His writings, fiction and otherwise, reveal a number of obsessions: immortality, a desire to know what happens after death, the power of viruses—likely a response to Ellora’s childhood polio—the need for certain kinds of knowledge to be held in secret. From early on, Fort, too, was an influence.
Miller’s first piece of science fiction—“The Shapes,” Astounding Stories February 1936—was a riff on Fortean themes. A lake is the sight of unusual phenomena—whisperings and luminous bubbles—which turn out to be signals from alien castaways hidden at the bottom. When a spaceship returns to spirit away the visitors, one of the two witnesses kills the other two prevent the story from becoming widespread. The same themes—Gene Wolf calls it a mash-up of Fort and Lovecraft—structures Miller’s later story, “Within the Pyramid,” printed in the same magazine, March 1937—which has two explorers deciding that a giant Central American pyramid houses aliens waiting to be rescued. They agree to keep the story silent, so that they don’t anger the aliens when they return.
Miller’s fiction was uneven. E. Everett Bleiler says “The Shapes” was “capably handled” but dismisses “The Virus” as “routine at best.” J. Francis McComas and Raymond J. Healy included “In the Pyramid” in their classic science fiction collection Adventures in Time and Space. Lester del Rey thought Miller among the worst writers of science fiction, but thought “The Master Shall Not Die” one of the most outstanding pieces of short science fiction; even as it was not reprinted, just like his 1941 tale “Beyond Hell.”
His nonfiction was obviously influenced by Fort—he admitted as much himself, saying that he began collecting reports of the odd and inexplicable in the late 1920s—most likely after reading one of Fort’s books, if not both. (Miller himself would have been in his late teens at the time.) Two of his Coronet features—“Forgotten Mysteries” and “Forgotten Experiments”—were both explicitly Fortean ventures. So much so, in fact, that in January 1942 Tiffany Thayer had to explain in The Fortean Society Magazine that he was not the author of the column.
When he compiled some of these articles—along with supplemental material—into Forgotten Mysteries (1947), readers immediately saw the connection between Miller and Fort. Thayer recommended the book: “Miller, who conducted Coronet’s ‘Forgotten Mysteries’ department for a number of years has collected fifteen chapters of this and related matter within cloth covers. In his introduction the author doffs his hat appropriately to Charles Fort, and here and there throughout the text the finger of Fort can be discerned, but the vast majority of the data is either new or novel in its presentation. It is all exciting, challenging, valuable. Don’t miss it.” Readers of Doubt indicated that they accepted the book into the canon, with at least one mentioning he was trying to some of Miller’s stories with those told by Fort and others he had accumulated. (This was in Doubt 25.) Then, again, in the late 1950s Doubt featured discussion about an old tale—two sisters who mysteriously traveled through time to old Versailles, and no one mentioned Miller, although the story was prominently featured in his book. Nonetheless, he was cited—and seemed to know—a number of other Forteans in his various works, notably Hereward Carrington, Harry Price, Vincent Gaddis, and Ivan Sanderson.
But there was at least one obvious difference. Fort had weaved his weird anecdotes into theories of varying believability and sincerity. Not so with Miller. Geoffrey Giles discussed the book in the British fanzine Fantasy Review under the title “Fort Without Theories” (August-September 1947):
“You may recall that the author of this book was a contributor to Astounding ten years ago. The stories he has assembled here are astounding, too, but they are not fictional. For Mr. Miller is more interested, these days, in fantastic facts--in collecting and collating them and presenting them in mystifying array, much as Mr. Fort used to do. He is, in fact, a Fortean, and has been dogging the Great Doubter’s footsteps for 15 years or more, accumulating a mass of pallid data on such things as the Devil’s Footprints, death fogs, sea serpents and missing ships.
“But, whereas Charles Fort offered his own possible but very improbable explanations for the ‘enormities and preposterousnesses’ he spent his whole life tabulating so as to tantalise orthodox science, Mr. Miller declines to put forward any theories to account for his oddities. He merely records them, here, as a series of disconnected incidents, all of which he is satisfied have actually happened but have been conveniently forgotten--because they could not be explained away as easily as the recent riot of ‘flying saucers.’
Though a few of his tales have been told before, and some he has previously recounted in his Coronet magazine feature of some years ago, most of them are new to me and all are thought-provoking. They are a mixed assortment, ranging in subject from ghostly hauntings to talking and thinking animals; and his chapters on Enigmas Out of Space, Vanished Continents, misplacements in Time and forgotten experiments cannot fail to rouse the fantasy fan’s natural interest.
“The only criticism I might venture, indeed, is that the book contains too many cases for its rather limited dimensions; the treatment is therefore inclined to be cursory. I agree with Mr. Miller that ‘you cannot pack the marvels of creation into theories with the same nicety that you pack sardines into cans,’ but I would have preferred to linger longer over a few of his baffling mysteries than that he should have accomplished as much with his facts.”
And, indeed, Miller was a member of the Fortean Society, mentioned as early as 1942, included in Thayer’s round-up of Fortean science-fiction writers, a contributor of data and, at least by 1947, a life member—and not an honorary life member, meaning he paid the dues himself. By the 1950s, he was being hailed by the United Press—at least on the book jackets—as “one of the world's foremost authorities on psychic phenomena and the mysterious.”
But, during the 1950s, as Miller became more comfortable putting forth his own theories, he developed his ideas in ways different than Fort. And so maybe it is no surprise that his seat in 1958 barely got a mention from Thayer in Doubt.
Miller was part of the southern California occult scene. Indeed, he anxiously awaited for some institution there—UCLA, USC—to take up parapsychology, and was moderately disappointed that none did. This scene seems to have shaped his output, sometimes in ways he was loathe to acknowledge. One way—which he admitted—was that he was mostly uninterested in rehashing the evidence for various occult and metaphysical beliefs: clairvoyance, telepathy, teleportation, auras, mediumship, life after death, ghosts and poltergeists. He accepted these as established—Fort himself had provided plenty of evidence of poltergeists, for example, he said, even if his theorizing was tricky—and he urged his readers to simply assume that they had been established. He was also swept up in the flying saucer flap—speaking out on it publicly as early as 1947—and would be troubled by claims of reincarnation.
You DO Take It With You, published in 1955, was Miller’s theoretical statement. The book itself is not great—Miller is clearly better writing short pieces, and cannot sustain an argument over many pages—but his points are clear, even if not always presented with clarity. He argues that there is a ‘vaster reality,’ what spiritualists in the nineteenth- and early part of the twentieth-century called the ‘etheric’ realm. It was out of this vaster reality—the dimensions beyond what we normally see—come the impulse toward evolution, as well as the electromagnetic forces that organize matter into beings. (He borrowed this idea from Gustaf Strömberg, an astronomer at Mt. Wilson Observatory, who had published his ideas in 1940’s Soul of the Universe.) The claim is patently Platonic, too, with electromagnetism acting as eternal forms.
During life, we exist in both realms, the material and the—for lack of a better world—psychic. It is in the psychic world, for example, where are memories and subconscious are stored. That is why neurologists cannot find a structure for those things in the brain, and why people with serious brain damage can retain their personality. The part of us that exists in the spirit world is what gives us our auras. And it can, at times, separate from us—as win astral projection, or in some stories about ghosts of the living; also, dreams sometimes allow us to view the world through its eyes. When we die, the tether that holds the spirit to the material world is cut, and the spirit is free to enter fully the vaster reality: which is not some vaporous heaven, but a place of intense emotions and feelings, where all are senses continue to operate and where we can indulge in sex. This psychic self—this second self—persists forever.
Miller’s theories put him at odds with N. Meade Layne, one of southern California’s leading occultists. Layne insisted that there was an etheric reality, and that flying saucers came from there, becoming less dense in order to enter our reality. His claims were based on the same type of evidence as Miller—anecdotal stories and the reports of mediums. Miller took time in both his books to deal with Layne, although how he did so was a bit odd. First, his chapters on flying saucers seem grafted onto the books, more tangential than even his digressive style should allow. Second, he did not mention Layne by name. Perhaps there was some personal animosity. At any rate, it is obvious he is responding to Layne’s theories.
Miller argues that flying saucers cannot came from the ether, for a number of different (sometimes contradictory) reasons. In You DO Take It With You, he argues the problem is that the kind of materialization assumed in the theory requires human will to be completed and, anyway, the material from which the object is materializing—he calls it ectoplasm—is unstable. In his final book, Reincarnation, he argues that the problem is with the concept of ether. There was no such thing as ether—just as the physicists said. In the past, the term had been sued because it seemed scientific, and helped make the most sense of the findings of spiritualism—but since then physics had progressed, and so had psychical research.
Instead, he suggested, flying saucers were crafts from other planets piloted by creative intelligences. That is to say, he set UFOlogy against psychical research, as part of the material world.
The other difficulty Miller had was reincarnation. Reincarnation had always been something discussed in occult circles—indeed, it was part of Theosophical thinking, and theosophy, in many ways, set the stage for modern esoteric thought in America. Miller referred to the subject several times in You DO Take It With You, though mostly evasively. And the following year he wrote a book on the topic. The book was fragmented, consisting largely of quotes from various sources and rehashes of his older writings; less than 120 pages, the book’s two longest chapters nonetheless were written by others, one a supporter of reincarnation, the other a skeptic; a third chapter was penned by two students, one on high school, the other in college. And Miller’s conclusion was derived from a quote that he had already used in his earlier book. But the need to write the book points to an unscratchable itch in his thinking.
Reincarnation became a popular subject among occultists again after the publication of The Search for Bridey Murphy in 1955, which reported the case of a woman who, hypnotically regressed to the point before her birth, adopted the personality of a nineteenth-century Irish woman.
The subject bore directly onto Miller’s theories. First, as with the case of N. Meade Layne, the case used the same kind of evidence that Miller championed: hypnotism, the reports of mediums. Second, it made a claim about what the afterlife was like. But the afterlife would be very different than Miller’s: rather than exploring the vaster reality, souls were called upon to re-enter the material plane.
Throughout Reincarnation, Miller waffled on the subject, admitting that certain phenomena associated with reincarnation—the spontaneous appearance of new personalities in a single individual, for example—were probably correct, but worried about the interpretation. In this book and the previous one, he said that there could be a Romantic pleasure to the idea of reincarnation—say, that two souls are trying to unite, and facing the material world again and again until they find each other—but that such thoughts could be dangerous, too, in having one ignore the life that they were currently living. (Miller explored similar themes in his novel The Man Who Lived Forever, which was an adaptation of his short story “The Master Shall Not Die,” written with Anna Hunger.)
Miller suggested a number of possible resolutions, but clearly had his favored response, and this response was based on the ideas of his friend and medium Eileen Garrett, who had said she did not believe in reincarnation but didn’t care if other people did: it just wasn’t important to her. Miller glossed this by saying we just ma not know enough about reincarnation to make an informed decision.
But he was not content to leave the matter at that. Rather, he built on the work of his favorite philosopher—not Fort after all, but the American psychologist and philosopher William James. James gave intellectual respectability to the conclusion that there might be a spirit world—the vaster reality—and also had said that the return of demonology was likely (quoted on page 93). He also gave a case study of what seemed to be reincarnation.
James’s ideas, though, could be reshuffled with other metaphysical speculation so that Miller could escape his quandary. Perhaps, Miller suggested, there were some second selves—some astral bodies—that were earthbound, afraid to venture into the vaster reality when cut-off from their material body. And perhaps these possessed living bodies, adding a new personality to the individual. This would make it look as though reincarnation had happened—but really it was just James’s return of demonology, of possession.
What then of the reports from mediums that ghosts affirmed the reality of reincarnation? Here Miller took a page—unacknowledged—from Layne: spirits were not all-knowing or all-seeing. They could be mistaken, too.
Thus, Miller, who had opposed UFOlogy to spiritism presaged a change in the field that would make it even more metaphysically implicated. In the late 1960s into the 1970s would come speculations that UFOs were related to demons. I don’t know if there’s a direct link between Miller’s invocation of demonology and this later turn, but the parallel, at least, is worth pondering.