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Spectral Geographies of Arctic Exploration

Spectral Geographies of Arctic Exploration


Frontispiece to Arthur Conan Doyle.
The Captain of the Pole-star.
(London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914)

After a whaling trip in 1880, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of the “peculiar other-world feeling of the Arctic regions – a feeling so singular, that if you have once been there the thought of it haunts you all your life”. People from western cultures who visit the Arctic enter places that have been imagined as somehow ghostly and dreamy. Ice, wilderness, and sublime register as keywords in a Eurocentric vocabulary that continues to inform how we think about what is Arctic and what is not Arctic. Why is this? and where do these ‘spectral geographies’ come from?

This project, funded by an Irish Research Council CARA (Marie Curie COFUND) Fellowship (2010-13), takes seriously material histories of the apparently immaterial – dreams and reveries of air, earth, water, and the ghosts that haunt the Arctic. To Euro-American audiences the Arctic was so much more than an unknown blank space waiting to be discovered and mapped. Rather, many people in Britain and North America saw the Arctic as overflowing the cartographic space in which it was usually bounded by those few who promoted and handled polar exploration. Linear narratives of geographic achievement or failure, then, were only the tip of the iceberg. For many ordinary people, the Arctic was thought of as a space of spectral and affectual forces, where intense bundles of bodies, thoughts, and spirits gathered, were sensed, and were then expressed through private emotions and public entertainments.

In preparation is a book that seeks to re-think some of the stories that explorers, readers, consumers, and nations tell themselves about Arctic exploration by utilising a range of fresh sources and some recent human geographical approaches to diversify what has become well-trodden ground. One inherent value in this approach is to fundamentally question the standard narratives of polar exploration which posit a rational male hero either conquering or being conquered by an inanimate Nature. Such a dichotomy not only ignores the everyday dreaminess and ‘superstitious’ behaviour which explorers carried with them, but also obscures the spiritual values that could be sensed by people in polar landscapes, whether through atmospheric phenomena like the Aurora Borealis or the embodied journeys of Inuit shamans and British clairvoyants across vast distances.


  • McCorristine, Shane. 2014. ‘Träume, Labyrinthe, Eislandschaften: Körper und Eis in Arktis-Expeditionen des 19. Jahrhunderts’ ['Dreams, Labyrinths, and Icescapes: Bodies and Ice in Nineteenth-Century Arctic Exploration'], in A. Kraus and M. Winkler (eds.), Weltmeere: Ästhetisierung, Nutzung und Strukturierung der Ozeane im Langen 19. Jahrhundert (forthcoming)
  • McCorristine, Shane. 2014. 'A Manuscript History of the Franklin Family by Sophia Cracroft (1853)', Polar Record (forthcoming)
  • McCorristine, Shane. 2014. 'Mesmerism and Victorian Arctic Exploration', in S. Donecker, E. Rosamund Barraclough, and D. Marie Cudmore (eds.), Imagining the Supernatural North (forthcoming)
  • McCorristine, Shane. 2014. 'The Spectral Place of the Franklin Expedition in Contemporary Culture', Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction55(1): 60-73
  • McCorristine, Shane. 2013. '"Involuntarily we Listen": Hearing the Aurora Borealis in Nineteenth-Century Arctic Exploration and Science', Canadian Journal of History48 (1): 29-61
  • McCorristine, Shane. 2013. 'Searching for Franklin: A Modern Canadian Ghost Story', British Journal of Canadian Studies26 (1): 39-57
  • McCorristine, Shane. 2013. 'Have you Heard the Northern Lights?', BlueSci27: 6-7.
  • McCorristine, Shane. 2012. 'The "Bolton Clairvoyante" and Arctic Exploration', Wellcome History49: 18-20.
  • McCorristine, Shane. 2012. 'Sounds in the Sky: Listening for the Aurora Borealis at Fort Chipewyan', Arcadia: Online Explorations in Environmental History.
  • McCorristine, Shane. 2012. 'Seeking Environmental Knowledge from an Inuit Shaman', Arcadia: Online Explorations in Environmental History.
  • McCorristine, Shane. 2010. 'The Supernatural Arctic: An Exploration', Nordic Journal of English Studies9 (1): 47-70