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Bewilderments of Vision

Hallucination and Literature, 1880-1914


Oliver Tearle


Brighton/Portland/Toronto: Sussex Academic Press, 2013

Hardback. vi + 207 p. ISBN 978-1845192945


Reviewed by Nathalie Saudo-Welby

Université de Picardie-Jules-Verne (Amiens)



Oliver Tearle’s examination of the theme of dreams and hallucinations in fin-de-siècle and pre-war Britain is built upon the assumption that 'Whereas ghosts suggest the supernatural, the paranormal and mysterious, hallucination posits a rational, psychological, and scientific explanation for the experience of being "haunted" ' [7]. The book accounts for a vast number of supernatural events, and Oliver Tearle explores the difference between them, and the role played by memory, quoting from a large number of nineteenth-century scientists, psychologists and inquirers into the paranormal. His special interest in etymology and the hidden meanings lying behind the neologisms used by writers of Gothic stories leads him to argue that ‘the figure of hallucination is strangely bound up with the phenomenon of the neologism: when our eyes fail us, words often fail, too, and it is as if language must be remoulded or reformed to encapsulate and reflect our experiences’ [6]. His presentation of the OED’s entangled definition of the word ‘phantasmagoria’ is a good case in point [112].

The book starts with an account of the cultural and scientific context in which the different forms of mind-visions can be understood, with a special emphasis on the two-volume Phantasms of the Living (1886) by Edmund Gurney, Frederick Myers and Frank Podmore and on the activities of the Society of Psychical Research. Oliver Tearle then turns to short works by five different authors in order to explore their lack of closure and to ‘highlight the extent to which “fantasy literature” such as ghost stories is indebted to a form of realism that is certainly not opposed to the real world, but merely uses different approaches from hard-and-fast realist fiction to bring out certain real-world issues’ [18]. More generally, his close readings of the texts aim at elaborating what he calls a ‘phantasmopoetics of language’ [36].

The second chapter is devoted to Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale ‘Markheim’ (1885). The third chapter addresses the story ‘Wicked Voice’ taken from Vernon Lee’s volume Hauntings (1890), and focuses in particular on the use of sensations. Chapter 4 is an analysis of Henry James’s story ‘The Friends of the Friends’ (first entitled ‘The Way It Came’) (1896). It considers the importance of impulses, the absence of names, the gradual disappearance of the word ‘ghost’ and the story’s links with The Turn of the Screw, written two years later. Virginia Woolf’s response to the short story is particularly enlightening. The fifth Chapter is a study of Arthur Machen’s novel The Hill of Dreams (1907). It relies on insights from various authors like William James, Andrew Lang, John Addington Symonds, but also contemporary critics such as S.T. Joshi, Roger Luckhurst, Linda Dowling, and Julia Briggs. Chapter 6 is a study of Oliver Onions’s novella ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ and its destabilising strategies. The final chapter explains how World War I substituted real horror for fiction and broke down the ghost story into fragments of modernist fiction. Hallucinations became ‘another symptom of post-war life, with the decline in old uncertainties, the rise in psychoanalysis, and the new spirit of artistic experimentation’ [169].

Oliver Tearle’s book is based on close readings of the texts, and makes abundant references to contemporary thinkers and novelists, and to the criticism on Gothic fiction. It gives a good idea of what Gothic writing strategies are.


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