How Mysteries of the Unknown came to be, finally explained!
October 29, 2015 8:58 PM   Subscribe

"I never would have believed it, until one night I woke up around three o'clock in the morning. I felt something cold against my shoulder. It was the ceiling. I was looking down at my own body." Julianne Moore and other actors ask you to think about "the paranormal, one of the biggest issues of our age" in this ad for Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown series of books. Curious about unexplained phenomenon? Tales of events, dismissed as chance, coincidence, or imagination, but what if they aren't? How could you explain it? How did these ads (if not the books) get so popular? Fittingly enough, it may have just been fated in the stars.

Time-Life Books started book sales clubs back in the 1960s, where folks subscribed and got new books every few months, but they were the sorts of books that were seen in homes but not really read, "books as furniture." (Still, there are people dedicated to documenting these collections, if you want to know more about them.)

Then came The Enchanted World, a series about witches, elves and fairies, which was fairly popular in its time. Time-Life Books looked to other left-field topics to tap into, and hit upon the paranormal, just in time for the Harmonic Convergence of 1987, when
José Arguelles launched a word-of-mouth Harmonic Convergence campaign calling for 144,000 “Sun dancers” to gather near sacred sites at dawn on August 16 and 17 to “open the doors to the final 26 years of the 5,125-year Mayan Great Cycle,” an era of unprecedented change and preparation for a new evolutionary cycle on Earth.
The campaign got a fair bit of news coverage, which was great for the new series of books. Advertising shifted from direct-mail solicitations to those memorable ads from the late 1980s through early 1990s.

The series was "rebooted" last year with a single volume, but it just brushed lightly over a 15 broad topics in less than 300 pages, and there doesn't seem to be any video ads for the book.
posted by filthy light thief (41 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
You can pick up individual volumes fairly inexpensively online, if not in your local thrift store. I haven't seen any website with a list of the contents of each volume, so you might find the Good Reads reviews of each book helpful, as some reviewers comment on the contents.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:06 PM on October 29, 2015


I don't know how we got it, but we had the Life Nature series while I was in elementary school, and my remaining memory of it is that someone lost the "The Universe" book, and that's all I wanted to read. I think we may have had one or more of that wacky Western series with the leather.
posted by rhizome at 9:12 PM on October 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


There was one of these in my elementary(!) school library about the brain. In addition to the usual color-blindness tests and optical illusions, it had a lurid section about mental illness and how it affected art. There were lots of reproductions of art by traumatized patients. This website reproduces nearly all the art from that section of this Time-Life book.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:24 PM on October 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Do you know how many hours I spent trying to have an out of body experience based on the instructions in the "Psychic Voyages" volume? Neither do I but IT WAS A WHOLE LOT.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:26 PM on October 29, 2015 [19 favorites]


I never knew about this multimedia campaign. My public library when I was a kid had all of these, and I used to check out a few of them at a time. Each was more fascinating than the last! I learned all about how fairy rings were basically UFOs, and about that time a guy managed to successfully summon Set.

I hadn't thought about them for years, but I've recently run into a few in used book stores and library book sales and picked up the Mystic Places and Time and Space volumes. Something about the white text on black pages just underscores how creepy they are, you know?

These links are great! I'm going to spend some time digging into the Goodreads reviews and the links about the Harmonic Convergence, but the videos are fantastic. I especially like the guy in the Julianne Moore video who says "I dunno. I dreamt something once, and it came true the next day. Maybe there is something to it?" He just sounds so blasé about it.
posted by branduno at 9:38 PM on October 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


I was waiting for the skeptical guy in the commercial to reveal himself to be a ghost.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:44 PM on October 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


MotU's alright I guess, but it's no Man, Myth and Magic.
posted by jack_babylon at 10:29 PM on October 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


they were the sorts of books that were seen in homes but not really read, "books as furniture."

No doubt that's generally true, but holy shit I just about lived in our set of the Life Nature Library when I was like eight.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:41 PM on October 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


* pours a shot of crystal skull vodka, toasts filthy light thief *
posted by benzenedream at 2:51 AM on October 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


I learned all about how fairy rings were basically UFOs, and about that time a guy managed to successfully summon Set.

I'm surprised there's not an official Call Of Cthulhu Modern mention of those books.

I think we may have had one or more of that wacky Western series with the leather.

With that guy who shot a man just for snorin' too loud?
posted by JHarris at 3:44 AM on October 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


I just about lived in our set of the Life Nature Library when I was like eight.

Me too! I signed up for Paperbackswap when an old roommate left behind a shit-ton of books when she moved out, and I racked up a ton of credits pretty quick - and I decided that one thing I could do with them was to track down, volume by volume, a complete set. It actually took me only about two hours, and it now has pride of place in my office.

...Was there also a Time/Life series on each of the decades of the 20th century? I think my cousins had that and I also dug that - maybe I should try tracking that down too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:44 AM on October 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


I learned all about how fairy rings were basically UFOs

YESSSSSS. One of the most extraordinarily fascinating things to me is how thoroughly UFO-stuff tried to co-opt every other myth/legend/unexplained-phenomenon-thing from like the seventies through the nineties. We've still got little remnants floating around today, but it seems like we're swinging round to quantum entanglement as our Mystery Science Du Jour.

Thanks so much for posting this; the commercials delighted and intrigued me as a child, and led to a teenagerhood of much conspiracy-theory-reading!
posted by Greg Nog at 4:53 AM on October 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


I loved those books. My grandparents had some and I borrowed them forever. Not sure when it was but I was old enough to not really believe any of it but just young enough to worry, "well. It IS in a book so maybe it's true..."

I also used to read all my grandparents' Reader's Digests. Laughter IS the Best Medicine, isn't it?
posted by artychoke at 5:23 AM on October 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


My childhood, through a combination of parental thrift and being a weirdo, was dominated by having second tier or alternative options (hello, Sega Genesis!), so I got the Reader's Digest versions of this same idea (Quest for the Unknown). There was one that my parents wouldn't let me read because they found it inappropriate,* I can't remember why, and then hid in a closet for years. When I was old enough that I just rooted around in the closet for the forbidden item and read it, I could not for the life of me figure out what the objection was.

There's a particular type of nerdy child who gets really into aliens and cryptids and stuff like that, and I was definitely one of those. Those Reader's Digest Books brought me a lot of joy as a kid, along with a few nightmares about an ax murderer.

*They missed the story about the dude who had sex with the alien woman in the UFO book, which I definitely enjoyed in my very early adolescence.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:32 AM on October 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


Oh my God these series. The Enchanted World taught me so much about fairy tales as a kid, just in time for the grimdark-faerie trend to come around.

The middle school library had the Mysteries of the Unknown series (which in retrospect is odd), and they didn't check out because they were shelved under "reference". I remember planning my free time so I could be with those books. One weird story stays with me today -- a bunch of kids out at night apparently saw this huge thing which was a rectangle. Just a black, organic rectangular creature. When they threw a rock at it, it developed legs in a split at the bottom and walked away. This is so dreamlike that it terrified me.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:25 AM on October 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


My Dad had the entire Life Library of Photography series from the early '70s, the ones with the silver covers and black spines. Fantastic books; I hope he still has them.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 6:26 AM on October 30, 2015


EmpressCallipygos: Was there also a Time/Life series on each of the decades of the 20th century?

It turns out there were a great many series from Time-Life Books, but the one you mention might be Our American Century, which included books about certain decades, plus other books that looked beyond a single decade.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:51 AM on October 30, 2015


These books were always advertised in the same time slots as crap from the Franklin Mint (the Civil War chess set!).
posted by Chrysostom at 7:54 AM on October 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


It turns out there were a great many series from Time-Life Books, but the one you mention might be Our American Century, which included books about certain decades, plus other books that looked beyond a single decade.

I poked around on the "great many series" link, and it turns out that the series I remember was in fact This Fabulous Century. I would have been browsing it at my cousins' house in the 1980's, and I remember it didn't go past the 1960's; I also remember those funky color schemes on the covers.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:00 AM on October 30, 2015


And wow, I think I may have a new hobby - trying to amass complete sets of different series entirely via Paperbackswap (I ain't gonna try paying for these). And the older the better - there is something just so endearingly dated about some of the ones from the 1960's. (I somehow have the "American" volume from one of the cooking series, and some of the photography is both charmingly quaint and hysterical - a "typical barbecue" has a lot of dour-looking guys standing around a charcoal grill in a field soemwhere, all of them in trench coats and hats and hornrimmed glasses, chewing hot dogs and looking vaguely dissatisfied.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:05 AM on October 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


I've got a few of the Library of Art books, and the Old West book about Canada, and they're actually pretty decent popular introductions to their subjects. I've always heard good things about the Science and Nature series, and I think the Library of Photography is considered a high-water mark. The quality of these series is supposed to have dropped off in later years ... but to my ten-year-old self, nothing was cooler than Mysteries of the Unknown.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 8:06 AM on October 30, 2015


OH MY GOD THE GREAT CITIES! They had these in my high school library and I totally forgot about these! I remember huddling around the New Orleans one with friends Freshman year and we started planning a post-graduation road trip there - but then it never happened.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:10 AM on October 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised there's not an official Call Of Cthulhu Modern mention of those books.

Well now I know where to look for ideas if I ever get around to running a Cthulhu campaign.

I think we may have had one or more of that wacky Western series with the leather.

With that guy who shot a man just for snorin' too loud?

Oooo and where to look for ideas for Deadlands.
posted by branduno at 8:10 AM on October 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Okay, I just went a little nuts on PBS and was able to score "The Great Cities (Rome)" and the 1920's and 1950's volumes of "This Fabulous Century". Someone may need to take me away from the computer at some point.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:16 AM on October 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos, I have somehow never heard of Paperbackswap. That looks great; I am definitely going to sign up for that.
posted by branduno at 8:16 AM on October 30, 2015


I remember commercials for these back in the day. It seems incredible to me now that stuff on ESP etc. would be sold on mainstream TV. But the pre-Internet days were credulous and innocent in ways like that. I mean, people believed Paul's doppelgänger had taken his place in the Beatles.
posted by persona au gratin at 8:36 AM on October 30, 2015


I have fond memories of reading those Time Life science books at my friend's house while he would watch cartoons.
posted by persona au gratin at 8:40 AM on October 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Credulous then? The "I'm not saying it was aliens" guy is not from the 80s. Plenty of credulous crap on tv today.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:41 AM on October 30, 2015


Yeah, maybe it's just that I hardly watch commercials anymore. Or I run with a different crowd. I just remember thinking then, yeah, there may be something to all this. And that seems like such a naive and innocent attitude from the vantagepoint of 2015.
posted by persona au gratin at 8:51 AM on October 30, 2015


I think a significant difference comes from the internet. Pre-internet, knowledge of the weird and paranormal wasn't as easily available, and when it was, you couldn't get the broad diversity in viewpoints on topics, arguments and counter arguments. So when you have a mysterious TV ad telling you to look for an ad in your paper (Google news view of a six-page spread for Mysteries of the Unknown from 1990) and "this week's TV Guide," and even offers you 10 free power crystals if you complete the full moon over Stonehenge, it's possible you can't go online to find more information on Robert Monroe's out of body experiences, Will Lincoln's experience of mysterious forces at an ancient ruin, or Wendy Foster's coal mine disaster premonition (some names changed to protect the privacy of individuals).

Then again, it seems some of these stories are either made up or modified enough that they're hard to find now (or haven't found their way online) that it might be hard to find them in your local library.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:51 AM on October 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


There is such an 80s flavor to the creep-out of these commercials. I hadn't seen these in years, but my recollection was of an empty hallway in a modern office building, with sunlight coming down at a strange angle, and everything gray and sterile. I think the airport vignette from this clip is what I was thinking of, combined with the shots of the books themselves later in the commercial. (And what was it about typewriter fonts in the 80s?)

Also, I miss commercials that had that blue screen with the 800 number. There's something hilarious about an announcer trying his damnedest to sound grave and serious for 100 seconds, only to be followed by a voice so nasal that it sounds like a piss-take. “To order YOUR first book, Mystic Places, call ONE-eighthundred…”
posted by savetheclocktower at 9:55 AM on October 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think we may have had one or more of that wacky Western series with the leather.

—With that guy who shot a man just for snorin' too loud?


I believe that was famous croquet player Billy the Kid.
posted by Atom Eyes at 10:05 AM on October 30, 2015


Or was it John Wesley Harding? I should have bought those damn books!
posted by Atom Eyes at 10:08 AM on October 30, 2015


I was obsessed with those commercials as a kid. I wanted my parents to order the books for me so badly! But, all we had were a few books from the home repair series.

Time Life also did those cassette music compilations. My parents had a bunch from the Sounds of the Seventies one (and perhaps others) -- the Punk and New Wave cassette was my first introduction to a lot of classic punk bands. (Shit, looking back on that tape now that's a damn good playlist.)
posted by misskaz at 10:45 AM on October 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


(I just realized those commercials totally primed me for X-Files fandom later in life. Also watching/hate-watching Ghost Hunters and Ancient Aliens in more recent years. I guess I still want to believe even though I don't.)
posted by misskaz at 10:48 AM on October 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm a big fan of the Time/Life production style, they had some really innovative graphic artwork and layout, especially in the Time/Life Science Library series, which I think are probably the most visually brilliant mass-produced books ever made. I have two copies of 'The Mind' that infinitewindow mentioned above, it's the peak of their power (Trivia note: some of the very striking and disturbing images by an artist not credited in the original volume are by William Kurelek).

However, regarding 'Mysteries of The Unknown', I have to make a case for one of their competitors who made a really swell single volume work: Mysteries of The Past by American Heritge/Scribners, 1977. Nifty Time/Life-esque art direction, but with interesting essays by actual archaeologists who explain what was actually plausible (for the time) about theories on Stonehenge, etc. Includes an extra nice sharp burn on Von Daniken in the introduction! (I'm also a fan of Von Daniken, but for entertainment purposes only;)
posted by ovvl at 5:06 PM on October 30, 2015


Yes, I too realized in retrospect how close to X-Files those were.
posted by persona au gratin at 10:04 PM on October 30, 2015


Someone should do a FPP on those TL science books...
posted by persona au gratin at 10:05 PM on October 30, 2015


Okay, this is a little ridiculous - I've also been reminded of the "Good Cook" series, and how I would browse the book on "Candy" and be absolutely convinced that why, sure, I could make fondant myself from scratch at age eleven, this sounds easy...

I've ordered that one too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:45 AM on October 31, 2015


I strongly recommend, 'Foods of the World,' a now dated but still incredible collection of recipes and food writing. As a state of the world for food in the late sixties and early seventies they have a sobering effect for anyone who thinks, 'foodie,' is a recent idea in America.

On a broader note might I recommend Leggeman's Time-Life Library. It is a sight listing many of the Time-Life series and indexing their individual titles.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 11:34 PM on October 31, 2015


Oh man, I loved The Enchanted World when I was a kid. Those were great books.
posted by homunculus at 10:30 AM on November 1, 2015


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