Reading with the Occultists: Arthur Machen, A. E. Waite, and the Ecstasies of Popular Fiction



Ferguson C (2016) Reading with the Occultists: Arthur Machen, A. E. Waite, and the Ecstasies of Popular Fiction. Journal of Victorian Culture, 21 (1), pp. 40-55.

My article recovers a forgotten moment in the history of popular fiction criticism - the late Victorian advent of what I term occultic literary criticism - to challenge the persistent anxiety thesis that continues to dominate fin-de-siecle studies. In the late 1890s, the close friends, writers, bibliophiles, and, for varying amounts of time, practising occultists Arthur Machen and A. E. Waite used their literary criticism to champion the ecstaticoccultpotential of mass-circulated popular fiction, insisting that the penny dreadful, the newspaper story, and the popular picaresque as exemplified in Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers (1836-37) represented coded versions of ancient mystery tradition rituals. The cheap popular texts could offer to readers, writers, and collectors the kind of joyous direct encounter with the unseen world that sacred texts no longer could. The pair's conviction that ecstaticoccultinitiation was just as, if not more, attainable through popular exoteric texts as through their restricted esoteric counterparts offers an important corrective to contemporary understandings of both the late-Victorian reception of popular fiction and of the reach and constituency of theoccultrevival.

Arthur Machen (1863–1947); A. E. Waite (1857–1942); Victorian occult revival; popular fiction; penny dreadful; Charles Dickens (1812–70)

Journal of Victorian Culture: Volume 21, Issue 1

Publication date31/12/2016
Publication date online07/01/2016
PublisherTaylor and Francis

People (1)


Professor Christine Ferguson

Professor Christine Ferguson

Professor in English, English Studies