Thursday, 1 March 2018

Recommend Fakes

In our regular season of recommendations, we’ve asked a handful of writers, editors, artists and other friends to tell us briefly about their favorite fake, hoax or fraud—long a topic dear to the hearts of any postmodern speculative fiction reader! Take a look at some of the recommendations below, and then please leave a comment telling us about your favorite fake…?

Rachel Linn (author page)

At some point during my childhood, I saw the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin footage of Bigfoot on television. My little brother and I were obsessed with Harry and the Hendersons (a John Lithgow comedy about a family that befriends a Sasquatch—a film that only an eight-year-old could love, as I discovered when I tried to watch it again a few years ago and couldn’t make it through the whole thing) and I was also fascinated by Diane Fossey (and her book, Gorillas in the Mist, about studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda), so I was very excited when I found out that people may have seen these human-like beings somewhere near our our neck of the woods. Initially, since I was only in second or third grade, I didn’t know that most people thought this video was a hoax. And, though it is still the consensus that this video is likely fabricated, the strange thing about this "hoax" is that no one seems be able to definitively prove that it was one. This really intrigues me--you'd think that fifty years after the footage was shot (and almost thirty years after I originally saw it), we'd have some fancy CSI-type technology to reconstruct what "really" happened using in-depth analysis of zoomed in hair fibers or the shadowy parts of the frames. But no one has found a hidden zipper (to my knowledge, at least). Regardless of the truth about this video, I like knowing that there are some things that technology can't demystify, even if some of them are secretly just elegantly-executed hoaxes.

E. Saxey (fiction site)

I'm fond of frauds and errors in taxidermy. Birds of paradise had their feet removed to dry them, and on arrival in Europe were assumed to never perch, and live perpetually in the air. There's a sloth mounted on its hind legs, claws aloft, turned into a terrifying attacking predator. But fake mermaids are in a class of their own. These critters are mostly constructed from a big fish and a small monkey, and have a long history in Japan, but appeared in the US in the nineteenth century (beginning with the Fiji Mermaid in Barnum's collection). There's one with a toothy grin in the London Horniman museum, mocked up with wood and papier mache.

You can see the fantasy logic behind a lot of taxidermy myths: it's a tantalising idea that birds of paradise are too precious to land on the ground, and whoever shot that sloth probably wanted to seem braver. But fake mermaids—wizened, fluffy, dusty things—are utterly different from legends of tempting sirens. I appreciate them as a sideways step into a less obvious, more sinister mythology.

Rhys Hughes (The Spoons That Are My Ears)

My uncle was a fraud. Not a criminal but a more gentle form of fraudster, the deadpan exaggerator. When I was young he told me that there were six continents in the world, Africa, America, Asia, Australasia, Europe and Britain. There was absolutely no doubt that Britain was separate from Europe. In Europe people did peculiar things; they spread chocolate on bread for breakfast and melted cheese in communal pots in the evening. Europe was a place of mystery, a patchwork of suspense, and crossing its borders wasn’t easy. My great dream back then was to build a raft and paddle it to France, which seemed an incredibly exotic destination, and my enthusiasm was increased rather than diminished when my uncle told me that dinosaurs existed there. They had become extinct everywhere else but flourished in France. I couldn’t wait to drag my raft ashore and encounter my first stegosaurus.

My uncle also informed me that we were living in Australia, not Britain, but that everyone else would try to trick me into thinking this was Britain and that they were all in the joke. My favourite of his absurdities concerned the International Date Line. Because Australia was so many hours in the future, people who lived there (like ourselves) could phone relatives in Europe with the results of football matches, horse races and boxing competitions that hadn’t yet happened in the past, enabling those relatives to make a big profit at the betting shop. But my uncle wasn’t unusual. That’s how life was when I was young. If you didn’t tell amusing lies then you were regarded as rather odd, dubious even, a spoilsport and also perhaps a saboteur or foreigner. I would look at adults in the street and wonder if any of them were French and on familiar terms with dinosaurs.

Bruce Stenning (TFF slushreader)

The story of Marvin Hewitt (recently told in Futility Closet, Episode 180 “An Academic Imposter”) is the story of just how easy it was to get by as a white man in mid-century USA, and just how much leeway you could expect, even as an unashamed imposter. I won’t recap the whole story, as the podcast is worth listening to in its entirety and does so adequately and succinctly, supported by multiple sources.

Hewitt employed secretarial staff to intercept mail and continue the deception. Surely these women had a good idea what was going on but would have had neither social or legal protections to dare expose the duplicity.

FC generally present their fascinating, lurid tales from history in an apparently objective—read amoral— tone, without comment or analysis. In this case, just the briefest acknowledgement at the end of the main story suggests that it was not a good idea to let such duplicity continue as long as it did. We miss any analysis of gender or race, or the leniency shown to such a fraud, beyond simply stating multiple, astonishing occurrences of it. (Can you imagine a woman, much less a woman of colour, at any point in history, being given such leeway? Can we imagine her taking such a position of academic responsibility even without any fraud or imputation?)

Technology might have made sustained identity theft more difficult, but the systemic and sociological privileges would largely be unchanged in this day and age. Stepping outside the academic context, I might mention that a certain individual in a prominent position of power must surely be the quintessential example of leniency in the face of unrepentant fraud. But there are many others.

Valeria Vitale (TFF bio; City of a Thousand Names)

My favourite fake-related story is told in the movie F for Fake by Orson Welles. The protagonist is Clifford Irving, acharming conman who, in the 1970s, tried to fake the autobiography of the eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes… while the subject was still alive! Irving relied on the fact that Hughes, at the time, was living as a recluse, but the plan didn’t work out, and Irving was arrested. However, the resourceful man managed to sell another project to the publishing house: The Hoax, a true(?) account of how he organised the con. In the movie, Wells suggests that Irving could produce convincing (fake) autograph documents by Hughes, thanks to the help of his friend Elmyr de Hory (or that was one of his many fake names), a professional forger who claimed to have sold paintings in the style of famous artists to all major museums. He doesn’t name names, but his repertoire, as shown in the movie, is astonishingly convincing. Moreover, the movie has been crafted by Wells using almost entirely footage that had been shot for other projects, sometimes completely repurposing images and dialogues. A sort of fake movie on fakes, if you like.

Now tell us something about a fake or hoax that you think is worth the story…


  1. @Rhys, your uncle must have been so much fun! My family also counts quite a few "reality-embellishers" (and at least a couple proper con-artists)! We should suggest the idea of an anthology of short stories inspired by real members of the authors' families that used to tell never-happened anecdotes and fabricated episodes :-)

    1. That is actually a very good idea :-)

  2. My favourite hoax (although not definitively a hoax) is the Voynich manuscript:

    I have no idea whether it will ever turn out to be "real" but the amount of work that goes into attempting to break the code or translate it - and the resulting number of stories of "we've cracked it but we just need a little more time to have something we can show" are entertaining.

  3. @ E. Saxey: Jake the Alligator Man used to terrify me when I was a kid -
    he's part of a roadside attraction/gift store on the way to the Pacific Ocean, so I'd often see him right before we went beach camping and then have a hard time going to sleep! ( ).

  4. My favourite is, without a doubt, Paul is dead. It's such fun finding clues, and following the patterns other people find. All that creativity running riot in the late sixties and just desperate for a direction. My favourite clue has to be the Abbey Road album cover. The 'funeral procession' and the numberplate LMW 28IF -- Linda McCartney Weeps, and Paul would be 28, IF he was still alive.