SCOTT SIMON, host:
Another fall classic - Halloween is upon us. I tried to persuade our daughters to go as Martha Stewart and Angela Merkel. Instead, they're going to be a ballerina and a butterfly.
The holiday just wouldn't be complete without some spooky stories. So we've asked our literary detective to join us to talk about some of his favorite mysteries. Paul joins us from Portland, Oregon.
Paul, thanks for being back with us.
Professor PAUL COLLINS (Writing, Portland State University): Oh, it's good to be here.
SIMON: Okay. Tell us about a spooky story that may have escaped our attention.
Prof. COLLINS: There's one that, you could say, exists within your own eyes. And that's actually a book called "Spectropia." This came out in 1864. It's a book of optical illusions that was published in London. And the idea - if you've ever seen those American flags that are done in green and black, and you stare at them long enough and then you stare at a black wall, it appears in the right colors.
SIMON: Uh-hmm. Yeah.
Prof. COLLINS: A clever guy named J.H. Brown decided to apply this to ghosts. So he actually came up with a whole book of these very garishly colored plates of ghosts and skeletons and skeleton hands reaching out to grab you, all done up in purple and orange. And when you look at them and then you turn and look at a wall, you will, in fact, see a Victorian ghost.
SIMON: You also have a book from the age of ink blotters.
Prof. COLLINS: Yeah. This is a book called "Spookagraphs(ph)." And I think, of all these books that I've come across, this is probably the rarest. In fact, when I did an online search, I didn't get a single hit.
But there was a whole class of similar books out. This one is from about 1910. It's basically an autograph book. And you write your autograph along the gutter of the inside sort of the hinge or the crease in the middle of the page, slam the book shut, and then when you open it up - this being kind of before the age of ballpoints - it will smear it on to the other side. And you get this image that kind of looks skeletal. You were then supposed to show this to your friends and go, that's your ghost. There are a few times that the pictures that result will look a more like lizards than like ghosts, but the effect is pretty uncanny anyway.
SIMON: Just off the top of my head, I think the scariest story I've ever read is "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe.
Prof. COLLINS: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Do you have a nominee?
Prof. COLLINS: Well, one book that I'm very fond is "Living Alone." It's a novel that came out in 1919 by Stella Benson. She's, in her day was a very well-regarded author and travel writer.
"Living Alone" is this really charming novel about a, basically, about a village of witches living on an island in the middle of the towns. And one of the big plot hinges within the book is that the authorities come after them, not for them being witches, they go after them for operating unauthorized aircraft.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. COLLINS: As in broomsticks.
SIMON: Yes, exactly. (Unintelligible) an air space there, right?
Prof. COLLINS: Exactly. Can I read you a little excerpt from it?
SIMON: Yes, by all means, please.
Prof. COLLINS: To begin with there's a little notice at the beginning of the book that informs the reader, this is not a real book. It does not deal with real people, nor should it be read by real people. And it goes…
SIMON: That will cut down on your audience, but…
Prof. COLLINS: Yeah.
SIMON: …they didn't have boarder story about in those days, I guess.
Prof. COLLINS: That might explain why it went out of print. The protagonist of the book is this girl Sarah Brown, kind of your classic, penniless college student. And when a visitor to a committee meeting that she's at leaves a broomstick behind, she sees an address on the broomstick and finds this island to try to return it to the owner, and she comes across this hostel where these witches live. And she's given the prospectus for the house. These are basically the house rules. The name of this house is Living Alone.
(Reading) It is meant to provide for the needs of those who dislike hotels, clubs, settlements, hostels, boarding houses and lodgings only less than their own homes. They detest landladies, waiters, husbands and wives and all forms of lookers-after. Men and women are tired of being laboriously kind to their bodies who like to be a little uncomfortable and quite uncared for and love to live from week to week without speaking except to confide their destinations to bus conductors. Dogs, cats, goldfish, and other superhuman companions are encouraged.
SIMON: I'm not supposed to be scared yet, am I?
Prof. COLLINS: No. And that's what I love about this book is it's actually taking what in any other hands would be a very supernatural premise and actually making the characters kind of a cranky bunch of neighbors. It's kind of a dysfunctional supernatural story.
SIMON: Yeah. Paul, nice talking to you.
Prof. COLLINS: Oh, it's always a pleasure.
SIMON: Our literally detective Paul Collins who's a writing professor at Portland State University.
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