Entranced by Eyes of Evil: Tales of Mesmerism and Mystery is now available! It features suspenseful explorations of hypnotism’s extreme possibilities by authors of weird fiction E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ambrose Bierce; authors of mystery fiction Arthur Conan Doyle and L.T. Meade; authors of ghost stories Rhoda Boughton and Mary Elizabeth Braddon; and founders of science fiction Fitz-James O’Brien and Percy Greg. Even Louisa May Alcott appears!
My introduction looks at the history of Mesmerism/hypnotism and the body of fiction it inspired. Here’s a section of that:
Trilby and similar novels became labeled “Hypnotic Fiction” in an 1895 piece of literary criticism by Arthur Quiller-Couch. He was not a fan of this body of literature largely because of the response it stirs in readers. Instead of the “ordinary human terror” one feels from a work such as Macbeth—which, by negative example, reinforces the idea that virtue leads to happiness—“the terror of these hypnotic stories resembles that of a child in a dark room.” The typical plot involves a villain hypnotizing a victim, most often “a good and beautiful woman,” thereby making her “commit any excesses that his beastliness may suggest.” Quiller-Couch complains that this leaves readers asking, “What avail native innocence, truthfulness, chastity, when all these can be changed into guile and uncleanliness at the mere suggestion of a dirty mesmerist?” In other words, Quiller-Couch prefers a character’s bad behavior and consequent downfall to result from that character’s own bad motives. It is an interesting point, but as interesting is the fact that a critic recognized that a nameable genre of fiction had emerged, and this genre included novels as well as shorter works such as those anthologized in this book.
Whether the genre should be categorized under supernatural or science fiction is difficult to decide. In a sense, the history of mesmerism/hypnotism has been a struggle to yank the phenomenon out of the supernatural realm and confine it to the natural. Under “Animal Magnetism,” an 1883 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica explains that widespread and centuries-old reports of disease being cured “by the touch of the hand of certain persons,” inducing “deep sleeps . . . during which the sleeper sometimes had prophetic dreams,” and producing other “effects like those now referred to animal magnetism” were attributed to supernatural agencies. Moving to Mesmer, the entry explains that his theory was directly shaped by his experience with Johann Joseph Gassner (1727-1779), a priest who performed exorcisms and miracle cures, leading Mesmer “to suppose that some kind of occult force resided in himself by which he could influence others.” Certainly, Mesmer’s claims of channeling animal magnetism—a force he said pervades the universe—implied a power that was mystical and transcendent, if not outright supernatural.
There’s also an Appendix that recounts the first criminal trial in which an accused murderer was defended with the claim that she was not guilty — by reason of HYPNOSIS! And here’s another passage from that:
For many, that education began with a court case that had occurred in 1890. The trial sparked an international debate on whether or not a murderer should be found not guilty if she had been hypnotized and commanded to commit that crime. (“My Hypnotic Patient” explores the same question!) Here are the facts of the crime. In August of 1889, the decaying body of Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé was found near Lyon, France, apparently a victim of strangulation. After the corpse was identified, detectives determined that Gouffé had associated with a pair of shady swindlers named Michel Eyraud and Gabrielle Bompard, and that couple had conspicuously vamoosed to North America. Bompard returned to France in January of 1890, though, at which time she confessed all. She had lured Gouffé to a private spot, where she and Eyraud strangled him for his money. Eyraud was finally arrested in Havana and brought back to France to stand trial with Bompard.
That trial happened in December. Eyraud’s sentencing apparently went without incident: he was found guilty and put to death by guillotine. Bompard’s court case, though, took a twist when it was announced that her defense would be that she was under Eyraud’s hypnotic influence when playing her part in the murder. This claim had risen in public opinion and in the press even before her attorney came on the scene to make that argument official. Once the sensationalistic trial began, experts on hypnosis voiced their views. As discussed in my Introduction, France had two competing centers studying hypnotism: the Paris School—also called Salpêtrière school—and the Nancy School. Siding with the Paris School, two doctors testified that, because Bompard was not a “grand hysteric,” she was not prone to hypnotism. Even if she were, hypnosis cannot overrule a person’s intrinsic morality. On the other hand, in keeping with the Nancy School, law professor Jules Liégeois refuted the claim that only grand hysterics could be hypnotized and asserted that, yes, a person can be hypnotized to commit a crime.
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