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Popular Occulture in Britain 1875-1947

Periodical Occulture and the Occult Public Sphere
Workshop Paper Abstracts: Birkbeck, 14th July 2017

Thinking Sideways: Pitfalls in the Periodical Labyrinth and How to Avoid Them

A. Gilbert (Birkbeck Workshop)

Researching the ‘occult press’ of the period appears deceptively simple, but the problems arise from the outset: what are the parameters of ‘occultism’, and what constitutes an ‘occult periodical’ ? How do we identify relevant titles, and locate and access surviving files? And once we have them in our hands, how do we survey and assess the contents (which are rarely indexed, and just as rarely digitized)?

These problems are daunting, but they can be solved and armed with the answers we can proceed – cautiously and carefully – to consider the aims, motives and complex inter-relationships between all of the people involved in creating these periodicals: the editors, contributors, publishers, printers, advertisers, booksellers and readers, and their potential and actual affiliation to specific occult communities.

Thus informed we can begin to draw meaningful conclusions about the role of the ‘occult press’ in creating, promoting and perpetuating a culture of occultism.


The Theosophical Press in Scotland

Michael Shaw (Birkbeck Workshop)

This paper discusses the Theosophical periodical press in Scotland c.1880-1920, and it argues that these periodicals reveal a particular Theosophical culture in Scotland. Focussing on two titles that were unique to Scotland, Theosophy in Scotland and Occult, Scientific and Literary Papers Read at the Scottish Lodge, I demonstrate that these Theosophical periodicals contributed to Scottish artistic movements, including the Scottish Celtic Revival, and promoted Theosophy in Scotland by consistently speaking to Scottish events and affairs. I argue that Scotland’s Theosophical press echoes the (successful) movement to establish a distinctive Scottish ‘National Section’ of the Theosophical Society, as well reflecting the intersection between Theosophy and the Home Rule movements at the turn of the century – commenting on Annie Besant’s support for Scottish Home Rule. The paper highlights the amorphous nature of Theosophy and the Theosophical press across the British Isles and reveals the deficiencies of Anglo-centric and metro-centric approaches.


Science in the Early Twentieth-Century Occult Public Sphere: The Case of H. Stanley Redgrove

Egil Asprem (Birkbeck Workshop)

This talk will examine the reception of scientific discourse in the occult public sphere through the case of H. Stanley Redgrove’s (1887–1943) extensive notes, letters, essays, and book reviews in The Occult Review. Redgrove was a prolific, well-read, and often perceptive participant in the British occult public sphere of the early twentieth century. He contributed no fewer than 244 items to The Occult Review alone between 1908 and 1940, on topics as diverse and wide-ranging as the history of alchemy, mathematics, modern physics and chemistry, contemporary philosophy (he reviewed Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 1923), and standard occult topics such as Rosicrucianism, hermeticism, mysticism, ritual magic, astrology, psychical research, and spiritualism. A chemist by training, Redgrove also published textbooks in mathematics and physical chemistry, authored the influential Alchemy: Ancient and Modern (Rider and Sons, 1911), and a work of amateur neo-Baconian and idealist philosophy entitled The Magic of Experience: A Contribution to the Theory of Knowledge (1915). On top of this, Redgrove was also a founding member and president of the short-lived Alchemical Society (1912–1915), significant for its blended membership of historians, occultist practitioners, and scientists.

Redgrove’s production showcases the fluid borders between the “occult” and the “popular-intellectual” public sphere of the period, but it also draws attention to internal skirmishes in the occult discourse on “science”. On the one hand, there is often little that separate the authors of occultist periodicals from esteemed scientists and philosophers who write for a bigger audience in terms of the issues that interested them (the nature of life and mind, the relation between mind and matter, the possibility of life after death, supernormal abilities, and so forth). On the other, participants in occult discourses often sought legitimacy by aligning ideas with the prestige of “cutting-edge science” – a risky strategy at a time when the bar of scientific literacy was rapidly rising. Often performing the role of the critic, Redgrove’s voice in occultist debates over science highlights both the controversial nature of science in the occult sphere, and the connections with mainstream intellectual discourses.


The Daily Beast: Black Magic and the Popular Press

Nick Freeman (Birkbeck Workshop)

This paper looks at the ways in which the British tabloid press represented occultism, particularly ‘black magic’, from the early 1900s to the outbreak of the Second World War. Its central focus will be the representation of Aleister Crowley in the Sunday Express and elsewhere, but it will go beyond him in exploring how journalistic accounts of occult practices provided the reading public and popular novelists with a hotchpotch of rumour and half-truth that quickly mutated into a new strain of gothic fiction. Investigating the intersection between Fleet Street, fiction, and fantasy, the paper will also briefly consider the enduring legacy of the black magic bogeyman, a figure who, as Wiltshire police’s recent investigation, ‘Operation Conifer’ demonstrates, is still very much with us.


Latent Powers, Latent Demand: A Look at the ail-Order Occult in Anglo-American Culture, 1895-1920

Marc Demarest (Birkbeck Workshop)

The enterprise of the Anglo-American occult, from the 1820s until the 1890s, was significantly involved with the search for a scalable business model: a way to make the occult pay its practitioners a living wage, or better. By the end of the 1880s, occult practitioners had, for the most part, failed to find that scalable business model, and their raw materials – occult knowledge and practices – had been at least partially appropriated by normal science as an object of increasingly formalized study, much of it implicitly hostile.

Beginning in 1895 or so, a loose network of occult practitioners and promoters – many of them graduates of newer business colleges – began exploiting the scientific professionalization of the occult, the emerging schools of psychology, and novel techniques in mail-order demand creation and demand fulfilment, to build massively scalable occult businesses focused on the development of the latent powers of the individual, that reached millions of potential buyers globally, and that made their founders both wealthy and, ultimately, socially valorised.

In this talk, Marc Demarest looks at the businesses of three of these mages – E. S. Prather (E. E. Knowles), Sidney Weltmer, and E. Virgil Neal (X. Lamotte Sage) -- providing an overview of the social network that spread these innovative commercial practices, and some examples of the ways these businesses were created, and scaled.


Negotiating the Public and Private in The Ghost Club

Roger Luckhurst (Birkbeck Workshop)

This after-dinner society was set up in 1882 by Spiritualist Stainton Moses and occultist A. A. Watts. In the 1890s, it was dominated by the chemist and Spiritualist, Sir William Crookes, a long-serving president. For 54 years, the ‘Brother Ghosts’ met in West End restaurants during the season. The expectation of membership was to narrate a ‘true’ ghost story at least once a year. Being a society of gentleman, it appointed a secretary and every meeting was carefully minuted, leaving behind 5000 pages of records and a unique insight into this London social circle.

The Club was expressly designed to offer a private sphere for uncontested belief, and was thus a counter-strike against the scientific, empirical and very public thrust of the Society for Psychical Research. The Club’s members and guests included Conan Doyle, W. B. Yeats, Sir Harry Johnstone, Sir William Richmond, and many others. I am interested in tracking the interaction of the private performance of ‘true’ ghost narratives in the context of the occult public revival.


Beyond the Border: Visualizing Ghosts from Spirit Photography to CCTV

Catherine Anyango (Birkbeck Workshop)

In July 1893 W T Stead established the quarterly review of psychic phenomena Borderland, in order to reach an audience made up of ‘the great mass of ordinary people.’ This is the space in which forensic science finds itself today - democratised by popular media and existing in a time where the public space of crime is recorded not only by official channels but by the great mass of ordinary people on mobile devices.

This paper considers the influence of psychical research and spirit photography on my drawing practice which deals with the effects of emotional disruption of public space through violent deaths. My drawing series Last Seen documents the last recorded image of a person before their disappearance or death, based on CCTV, police photography, and the records of passers-by. Spirit photography and drawing are forms of ‘evidence’ - a way of rendering events with realism, while also portraying a hidden dimension. In these drawings, pencil is used to literally distress the surface of the paper until it disintegrates, creating a subjective reconstruction of the event. In this way, like spirit photography, they portray ghosts, but also other dimensions of the seen and unseen: the systemic oppressions that lead to these violent encounters, the characters who until their deaths have been marginalised and underrepresented.


The Occult in Popular Fiction and Entertainments
Workshop Paper Abstracts: Dublin, 25th November 2016

The Everyday Occult on Stage: The Plays of Lord Dunsany

Nicholas Daly (Dublin Workshop)

This paper considers the role of the occult in the once highly successful stage plays of Anglo-Irish fantasy writer Lord Dunsany, focusing on The Gods of the Mountain (1911).  This drama is typical of Dunsany’s output, with an imaginary land, powerful ancient deities who work their magic on stage, a cast of bizarrely named characters -- Oogno, Thahn, Mlan, et al. -- and a neat twist at the end. I explore the contemporary popularity of Dunsany’s theatrical works and consider how we might theorize them as of the everyday occult.


Occult Radio: The Uncanny on the Air

Richard Hand (Dublin Workshop)

There has always been something uncanny about sound. Chiming bells, rolling thunder, eerie whispers or screams in the dark have long been woven into the fabric of Gothic literature. With the development of sound technology this became even more pronounced: the inventor Thomas Edison strove to create a ‘spirit catcher’ that would harvest the voices of the dead, only to be denounced as an ‘occultist’. The more successful endeavour to develop recording technology led to a world of ‘captured voices’, potentially as haunting as it is scientific. With the subsequent invention of radio and the development of broadcasting, an ideal and versatile medium was discovered for audio drama and narrative. Throughout the history of radio drama, horror and the supernatural has been a key generic option within the medium. In this session, examples of occult plots, concepts and figures in audio drama will be explored, spanning radio drama from the pioneering days of live broadcasting through to experimental uses of audio performance in contemporary culture.


Elementals, Dr Watson! From Gabalis to Zanoni and Ghost Land

Wouter Hanegraaff (Dublin Workshop)

This paper investigates a neglected key dimension of 19th century occultism: the attempt to invoke nature spirits (so-called Elementals) through the use of ‘chemical’ procedures. The theme of invoking Elementals has its origin in Henry Montfaucon de Villars’ French novel Comte de Gabalis (1670), translated into English and marketed as ‘Rosicrucian’ in 1680. It was picked up by Edward Bulwer Lytton in his novel Zanoni (1842) and is crucial to understanding its famous description of the encounter with the “Dweller on the Threshold.” Finally, the practical theory at the heart of the First Theosophical Society (1875-1878) comes from the same literary tradition and is documented most explicitly in Emma Hardinge Britten’s novel Ghost Land (1876).


Dennis Wheatley: Pulp Satanist

Darryl Jones (Dublin Workshop)

In the middle years of the twentieth century, from the publication of The Devil Rides Out in 1934 until his death, aged 80, in 1977, Dennis Wheatley was one of the most high-profile British popular novelists.  Particularly popular with working-class readers, his novels were staples on the shelves of British public libraries in these years.  Wheatley liked to present himself as the writer with the inside track on the occult, the trusted confidant of Great Beast Aleister Crowley and West Indian yogi Rollo Ahmed, whose influential The Black Art Wheatley helped publish in 1936.  This paper will attempt to account for Wheatley’s extraordinary success, and will look at his use of occult fiction to stake out ideological territory for the British Empire in his pre-war fiction, and the Cold War in his later works.


Utopian Occultism in fin de siècle Dublin

Pádraic E. Moore (Dublin Workshop)

This paper focuses upon contemporary and historical responses to Theosophy in Ireland, focusing particularly on their manifestation in the visual arts and literature.  The Dublin Lodge of the Theosophical Society was founded in 1885 and led by George Russell (1867- 1935), was also known as AE. Russell. Russell was an active proponent of Theosophical ideals and exemplified them in his paintings and in his editorial work for the popular periodical The Irish Homestead, the organ of the Irish Agricultural Organization Society.


Class, Degeneracy and the Occult in Richard Marsh’s The Goddess: A Demon

Patricia Pulham (Dublin Workshop)

In the opening pages of The Goddess: A Demon (1900), the narrator John Ferguson recalls how, on the night of the crime at the centre of the novel, he and the main protagonist, Edwin Lawrence, had visited the Empire music hall before walking home together to Imperial Mansions, the apartment building in which they both lived. While such knowing allusions domesticate British imperialism, they also set the stage for the reader’s encounter with Hindu occultism. This paper will argue that in this text Marsh utilizes the imperial occult to highlight the hidden nature of English middle-class crime and degeneracy.


Dreams, Spirits and Witches in the strange interwar fiction of David Lindsay

Steven Sutcliffe (Dublin Workshop)

David Lindsay (1876-1945) is best known for his visionary novel A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) which achieved cult status in paperback from the late 1960s. It was made into a low-budget campus film in the US in 1971 while the comics author Alan Moore places it within a tradition of British apocalyptic and visionary writing. Lindsay wrote six more novels: four were published in his lifetime, one posthumously, while his final novel has never been published in full. This paper will introduce key themes in Lindsay’s work as a whole – including Arcturus (1920), The Haunted Woman (1922), Sphinx (1923), The Violet Apple (1976), Devil’s Tor (1932) and The Witch (unpublished mss.) – which show his extensive interests in occult themes in the interwar period, especially dreams, spirits and the witch as incursions of an alternative consciousness in somnambulant middle class society.

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