Spiritualism and Uncanny Fiction

by John Holbo on April 16, 2018

Pursuant of to my uncanny researches I’ve been thinking about ‘supernatural’ and how the term has wandered over time. I got to thinking, as well, about the growth of ‘spiritualism’ in the 19th Century – theosophy, all that stuff – and how that fed into fiction. What with one thing and another, I found myself reading The Supernatural In Modern English Fiction (1917), by Dorothy Scarborough [Project Gutenberg link]. It’s interesting to see through the eyes of an author who has done her best to read it all up to the early 20th Century, for the sake of offering a broad, general survey. She knows Blackwood and Machen. She doesn’t mention Hodgson or M.R. James. (I realize I don’t know how widely either of those now-classic authors was known by, say, 1915.) Here is one passage in which Scarborough scribbles out, off-handedly, a lot of things to come.

The investigations in modern Spiritualism have done much to affect ghostly literature. The terrors of the later apparitions are not physical, but psychical, and probably the stories of the future will be more and more allied to Spiritualism. Hamlin Garland, John Corbin, William Dean Howells, Algernon Blackwood, Arnold Bennett, and others have written novels and stories of this material, though scarcely the fringe of the garment of possibilities has yet been touched.

If one but grant the hypothesis of Spiritualism, what vistas open up for the novelist! What thrilling complications might come from the skillful manipulation of astrals alone,— as aids in establishing alibis, for instance! Even the limitations that at present bind ghost stories would be abolished and the effects of the dramatic employment of spiritualistic faith would be highly sensational. If the will be all powerful, then not only tables but mountains may be moved. The laws of physics would be as nothing in the presence of such powers. A lovelorn youth bent on attaining the object of his desires could, by merely willing it so, sink ocean liners, demolish skyscrapers, call up tempests, and rival German secret agents in his havoc. Intensely dramatic psychological material might be produced by the conflict resulting from the double or multiple personalities in one’s own nature, according to spiritualistic ideas. There might be complicated crossings in love, wherein one would be jealous of his alter ego, and conflicting ambitions of exciting character. The struggle necessary for the model story might be intensely dramatic though altogether internal, between one’s own selves. One finds himself so much more interesting in the light of such research than one has ever dreamed. The distinctions between materializations and astralizations, etherealizations and plain apparitions might furnish good plot structure. The personality of the “sensitives” alone would be fascinating material and the cosmic clashes of will possible under these conceived conditions suggest thrilling stories.

Titanic psychic battles! Astrally-projecting criminals, detectives and secret agents oh my! Mike Mignola, call your agent! This passage is the earliest occurrence I know of some ideas for really gonzo comic book and occult action plotlines. (Obviously you’ve still got to actually write them for it really to count!)

Speaking of which, I’ve just finished two fairly recent Mignola books, which I highly recommend. I like Gary Gianni’s art, so Hellboy: Into The Silent Sea [amazon] was fun. (I wish I had the really de-luxe edition.) That poor, foolish woman from the Heliopic Brotherhood … but she asked for it.

Next, Jenny Finn [amazon]. It’s old, but I just found it on Comixology. More fun Spiritualist stuff and, again, I like the art style. (Except, sadly, the art in issue #4 is far inferior.)




MisterMr 04.16.18 at 10:58 am

My two cents:

– disclaimer – while I did study some semiotics (and to a lesser degree narratology) years ago, my interest in this stuff comes from me being an hobbist author of webcomics of dubious quality.

That said, there is a famous saying to the effect that superpowerful technology and magic are essentially undistinguishable, so that fantasy and SF are actually the same thing (this is from A. C. Clarke, I think).

I think this is wrong, and reverses the logical order of things, and the use of magic/psichics/ghosts in stories is (generally) different from the use of other narrative devices.

Generally, narrative products (comics, movies, novels etc.) involve charachters that struggle against [something], and eventually win, and their victory is generally due to some moral characteristic, otherwise it would be uninteresting.

Eg: Rocky fights with evil clearly doped ultratechnological russian boxer, and, thanks to his bravery, ingenuity, and his representing American values is able to defeat the soviet monster; obviously the story is interesting because Rocky represents some values and Ivan Draga (was that the name?) represents others, otherwise it would be rather dull and uninteresting.

This works because, while we (humans) live in a material world, we perceive it, through the filter of our culture and beliefs, as a nev of symbolically meaningful thingies, and by meaningful I mean morally meaningful.
This is in fact, IMHO, the “natural” way of thinking, that we use 90% of the time, the materialistic approach being a morte recent specialised skill, in the same way that “logical reasoning” is a subset of linguistic skills.

Fantasy stories use a conception of the world that is somehow similar to that of religion, or at least of some forms of religion.
A religion is fundamentally a moral sheme of the world, and in particular ancient religions non only were moral schemnes, but they also had a cosmological scheme that was founded on the moral theory, so that the material world became, somehow, a byproduct of the moral world.

Fantasy stories use this logic by using charachters or effects that are based on this “moral” view of the world: for example, in a ghost story, most often a ghost will not be just a weird scary thingie with superpowers, but it will be, for example, someone who was killed by the ancestor of the protagonist and now wants to have revenge on the heir of his murderer (people who die normally never become ghosts).
This kind of stories work because of the “moral” meaning of the fantasy stuff.
Even in the Lord of the Rings, the whole story works because the ring is a symbol of evil and corruption: it works because Sauron is a sort of god of evil, and the ring is Sauron itself, it couldn’t work if the ring was just a technological thingie.
The “force” in Star Wars is clearly a mysthical thingie etc.

But, as the “cosmological” religious view of the world receded, our moral view is more and more based on the concept of interior, psychological life, so that the “fantasy” stuff that works only work as long as it can be justified as a psychological symbol.
So “psionics” is often linked to obsessions or madness, Voldemort is basically a guy with a very bad youth (who made bad choices) as opposed to Sauron who is a god of evil (yeah, Sauron is more recent than 1915, but I think that the Lotr is more old styled than Harry Potter) etc.

Spiritualism of the late 19th century was a sort of new religion that already was influenced by this sort of individualism, so it is already well adapted to this kind of stories.

On the other hand, as some concepts like magic become common in narrative, some stories will be written that use this stuff just as part of the setting, but ignoring the “mystical/moral” aspect, like the tons of RPGs and comics based on RPGs where the characters have videogame like powers, level up etc, just because this became a trope.


John Crowley 04.16.18 at 11:32 am

“Pursuant of” ? John, you have been mugged by the imperialistic preposition “of,” with its designs to become the only preposition. I am fighting a rear-guard action on Facebook etc. to save the other prepositions from this plot. “Pursuant to” is what you mean. Now Iwill go a nd read your intersting-looking post.


John Holbo 04.16.18 at 11:35 am

“Pursuant of” ? John, you have been mugged by the imperialistic preposition “of,” with its designs to become the only preposition.

Guilty as charged! Never been particularly sensitive to that one. But obviously the one who dies with the most oversensitivity to preposition misuse wins.

“I am fighting a rear-guard action on Facebook etc.”

A lot of prepositions sell all your data if you use them.


John Holbo 04.16.18 at 11:40 am

I should probably make clear that the author of this particular book – Scarborough – isn’t only writing about theosophy in fiction or anything that narrow. I haven’t actually finished the book yet but she starts with Gothic Romance and moves up. I think actually she jumps back to even earlier stuff later. So it isn’t even all ‘modern’ except in a very extended sense. For her ‘supernatural’ is pretty broad.


Faustusnotes 04.16.18 at 11:52 am

The quote in the OP reads like a prediction of the main dramas in le guins “lathe of heaven.”


Orange Watch 04.16.18 at 12:03 pm

The traditional formulation of Clarke’s Third Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) is subtly but importantly different from how you summarize it. The thrust is not that fantasy and science fiction are the same, but rather that if you don’t understand the mechanisms deriving a non-fantastic solution to a problem, you will not be able to make a meaningful distinction between it and a fantastic solution. It says more about the perspective of a reader (or observer) than that of an author (although it can be quite reasonably viewed as having an author’s corollary; an author with no shame about handwaving how technology works is as unconstrained by reality as one who freely invokes magic).


Adam Roberts 04.16.18 at 12:23 pm

I offer this passage from respected critic G Wilson Knight (it’s from 1933) as evidence that Spiritualism crossed-over not only into fiction, but into *clears throat* respectable criticism too.


Matt 04.16.18 at 12:32 pm

Hi John, Did you know that the philosopher Henry Sidgwick was totally into this stuff? He (and his wife) founded the “Society for Psychical Research” and spend a bunch of time investigating mediums, spiritualists, theosophists, astral projection, etc. Sidgwick was super depressed to find everyone he investigated to be a con artist or a bit nuts, I think. He really wanted ghosts to be real! There’s a great discussion of it all in Bart Schultz’s (huge) biography of Sidgwick, _Eye of the Universe_. Perhaps it’s worth looking into for you.
(Also, “psychical” is such an awful word. I’m glad it’s not much used these days. I’d mostly associate it with ghost hunting, except that it’s used in Husserl, too, at least in the translations I have, and I don’t think he was hunting ghosts. Any idea when it went out of fashion? Do respectable people just use “psychological” at a certain point to get away from the ghost hunters?)


John Holbo 04.16.18 at 12:41 pm

Matt, that’s funny. I knew there was a Henry Sidgwick involved and I kind of figured it was probably a different Sidgwick. I never thought about it.

Adam, thanks for the Knight. Didn’t know that one either. Although I knew Knight’s Shakespeare stuff.


steven t johnson 04.16.18 at 2:50 pm

G. Wilson Knight also has a minor claim to fame for his speculations about Lady Byron’s separation from Lord Byron. That instead of discovering an incestuous relationship between Byron and his half-sister Augusta, Lady Byron terminated relations after…it’s not perfectly clear in my memory, either a request for anal sex or the discovery that Byron had previously had sexual relationships with other men. Or possibly actual anal sex/rape.

The standard view is that there was incest, and this is just cracked. From what I know, it’s entirely plausible that Byron would be candid with her, and equally plausible she would be completely unforgiving of his past. But as for actual evidence? It seems to rely on his identification of Byron’s friend George Colman with the author of Don Leon and Leon to Annabella and the assertion that the two Georges were really that intimate. Seems shaky. But then, I’ve never quite understood how they could be so sure there was incest, given that there’s no evidence about Augusta being that kind of person.


icastico 04.16.18 at 4:48 pm

““I am fighting a rear-guard action on Facebook etc.”

Should be “I am fighting a rear-guard action within Facebook etc.”



clew 04.16.18 at 9:44 pm

Swedenborgian novels are especially like early SFF, I find – all those descriptions of crystal cities inhabited by the wiser powers.


MisterMr 04.16.18 at 10:27 pm

@ Orange Watch

Thanks, makes sense.


floopmeister 04.17.18 at 1:10 am

You should check out the first few pages of the 2nd handbook for the rpg Mage: The Ascension – you can find a pdf around for download.

One of the most interesting and engaging spiritualist/steam punk/mysticist ‘worlds’ out there…


Another Nick 04.17.18 at 2:57 am

Alfred Russel Wallace, 1866: “Many phenomena of the simplest kind would appear supernatural to men having limited knowledge.”


heckblazer 04.17.18 at 7:34 am

It was about 20 years ago so I don’t remember why, but Troy Nixey had to drop out of drawing issue 4 of Jenny Finn, which is why the art is different (Nixey is wrongly listed as “Nixon” at that Amazon link, and I don’t know why that is either). Nixey had also worked with Mignola doing the art for Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham, an explicitly Lovecraftian take on the Batman mythos.


tomsk 04.17.18 at 3:18 pm

Have you read Dennis Wheatley? It’s not very well written and racist as hell but there’s scads of this occult warfare stuff at various points.


Dr. Hilarius 04.17.18 at 10:35 pm

George Du Maurier’s “The Martian” (1896) combines a kind of spiritualism with travel from another planet and a form of automatic writing (but actually dictated by the Martian).


maidhc 04.18.18 at 4:36 am

Here are some suggestions for Victorian and Edwardian British ghost story authors:



Whirrlaway 04.18.18 at 5:33 pm

Be it noted there are still actual Theosophists, my late Dad ran with them before he went on to Nordic shamanism. Probably they’re still publishing stuff.


Gabriel 04.18.18 at 6:16 pm

To comment not on fantasy but on science fiction: as I make my way through some of my favourites-as-a-wee-lad, one thing that dates much of, say, pre-eighties SF is the common but absolute assurance that the whole psychic abilities thing will finally be sorted and brought fully into the scientific sphere. Think the psychics in Starship Troopers, etc. And that’s more interesting to me, in a way, as many of the (mostly) men writing that stuff were stuffy, staid, ‘reasonable’ men that would never have been caught dead writing about a Hobbit.


Fledermaus 04.18.18 at 11:41 pm

Sounds a lot like murakami’s novels. I am about finished with Wind Up Bird Chronicles. It has that same mix of mundane and magical. But the mundane is magic and the magical normal


pnee 04.20.18 at 3:35 pm

FWIW, in the 19th and early 20th century, people looking for “scientific” explanations of certain spiritualist tricks turned to higher dimensional geometry, which could “explain” many spiritualist tricks. An illustration of how this works is in Flatland where the Sphere has many “ghostly” powers including the abilities to fluctuate in size, vanish and reappear, and “pass through” walls. Thus “scientific” spiritualists referred to the “Fourth Dimension” or after Einstein claimed that label for time, the “Fifth Dimension”.

A brief discussion of this is here:
Some discussion of this use of higher dimensional geometry in literature can be found here:
and here:

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