High Strangeness

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Who's "The Alien Guy"??

Start 'em early, that's what I say.

When it comes to parenting, one of the most important things to remember is to start teaching your little ones about UFOs early and often. I know, because I've raised four kids, and they all know the score where paranormal phenomena are concerned.

I hadn't fully appreciated the value of this, however, until this past June as I was out promoting The Close Encounters Man at an indie bookstore in Chicago. There was a small group --I believe the euphemism is "intimate" -- there to hear me talk about my book, and among the audience were a dad and his son, who I guessed was 4 or 5. When I was done talking, I signed a copy of the book for them, and thanked them for coming.

I was disappointed by the turnout, I admit, but when I mentioned that afterward, my daughter Dxxxxx said, "If it makes you feel any better, you made a convert to the cause tonight. That little boy in the front row was hanging on your every word!" I guess I was so wrapped up in my presentation that I hadn't noticed the boy's interest, but it did make me feel better to know that even a 5 year-old could get into listening to me talk about UFOs and aliens.

Fast forward to late August, when I attended a meeting of the screenwriting faculty at DePaul University, where I teach. I said hi to a few of my fellow professors, and then a familiar but unfamiliar professor said hi to me, and mentioned that had been at my book signing event with his son. Talk about a small world!

I had a nice talk with my colleague, who I now recognized -- his name is Jef Burnham -- and told him what my daughter had said to me about his little boy after the book signing. Jef laughed and said that he and his son Alistair host a horror and science fiction movie review podcast called Cadavercast. He explained that his son was excited at my book signing because he realized there was somebody else in the world who loves the same things he and his dad love! So, I hadn't converted the little boy as my daughter had thought; he was already a convert! How cute can you get? And who can't relate to that electric feeling you get when you realize someone else loves science fiction and monsters as much as you do??
Pretty scary stuff!

Well, since that meeting I've been listening to Cadavercast and loving it! Jef and Al put on a fantastic show, they have great chemistry (as you'd expect), they really know their stuff, and best of all, they make me want to watch all my old sci fi and horror movies again!

My favorite bit so far is when they review the 1951 film, The Thing From Another World, and the subject of John Carpenter's terrifying and gory 1982 remake comes up. Five year-old Al keeps talking about the Carpenter remake as though he's watched it several times, but dad Jef keeps correcting him, pointing out to Al that he will not actually be old enough to watch the remake for many, many, many years. It's just a riot listening to dad subtly setting his determined son straight on the matter.

And if that wasn't reason enough to listen in, get this: any profit Jef and Al make from the show goes into Al's college fund! I can't recommend Cadavercast strongly enough.

I emailed Jef the other day to tell him how much I've been enjoying the podcast, and the next day I got this response:

I really appreciate it, Mark. Al was positively thrilled to hear "the alien guy" has been listening. He's good kid indeed. One of a select few 5 year olds who can tell you about Bela Lugosi and Karloff I guarantee it! 

I'm "the alien guy"! That's awesome :)

Now, if I can only use my influence to get Jef and Al to review Close Encounters of the Third Kind...

Friday, September 15, 2017

Hynek Hijinks

A while back I had mentioned that J. Allen Hynek's long-time friend and colleague Jennie Zeidman had promised to send me a document that she had recently uncovered in her files. When she first mentioned this to me, my imagination ran away with me; what if Jennie had discovered some long lost document that blew the whole field of UFO research wide open? What if it was a signed statement from President Eisenhower admitting that he had met with aliens, or a signed affidavit from Jesse Marcel stating that he had made up the entire Roswell story? Or what if it was definitive proof that Project Blue Book really was a sham, and that Hynek himself was running the Air Force's real clandestine UFO study?

When the envelope showed up in the mail I could hardly contain myself! I felt like a kid on Christmas morning opening the biggest, brightest present under the tree, only in my case there was the horrifying possibility that inside this present was proof that Santa Claus didn't exist...

What's Thor got to do with it?
Well, I opened up the envelope and found a 3-page hand-written letter from Dr. Hynek to Jennie Ziedman, from the early 1970s (Hynek only wrote the month and day, not the year). I read through the letter greedily, hoping to find the bombshell... but there was none. Hynek complained about a picture of his that had just run with an article in TIME magazine... He talked about upcoming travel plans, a Hynek "at work and at play" TV special he had just done for the Chicago NBC affiliate... He proudly announced that his two oldest sons, Scott and Joel, now had their pilots licenses... And he announced that "the book she is done."

Aha! So that's what made the letter special! Hynek had just finished "The UFO Experience" and he was blowing off steam... Of course! Just having gone through that experience myself, I could fully appreciate Hynek's feelings. And, indeed, there is a tone of goofiness and elation to the whole letter, and I couldn't help smiling as I read it, especially when I got to the limerick on the last page.

Then I found the small note Jennie had attached to the letter. It read: "this suggests Allen had a long tough day and was enjoying a bit of booze..."

So that was the bombshell... Jennie had found a letter that brought Allen Hynek to life for her, and she thought it was important to share it with me. I appreciate that greatly. And now I'm sharing this little glimpse of the real J. Allen Hynek with you...

Here's his limerick, appropos of nothing:

A Thundergod went for a ride
Upon his favorite filly
I'm Thor, he cried!
His horse replied -
You forgot your thaddle, thilly!

Then, in parentheses, he added: (--it's the heat!)

Saturday, September 9, 2017

UFO Surprise! -- Part II

A few days ago I mentioned the great review Jerome Clark wrote about my book for the Fortean Times. I was grateful for Jerry's positive review, but puzzled by his comment that The Close Encounters Man would have been a better book if I had interviewed more people who knew J. Allen Hynek. I was puzzled because I had interviewed Jerry for the book via email back in January, 2016.

There's always room for another Close Encounters book on the market, isn't there?.
So, I wrote to Jerry and pointed this out, adding that several people who knew Dr. Hynek declined to be interviewed for my book, for reasons I can only guess at...

That's when faithful reader and commenter purrlgurrl made this astute observation:

Just a thought - perhaps those who declined an interview or the person who warned people away from interviews harbored the thought of someday writing a book on Hynek.

Sooner or later just about everybody interested in Ufology eventually entertains the notion of writing a book. That's why the UFO literature is so inconsistent, poorly researched, and crappy, people who can't write and do basic research have produced a lot of UFO books.

Not long after I read this, I received this nice note from Jerry Clark:

Hi, Mark,

On several occasions over the years, acquaintances or colleagues urged me to write a Hynek biography.  In each case I replied that I did not feel up to the job.

I’m glad you took on the task, and I congratulate you for your efforts.  I’m not sure if I envy you, but I know we’re all grateful to you.


Good call, purrlgurrl! You nailed it!

Friday, September 8, 2017

Sweet Dreams, Larry

I finally got to see the 40th anniversary re-release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind last night, and it was worth the wait. Because it was a Thursday night, and the last night of CE3K's one-week release, my wife and I had the theater pretty much to ourselves, which was kind of nice.

It hasn't been that long since I've watched the blu-ray at home, so the movie didn't exactly feel fresh to me, but I enjoyed the hell out of it just the same (After 40 years of looking, I finally spotted R2D2 on the alien mothership, so that was a big deal). Still... there are still some details of the movie that rankle; a lot has been said about how wrong it is for the Roy Neary character to fly off in an alien spaceship and leave his wife and kids behind, but what about the Gillian Guiler character letting her little boy Barry run off all over the damn place? And when she finally catches up with him, she decides to give him a talking to in the middle of a highway, on a blind corner no less!

And my #1 pet peeve: why does the mothership change size and shape in virtually every shot? Someday I'll have to ask Doug Trumbull about that.

But that's not what I want to write about. I want to say a few words about the most intriguing and underdeveloped character in the movie: Larry.

You remember Larry: he is the only person who takes off his gas mask and escapes the Army helicopter with Roy and Gillian just before being flown away from Devil's Tower. The people in the helicopter are, of course, the random men and women who have had the image of the Tower planted in their subconscious minds by the aliens, and have journeyed to Wyoming to find out what it all means.

I always thought it was pretty cool that Larry jumped off the chopper in an act of defiance against the military, even if his attire bothered the hell out of me. Who goes on an ill-advised gonzo travel adventure to the middle of nowhere, Wyoming, dressed like he's going out on a first date? Really, Larry? You got up this morning and said, "Today I'm going to infiltrate a high-security area, climb a 867-foot rock precipice and make contact with aliens from space. I think I'll put on my best polyester slacks and dress boots, a turtleneck, and my favorite striped cowl-neck sweater. Oh, and I'll bring along my leather jacket, too." That's just weird.

Still. I love Larry. He's got guts. He's got vision. And he's not afraid to get those dress boots scuffed up climbing the basalt spires of Devil's Tower. What's more, even as he is racing up a mountain while evading helicopters and soldiers, Larry doesn't just toss his cumbersome leather jacket aside as many of us would have done. He just keeps it draped it over his arm, to keep for later. What a guy!

What drives a man like Larry? What demons are screaming inside him? What lusts and desires make his heart pound? I just imagine Steven Spielberg staying up night after night, puzzling out the mystery of Larry and what he represents, going through draft after draft of the screenplay, never quite capturing the essence of Larry but obsessed with achieving perfection in the character.

And we must admire Spielberg's courageous decision to then let Larry drop his guard as the Army helicopters start spraying tranquilizer gas in a last-ditch attempt to stop him, Roy and Gillian from reaching the secret UFO base on the far side of the Tower. There is so much going on in the moment at which Larry says, "They're just cropdusting!" No, Larry, it is NOT ok to be sprayed with pesticide, and even if it was, what kind of crops does he think are growing on the side of a mountain?

What is Spielberg trying to tell us??

Say good night, Larry.
Of course, we all know how it ends for Larry. After everything he's gone through to be present at the most amazing moment in human history, Larry succumbs to the tranquilizer gas just a few steps away from the secret UFO landing base. Instead of taking part in one of the greatest final acts in motion picture history, Larry leans back on a rock and falls into a deep, dreamless, drug-induced sleep just short of achieving his dream. No "wishing on a star" for sweater man. It's like all of a sudden he doesn't care. I don't get it. He had everything going for him, and then he just gave up and gave in, clutching his leather jacket as he faded from consciousness.

And that's the last we see of Larry. The rest of the movie, to be frank, feels a little flat.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

UFO Surprise!

Over the weekend my older daughter and I drove my youngest to school Connecticut, and as she was giving us  tour of the campus library, I had the brilliant idea to check to see if they have The Close Encounters Man in the stacks. I commandeered a computer terminal and found a listing for the book, but under the name Jerome Clark...

Who "really" knew J. Allen Hynek?
Jerome Clark? He's the dude who wrote the monumental two-volume UFO Encyclopedia, a must-have book for anyone interested in the history of UFOs. What was his name doing on my book??

Well, I couldn't navigate my way through the library's system, but my daughters and I decided it must be a review of my book, written by Mr. Clark.

Cool! One of the major figures in UFO literature is reviewing my book, in The Fortean Times no less!

Today I searched for the review and found it here.

It's a pretty nice review, I have to admit. Of course, Mr. Clark was "there when it happened," so my prose doesn't always live up to his memory, but we can get past that.

The thing that struck me as weird about the review is a passage in which Mr. Clark states that "O'Connell could have said more if he'd interviewed more of us who knew (Hynek)." This puzzled me, because I had, in fact, interviewed Jerry Clark in January, 2016. Here's what he wrote to me then:

"Mostly, my interactions with Allen were personal and preserved in memory. I'd be happy to share those with you via email if you have specific questions. He and I had a fair number of discussions about the nature of UFOs and related issues, and of course, from my own background in ufology, I think I have a relatively informed assessment of Allen's position and significance is all of this."

I emailed him some questions, as per his request, and he wrote back with very succinct answers. I only used one quote from the interview, but that's the nature of writing a biography: you collect far more material than you can ever use. So why is he claiming that I didn't interview him? Or is he thinking of someone else I should have interviewed?

This is what I wrote to Jerry today:

HI Jerry,
I appreciate your kind book review in the Fortean Times, but I am puzzled by this comment:
"O'Connell could have said more if he'd interviewed more of us who knew him."
I wish I knew to whom you're referring. As these emails show, I did interview you, via email, at your request. You may be surprised to learn that several people who knew Dr. Hynek did not wish to be interviewed, but are now praising the book now that they're read it. You may also be surprised to learn (or not) that at least one person who knew Hynek was actively warning other people who knew Hynek NOT to do an interview with me. In time, I grew tired of the silliness and decided to be more selective in who I would interview.
I was and am grateful for you agreeing to share your thoughts in an interview. Thank you again for the positive review.
Best regards,
I will let you know what happens...

Thursday, August 31, 2017

This Means Something...

Here it is, the day before the big 40th anniversary re-release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the greatest UFO movie ever made, and I don't have a ticket...

But I have good reason. I'll ba making a road trip with my two daughters, delivering the younger of the two to school in Connecticut. When I get back I immediately have to shift gears and prep for the beginning of my Autumn teaching gig at DePaul in Chicago -- I'm teaching "Writing the TV Spec' Script" to a group of 14 young writers, so I have to be prepped and psyched -- can't take time off for a movie screening, no matter how historic!

That leaves me with one day, next Thursday, September 7 -- the last day of its seven-day run -- to catch the movie. So I will be among the last people in the world to see the movie, and so help me God, nobody better spoil it for me!

A couple of cool notes about the movie premiere, though:

I read this week that the character of Roy Neary could have been portrayed by Steve McQueen, but McQueen didn't think he'd be able to cry on cue. Imagine Steve McQueen sculpting that plate of mashed potatoes... The mind boggles!

Paul Hynek, the second-youngest of Dr. J. Allen Hynek's sons, invited me to a screening party in L.A. on Friday, but I had to pass. Still, I'll be there in spirit, as my publisher is shipping a bunch of books to Paul to pass out to his party guests!

Dr. Hynek's long-time friend, colleague and confidant, Jennie Zeidman, who has become my favorite pen-pal, told me that her son surprised her with tickets to a screening this weekend, and she's over the moon: "I have been chortling ever since," she wrote to me. "I first read the script at the Hynek Ridge Avenue house in Evanston. If that version had prevailed, the film wold have needed an R rating!"

Then she ended her note with this tantalizing tease: "If you send me a mailing address, I will send you something I found in an old file folder..."

Wow... I sent her my mailing address immediately, and now I'm consumed with curiosity and anticipation... What could she be sending me??

On a related note, I just did a really fun podcast the other night, and I hope you'll give it a listen when it's posted. It's the Binnal of America podcast, hosted by Tim Binnall. Tim is a great host, and we had a totally entertaining two-hour talk about Dr. Hynek and UFOs -- well, I was totally entertained anyway. But one thing that struck me about the conversation was the way Tim described how he had reacted to my book. He said he learned a lot about UFO cases that he thought he was pretty familiar with, and with cases he hadn't read up on before. He said the book was full of surprises and drama, as though I had written it as a screenplay (I had!). And he said that by the end of the book he really loved Allen Hynek as a person. In other words, he reacted to the book on a both an intellectual and an emotional level, which was music to my ears. Thanks for the ego strokes, Tim!

Finally, a bit more good news. Over the weekend I got my best write-up so far, from the Los Angeles Review. "O’Connell provides a sweeping look at all things UFO, skillfully weaving Hynek’s investigative role throughout the various touched-upon cases." the reviewer wrote. "In the end, readers are left with a book that smartly refuses to simplify anything." 

Yep... as a great mashed potato sculptor once said, "This means something."

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Damn You, Carl Sagan! -- Part II

I'm thrilled that my last post about "The Zeta Reticuli Incident" has spurred so many comments, both here and at UFO Updates on Facebook!

Are we still talking about this? Yes, we are!
There's so much to think about and respond to that I decided to put up a new post to address as much as I feel I can. First things first, though: I think -- at least I hope -- that we can all recognize and agree that "The ZR Incident" and the experiences of both Betty Hill and Marjorie Fish that form the basis of the "Incident" form an interesting chapter in the history if UFOs. You may not think it's an important chapter but I would argue that it's still pretty interesting, if for no other reason that that given in my book:
...the episode certainly illustrates the lengths to which scientists will go to defend their own particular interpretations of difficult data.
The first response to my post came from Robert Sheaffer, who said that what I had written about the ZR Incident, the segment of my book that had been edited out, was "woefully out of date," because I hadn't kept up on current thinking about Marjorie Fish's interpretation of Betty Hill's star map. I replied that because my book is a biography of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, my narrative ended when Dr. Hynek passed away in 1986, and that therefore any research, writing or debunking involving Fish's work that took place after 1986 was irrelevant to my book. I did write that Fish's work "remains unexplained and controversial," but I did not cite any "current thinking" for the reason stated above.

Which doesn't mean I'm not interested in current thinking. So, as I'm reading over the latest comments today, I have a couple of thoughts. First, I'm struck by Mr. Sheaffer's comments that "The Gliese catalog is now known to have major errors in its distance measurements." It reminded me that in his 1935 Ph.D. dissertation Dr. Hynek pointed our his discovery that astronomers at Mt. Wilson Observatory in California had mis-classified an entire category of stars. Which just goes to show that even astronomers make mistakes, and that what we think we know about the universe is always subject to revision, reinterpretation and even outright rejection upon the discovery of new data, whether it comes from a world-renowned scientist or a somewhat rebellious Ph.D. candidate. When Mariner V flew past Mars in 1965, the photos it sent back "proved" that Mars was lifeless. Up until that moment is was generally accepted that there were indeed Martians on Mars, but Mariner 4 blew that belief out of the water, so to speak. Today we know there is abundant evidence that Mars has, at least in the past, supported life, so we've essentially come full-circle: first there were Martians, then there weren't, now there are/were again....

So, who's to say, maybe tomorrow some new discovery will confirm some part of Fish's analysis. I'm just saying, it's not outside the realm of what's possible... When you consider how quickly our understanding of the cosmos shifts under our collective feet on an almost daily basis, I would not bet on any claim that we know all there is to know about the stars in Betty Hill's map.

But about that map. If we're going to question the legitimacy and accuracy of the map, where do we start?  In other words, if there is an error, where does it originate?
  • Does it originate from Marjorie Fish's interpretation of the map?  
  • Does it originate from Betty Hill's drawing of the map? Can we trust that she perceived the details of the map correctly and was able to accurately transpose her three-dimensional visual memory of that map into a two-dimensional drawing? This is not an easy thing for many of us to do (It's worth repeating here that at two times Betty violated the hypnotic suggestion and stopped to erase and revise something she had drawn on the map--that alone could be the key to this whole episode). 
  • Does it originate from memory loss occurring during the span of time that transpired between Betty seeing the map during her initial abduction experience in 1961, then recalling it some two years later under hypnosis, and then finally drawing it under post-hypnotic suggestions some time after that?
  • Did Betty ever even see a map? Did the abduction even occur?
If you're going to suspect one, you almost have to suspect them all, don't you? I think it's fair to question all of these things, but for the purposes of my book -- which is where this whole thing started -- my aim was to present the UFO phenomenon as though it was really occurring, and to tell the UFO story through the eyes of the witnesses and the investigators. That's because the book was primarily written for the "UFO curious," mainstream readers who are interested in the topic
but may not know a whole lot about it going in. 

I think I've succeeded there, but that approach obviously doesn't work for everyone!