[ Read an excerpt from “The Unidentified.” ]
But in Dickey’s fascinating, troubling, compassionate and — in the end — deeply thoughtful narrative, he also makes the case for why people like Fort wield so much influence. Dickey has explored occult territory before, in books like “Ghostland” (2016), but this time he sets himself the goal of trying to explain why so many find paranormal events and ideas so persuasively real. Surveys show that, between 2015 and 2018, belief in Bigfoot grew from 11 percent of the American population to 21 percent, and acceptance of alien visitations rose from 20 percent to 41 percent. “We are more and more ignoring ‘experts’ and embracing the kinds of beliefs that were once relegated to cults,” Dickey writes.
To understand why, he carefully traces lines of influence between early flame-fanners like Fort and the earnest believers of today. Dickey’s story emphasizes the potency of the 19th century, a time when lovers of myth and mystery, alienated by the rise of Darwinian science, proposed possibilities of vanished civilizations like Atlantis or lost landscapes of large aliens and small lemurs, like Lemuria. Many of us may not have considered, or even heard of, Lemurian possibilities. But Dickey details the history of the idea, following it from a 19th-century glimmer of a thought to its still faithful followers in Northern California, who hold tight to the belief that Lemurians shelter in caverns under Mount Shasta.
This is natural territory, of course, for curiosities. I also had no idea that, until the 1860s, reputable scientists considered pandas a ridiculous myth. Or that the American government was hunting Yeti through the Himalayas in the 1950s, spooking the Soviets into accusations that our monster hunt was all about espionage. Or even that New York’s old, acclaimed, alternative weekly, The Village Voice, once fostered the idea of alien abductions.
Dickey uses such incidents not merely to tell good campfire stories but to illustrate their shared darker themes — a deep distrust of science and government, amplified both by self-promoters and by conspiracy lovers. And he notes that scientific arrogance and excessive government secrecy have fueled these fires. The military’s heavy-handed classification of U.F.O. information, for instance, was a treasured gift to those weaving tales of federal cover-ups and hidden spacecraft.
There’s nothing startlingly new or transformative in these conclusions. But Dickey’s sense of history reminds us of the complex reasons our odder beliefs endure. It’s not that we necessarily want weirdness, he suggests, but we do want wonder, we want the freedom of possibility. So there’s beauty and even comfort in the idea of “a world beyond our understanding, a world we can glimpse here and there but never fully see.”