The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Ghost-Seer: A Story from the Memoirs of Count von O" (1787-1789)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Ghost-Seer: A Story from the Memoirs of Count von O” (original: “Der Geisterseher: Eine Gesichte aus den Memoires des Graf en von O”) was written by Friedrich Schiller and first appeared in Thalia 3-5 (1787-1789). “The Ghost-Seer” is not one of Schiller’s major works, but it has moments of interest and worth.

The Prince, the unnamed protagonist of “The Ghost-Seer,” is a German nobleman living in Venice. The Prince is enjoying a life of debauchery and gambling when he is befriended by a mysterious Armenian man. The Armenian begins to influence the Prince in several ways, including making him fall in love with a beautiful Greek woman who is one of the Armenian’s agents. The Armenian eventually assumes nearly complete control over the Prince’s life. The Armenian is immortal, has various supernatural powers, and fails into a coma once each day. In the first half of “The Ghost-Seer” the Armenian saves the Prince from execution and then saves him from an occult Sicilian swindler. During a séance performed by the Sicilian the Armenian exposes the performance as a fraud. But the Armenian does this only to get the Prince to trust him more fully. In the second half of the novel the Armenian exploits this trust and begins to manipulate and control the Prince. The Prince eventually converts to Catholicism at the prompting of the Armenian, who is following the orders of his Jesuit and/or Freemason masters. The Armenian begins leading the Prince to commit a crime which will disrupt the order of succession to the throne of the Prince’s country and will result in the Prince’s country abandoning Protestantism and converting to Catholicism. “The Ghost-Seer” ends incompletely, with the Prince having descended only halfway into evil and the true identity of the Armenian still unknown.

“The Ghost-Seer” is generally seen by critics as one of Schiller’s lesser works—“the guardians of the German canon tend¼to denigrate the Gothic as a sub-literary phenomenon, the very idea of associating him with it will be anathema to some readers”1—although “more copies of Der Geisterseher were sold than all of Schiller’s other works combined.”2 By the time he abandoned the story Schiller himself did not think particularly highly of it, calling it “schmiererei” (scribble).3 But the “The Ghost-Seer” will be of some interest to the modern reader. It is both “the prototype and a masterpiece of the Schauerroman,”4 the “shudder novel” so common and popular in German literature before the advent of the Gothic. The novel has several Gothic elements, including the Jesuitical conspiracy and the figure of the Armenian, whose portrayal is meant to remind readers of the Wandering Jew. But when Schiller wrote “The Ghost-Seer” he was not consciously thinking of the work of Horace Walpole (see: The Castle of Otranto). Nor had the work of Ann Radcliffe (see: The Mysteries of Udolpho) become famous by 1787. There was no Gothic tradition for Schiller to draw on in the writing of “The Ghost-Seer.” When he wrote the novel he was recovering from his Sturm und Drang (see: Romanticism) excesses, and “The Ghost-Seer” is in part a reaction to the schauerromane which were becoming popular in the late 1780s. But a much larger inspiration for Schiller was the then-widespread rumors about Cagliostro and the Illuminati.

In 1787, when Schiller began “The Ghost-Seer,” the most popular celebrity in the courts and salons of Europe was Count Alessandro di Cagliostro (née Giuseppe Balsamo, 1743-1795). Cagliostro claimed to be a master of ancient Egyptian knowledge and magic. He held séances for the rich and powerful and use a crystal ball to foretell the future. In these years, before the French Revolution, rumors spread quickly and wildly through the courts of Europe, and Cagliostro was the subject of many of them. He was supposedly a member of the Illuminati, a breakaway sect of Freemasons founded in Ingolstadt, Bavaria, in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt (1748-?). The Illuminati were rumored to plot the overthrow of European monarchies. Schiller wrote “The Ghost-Seer” to exploit these rumors, and more specifically as a response to

contemporary controversies around Geisterseherei (necromancy). We know that he followed the debates on the subject in the Berlinische Monatsschrift, especially those about the arch-swindler and occultist Cagliostro, and among those in particular a contribution from the Duke of Württemberg, Eugen Friedrich Heinrich, who, by advocating tolerance of speculative philosophy and the belief in apparitions, triggered fears about the Protestant duke’s possible conversion.5 

Schiller grew disillusioned with the novel and set it aside, but even in an incomplete form it was influential on later writers, especially after its 1797 publication in English. “The Ghost-Seer” is the most influential of the conspiracy Gothics—the bundesroman—and the next generation of Gothic writers who told stories of the exposure of Jesuit or Catholic conspiracies took their cues from Schiller’s work. “The Ghost-Seer” wasn’t the first of the German conspiracy Gothics—that label goes to Christiane Benedikte Naubert’s Hermann von Inna (1788). But as Patrick Brantlinger says, “The Ghost-Seer” “consolidated [it]¼with its Masonic/Illuminatist conspiracy.”6 Adam Weishaupt’s Order of the Illuminati had only been banned in Bavaria in 1784, three years before Schiller began writing “The Ghost-Seer,” and the use of the Illuminati-like conspiracy in “The Ghost-Seer” was both cannily topical on Schiller’s part and resonant with the fears of audiences and writers.

Masons, Rosicrucians, and the Illuminati offered alternatives to mainstream religion, which was wilting under the harsh light of the Enlightenment, providing its members with a haven for mystery, brotherhood and exclusivity, and raising suspicions among outsiders, a paranoia novelists were happy to exploit.7 

Too, “The Ghost-Seer” established—quite unintentionally on Schiller’s part—the geisterseherroman, “the ghost-seer or necromancer novel¼of which the early ghost story â la Gespensterbuch (ed. Apel & Laun, 4 vols., 1810-1813) is a variation.”8 The geisterseherroman appeared in parallel with the kunstmärchen before giving way to the German ghost story and witch story proper of the 1840s and 1850s. More interesting for modern readers is the way in which “The Ghost-Seer” functions as a Proto-Mystery. A recurring theme in the novel is the appearance of a seemingly supernatural figure or event and a rational explanation, based on deduction, for that event. During the Sicilian’s séance the Prince asks to see the Marquis de Lanoy, a friend who was killed in battle. Two ghosts appear, but the Prince is able to deduce that they are only people pretending to be ghosts. When the Prince is arrested by the Inquisition and is visited by ghosts, he is able to figure out not just why the ghosts are pretense, but how the pretense is committed. And near the end of the novel the Prince, using deduction and a ring, a key piece of evidence, figures out who committed a murder. In each case the Prince unravels mysteries and crimes using logic and the evidence at hand, a practice which more consistently appears in nineteenth century mystery fiction.

But accompanying these deductive feats is the Prince’s deepening gullibility. The Prince abandons his childhood faith in religious matters for an adult faith in Enlightenment rationality, personified by the Armenian, who though clearly supernatural makes a point of unmasking the Sicilian as a fraud. When the Armenian’s masters allow the Prince to see that the Illuminati are charlatans, this does not lead the Prince to also doubt the veracity of the Armenian’s supernatural powers, but instead makes the Prince believe all the more in the powers of the Armenian as well as have faith that the Armenian’s rationality is to be believed. Unlike the protagonists of later Proto-Mysteries, the Prince is rational, but his rationality does not overwhelm his trust.

“The Ghost-Seer” reads like it was written in the eighteenth century, which makes it difficult going for many modern readers. And its unfinished nature means that ultimately the reading experience will be a frustrating one. But those interested in the German Gothic and its influence on later Gothic works should read “The Ghost-Seer.”

Recommended Edition

Print: Friedrich Schiller, The Works of Friedrich Schiller: Early Dramas and Romances. London: George Bell & Sons, 2010.



1 Brantlinger, The German Gothic Novel in Anglo-German Perspective, 147.

2 Jurgen Barkhoff, “The Dark Anthropology of the Schauerroman,” in Andrew Cusack and Barry Murnane, ed. Popular Revenants: The German Gothic and Its International Reception, 1800-2000 (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012), 56.

3 Brantlinger, The German Gothic Novel in Anglo-German Perspective, 85.

4 Barkhoff, “The Dark Anthopology of the Schauerroman,” 44.

5 Barkhoff, “The Dark Anthopology of the Schauerroman,” 44.

6 Brantlinger, The German Gothic Novel in Anglo-German Perspective, 149.

7 Moore, The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600-1800, 117.

8 Brantlinger, The German Gothic Novel in Anglo-German Perspective, 149.