The Publishing History of Tales of the Supernatural

Jonathan Barry
Jonathan Barry

This article explores the transmission of tales of the supernatural during the very long eighteenth-century (between c.1660 and 1832). When writing my last book, on the transmission of a specific tale of the conjuration of spirits over the same period, I became aware of a genre of publications on this subject which had not been studied. These are anthologies of supposedly true stories, usually relating to named people and places and sometimes dated, often each numbered separately, with relatively little discussion of their authenticity or significance, beyond perhaps a brief preface defending the reality of the world of spirits.

This distinguishes them (although this is a spectrum rather than an absolute distinction) from other volumes which might contain such stories but integrate them within a more argumentative framework, or from shorter accounts of individual incidents, as well as from a growing genre of overtly fictional stories. Potentially, the analysis of these stories, especially those most commonly cited, could reveal their characteristic motifs and also consider the degree to which this published tradition may have influenced the oral culture of the supernatural, feeding the public with model stories, just as many ballads and fairy tales collected by nineteenth-century folklorists have been shown to be based on printed sources, not on an ancient oral tradition. However, this preliminary study cannot explore those dimensions because it is necessary first to establish the nature and history of these publications themselves.

Historiographically, these publications have been neglected because they do not fit neatly into a number of related genres, each intensively studied, and fall between the disciplinary interests of historians, literary critics and folklorists. These volumes originate in the spate of controversial works published in the later seventeenth-century to demonstrate the reality of spirits against the threat of materialistic atheism. These works, and their relationship to notions of scientific evidence and natural theology, have been intensively studied, both in relation to the history of witchcraft and the supernatural, and more generally in terms of evolving notions of providence and prodigies. The propaganda role of providentialist accounts, both in religious literature and in the ideological struggles of the civil wars and rage of party, has been well studied, but much less work has been done on such material after the 1720s, except in the specific context of the evangelical revival. Instead, the main focus has been on the “rise of supernatural fiction”, beginning with the role of the supernatural in the foundation of the English novel (notably in Defoe), and then analysing Gothic fiction and its influence on Romanticism. Literary critics have explored with great subtlety both the changing “verisimilitude” sought in such stories and the “aestheticisation” of the supernatural, with the emphasis shifting from the authenticity of the story to the authenticity of its effects on the reader’s feelings, and authors’ desire to evoke such feelings to offset the impact (again) of growing materialism and the perceived “disenchantment of the world”. Although these accounts consider the wider cultural contexts of these developments in fiction, they have not explored the continuing publication of supposedly factual supernatural stories.

Similarly, the revived interest of historians in supernatural beliefs after 1720 has tended to ignore these works. Owen Davies has recovered the history of “grimoires” as part of his work on magical practitioners and their clients, while Paul Kléber Monod and others have explored an “occult enlightenment” of those who used magical texts. This influenced the publications I am studying, but these works gave no practical details about the nature and practice of magic, nor, by and large, do they throw any light on how ordinary people thought or felt about magic. Their protagonists were largely members of the middling and upper classes based in urban settings, and the supernatural occurrences they report happened to them uninvited, not because they were seeking magical assistance. There are almost no accounts involving witches, cunning folk or use of magic except in witchcraft stories reprinted from the pre-1720 period. For this reason, they bear little relation to the kinds of stories which nineteenth-century folklorists sought to elicit from ordinary rural people, nor have modern historians of popular supernaturalism paid them any attention.

Nevertheless, these various historiographies raise important issues for analysing the characteristic themes and tensions contained within the publications to be considered here. These works almost all appeal, with varying levels of intensity and conviction, to the need to defend belief in a providential God and a world of spirits against a growing materialist scepticism. They also struggle with the question of how to authenticate their stories, a problem inherent in the genre itself, and especially in reproducing a battery of short accounts (except in so far as their sheer number implies the truth of at least some of them). Did the authenticity lie in the source of the information, and was that the credibility of the original witnesses or of the authors from whom the stories were recycled (and should authors be identified — a potential publishing problem if this revealed to potential readers that the collection contained nothing new!)? Or did the authenticity depend on the verisimilitude of the narrative itself and, if so, what did that consist of — was it sufficient detail of circumstances, such as people and setting, or was it the precise recording of the supernatural occurrence itself? To what extent was it legitimate to increase verisimilitude by deploying “novelistic” devices of, for example, dialogue or consideration of character and motive, or would these mark a fictionalisation which would weaken the report’s credibility? More generally, was the intended audience one of sceptics to be won over or of existing believers who wished to have their beliefs confirmed, or was it perhaps a group lying between, inclined in principle to believe but sceptical about any specific story? Were the stories intended to furnish material for private deliberation or for communal discussion, perhaps at the tavern or around the family table or fireside? If so, what was the relationship between these published accounts and the often-derided culture of “chimney-side” stories told (stereotypically) by old women and peasants?

The final context to be mentioned is that of the history of the book and reading, which has again become immensely productive, assisted by developments in cataloguing and digital reproduction. Perhaps the most fruitful (if controversial) contribution has been William St Clair’s argument that the economics of the trade promoted a stark divide between relatively expensive new publications which reflected the Enlightenment and the recycling of a pre-Enlightenment set of texts and attitudes in cheap publications. This study will give some support to that view (noting the long publication history of some seventeenth-century texts, notably Sinclair, and the recycling of others) but also indicate (as his critics have suggested) that William St Clair’s account neglects important new formats, notably newspapers and periodicals, through which new materials reached broad readerships.

Both evangelical and commercial periodicals generated numerous new reports of supernatural events which, from about the 1770s, began to complement, and sometimes replace, the older materials in these books, in some cases mixed in with fictionalised stories. The same period also saw the appearance of sceptical publications designed to persuade the public (specifically children and others seen as prone to “superstition”) not to believe these stories: I will not be considering this genre in depth except for noting which publications and stories sceptics considered they most needed to counter.

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