Does fiction become true if it’s repeated often enough? The “alien” of Tuerin monastery

Peter Kolosimo: Not of This World (Sphere, 1971)

Peter Kolosimo: Not of This World (Sphere, 1971)

As a teenager, I was an avid reader of books dealing with ancient mysteries, beginning with Erich von Däniken and working my way through anything that appeared in that section of my local bookshop. I was enthralled but mostly sceptical of the claims made and, as I grew older, I came to realise that very little of this material could be accommodated within what I was learning about real archaeology. Nevertheless, some things stuck in my mind and seemed to hold the promise of genuine mystery. I’ve kept a lot of the books I bought forty or so years ago and I occasionally turn to them for a bit of light reading as inspiration for this blog.

Earlier this week I looked again at Not of This World (1970) by Peter Kolosimo (the pseudonym of Pier Domenico Colosimo, 1922-1984), translated from the Italian Non è Terrestre (1969). It is one of a large number of very similar books that followed in the wake of the unprecedented success Chariots of the Gods?, many of them highly derivative of it. Kolosimo’s book was rather different, with some quite different stories from those of von Däniken. One that really mystified me was the opening subject of Chapter 4, The Sons of the Pleiades, which told the tale of a Mr John Spencer, an adventurer who had fled Manchuria in 1920 and collapsed close to a monastery near Tuerin in Mongolia. Taken in by the lamas to recuperate, he found that he was not the only westerner in the monastery: an American traveller, William Thompson, had been staying there for some months.

This is John Spencer’s story as given by Peter Kolosimo:

One morning the adventurer discovered near the monastery a stone staircase with worn-out steps. Having pushed open a narrow door, without any trouble, he found himself in a polygon-shaped room, though it is not known if it had twelve, thirteen or more sides. On the various walls, Spencer looked at some incomprehensible patterns of a strange sort; but after having examined them thoroughly the design of one of them seemed to make sense. It was the representation of the constellation of Taurus, with which he was familiar for the simplest of reasons, having been born under that sign and carrying with him on his watch-chain an amulet from China with the same sign on it.

He followed the designs with his finger, though without any special purpose—in fact almost playfully. Then as he prodded right at the end of the line, where an incision marked out the Pleiades1 he was amazed to see the wall silently opening. The space in front was dark. Spencer hesitated a moment till curiosity got the better of him. He groped his way forward into the dark and was about to give up the exploration, when he saw a green light in the distance. Then his practical sense compelled him to go back and return with a big stone from outside, which he then used to prop the wall open so that it could not close and trap him.

He did not manage to discover the source of the green light, which seemed to him to come from the sharp corners of the ceiling. He considered it unnecessary to bother further with it and was satisfied that he was going along a narrow and solid gallery where there was no danger of collapse. The tunnel had several branches and Spencer decided to take the right one, although one was much the same as another and he did not want to run the risk of losing his way. Naturally he did not know that this was just the direction indicated by the Pleiades which was high on the right side of the wall open wide in front of him! Finally he reached the end, in a room where the green light was stronger and harsher. Along one wall a number of rectangular boxes were lined up (from 25 to 30 he said himself at the time) which seemed to be suspended about half a metre from the floor. Spence ignored this, thinking it might have supports he could not see, and instead gave his attention to the boxes. He saw at once that they were biers but instead of their impressing him he felt inclined to congratulate himself, thinking that there must be treasure buried with the remains. He found with pleasure that the lids could easily by lifted up, and started his inspection. In the first three he discovered the bodies of monks, clothed like those in the monastery, and in the fourth, lay the body of a woman dressed in man’s clothing which must have been cut at least fifty years ago. In the fifth there was an Indian wearing a cloak of red silk and the sixth contained a man in a costume he reckoned was made in 1700. He then began to consider two other points: that the corpses were in a perfect state of preservation and that they were not all of the same epoch, becoming older the further he went towards the walls of the end of the room.

In the propenultimate box lay a man “wrapped in white bedclothes” and in the last but one was a woman whose origin he could not establish. Of the longed-for necklaces, etc., there was not the slightest trace. Spencer was annoyed and when he lifted the last lid he was rooted to the spot with amazement: the body of a man was inside, dressed in a sort of silver mail and who in place of a head had a ball of pure silver, with round holes where the eyes should have been and an oval thing full of small holes in lieu of a nose—and there was no mouth!

Spencer, recovering from his surprise, was about to touch the object when he changed his mind suddenly as the big round eyes of the dead man were wide open and emitting a horrifying green gleam. So he quickly dropped the lid and ran back shouting to the place he had come from. After about ten yards he had the good sense to stop and think, otherwise he would never have been able to find the exit again. He returned to the exit after a long walk but when he came out he had another shock: darkness had fallen in the valley. “I must have walked for two or three hours all told” he said afterwards. “It is impossible that I could have lost all sense of time to such an extent int here!”

A much perturbed John Spencer returned to the monastery and told Thompson, who did not seem very surprised, but told him off instead and said that he would have to tell the whole story to the priests. Next morning Spencer was called by one of the monks who welcomed him smiling, treating him with a kindness which Spencer hardly dared to believe. “My poor friend” the monk said, “your faver has played a dirty trick on you! Why didn’t you expect to be cured by visiting our holy places?” This fiendliness encouraged Spencer to ask for explanations about the vaults and the “corpse without a mouth”. But the lama shook his head: “There are neither corpses not vaults down there: come with me if you feel strong enough.” They went down to the odd room together and the priest touched a wall with his finger. It opened on to a gallery and the two men walked for not more than ten minutes when they reached a small room containing a table like an altar. On this ledge was was a row of some small biers, with a length of not more than 12-13 centimeters. The priest carefully uncovered them one after the other—they contained perfect statuettes, copies of the creatures discovered by Spence.

“This is what you really saw,” said the monk, smiling. “They are images of people who have enriched the world with their wisdom and so we honour them. It was your fever, my poor friend, which made you think you were standing in front of real sarcophagi. And as you can see, there is no green light but only the yellow from one of our humble lamps.” Spencer did not dare to reply (in certain circumstances he could be the epitome of caution) but he was unable to stop himself asking the priest who the person with the round head might be, the first one in the row. “A high lord who came from the stars” replied the monk, pointing to some lines on the wall behind the altar: once again it turned out to be the Constellation of Taurus and once more Spencer’s glance was directed to the Pleiades!

When Spencer saw Thompson again he said he had not the slightest doubt about the truth of his adventure. “It might easily be that I still had some fever” he said, “but I absolutely reject the idea that I dreamt it all or was the victim of deleriu,. I lost the heel of one of my shoes down in the labyrinth and scratched my hands at least a dozen times when I was feeling the stones for any possible snags. I touched the clothes on that corpse and notcied the veins and wrinkles… the piece of wall which opened was on the left of the entrance whereas the opening the lama stood in front of was almost right in front, slightly to the right… the monk has tried to convince me by showing me a miniature cope of what I actually saw.”

Spencer left the monastery a week later and nothing more was heard of him. William Thompson, however, returned to the United States and told others about the whole episode (reported at that time in a review called Adventure) persuasively saying that Spencer’s assertions were true…

1Spencer did not even know that the Pleiades existed: a point which was later made clear by W. Thompson.

Here we have a thrilling story with circumstantial detail, the names of people and places. To my fourteen-year-old mind, this was like the horror stories I would read to give me shivers at bed time, but with the added thrill of it all being true. At least, that’s what I believed back in 1972, when I first read the story. And it clearly resonates with other people, with it turning up on a number of websites, mostly UFOlogical in nature.

Is there any truth in the story?

Tuerin in the early twentieth century

Tuerin in the early twentieth century

Unlike a number of stories of this sort, we are given data that can be checked, of which some at least is genuine data. There was once a monastery at Tuerin (Чойрын, more correctly transliterated Choirin or Choiryn, now more frequently spelled Чойр, Choir), which is a real place that is the capital of the province of Govĭ-Sümber (Говь-Сумбэр аймаг), Mongolia. It was captured by the White Russian Army in March 1921, during an invasion under Baron Robert-Nikolai-Maximilian Roman Feodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg (Ро́берт-Ни́колай-Максими́лиан Рома́н Фёдорович фон У́нгерн-Ште́рнберг, 1885-1921) allegedly financed by the Japanese, who hoped to limit Soviet influence over Mongolia. Moreover, there was once an extensive monastery (or lamasery) there, known as Choirin Datsan, and described in Elizabeth Kendall’s A Wayfarer in China: impressions of a trip across west China and Mongolia (Riverside Press, 1913):

Tuerin, not a house but a village, built in and out among the rocks. It was an extraordinary sight to stumble upon, here on the edge of the uninhabited desert. A little apart from the rest were four large temples crowned with gilt balls and fluttering banners, and leading off from them were neat rows of small white plastered cottages with red timbers, the homes of the two thousand lamas who live here. The whole thing had the look of a seaside camp-meeting resort.

The lamasery of Tuerin

The lamasery of Tuerin

During the period of communist rule in Mongolia, hundreds of monasteries were destroyed as part of a process of forced secularisation after 1924, so it is unsurprising that there is today little trace of the historic lamasery at Tuerin. In the early twenty-first century, Rinpoche Zava Damdin established a community of 70 monks in a group of gers (felt tents better known by their Russian name of yurts). There is a manuscript drawing of the monastery, the details of which are largely confirmed by an early photograph of the site; a pile of rocks depicted behind the main temple building is identifiable on the ground today. In front of it, there is a small memorial that is a focus for offerings. The ruins (Choiryn Khiidiin Tuuri) are a tourist destination.

We are on less certain ground when it comes to the protagonist of the story, the mysterious and mystified John Spencer, or William Thompson, the traveller who reported Spencer’s tale to the American press. There appears to be no information about them other than in this story. This does not mean that they did not exist, but given John Spencer’s alleged criminal notoriety, it is surprising that he does not seem to have attracted the attention of the world’s media. A Google search for the names (which are relatively common English names) yields too many results to be able to check on them; however, combine them with the word “Mongolia” and the only sites mentioning their presence in the country in 1920 are simply retellings of this story.

Back to the source

Cover of Adventure, 30 April 1922

The cover of Adventure, for 30 April 1922 (source)

What none of the writers who use this story have done is go back to the original source. Every writer since 1970 bases their account on Peter Kolosimo’s, even to the point of noting that the story was first reported in an American publication, Adventure, so one might expect someone to find out a bit more about the publication. If they had actually bothered to do this one little bit of research, or simply made enquiries about Adventure, they would have made an important (and disquieting) discovery: Adventure was a “pulp magazine” that dealt exclusively with fictional tales. Published by the Ridgeway Company, it was being issued three times a month in the 1920s, it reached its peak of popularity under Arthur Sullivant Hoffman (1876-1966), its editor from 1912 to 1927. It was clearly not a journal of record, nor was it a news magazine.

This obviously means that the tale of John Spencer is untrue; it also means that, in all probability, neither John Spencer nor William Thompson actually existed. They were fictional characters in an adventure story designed to entertain and thrill, which is why the tale is rich in circumstantial detail, reports of direct conversations that the writer could never have heard, even the private thoughts of the principal. Details like that make for good fiction but, in a story that is supposed to be reportage, detailing events that actually happened, they cause alarm bells to ring. As with the supposedly private conversation between Bérenger Saunière and Mgr Billard in Le Trésor Maudit, the book that popularised the non-existent mystery of Rennes-le-Château (and, ultimately, inspired The da Vinci Code), the author cannot have known precisely what was said, let alone thought.

While we may allow some journalistic licence in “improving” a story, extensive passages of directly quoted speech ought to have made readers of the story repeated by Peter Kolosimo go back to Adventure to see how much he had embellished the original. Their failure to do so tells us more about their attitudes to research and fact checking than any number of footnotes or references. The lazy repetition of the story told by Kolosimo, the failure to recognise a publication dealing entirely with fiction, the lack of interest in finding out more about Tuerin and its monastery all highlight the sloppiness of writers in this genre. Their uncritical acceptance of what a previous author has to say demonstrates that they are not interested in pushing the frontiers of knowledge through investigation; instead, they are engaged in recycling for profit.