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Bewilderments of vision: hallucination and literature, 1880-1914

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posted on 16.06.2011, 08:52 by Oliver M. Tearle
Hallucination was always the ghost story's elephant in the room. Even before the vogue for psychical research and spiritualism began to influence writers at the end of the nineteenth century, tales of horror and the supernatural, of ghosts and demons, had been haunted by the possibility of some grand deception by the senses. Edgar Allan Poe's stories were full of mad narrators, conscience-stricken criminals and sinners, and protagonists who doubted their very eyes and ears. Writers such as Dickens and Le Fanu continued this idea of the cheat of the senses. But what is certainly true is that, towards the end of the century, hallucination took on a new force and significance in ghostly and horror fiction. Now, its presence was not the dominion of a handful of experimental thinkers but the province of popular authors writing very different kinds of stories. The approaches had become many and diverse, from Arthur Machen's ambivalent interest in occultism to Vernon Lee's passion for art and antiquity. Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898) is the most famous text to pose a question that was, in fact, being asked by many writers of the time: reality or delusion? Other writers, too, were forcing their readers to assess whether the ghostly had its origins in some supernatural phenomenon from beyond the grave, or from some deception within our own minds. This thesis explores the many factors which contributed to this rise in the interest in hallucination and visionary experience, during the period 1880-1914. From the time when psychical research became hugely popular, up until the First World War often considered a watershed in the history of the ghost story and literature in general something happened to the ghost story and related fiction. Through a close analysis of stories and novels written by Robert Louis Stevenson, Vernon Lee, Henry James, Arthur Machen, and Oliver Onions, I attempt to find out what happened, and even more importantly why it happened at all.



  • The Arts, English and Drama


  • English and Drama


© Oliver Mark Tearle

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.

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