LIKE MANY CHILDREN of the 1980s teenage wasteland, I wandered the shopping mall in search of some totem from afar that would change my life. I found mine in the bargain bin of a bookstore.
The “Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena” was a weird and obscure tome packed with reports of such freaks of nature as ball lightning, luminescent tornadoes and “rogue waves” coming out of nowhere to swamp ships. Many of these strange phenomena were portrayed in old-fashioned line drawings — some technical illustrations, some cartoons with a shade of energetic impishness.
Jaded and bored by American pop culture’s endlessly sensationalized anecdotes about ESP, UFOs and Bigfoot, I was jolted awake by this handbook. Its author, a Baltimore physicist named William Corliss, culled his reports straight from neglected pages of professional science journals. These freak tales were credibly incredible. They were Corliss, a scientific maverick, throwing science’s own forgotten findings back at it and urging it to dig deeper. Mysteries were now, for me, the stuff of reality — discoverable, solvable, if I were lucky enough. I found a whole new way of appreciating nature, and a compulsion for research that served me well as life took me into journalism.
In early 2019, I was distressed to learn that the family of Corliss — who died years ago — was taking the handbook and his many similar compilations of scientific anomalies out of print. For The Washington Post, I wrote a profile of Corliss and his work.
I knew a key source for that article would be the artistic collaborator who illustrated all of those freak catalogs. His name is John C. Holden, and I tracked him down to a remote home in Okanogan County. In an hourlong phone conversation with Holden, I heard about his involvement with Corliss. And also with a major paradigm shift in geology, and with the International Stop Continental Drift Society, and a dozen other odd and charming ventures and adventures.
I quickly realized that Holden was an even more interesting scientific outlaw than Corliss, and one of those unique mavericks that the American West is so good at producing. I knew I had to tell his story.