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  • Hallucination & Literature, 1880–1914
  • Sharla Hutchison
Oliver Tearle. Bewilderments of Vision: Hallucination and Literature, 1880–1914. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2013. vi + 201 pp. $74.95

Between 1880 and 1914, a crop of new and divergent ghost tales proliferated among the pages of popular fiction—phantasmic femmes fatales haunting the male imagination, mystical phantasmagorias of ancient Roman civilization, anonymous specters urging men to commit heinous crimes, spirit-possessed violins, otherworldly opera singers, and telepathic friends bonded by seeing the same apparition. In Bewilderments of Vision: Hallucination and Literature, 1880–1914, Oliver Tearle examines late-Victorian interest in psychic phenomena, paying close attention to the ways that new forms of psychological inquiry coupled with developing pseudo-sciences, namely spiritualism and psychic research, to transform the genre of the ghost story into narratives about hallucination, reality, and unresolved meaning. No longer simply supernatural tales about phantoms to be taken at face value, late-Victorian ghost stories began to prompt readers to question whether the hauntings written into popular fiction were supernatural occurrences, [End Page 559] psychological manifestations of a character’s inward reality, or some kind of mental hallucinations generated by the environment, the processes of perception, or would-be explainable psychic events.

Focusing on the significance of hallucination as a recurring trope, Tearle traces earlier manifestations of hallucination to Dickens and Emily Brontë, illustrating how earlier Victorian texts tied supernatural phenomena to the problematic nature of discerning how an individual’s vision represents actual experience. However, the notion of hallucination developed newfound significance between 1880 and 1914. Edmund Gurney’s Phantasms of the Living (1886), a seminal work compiling and publishing some of the research conducted by the Society for Psychical Research, captured various scientific theories and cultural debates explaining ghostly sightings. More important, Gurney’s work documented how the idea of hallucination, once taken up by psychic researchers, created various theories to explain apparitions as a product of disease and fever, a telepathic experience, a “subliminal self,” or a function of memory. Ultimately, the published findings of the Society for Psychical Research enabled writers of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century to make indeterminacy a formal feature of the ghost narrative, blurring the boundaries between the supernatural and natural.

A multitude of writers dabbled in the redevelopment of the ghost story at this time—J. Meade Falkner, Mrs. Henry Wood, Sheridan LeFanu, William Hope Hodgson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Vernon Lee, Henry James, Arthur Machen, Oliver Onions, Algernon Blackwood, and so on. The Society for Psychical Research published scientific analyses framing true accounts of ghost sightings in its two journals, Proceedings (1882) and The Journal (1884), providing writers with a vast array of possibilities for reinventing the ghost story and spawning popular supernatural detective fiction that integrated the technical and scientific lingo of psychic research into fictional series such as Hodgson’s Tales of Carnacki and the Ghost-Finder, Blackwood’s John Silence, Physician Extraordinary, or Claude Askew’s Alymer Vance Tales. Influenced by William James’s The Principles of Psychology (1890), psychological ghost stories also emerged, allowing readers to explore the complex workings of a character’s mind as a birthplace for hallucinations and seemingly paranormal events.

The widespread popularity of the ghost story between 1880 and 1914 can be explained by a variety of mitigating factors: long-standing national traditions such as Christmas ghost stories, the rise in spiritualism, [End Page 560] growing interest in psychic research, and newfound interest in occultism. In his study, Tearle offers an in-depth look at how hallucination developed into a meaningful trope for a variety of writers—canonical and noncanonical—to respond to similar cultural influences. The study delivers an updated examination of the ghost story genre at the close of the nineteenth century, filling a gap in a research topic that has remained relatively untouched. Although indebted to Julia Briggs’s Night Visitors (1977) and Jack Sullivan’s Elegant Nightmares (1978), Tearle’s work expands the discussion of psychic research and psychology in Briggs’s text and elaborates on Sullivan’s observations that the skepticism and unresolved meaning inherent in the late nineteenth-century ghost story prefigures literary modernism after WW I.

The book is organized into six chapters...


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pp. 559-562
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Will Be Ceasing Publication
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