It’s the End of the World As We Know It, and I Feel Fine…

In case you hadn’t noticed, the millennium is coming. This is affecting people in different ways: religious cults from California to Japan are preparing for the apocalypse (and starting it if necessary), the government here is building a big dome thing at Greenwich, and publishers are flocking like lemmings to open up publications on strange phenomena.

A trip to the newsagent can now easily turn into ATA — that’s Attack of the Three-letter Acronyms, as you are assailed by magazines about UFOs, BEMs, ABCs, MiB, and JFK. Such publications have always existed, but not so long ago, Fortean Times was only available through mail-order and specialist book-shops. Admittedly, in the general interconnectedness of things, it’s hard to prove cause and effect, yet there seems to be a massive increase in what might be generically termed “weird shit”.

Whether the popularity of The X Files is a cause or merely the most obvious symptom is an interesting question. Chris Carter certainly seems to have tapped into a rich vein of the collective unconscious, and this has been reflected in the publishing world. Most of the magazines make at least a nod to the X Files, and in some cases, it’s a lot more blatant.

So, in order to take the temperature of the world’s zeitgeist (as it were), I carried out a sweep of such publications, consciously omitting anything hard to find — everything below came from W.H. Smith’s, indicating just how mainstream previously fringe beliefs now are. Going by the strange looks from the sales assistant, the first thing I learned is that I’d probably rather buy £20 worth of porn than £20 worth of UFO mags. “Would you like a plastic bag?”, she asked; I mumbled acceptance and stuffed the ‘research material’ away. However, it was of endless interest to my work mates, proving its millennial fascination even in the financial institution where I toil away.

The common theme is an acceptance of the existence of strange phenomena with a near-religious faith, albeit one varying from the Agnostic to the Fundamentalist Islamic in intensity. There may be quibbles over whether this or that piece of evidence are valid, yet this rarely distracts from a general feeling perhaps best summed up by Fox Mulder’s poster: “I want to believe”. As the Heaven’s Gate cult showed, UFOs and religion are often intertwined parts of the same thing. And here are the results. These magazines lend themselves less well to quantitative analysis, as the blokemags did — after all, the ads are part of the experience, even (or perhaps especially) if they’re for deeply sad stuff like Star Trek credit cards. Instead, I’ve rated each in a number of areas:

  • Boggle — How off-the-wall are the contents? Football rates low, but “aliens abducted Reagan and replaced him with a cyborg” rates high. Though thinking about it…
  • Plausibility — The more bizarre your topic, the more authoritative you need to be. Just as with films, the best make anything seem viable through reliable, authoritative writing.
  • Longevity — There are mags you read once and dispose. Then there are those you carefully file away for future use – and I have cupboards of the damn things to prove it…
  • Amusement — Probably the most important thing, assuming you read them for the same reasons I do. Take these with a jaundiced eye and a six-pack of beer to hand…

Alien Encounters #11, £2.99, pp84. Though nominally based around the UFO theme, this covers a broad range of topics, connected tangentially. Mind control, drugs, and coverage of film and television are all included in a multi-disciplinary approach. The writing is good, making the abstruse tech stuff interesting and clear. It also benefits from an apparent sense of humour – they even had an April Fool’s joke – that to some extent defuses an especially unquestioning tone, which appears a common problem with Paragon Publishing titles (see Uri Geller’s Encounters). The Bubblegum Crash article also makes it probably the only UFO magazine to have a gratuitous anime reference…

Bizarre #2, £2.50, pp100. The major problem here is that it isn’t. Bizarre, that is. Despite coming complete with a free mini-booklet of “The World’s Most Bizarre Facts Ever” (Example: “slugs have four noses”), it’s only marginally left-field. Many of the pieces, such as one on being a Tornado pilot, could have come from FHM, Maxim or GQ — it feels more like Loaded, though it’s from the same publisher as Fortean Times. While not badly written, the blokish approach seems hideously inappropriate to some topics, and I suddenly realised this is really one of the men’s mags reviewed last TC. Against them, it’d stand up very well, but compared to the rest of this selection, it contains absolutely nothing to give you sleepless nights, apart from some great photographs. [On the other hand, they did get me to do a piece on Category III Hong Kong movies, so I guess we can at least congratulate them on their excellent choice of writers…]

Enigma #4, £2.95, pp68. Takes a slightly different angle, in that UFOs are just one facet of a broad picture, and is also the mag with the most space dedicated to the world of conspiracy theory. Needless to say, this gives it an immediate appeal to me. The articles tend to be longer than average, five or six pages on average, but often the better pieces tend to be the brief and punchy ones: the ‘Men in Black’ column is an excellent Q&A piece. Less gullible than some of its competitors, I loved its tongue-in-cheek suggestion that passport booth pictures are part of a plot by the government to embarrass people into not wanting to leave the country.

Focus, May 1997, £2.30, pp124. This is a long-running publication that used to be a hard-science mag, but now the cover trumpets “SPACE CONSPIRACY” — albeit, this turns out to be with regard to the Apollo 1 fire, thirty years ago. There are also pieces on exotic animals i.e. Surrey pumas, but you feel it has been driven, grudgingly, into covering the paranormal by the rise of its competition; it’s done without much enthusiasm, and it’s easily the most sceptical mag on offer. However, the mundane stuff is well handled and interesting, and it’s this that proves the saving grace. Worth it on that basis if you’re a science fan, otherwise, skip it. This feels horribly like the sort of thing that would have cropped up in your school library. Apparently, the #1 greatest invention of all time is sanitation. This comes from a combination of reader’s votes, and “the considered recommendations of the Focus team of experts”. Which pretty much says it all about this mag’s lack of imagination.

Fortean Times #98, £2.50, pp68. Another veteran, this has been chronicling the strange since ‘Carter’ was just that bloke off The Sweeney. However, they too seem to have changed, and been forced downmarket: no way would the old FT have printed a totally uncritical “Moon Landing Hoax” piece. Going monthly seems to stretch both the data (it’s among the slimmest of the regular titles) and the style a bit thin — I strongly suspect pressure from the publishers to dumb things down significantly, with the more esoteric stuff being hived off into their annual “Studies” volume. However, it’s tongue in cheek approach is unrivalled, and with every clipping assiduously dated and located, it’s rise from ‘zinedom to W.H.Smith’s is unsurprising. I do find the relentless promotion of Schwa merchandising a tad irritating though: they’re now big enough not to need it. Still the best, but should certainly be looking over its shoulder in a worried manner.

UFO Magazine Jul/Aug 1997, £1.95, pp68. Missed in the initial sweep, it was presumably between issues on its bi-monthly schedule. The contents appear to be angled towards the ‘hardware’ side, with pieces on hypersonic planes, a satellite launch platform based on an oil rig, astronomy, and a lot on Cydonia and the Pathfinder mission to Mars. This comes across as a little on the dry side, and the ‘book reviews’ section concentrates mysteriously on titles available from…UFO Magazine! Plus some sloppy proof-reading i.e. “cynagoen” instead of cyanogen, and a design style that includes such dainty delights as white text on a light grey background. Yuk. Some good stuff on Roswell’s 50th anniversary though. S’ok, s’pose, but I see absolutely no reason why it should be “The world’s best-selling UFO publication”.

UFO Reality #7, £2.85, pp76. Skates on the thin-ice of self-indulgence, and occasionally falls through, most notably with an 8-page interview with…the editor, in which we learn about his stultifyingly uninteresting life. Between that, the advert for his novel, and all the stuff he writes, this is teetering precariously on the edge of vanity publishing, but let’s be charitable and call it a glossy fanzine instead. It also suffers from too much that is pure speculation, but there are good photos, a lively letters column, and a nice little report on a trip to Area 51, in which the writer sees…nothing much at all. It’s always nice to leaven the weirdness with a pinch of mundanity; perhaps this could be the first in a series i.e. “I failed to see the Loch Ness Monster”, or “I have absolutely no idea who shot Kennedy”.

Uri Geller’s Encounters #8, £2.99, pp84. Though Geller’s name seems to have mysteriously shrunk on the cover. inside, he does get a two page advert for various products linked to him, most of which look totally dreadful (though the novel looks interesting, in an Incredibly Bad sort of way). Describes itself as “The world’s most paranormal magazine” — presumably this means it’s laid out via some method of thought transference, and then teleports itself directly onto Smith’s shelves. Another Paragon title, and credulous beyond belief, as you can tell from this sample quote: “Ever since the Beatles’ famous White album was released with the hidden backward message ‘Paul is dead’…”. Utterly gullible, an interesting game would be to see who could get the bizarrest tale printed on their “Reader’s Stories” page; there’s no effort to investigate or verify them. Chuck in simple factual errors, and the most amazing thing you’ll learn is that people buy this sort of over-priced dreck. Cheap laffs a-plenty, but precious little else.

The X Factor #9, £1.75, pp32. This is actually a part-work from Marshall Cavendish, though it’s not immediately apparent from the cover – it managed to fool me, and the title is obvious a blatant attempt to associate itself with a certain TV programme! As a part-work, it’s obviously less well-up on current events, and with its low page count and large type, probably contains the least data, though the lack of adverts and full-colour content make up for this to some extent. It loses points for a laughably ill-informed article on the Internet: apparently unsuspecting users can sometimes stumble across child pornography accidentally…[yeah, but what are they browsing for?] There is, however, a good article on electromagnetic weapons, and I suspect that it would indeed “build into a complete library” — and needlessly clutter up your bedroom floor until you needed the space for something else, as I recall.

Fortean Times* * ** * * ** * * * ** * * *16
Enigma* * ** * * ** * * ** * * *15
Alien Encounters* * ** * * ** * ** * * *14
The X Factor* * ** * ** * * ** * *13
UFO Reality* * * ** ** ** * *11
Focus** * * * ** ** *10
Bizarre* ** * *** * *9
Uri Geller’s Encounters* * * **** * *9
UFO Magazine* ** ** ** *8

There was, however, one publication that I failed to acquire, on which I do regret missing out, even if it is not strictly available from W.H.Smith’s. The following advert was clipped from an un-named publication and sent to me:

Despite sending off my stamp to the address, I have yet to receive a reply…