The Brim­stone De­ceit

An In-Depth Ex­am­i­na­tion of Su­per­nat­u­ral Scents, Oth­er­worldly Odors, and Mon­strous Mi­as­mas

Fortean Times - - Reviews / Books - Jerome Clark

Joshua Cutchin

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.

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