The Brimstone Deceit
An In-Depth Examination of Supernatural Scents, Otherworldly Odors, and Monstrous Miasmas
Anomalist Books 2016
Pb, 445pp, notes, bib, ind, $18.95, ISBN 9781938398643
The Brimstone Deceit could be the title of a disposable paperback thriller, the sort of thing you read on an airplane trip to a distant land and then forget about. As the subtitle clarifies, however, it’s a fortean book, only on an unusual topic. Following up his previous A
Trojan Feast ( FT329), which dealt with food and drink consumed in otherworldly contexts, this time Joshua Cutchin takes on extraordinary smells. You have to admire the guy. He’s found a novel approach. What next? Peculiar noises?
Anyway, not only is Cutchin a creative thinker, he reads widely. And he has a becoming modesty, insisting too hard on nothing he proposes, always sensitive to the reasonable objections of others. So Cutchin’s temperament is truly fortean, both tentative and self-critical. As he candidly acknowledges, most people’s anomalous experiences are odourless. I know mine was; soundless, too. I can’t speak for yours, but I suspect you didn’t smell anything either.
As his title implies, the author focuses on sulphuric odours, traditionally (though not entirely) associated with demonic entities. Essentially, after chapters that meander through a wide range of anomalous reports, Cutchin argues – extrapolating from the relevant scientific and medical literature – that the nose remembers better than the brain; the forces that generate encounters want to make a lasting impression that serves their purposes, whatever they are. Cutchin is vague about the nature of otherworldly intelligences in the fashion of most cautious anomalists these days.
Well, who knows? This grizzled weirdness-chaser has a hard time generally with theories that privilege certain claims over others, even when done as cautiously as Cutchin does them. Then again, if he didn’t take his choices, he wouldn’t have a book. Arguably, many or most anomalies lie beyond current knowledge and reference. That’s why the longer you study them, the more impenetrably baffling they become. Not that we ought in consequence to abandon all reflection; after all, what else can we do? But aside from acknowledging that high-strangeness phenomena are vividly experienceable yet not provable to those who need to sneer them out of discussion, I am unable to venture with much confidence.
In my view Cutchin is overly enamoured of the late John Keel. From my long experience of him – from the late 1960s to his death in 2009 – Keel looks today something like the Donald Trump of forteana, notable more for bluster and vitriol than for sense and substance. Like Keel (though far better-natured, and for that matter better read, than him), Cutchin is occasionally willing to embrace a likely or certain tall tale to advance a broader point.
Unfortunately, I must accept responsibility for one of them (p131), which I picked up from a 1950s issue of Len Stringfield’s UFO newsletter and revived, in a spasm of youthful folly, for a 1967 article published in Flying Saucer Review.
The story is fictitious, likely the concoction of obscure yarnspinner Robert Coe Gardner (Stringfield’s named source) who occasionally surfaced on the fringes of the early UFO scene, always with whopper at the ready.
I respect Cutchin’s clear intelligence and clever approach, and I happily anticipate the books he will write in the future. There may be the stuff of fortean greatness in him. Even so, I found The Brimstone Deceit only sporadically engaging, not quite so much fun as his previous volume. I do hope, though, that the next one is about fortean audial phenomena. That seems, at least to me, a more promising subject.