- The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams & Ghosts in Polar Exploration by Shane McCorristine
At the end of his legendary Endurance expedition, Ernest Shackleton traversed the mountains of South Georgia Island toward a whaling station, where he and his crew were eventually rescued. But during the grueling march—in which he and two crew members covered thirty-two miles in thirty-six hours—the British explorer found that they were not alone: “during that long and racking march. . . . it seemed to me often that we were four, [End Page 680] not three . . . I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.’ Crean confessed to the same idea” (South [Macmillan, 1920], 211). Where did the unaccountable phantom fourth man come from? Shane McCorristine’s The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams & Ghosts in Polar Exploration offers some compelling answers. Exploring the ghosts, spirits, and clairvoyant figures that populate the British imaginary of the northern polar regions throughout the nineteenth century and in some present instances, The Spectral Arctic shares Shackleton’s sense (albeit through a focus on the Arctic, not the South) that a record of polar journeying would be “incomplete” without a reckoning of the “intangible” figures that populate the Arctic and Antarctic dreamscape (South, 211).
McCorristine is interested in Arctic forms of “dreaming, clairvoyante travel, reverie, spiritualism and ghost-seeing” (3). In his account, dream encounters became a way for a larger Anglo-American public to engage with a region to which few white Westerners traveled in the period. Although he devotes some attention to Inuit shamanistic practices and spiritual beliefs, McCorristine focuses most on the rippling cultural effects of the lost Northwest Passage expedition launched by Briton John Franklin in 1845. The missing two ships were sought publicly and intensely for decades afterward, and information about the 129 missing men was scant. (Both ships were located on the Canadian Arctic seafloor only very recently, in 2014 [Erebus] and 2016 [Terror].) Dreams, mesmeric communication, fantasy, and other forms of spectral or supranatural intelligence filled the informational void. This is a fresh and provocative new approach to polar expeditionary history, and to the voyaging stories often told. The Spectral Arctic is populated by fascinating figures such as Emma L., the “Seeress of Bolton” (87). Emma was a servant to an apothecary and surgeon who found her “vulgar” and “ignorant,” yet she discovered that she could gather information and travel great distances—clairvoyantly—after he subjected her to heavy doses of ether (88). Emma felt the Arctic chill and spoke to Franklin; she was sickened by drinking fish oil in imitation of the missing man. Her clairvoyant abilities caught the attention of Franklin’s wife and niece, who further sought mesmeric communication with the absent commander. McCorristine might have explored further the ways in which gender inflects mesmeric practice and reception, as many of his primary examples are women, including the American spirit rapper Margaret Fox, who was Philadelphian and Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane’s lover. The chapter in The Spectral Arctic devoted to feminized emotions and “polar queen[s]” is directed more toward romantic images of women than to the function of gender in mesmeric power (177).
McCorristine’s definition of the spectral in this book is broad. His interest is not in secular disenchantment, but instead in the “cultural production of the spectral,” or conversation between present and past occurring across Anglo-American receptions of polar expeditionary narratives (43). This provides him with a rich body of material from which to draw, and he brings illuminating attention to little-discussed moments in nineteenth-century expeditionary accounts, such as the significance of various methods of walking, rambling, or desultory perambulating performed in the Arctic regions, whether by the Inuit or the Britons. And yet at times the book gives the impression that ghosts, enchantment, and spectrality are just other...