The rapidly expanding Amazing Fact publishing industry is consuming print at the rate of one pine forest the size of Littlehampton every week. A dozen or more new titles appeared before Christmas - including a selection of photographs and correspondence from the archive of the 20th-century master of Amazing Facts, Robert Ripley (1893-1949), compiler of the syndicated Believe it or Not] newspaper strip which flourished in the Thirties and Forties.
One of the photographs in the book, You'll Never Believe It (Virgin, pounds 12.99), shows that Wang, 'the human unicorn', really did have a 14- inch horn growing out of the back of his head.
I spent Christmas nostalgically browsing through the new Ripley, plus my own collection of 20 Amazing Fact books, and a dozen new titles. By my side was the 1994 edition of the most respectable of all Amazing Fact books, the Guinness Book of Records. What, I wondered, makes these compilations so compulsive?
The Guinness annual has changed: it underwent a rigorous clean-up with the 1989 edition. Out went dangerous and disgusting eating records (example: 100 live maggots in five minutes 29 seconds). In came polite requests for more reports of step exercise and honey- production records.
Virgin Publishing, spotting the gap created by this sanitisation, lurched in this Christmas with Ripley and two even more stomach- churning Amazing Fact books - Gross, by Karl Shaw, which carries the warning 'This book could ruin your appetite for ever', and Phil Healey and Rick Glanvill's second book, The Return of Urban Myths (best-known examples: thieves steal family car with dead granny in the boot; Chinese restaurant cooks couple's pet dog).
The Amazing Fact about the Virgin books is that, downmarket as they may be, their formula of 'the unspeakable, unpalatable, unjust and appalling' represents the authentic flavour of a centuries-old British collecting tradition. Pedants might date the Amazing Fact fad back to the encyclopaedists - the French in the 18th century or even Pliny the Elder in the 1st. But its true origin lies in the collecting of amazing - and horrid - things rather than facts, beginning with the grisly relics of saints in medieval times. Henry VIII wrenched piles of them from churches during his anti-Catholic purge (an ear supposedly struck from Malchus by St Peter, St Edmund's nail-parings . . .).
The taste - if it can be so called - for dead curios had a secular revival in the 18th century in the 'cabinets of curiosities' assembled by the rich to amaze their friends. Tsar Peter the Great (whose hobby was pulling teeth and hoarding them) bought up the lifetime's work of Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731), a meticulous embalmer whose 2,000 anatomical specimens included exquisite landscapes sculpted from human lungs and blood vessels, and an infant's arm, frilled with white lace, holding an eye socket.
In that age, death and disease, blood and guts, were visible daily. At least until 1868, when public executions in Britain were abolished, the most readily available compensation for the brutishness of one's own life, apart from religion and sex, was to join a mob watching people, or animals, being tortured and killed.
The more refined contemplated their cabinets. A tour of surviving cabinet-style collections, such as the museum of Walter Potter, Victorian naturalist and taxidermist in Bolventor, Cornwall, will reveal that the formula for curio collecting - objects then, words now - is horror masquerading as wonder. Potter's mummified cat found in a chimney is no less horrifying, at least to today's sensibilities, than his tableau, The Kittens' Wedding, in which kittens drowned by his neighbours are dressed in tiny velvet and lace costumes.
Ripley, who started out as a sports cartoonist, made it his mission to give the citizens of the 20th century what they were missing: a peep into the bowels of life. In Believe it or Not] he offered, besides inoffensive puzzles and vegetable oddities, drawings of a Peruvian shrunken head he bought for dollars 100 in Panama City and of the bloody stone altar upon which Aztec priests ripped out human hearts. He owned the hoax Fiji Mermaid - a shrivelled monkey's head joined to the body of a fish - which had belonged to P T Barnum, showman and purveyor of freaks.
Ripley's Odditoriums, containing shrunken heads and instruments of torture, were modelled on Barnum's museum in New York in the 1840s. There are still 19 of them, two in England. His cartoon strip, which appears today in 200 newspapers, earned him up to dollars 500,000 a year. He himself set records by receiving a million letters a year and, once, 2.5 million in 14 days.
Ripley had a precursor in Alfred, Lord Harmsworth, who was fascinated by torture, cruelty and painful death. Harmsworth's Answers to Correspondents, founded in 1888, was itself inspired by George Newnes's Tit-Bits, a pioneering receptacle of pre-masticated information. Besides such morsels as 'kissing originated in England', Answers speculated on such matters as how long a severed head remains conscious. Back-numbers of both Answers and Believe It or Not] reveal a preoccupation with premature burial.
The 1994 Guinness Book of Records ( pounds 14.99) eschews cruelty and restricts coverage of death to death rates and death-sentence statistics. Not least among its editors' concerns in ordering a clean-up was their discovery that the only way to drink a record-breaking 65 pints of its eponymous stout at one sitting is constantly to regurgitate. Nor does the Guinness book countenance space aliens or the supernatural. Like Ripley, it stakes its credibility on scientific verification and the rules of evidence - an orthodoxy ostensibly adhered to throughout the Amazing Fact press.
If it is fairies you want, or abduction by aliens, along with cattle mutilation and a photograph of a Spanish bricklayer crushed to death by a rock while having sexual intercourse with a chicken, look no further than the bi-monthly Fortean Times 'the journal of strange phenomena'. It continues the work of the New Yorker Charles Fort (1874- 1932), who ridiculed orthodox scientific explanation by collecting reports of showers of fish, frogs and snakes.
While the Guinness book offers the record weight of a sumo wrestler (Akebono, 467.25lb), Virgin's Gross reports that sumo wrestlers are so fat they cannot wipe their own bottoms. Six out of 10 of the novice wrestlers who are required to perform this service for them, it says, run away before completing their first year of apprenticeship.
Gross is strong on dirt, disease, defecation and death, and all that might convince us today that sanitisation means sanity. Our ancestors were, however, apparently so familiar with death that keeping severed heads or whole cadavers was not considered morbid. Peter the Great (him again) kept the head of his wife's lover in a jar of alcohol beside his bed. Sir Walter Raleigh's widow kept his head for 29 years, but Thomas Hardy's sister did not succeed in keeping her brother's heart - the cat ate it.
And, of course, everybody was exceedingly smelly. Famous stinkers included Queen Caroline of Brunswick (George IV never slept with her again after their wedding night), Pepys (never bathed), the Sun King Louis XIV (bathed three times during his life, under protest) and Rasputin, who believed water sapped his libido. By contrast, Elizabeth I bathed once a month 'whether she need it or no'.
Grosser still, in separate incidents in the 17th century, the courts of both Charles II and Peter the Great (would he stop at nothing to get into the Amazing Fact books?) fell into bad odour, accused of having left piles of excrement in houses where they had been guests.
If some Amazing Facts seem unbelievable, the antidote is to read Healey and Glanvill's The Return of Urban Myths ( pounds 4.99). Although the granny in boot and cooked dog have never been substantiated, some of their 'myths' have more than a ring of truth to them. Two- thirds of the servicemen in the First World War had venereal disease, H & G say; but this 'myth' is offset by the 'fact' in Gross that one- third of them contracted such diseases due to lack of counselling.
Similarly, the 'myth' that an Essex woman has an everlasting light bulb which the manufacturers have tried to buy back, has a counterpart in the April 1993 issue of Fortean Times: a photograph of a grinning Doris Irish of Stockton, Cleveland, holding a light bulb bought for sixpence in Woolworths in 1941 and still working.
Amazing Facts get spread pretty thinly as publications feed off one another. The Guinness Book of Records's greatest miser, Hetty Green, who left dollars 95m in 1916 and whose son's leg was amputated because of her delay in finding a free hospital, pops up in other publications with 'facts' slightly altered.
No Amazing Fact book is complete without recording that Caligula made his horse a consul, Henry I died from eating 'a surfeit of lampreys', the astronomer Tycho Brahe had an artificial nose made from silver and gold, Anne Boleyn had 12 fingers and three nipples, Cromwell's severed head had 10 owners between 1658 and 1960, and that University College, London, owns the fully dressed and seated cadaver of Jeremy Bentham, the 18th-century philosopher.
It is possible to create Amazing Facts by journalistic licence. Ripley's claim that 'Buffalo Bill never shot a buffalo in his life' is true because 'buffalo' is a misnomer for bison. Search A S E Ackermann's Popular Fallacies (1907) - did Ripley own a copy? - and you will find similar refutations. One of the more journalistically degenerate Amazing Fact publications, W H Smith's pounds 4.99 bargain book, 1,500 Fascinating Facts (Dean, 1992), has 'swans do not sing when they are about to die'. This book wins my prize for the world's most boring fact: the headline, 'There is a great variety of greenhouses'.
William Hartston of the Independent's Miscellany page, co-author of The Ultimate Irrelevant Encyclopaedia (Unwin, 1984), has taken to mimicking the genre. His privately circulated list of hundreds of spurious Amazing Facts (including the one about Nelson's statue having the wrong arm missing) claims that: 'Turkish delight comes from Wales', 'Queen Victoria had three buttocks', and 'The first working designs for ravioli were produced by Leonardo da Vinci'. According to Gross, da Vinci's plan for '10 new towns' advocated spiral staircases to discourage defecating on
So many historic figures have been alcoholic, drug-addicted or syphilitic (the 400th anniversary of the arrival of syphilis in Europe is this year), that Amazing Fact authors now feel obliged to compile lists, even though horrors tend to lose their impact when classified. The Book of Lists: 2, by Wallace, Wallechinsky, Wallace and Wallace (Elm Tree, 1980) has, inevitably, a list of '25 things that are not what they seem', including, 'A firefly is not a fly - it's a beetle'. There are books listing 'firsts', great mistakes, erotic failures, even cliches.
A browse through newspapers will prove that Amazing Facts are not hard to come by. In John May's The Book of Curious Facts (Collins & Brown, 1993, pounds 14.99) I found an Amazing Fact gleaned from this column: chewing gum can be traced to 1845, when a 30lb ball of chicle latex was the sole asset of Santa Anna, former Caudillo of Mexico and conqueror of the Alamo.
I offer another from this column, hoping to read it elsewhere: the world's deadest dead parrot is an African grey which pined and died in 1702 after the death of its mistress, the Duchess of Richmond, and is on display in Westminster Abbey Museum - the oldest mounted bird in this country.
In the end, I found my reading of the horrors of yesteryear far from therapeutic. Many were too recent for comfort. The atrocities of Caligula, Genghis Khan, and the Spanish Inquisition have been more than matched by Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. Modern times are supplying new monsters for the Amazing Fact books, such as Idi Amin, ruler of Uganda (who produced the frozen head of his commander-in-chief, Brigadier Hussein, at dinner parties and harangued it) and the Haitian president 'Papa Doc' Duvalier (who claimed that the severed head of army officer Blucher Philogenes, which he kept in a cupboard, could predict the future).
The Gothick vices of necrophilia and gluttony lend a quaint period flavour to the Amazing Facts about Elvis Presley. He is alleged to have enjoyed visiting the local morgue and to have gorged junk food nightly while high on drugs (aides regularly plucked food from his windpipeto stop him choking). Like George II, 'the King' died on the lavatory.
Robert Maxwell also earns mention for his video for employees, What's the Catch?, issued while he was filching pounds 450m from their pension fund. Chairman Mao's newly revealed lust for concubines makes him yet another candidate. And was not the coffin containing the body of the Queen's father, George VI, kept in a corridor at Windsor Castle for 17 years because the family vault was full? Peter the Great would have been impressed.
Dear Robert Ripley - this you gotta see
Ripley's Believe it or Not] cartoon strip became compulsive reading in the Thirties and Forties, with its graphic accounts of head shrinking, premature burial and tree-climbing fish. His readers fancied themselves as pretty amazing, too. None offered to boil their heads, but their 3,500 letters a day in response to Ripley's challenges did contain photographs of such feats as blowtorching the tongue, driving nails into the nose, and being buried alive for 17 days under the influence of a yogi called Rajah. Among those just published from his archive: workers at the Dings Magnetic Separator Co of Milwaukee with magnetic hoist (above) in 1937; a Chicagoan, Jackie Del Rio (right), apparently lifting two tables and six chairs with his teeth (1938); and (above right), hush, hush, whisper who dares, Alexandre Patty is coming downstairs (1931)
Ripley museums: Blackpool (0253 341033), Great Yarmouth (0493 332217). Potter Museum (0566 86838). The Cabinet of Curiosities by Simon Welfare and John Fairley (Weidenfeld, 1991).