Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Steven Bruhm


As the nineteenth century progressed, Spiritualism blossomed from a religious movement to a cultural moment. While it remained an object of faith or ancillary faith, Spiritualism became as well a voice for radical reform, parlour entertainment, means of negotiating an increasingly mediated world, and so forth. Combined with enthusiasm for occult knowledge, Spiritualism offered intricately interrelated modes of narrating our relation to a consistently present past, in light of a rapidly approaching future. My project reads this fin-de-siècle fascination as a sensibility. Occult figures and spiritualist impulses, I argue, provide a vocabulary of feelings evoked in encounters with the mysterious. My dissertation turns to mystery fiction, examining the influence this occult sensibility has in narrating a criminal investigation’s material mise-en-scène. In my first chapter, I read the corpse in Richard Marsh’s thriller The Goddess (1900) as the centre of spreading similarities and sympathies, each marked by occult figures. I explore an anxiety toward dissolved boundaries expressed in the violent rupture of a murdered body and the further disruptions of definition and identity it initiates. My second chapter turns to the signature objects of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes canon. I tease out three items from “A Case of Identity” (1891) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) to argue that the affects, history, and individuality of the clue parallel psychometric belief, particularly that our items inhere their vicinity, ownership, and interactions within their soul. Reading Anna Katharine Green’s novel The Filigree Ball (1903) in Chapter Three, I suggest the locked-room convention anxiously articulates the porous nature of domestic space. I suggest Green’s depiction of a room that repeats its violence stages the uncanny domesticity of a family that accepts its haunting. In my final chapter, Algernon Blackwood’s ghost story “The Empty House” (1906) prompts a reading of spaces in The Goddess, the Holmes canon, and The Filigree Ball. Each depicts rooms haunted by disembodied emotion, only available to the detective who adopts a mediumistic, negative affect. Throughout the project, the tales I examine consistently borrow occult affects to imagine a material world unexpectedly charged with lingering history and affective intensity.

Summary for Lay Audience

This dissertation examines the influence that occult and spiritualist conventions had in late-nineteenth-century British and American mystery fiction. The fin-de-siècle fascination with occult knowledge and spiritualist mediumship—one means of accessing that knowledge—informs the situations and language that mystery fiction employed to describe the mysterious and the unknown. In particular, mystery fiction shared Spiritualism’s interest in haunted objects and in the lingering presence of the past, and this shared focus emerges in the presentation and investigation of crime scenes. My project analyses the extent to which and the means by which some of the most noteworthy fictional detectives of the time—such as Sherlock Holmes—engage with corpses, crime scenes, and clues. They do so not just with their signature logic and astute observation, but also with a spiritualist sensibility and a set of emotional responses that were best described in spiritualist writings of the era. I further explore how detectives’ spiritualist receptivity enables them to read the physical aspects of a crime for historical traces and emotional traces that are often, and surprisingly, critical to solving the mystery of the crime.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.