The Merseyside UFO Bulletin was o ne of the first journals in Europe to welcome the work of John Keel, who became a regular visitor to our letters columns. My review of his first two UFO-related books appeared in MUFOB vol. 3, no. 4, September 1970. It reads a little starry-eyed today, but I would still defend the books reviewed here for opening up new ways of looking at the UFO enigma.
For an updated view, see Peter Rogerson’s review of the 1990′s re-issue HERE
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John Keel has written a very good mystery story called ‘Operation Trojan Horse’. He has also written a first-rate UFO textbook called ‘Operation Trojan Horse’. Many people will find this completely unacceptable and will criticise the writing of a textbook in the style of a mystery thriller. However in a subject so innately mysterious as ufology this is probably a valid way of writing. Many critics will probably write at great length about a number of errors of fact that appear in this book. Their criticism will be valid, and it is disappointing that these have been allowed to creep into a work of this nature. However, with the present lack of documentation in ufology cross-checking of facts and incidents is virtually impossible. These errors do not, however, invalidate the arguments of the book.
Not the least value of 0TH is the many signposts it plants, pointing out avenues of further research. The highlighting of the neglected flap years of the twenties and thirties should send ufologists rushing to local newspaper archives.
It would be impossible in a short review to give an adequate outline of Keel’s thesis. It would also be unethical, looking at the book as a mystery story, to give away the end. However it is not a whodunit. There is no last minute denouement in the locked drawing room when John Keel points out the guilty party. As Charles Bowen points out in his FSR review: “he cannot write his QED at the end of the exercise”. It is obvious on reading the book that this is not the object. What Keel does demonstrate is something of the nature of the phenomenon. He acts in a way as the liberator of ufology, and in the process possibly destroys it as we know it. Ho certainly demonstrates the inadequacy of the phrase ‘unidentified flying object’. He liberates ufology from twenty-five years of oppression and misunderstanding. Oppression is caused when anything is forced into an enclosure that is too small for it, whether that is a physical or a psychological enclosure. In the past ufologists have thought that they had a fairly clearly designed phenomenon to study. Even those who tended to reject the ETH have thought of ufology in the rather limiting terms of investigating reports of objects seen. Keel demonstrates the inadequacy of these terms of reference by heaping upon this basic de definition an extension that is infinitely greater than the original.
The book begins on familiar territory with the 1960 radar case, and an analysis of straightforward sighting reports. After that however each chapter adds some complexity to the basic phenomenon. By the end of the book the reader’s mind is reeling from the enormity of what has been said. This is possibly one of those very rare books that alters one’s way of thinking about things. It is disturbing to have one’s ideas of reality assaulted so completely as Keel manages in OTH. Many people will find that their only defence against this assault is in total rejection, not only of the conclusions (which is a perfectly valid reaction), but also of the arguments. For example Keel produces evidence upon evidence that many aspects of the UFO problem are deliberate hoaxes by the forces that are the source of the phenomena. This is a conclusion that many will challenge. However, Keel develops this argument with a mass of data, with many incredible correlations, and with a sound logical argument. It is up to his critics to either show a fault in the reasoning, to challenge the evidence by double checking, or to provide an equal amount of counter-data.
An eminent British ufologist remarked that there are only four books essential reading for students of the phenomena: Charles Fort’s collected works, Passport to Magonia and the two Keel books. This selection might be a little Spartan but it accurately sums up the importance of John Keel’s contribution to the literature.
John Keel uncovers a universe of mystery incomprehensible in its complexity. At the same time he demonstrates that this is tied up, often in a ludicrously mundane manner, with normal people. A mystery that is possibly cosmic in extent yet as much a part of human life as the telephone, Cadillac, or even, so help us potato peelings in which it manifests itself. It would be trite to say that Keel knocks over the ETH. He challenges the framework of ufology as we know it, and poses the problem of what happens now. The evidence in the book, quite apart from the conclusions he arrives at, destroys ufology as we know it. To study the phenomenon as it is revealed in OTH and then to consider ourselves ufologists, is rather like attempting to study marine ecology and admitting we are only tadpole hunters. John Keel has liberated ufology. Are ufologists capable of liberating themselves?
It is something of a relief to turn from reviewing OTH to reviewing ‘Strange Creatures’ This is a far more straightforward book, and somewhat slighter. It is of course an integral part of OTH, and should be read in conjunction with it.
In ‘Strange Creatures’ Keel takes a look at all the many weird animals and pseudo-animals that have cropped up throughout the world in various ages. He attempts to distinguish between the apparently physically real creatures that are currently unknown to conventional Western science (although does ‘physically react have any meaning after OTH?) and the imponderably wide range of manifestations that are described by that unsatisfactory word,
As with OTH a major part of the value of this work is in the directions it gives for new aspects of study. It is a good, scary, flesh-creeping book to be read alone, late at night by the light of an oil lamp with the wind howling outside. It is a very good horror story. It is also an excellent and scientific catalogue of anomalous apparitions. As with OTH many people will find such a combination unacceptable. This however is how John Keel writes, it is purely a matter of literary style. As a final point, both these books have good indexes, which enhance their value as reference tools. This is unfortunately still a great rarity in UFO literature.
Alan Sharp was considerably less impressed by Keel’s books than I was, and in a later issue (vol. 4, no. 3, Summer 1971) wrote a devastating critique of Keel’s use of scientific date. The title to this piece will be immediately identified by our readers as a parody of the title of a famous north-country folkson, ‘Do you ken John Peel’. For some reason when referriung to this article in his monumental UFO Encyclopedia, Jerome Clark, usually a stickler for accurate transcription, refers to it as ‘Do You Know John Keel?’, for reason we have been unable to ascertain.
DO YOU KEN JOHN KEEL? by Alan Sharp
A few issues of the Bulletin ago (November 1970) z wrote a short article in which I referred rather disparagingly to John Keel as the ‘King of the UFO Crackpots’, Although I feel that in many respects my assessment, in UFO parlance, was not very far off the mark I should like to apologise to John Keel for such an ungentlemanly expression of opinion.
The choice of phrase was, however of interest for it turns out that, quite unknown to me, a henchman of Dr Allen Hynek had previously coined exactly the same expression to describe Mr Keel and this, to use the sort of reasoning which Mr Keel frequently seems to use himself, can hardly be without significance. For myself, I do not subscribe to such reasoning and prefer to regard the identity as purely coincidental and arising solely from a similar assessment of John Keel’s contribution to ufological research.
One result of the correspondence which my remarks — described vaguely by Mr Gary Lesley as “silly” (Letters, MUFOB 4:2) –called forth has been a determined attempt by me to see whether my judgement was at fault and a drastic reassessment needed in the light of a more concentrated study of Mr Keel’s published work.
I know that I tend to have formed, from experience, a not very flattering opinion of journalists for the simple reason that their reports of items upon which I have been well informed have usually proved factually incorrect and slanted to the point where they have seemed to bear very little resemblance to the circumstances as I know them.
Lest any injustice has been done because of such bias on my part I have had another look at the book Operation Trojan Horse with particular attention paid to those matters about which I can claim to possess a certain expertise. I must say at the outset, though, that my overall impression still persists, that the book is a typical example of journalistic ufology such as one has met so frequently before in the literature. Its accounts of events are frequently even usually, sketchy and imprecise and the logic tenuous or non-existent. Hence the conclusions which its author draws, such as they are, tend to be erroneous. It is therefore scarcely surprising that John Rimmer (MUFOB 3:4, [above]) seems to have found the volume rather difficult to review.
To my way of thinking the book is not even good journalese, for the reason that the narrative is disjointed and confusing. A good deal of space is devoted to a more-or-less ‘normal’ account of various UFO reports after which Mr Keel abandons this approach and plunges his readers into the questionable world of fairies, demons and other similar figments of the imagination. Even from that viewpoint, however, the treatment is not a scholarly one which the reader might respect but a story writer’s presentation of the alleged manifestations of occult forces and the like, which is about as convincing to this reader as the fantasies of Denis Wheatley. To an extent this is perhaps inevitable in a popular work but it is certainly not to this writer’s taste. He happens to have spent the
past year investigating certain properties of meteorites and moon rock and is well aware of the need for constant vigilance against the facile invocation of way-out hypotheses to explain unwelcome facts whilst at the same time attempting to preserve an open mind receptive to the impact of novel ideas. It is the writer’s opinion that John Keel is over eager to dump the ‘UFO phenomenon’ as he calls it, into the realm of the supernatural and too ready to discount more mundane explanations of at least a goodly proportion of sightings, ignoring for the moment the possibility extraterrestrial visitation, which the writer has never regarded as very likely.
As an example of this uncritical and biased rejection I think it is instructive to consider the subject of meteors and meteorites upon which Mr Keel is obviously ill-informed. There are, travelling around the Sun in orbits of various eccentricities, pieces of solid matter varying in size from particles of dust to objects having a mass of many tons. These are termed meteoroids and grade upwards into bodies which are large enough to be telescopically visible and are known as asteroids. Any such meteoroids which encounter the Earth, survive passage through its atmosphere and reach the ground in megascopic form are called meteorites.
A meteor is merely a streak of light produced by a small meteoroid in its passage through the atmosphere and is not a meteorite, It is thus incorrect to say, as Keel does (p 165): “Yet there are thousands of meteor falls annually.” He also quotes (p 150) a Lt. Col. Rolph as saying: “A meteor can’t be tracked by radar — but this thing was,” and fails to question this incorrect statement. A vast amount of information about meteors has been obtained by just such means, due to the reflecting capacity of the ionised gases which omit the light constituting the optically visible meteor. By this reflection of radar waves meteors can be ‘seen’ in daylight as well as by night.
The object under discussion in this instance was evidently a bolide and could have been associated with a meteoroid large enough for some portion of it to have survived and reached the ground intact. Unfortunately the information given by Keel is of the kind which causes the serious ufologists so much trouble. He says: “Shortly afterwards (referring to the reddish object which was seen moving in the sky on April 18th. 1962) an unidentified circular object landed near a power station outside of Eureka, Nevada, and the lights went out for thirty minutes.” (Evidently a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc.)
Was the connection established? Did someone see this thing land? Was it analysed? What did it look like, apart from being ‘circular’, whatever that means? Where can one find the relevant details? Why was it ‘unidentified’?
This example is typical of so many descriptions in Keel’s book and in the literature generally. The authors may (or may not) know the answers, but the reader justifiably feels that one case properly documented would be worth a dozen such nebulous reports.
Why Keel should doubt the validity of the bolide identification in this case and inveigh against the “scientific attitude” whatever he means by that, is a mystery to which only he can give the answer.
“What are these ‘things”, he asks, “and why don’t we know more about them?” I suggest that he should replace the “we” by “I” and become a little more acquainted with the subject of meteoritics — and with astronomy generally at the same time, for that matter. He is very keen to make rude remarks about astronomers and other scientists, but is apparently very reluctant to become even reasonably conversant with the plentiful supply of relevant scientific literature.
Meteorites can be broadly classified into irons, stones, and stony-irons; or siderites, aerolites and siderolites. A rather rare form of aerolite or stony meteorite is the type known as carbonaceous chandrite, Mr Keel describes the arrival of fragments of such a meteorite at a place called Pueblito do Allende at 1.09 a.m. on the morning of February 6, 1969. Scientists “scurried” there to collect the pieces and identified them as ‘Type 3 carbonaceous chondrite’, translated by Keel to clean “metal fragments containing carbon, which is s suggestive of organic (living) matter”. According to Brian Mason, an authority on meteorites and curator of mineralogy at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, carbonaceous chondrites can “be readily distinguished from all other meteorites by their peculiar characteristics — dull black colour, friability, generally low density, lack or almost total lack of free nickel-iron (my italics) (Meteorites p96, Wiley, 1962).
Type 3 carbonaceous chondrites are largely composed of olivine with necessary pigeononite., not of metal. Olivine is a common rock-forming silicate mineral with the composition(Mg, Fe)2 Si O4, with Mg in excess of Fe, and pigeonite is another silicate mineral having the composition (Ca, Mg) (Mg, Fe) Si2 O6 with even less iron. The iron is, of course, chemically combined. The carbon content of the famous Orgueil carbonaceous chondrite occurs in the 6.4%o of black, insoluble carbonaceous residue which has the composition c 63%, H 6%, 0 31% and is, according to Mason (ibid, p 99) “presumably a complex polymer of high molecular weight”.
It is, of course, ‘organic’ in the sense that it is a carbohydrate, but this is a chemical description with absolutely no ‘living’ connotation. In fact Mason goes on to say: “A solution of the organic material in benzene showed no optical rotation, an important observation indicating that the material was formed by non biological processes”.
There is no reason to suppose that the organic matter in the Pueblito de Allende carbonaceous chondrite was substantially different from this.That Keel should choose to mislead his readers in so blatant a fashion whilst displaying his own ignorance of natters meteoritic is not only manifestly unfair to people who have purchased his book in good faith but also cannot fail to arouse grave doubts about the validity of his thesis generally, doubts which are demonstrably well-founded.
There is the matter, for instance, of the strips of aluminium foil which Keel mentions on page 175 remarking, “These strips are almost identical to the chaff dispensed by, high flying Air Force planes to jam radar, yet they do not seen to be related to AF operations at all”. The first thing to note is that the material which Keel describes need not have been used for the particular purpose he mentions. Another application, for example, is for radar tracking in connection with meteorological work. The fact that some of the foil “is often found under trees and on porches” would only be remarkable if winds had mysteriously ceased to blow, which to the best of my knowledge they have not.
The Condon Report (Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects) deals with the subject of “Space-grass” quitespecifically on page 90, where a sample is mentioned as having been produced — on Earth — by the Foil Division of Revere Copper and Brass Inc., Brooklyn, New York. It would be difficult to be more specific than that. What Keel means to imply by use of the word “almost” is uncertain, but it does not strengthen his case, as one can see by reference to page 175 of his book.He says: “Another exploding UFO, this one at Ubatuba, Brazil in 1957, left behind particles which were nothing but pure magnesium”. The word ‘almost’ might well have been inserted in this statement as John Harney has demonstrated in his article ‘The Ubatuba Magnesium’ (MUFOB 4:2, p 19).
It seems that Mr Keel is not averse to deliberately attempting to mislead his readers when it suits his purpose to do so. There is much more that one could write along similar lines concerning Operation Trojan Horse, but this would savour of using a bulldozer to demolish a house of cards.
Whilst I have every admiration for people who write good books and bear John Keel no ill-will, I would like to suggest that he does something to remedy his lack of scientific knowledge before he commences his next literary work on the subject of unidentified flying objects. A thorough perusal of the Condon Report would be a good starting point and would help to eliminate some of the grosser errors in his text.