 September 1927. Coughlan’s coffin had made a journey in which it averaged 65-80 miles a day.

Former Italian diplomat Felice Benuzzi and two of his compatriots and fellow prisoners of war interned in Camp 354 in Kenya also made a “Strange Stories”-style incredible journey in WoW 92, escaping to undergo an 18-day ordeal ending in a climb to the summit of Mount Kenya, where they planted a homemade Italian flag, then returned to 354 to give themselves up. They were apparently bored in captivitiy. But my favourite incredible journey story has to be the one from WoW 130 of the extraordinary hardships endured by Frenchman Rene Caille, who made a year-long odyssey in 1828, disguised as a runaway Egyptian slave, to become the first white man to gaze on the legendary splendours of the forbidden city of Timbuktu, thereby claiming a 10,000 franc prize. After many life-threatening episodes, he discovered that Timbuktu had become a complete dump.

For those who found school history lessons boring, there was plenty of Strange Stories of historical revisionism. WoW7 speculated on the possible survival of Louis XVII, crown prince who went missing aged nine in the French Revolution. WoW2 asked, was Napoleon poisoned? WoW 108 asked, was American school teacher of French origin Philip Ney really Napoleon’s Marshall Ney, who had emigrated after surviving a firing squad? Look & Learn (L&L) 692 asked whether Joan or Arc had survived, having not been burnt at the stake after all. WoW 33 presented claims that Guy Fawkes was a patsy, an innocent tenant of the Westminster cellars, caught in an anti-Catholic plot to convince James I that ‘Papists’ were trying to blow him up. WoW 46 offered alternative authors of Shakespeare’s plays, while - somewhat more plausibly – WoW 57 suggested that missing American aviatrix Amelia Earhart was a spy who fell into Japanese hands. “Strange Stories” was an advocate of the teaching of what we would now call “critical thinking”. Always gently sceptical, “Strange Stories” gave these revisionist history theories the time of day but suggested to impressionable young minds that such theses should be taken with at least a healthy pinch of salt

“Strange Stories” seemed to have a particular affection for chancers and adventurers who became living gods. These included penniless Irish sailor David O’Keefe, shipwrecked on the South Sea island of Yap, who was welcomed as its king, who displaced the German “agent” active on the island at the time, who built a trading fleet to export coconut kernels direct to Hong Kong, who saw of pirates and Dutch colonists, before a German battleship and troops finally forced him into exile in 1901. “Lawyer Lebeau” tricked onto a prison ship to New France (as the French possessions in Canada were then known), where he was captured by the Iroquois. He persuaded the Iroquois nation he was a messenger from the Great Spirit, convincing them his law degree was a letter from the King of France giving him authority to flatten mountains. The Iroquois eventually lost interest in him (WoW 257). And there was also James Brooke, who “accidentally” became king of the headhunters in 1920s Borneo. Not quite a living god, but certainly a Venezuelan national hero after his work as a “hero doctor” fighting a plague epidemic in Peru was Pierre Bougrat, whose Strange Story featured in WoW 158. Whilst esteemed in Latin America, right up to his death in 1962, Bouget was regarded by the French has an fugitive convicted murderer, having escaped to South America from France’s Devil’s Island penal colony on a small boat with five other convicts.

Are there patterns that can be discerned in high strangeness? There are certainly themes that keep coming up in “Strange Stories.” As we saw in Part One, hoaxers, spectacular criminals and spectacular crimes, hoaxes, amazing scams, archaeological mysteries, extreme eccentrics, curses were popular Strange Stories subjects, as were unusual episodes from the annals of war. Cryptozoology was also a Strange Stories favourite, lending itself as it did to spectacular illustration possibilities. Then there were Strange Stories clusters of incredible journeys filled with hardship, historical revisionism and men who accidentally became prophets or living gods (see text). Timeslips - especially Parisian timeslips - were another theme, including the sighting by two British tourists at Versailles in 1901 of women in the clothing of Marie Antoinette’s time. Then there was the apparent timeslip involving the disappearance – along with all records of her having been there - of a Mrs Randolph staying in room 343 of the Carillon Hotel, Paris with her daughter during the 1899 Paris Exhibition. The ever sceptical “Strange Stories” told its young readers that there was a likely rational explanation – Mrs Randolph disappearing from history, right down to her entry in the hotel register, was actually down to her being discreetly spirited away to hospital by a Parisian health authoritiy conspiracy, they being eager to avoid panic in the streets after being alerted that she had caught “the plague” in India.

But for a bizarrely obscure fortean sub-genres, nothing comes close to Strange Stories apparent pre-occupation with strange phenomena associated with German U-Boats of the First World War. Strange Stories catalogued four such cases, which you don’t read so often about in fortean circles these days.

One “Strange Stories” round-up of maritime mysteries featured U-Boat U236 which survived a mid-Atlantic torpedoing from a British sub in 1917 after one of these malfunctioned and jumped over U236. A year later, another (unnumbered) U-Boat fired a torpedo at the British Q ship Stock Force, only for the torpedo to slew back and blow the U-Boat up. WoW39 described how the U-Boat UB-65, reportedly haunted by the ghost of a dead officer, was beset by inexplicable disasters, and was spotted floating apparently abandoned by an American sub in 1918. (“Strange Stories”, perhaps wisely in view of possible parental surveillance, generally steered clear of ghosts.) WoW 25’s “Talking Point”, alongside better-known sea serpent sightings, had a dramatic illustration of Captain Georg van Forstner, on the bridge of yet another World War One U-Boat, this one while on active service in 1915, witnessing a strange, 60 ft- long “crocodile-like creature” – which in WoW’s illustration more closely resembles a finned Jurassic mososaur - being blown out of the sea and into the air by the boiler of explosion of a sinking British steamer that he’d recently torpedoed.

Normally sceptical WoW refrained from presenting a perfectly logical explanation for the “crocodile-like creature,” but the misidentified, fleetingly-glimpsed thrown up floating decaying corpse of a basking shark of whale as it shot past Captain Forstner before plunging beneath the waves does spring immediately to mind.

Some “Strange Stories” weren’t all that strange at all – Cardinal Wolsey’s rise to power, the invention of jeans by Levi Strauss, Napoleonic prisoners of war making intricate models out of bone – and the only mystery is what they were doing in Strange Stories at all. Just as newspapers have the odd “slow news day,” Strange Stories had the odd low strangeness week in which presumably already commissioned historical features – such as the dramatic yet not particularly strange rescue of Mussolini by powered glider, or the noteworthy but not exactly eyebrow-raised 1944 Operation Valkyrie plot against Hilter - had to be hastily rebranded under a dubious Strange Stories masthead. There is, after all, only so much strangeness out there suitable for a child audience, and “Strange Stories” had to find enough strangness to fill at least a full page every week for over five years.

And indeed, the “Strange Stories” strangeness supply did eventually run dry. WoW was taken over by Look & Learn in February 1975, with only a week’s warning to subscribers. While “Strange Stories” was among the limited number of WoW spots that made the transition, other regular WoW spots finished abruptly in mid-series, when WoW 258 was suddenly followed by L&L 686. L&L is best known for the sci-fi strip The Trigan Empire, which lost is excellent illustrator Don Lawrence soon afterwards and went downhill from there. The first L&L “Strange Stories” was the Turin Shroud, which had already been done as a Strange Story a couple of years before back in the old WoW glory days. “Strange Stories” went into decline in its L&L ownership, it ceased to be a weekly event and became more and more occasional, until it finally stuttered out of existence and faded from view forever around L&L 649 in 1975. The short fortean series “Haunted Britain” (featuring Geoff the talking mongoose and Drury Lane’s numerous theatre ghosts, followed, but L&L was a less nurturing environment for forteana than WoW, and it lived on only in the memories of then young forteans. (And not just the fortysomethings – at least one thirtysometing Strange Stories fan on online blogs recall discovering the series after stumbling across a complete set of WoW back issues in a box in a friend’s attic. Look & Learn, having gobbled up WoW and several other kid’s “knowledge” weeklies – Treasure, Tell Me Why, Speed & Power – finally bit the dust in 1982 – killed off by, of all things, soaring paper prices.

Most “Strange Stories” were presented to a young audience in good faith, and if “Strange Stories” team felt a story was not grounded in some kind of fact, they said so. After all, the “Strange Stories” team would face the wrath of angry parents if they passed off fantasy as sort-of-possibly-fact to the kids. But in retrospect, it seems one or two “Strange Stories” that were in fact groundless tall stories may have slipped through the net, probably copied from other secondary sources that had been unwittingly duped and hoaxed.

In this category of ‘probably made up’ was the alleged Parisian pet derby related above. Did the Parisian aristocratic ladies’ exotic pets derby (WoW 78) really happen?

And, finally… there is the most intriguing Strange Story of the Chinese invasion of Monterrey, California in the 1870s (WoW 228). According to Strange Stories, Imperial China under the Qing Dynasty sent a fleet of junks on a punitive expedition to America, in revenge for the way America cruelly exploited and humiliated Chinese immigrant workers in that country. So hopelessly antiquated was the Chinese invasion fleet that its navigators ran into trouble after underestimating the breadth of the Pacific Ocean, and headed for Monterrey, which had earlier briefly been the state capital of California, but not anymore. On landing, the Chinese invaders could not get the good citizens of Monterrey to understand that they’d come to punish them, and the locals seized them and carried them shoulder-high through the streets in welcome, as depicted by the “Strange Stories” illustrator. The invaders quickly assimilated into the immigrant Chinese community of Monterrey.

The brutal Qing dynasty certainly couldn’t give much of a damn what happened to the hordes of peasants, who were risking life and limb to flee the feudal miseries of China and its rulers in the first place. Qing China’s formidable foreign ministry, the Zongli Yamen, had been in operation since 1861, and its intelligence-gathering section woul have been informed of the correct distance across the Pacific. Any fleet of war junks China could have raised would probably have been blasted out of the sea by the numerous European, American or Japanese fleets that had taken up residence in the “Treaty Ports” they had carved out along China’s coast. And the internet is suspiciously silent on the subject of any alleged 1870s Chinese invasion of Monterrey, California. This begins to look awfully like one of the small town19th century American newspaper tall tales made up to fill space, or a faintly racist satire on contemporary Chinese immigration. Can any FT readers enlighten us on whether this particularly Strange Story really is made up?

As a nine-year old I of course believed every word of it, I had read it in the totally groovy coll fab Strange Stories, after all, so it must be true. I even vigorously defended the veracity of Strange Stories-sourced evidence, 13ft-high Mexican giant skeletons and all, against contemptible doubting Look & Learn readers in the back of the car on the school run.

While there have been compilations of Look & Learn published since its demise, back issues of World of Wonder and “Strange Stories” seem to command little value or interest – so little interest in fact, that I wasn’t even able to find out from ebay how much I could get for the complete bound volumes of WoW that earlier this year were still knocking around the home I grew up in. My mum wanted to throw them out, so I donated them to the offices of Fortean Times for safekeeping – a suitable home for what Charles Fort called “damned data.”


World of Wonder bibliography – reminiscences on World of Wonder

Official Look & Learn website

The Bumper Book of Look and Learn, selected by Stephen Pickles, Century/Random House, London, 2007

World of Wonder is held in the British Library serials collection (, shelf mark P.993/58. The Fortean Times office holds a complete bound set of World of Wonder.