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SEL3420 : Fiction and the Philosophy of Terror: From the Supernatural to the Sublime

  • Offered for Year: 2023/24
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Leanne Stokoe
  • Owning School: English Lit, Language & Linguistics
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 1 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


The aim of this module is to analyse how Ann Radcliffe’s concept of the ‘explained supernatural’, and its debt to Edmund Burke’s philosophy of the sublime, shaped the evolution of fiction between the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries. Students will develop knowledge of a range of canonical and non-canonical texts, including examples of literature written by authors whose engagement with the supernatural is less well-known. We will focus particularly on the process through which Burke and Radcliffe's theory of ‘terror’ illuminates contemporary anxieties surrounding gender, class, race and nationhood, and examine how these fears were transformed throughout the eighteenth-century, Romantic and Victorian eras.

Students will gain a thorough knowledge of the historical and cultural contexts which inspired the rise of the supernatural in fiction. They will also combine this knowledge with some contemporary philosophies of the human mind, in order to interpret supernatural entities as manifestations of tyranny, repressed desire, and fear of ‘the Other’. We will connect these historical and cultural changes with formal and generic developments in the literature of the period, paying particular attention to the way that Victorian writers re-imagined tropes such as the natural landscape, anti-hero, and angel/whore dichotomy for a new age. The module will culminate by questioning the extent to which the sublime and ‘explained supernatural’ not only uncover cultural anxieties, but also promote education, reform and the toleration of difference as their most powerful remedy.

Outline Of Syllabus

The syllabus comprises a range of genres, including poetry, novels, and short stories written between 1790 and 1890. Due to the philosophical and psychoanalytical themes of the module, it will also include some contemporary texts that illuminate the theoretical frameworks of the sublime and 'explained supernatural'.

The syllabus may vary year to year, but key authors may include Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Jane Austen, John Keats, John William Polidori, Emily Brontë, Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, Rudyard Kipling and William Butler Yeats.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture131:0013:0013 lectures between Weeks 1-10.
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion225:0050:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading118:0088:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching102:0020:0010 seminars between Weeks 1-10, the last of which will be a revision seminar.
Guided Independent StudyStudent-led group activity91:009:00Weekly study groups of 1 hour in which the students respond to set seminar preparation activities.
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study120:0020:00N/A
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

The lectures introduce students to knowledge outcomes relevant to the module. They address themes common to the authors studied and encourage the students to think comparatively. The seminars allow for the development of knowledge outcomes through close reading of specified texts, and the practice of skills, especially oral presentation and interpersonal communication. In addition, between the lecture and the seminar, students will be required to participate in a self-directed group learning hour. In the course of the module, each student will be responsible for writing at least two study group reports.
Seminars develop this knowledge and enable the practise of skills, namely close textual analysis and interpersonal communications. Study groups give students the chance to develop independent study and prepare for the seminars in terms that give them genuine ownership over the material.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Essay1A853,500 word essay.
Written exercise1A15500 word reflective piece on learning and participation.
Formative Assessments
Description Semester When Set Comment
Portfolio1M1000 word research plan and annotated bibliography for final essay preparation.
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

In the formative assignment, students will be required to plan an essay that links at least two texts that they have studied on the module. In this plan they will be expected to apply their understanding of the sublime and 'explained supernatural' in order to explore particular forms of cultural anxiety, and how these are reflected in, or challenged by, their chosen texts.

The formative assignment will:
1. Encourage student engagement with the module themes by reflecting critically upon their learning.
2. Require students to develop research skills as they seek out additional primary and secondary sources to compile their research plan and annotated bibliography.
3. Prepare students for their final essay in a way that allows them to receive constructive feedback and engage with it before beginning the assignment.

The end of module essay (3,500 words) will ask students to write an essay that engages with least two different texts, and responds to one or more given keywords. This assessment will focus students upon detailed aspects of the material in terms that connect their ideas with the module’s broader thematic and conceptual ambitions.

Alongside their final essay, the students will be asked to submit a short, assessed reflection (500 words) on what they have learned so far in the module, how they feel they have participated in its activities, and how they have responded to the formative feedback on their assignment plan.

Reading Lists