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The Incredible Adventures of Gabriel García Márquez

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Gabriel García Márquez was born 90 years ago on this day—on March 6, 1927—and grew up in Aracataca, Colombia, a hardscrabble banana town that was barely a stop on the railway. His father, an undereducated telegraph operator, had fallen in love with a girl beyond his status—the daughter of Colonel Nicolás Márquez Mejía. Her family vigorously opposed their union, but that only strengthened the couple's resolve to marry. They maintained a secret relationship, communicating by telegraph and passed notes and stealing moments together at Mass. In 1926, after a priest lobbied the family on their behalf, the pair finally married. They had their first child, Gabriel, in 1927. Only a few months later, they left him to live with his grandparents while they moved to the port city of Barranquilla to open a pharmacy.

As a boy, he was simply "Gabito"—a shy child who blinked compulsively when he was nervous. He struggled to learn how to read and developed a habit of drawing his stories rather than writing them down. But he was the apple of his grandfather's eye. Whatever disdain the Colonel once had for his daughter's marriage, it had been softened by Gabito's birth. As García Márquez described it, his grandfather "took [him] to the circus and the cinema and was [his] umbilical cord with history and reality."

EDUCATING GABITO

His grandmother, the indomitable Tranquilina Iguarán Cotes, made an equally strong impression, "always telling fables, family legends, and organizing our life according to the messages she received in her dreams." García Márquez credits her with his "supernatural view of reality." This was a woman who went blind in her old age, but successfully convinced her doctor that she could still see. When he examined her, she described in detail all of the objects in her room, convincing him that her vision had returned. In truth, she'd simply memorized the contents of the room.

When García Márquez was 10 years old, his grandfather died, so Gabito and his two siblings went to live with their parents in Barranquilla. It was a difficult time for the boy, having only known his parents as infrequent visitors.

Things grew more tense as his mother continued to have children (she bore a total of 11), and his father relocated the family to the town of Sucre. Eventually, Gabito ended up back in Barranquilla, where he was enrolled at a prestigious Jesuit secondary school. García Márquez was a brilliant scholarship student, known to wear his father's old suits and recite long works of poetry from memory.

His education continued outside the classroom, as well. At age 13, he was introduced to the world of women when he lost his virginity to a prostitute. (She later informed him that his younger brother was a frequent visitor to her bed.) Two years later, he began an affair with an older married woman, who came up with an ingenious system for getting him to do his schoolwork: Failing grades meant no sex. He graduated with honors and went on to win a scholarship to a prestigious college outside of Bogotá.

Not surprisingly, the seeds of García Márquez's later novels were all planted in his youth. His grandfather, grandmother, parents, siblings, assorted aunts and uncles—even the prostitute—all make appearances in his work. His hometown of Aracataca would famously become the Macondo of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Leaf Storm (1955), and his parents' troubled courtship was thinly veiled as the centerpiece of Love in the Time of Cholera (1985).

ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLVENCY

In 1947, 20-year-old García Márquez decided to abandon law school and pursue writing. Much to his father's dismay, he dropped out and became a reporter for El Heraldo, a liberal newspaper in Barranquilla. This was during the days of La Violencia, a period of bloody civil unrest that threatened to tear Colombia apart. With daily reports of rape, murder, and the government's oppressive sanctions on the press, it was a challenging time to be a journalist. Earning just three pesos a story, García Márquez often went hungry.

He was also writing a novel. In his spare moments, García Márquez tapped out the manuscript for Leaf Storm. It took seven years to find a publisher, but the book finally came out in 1955. Although it garnered good reviews, the novel never sold well. That same year, García Márquez serialized the true account of Colombian sailors who'd been shipwrecked. The news story directly contradicted a government report of the incident and revealed that corruption in the navy had led to the sailors' deaths. García Márquez became so unpopular with the government that the newspaper sent him abroad for his own safety.

He spent the next several years desperately poor in Europe, living mostly in Rome and Paris and briefly in communist Eastern Europe. While overseas, he wrote No One Writes to the Colonel (1961) and In Evil Hour (1962), had a torrid affair with a Spanish actress, and continued to starve. When he finally returned to Colombia, he married his longtime love, Mercedes Barcha Pardo. García Márquez had first proposed to her when he was 18 and she was only 13. After more than a decade of courtship, most of which had been spent writing letters to one another, she consented to marry him.

García Márquez continued to work as a journalist, first in Havana at the start of the Cuban Revolution and then in New York. From there, he, his wife, and his infant son traveled by bus to Mexico. The trip opened his eyes to the American South and the homeland of William Faulkner, one of García Márquez's greatest influences. (Some literary scholars have suggested that García Márquez lifted much of his style and lyricism from Faulkner.) It also inspired him to begin his breakthrough book, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

On June 26, 1961, Gabriel's family arrived at a railway station in Mexico City with their last $20 and "nothing in their future." García Márquez started writing, and in just 18 months, he'd completed the novel that would change his life. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, he used all of the storytelling techniques he'd picked up as a reporter. As he would later tell The New York Times, the "tricks you need to transform something which appears fantastic, unbelievable into something plausible, credible, those I learned from journalism. The key is to tell it straight. It is done by reporters and by country folk."

Although the writing came quickly, it was not easy. To support his family, García Márquez sold his car, his hair dryer, and anything else that would bring in some cash. When it came time to send off the manuscript to his publishers in Buenos Aires, he could only afford to mail half of it.

Half was enough. With One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez exploded onto the literary scene. While still living in Mexico, he quickly emerged as Latin America's most beloved writer and was affectionately nicknamed "Gabo." In Colombia, he became a symbol of national pride. The book would go on to sell more than 35 million copies and be translated into at least 35 languages.

VIVA LA REVOLUCIÓN!

Despite the fanciful nature of his work, García Márquez's novels are firmly grounded in the politics of Latin America. He addresses guerrilla warfare, drug trafficking, the failures of communism, the evils of capitalism, and the dangerous meddling of the CIA. After the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the author began to use his status to get more involved in politics. He started publicly castigating the United States for using the "war on drugs" to intrude in Latin American affairs. And beginning in the 1970s, he acted as an intermediary between the Colombian government and leftist guerrillas.

García Márquez also found himself in high-powered company. While reporting on the Cuban Revolution, he became friends with Fidel Castro, and over the years, their relationship deepened. Fidel cooked him spaghetti dinners. García Márquez, in turn, described the Cuban president as a "king" and a great literary man. He even showed Castro an early manuscript for Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981) so that Castro could point out flaws in the plot. The close relationship led critics to call the author Castro's "literary hatchet man." However, García Márquez's influence wasn't enough to stop the Cuban government from convicting and executing one of his friends for treason in 1989.

In a 1982 article in The New York Times, the author explained that, as a Latin American writer, it was his duty to be politically active. "The problems of our societies are mainly political, and the commitment of a writer is with the reality of all of society, not just with a small part of it," he explained. "If not, he is as bad as the politicians who disregard a large part of our reality. That is why authors, painters, writers in Latin America get politically involved."

García Márquez's works continued to be politically charged. In 1996, he published News of a Kidnapping, a journalistic account of 10 people abducted by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, and the convoluted machinations involved in rescuing them. The same year, he wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times recounting the Elian Gonzalez situation, in which his sympathies were clearly aligned with Cuba: "The real shipwreck of Elian did not take place on the high seas, but when he set foot on American soil."

To a certain extent, García Márquez's political activism was also about cultivating his own legend. In the mid-1970s, the author famously claimed that he wouldn't publish anything again until Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was no longer in power. Gabo's friends agreed that the declaration was made for a "calculated effect." Moreover, García Márquez didn't even stick to it. He published Love in the Time of Cholera not long after that.

GABO IN HIS LABYRINTH

In the 1990s, García Márquez had a cancerous tumor removed from one of his lungs and lived through a bout of lymphatic cancer. Then, in July 1999, rumors of his impending death grew after someone took a sentimental poem about dying and attached García Márquez's name to it. The poem quickly turned into a hoax e-mail that circulated the world and unleashed a hailstorm of headlines. It also touched a raw nerve. As García Márquez got older, his output slowed. Readers waited since 2002 for him to produce the second part of his memoirs. His novel Memories of My Melancholy Whores was published in 2004 to critical and commercial success. But at just 115 pages, audiences were left craving more. Even the controversies García Márquez has stirred up later were disappointing. In 2004, the author was banned from the International Congress of the Spanish Language for allegedly suggesting that they should scrap their focus on spelling, which he called "that terror visited on human beings from the cradle onwards."

In his 2008 biography of García Márquez, Gerald Martin revealed that the author had been suffering from progressive memory loss—no doubt a serious problem for a man who called himself a "professional rememberer." Martin wrote, "It seemed clear to me that he could no longer write books."

And then there are García Márquez's own statements. In 2006, he told the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, "I have stopped writing. Last year was the first in my life in which I haven't written even a line." When the Colombian paper El Tiempo called the 82-year-old author in the spring of 2009 to ask if the rumor of his retirement was true, García Márquez replied, "Not only is it not true, but the only thing I do is write." He concluded by saying, "I'll know when the cakes I am baking are ready."

García Márquez died of pneumonia on April 17, 2014, at the age of 87.

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW

Many of the scenes in Gabriel García Márquez's novels come straight out of his own strange life. Here are a few examples.

The Little Girl Who Eats Dirt
When he was 3 years old, García Márquez's little sister Margarita moved in with Gabito and his grandparents. She refused to speak or eat, and the family wondered how she didn't starve. It wasn't long before they discovered the answer—she'd been sustaining herself on dirt from the garden and the whitewash off the walls. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the orphan character Rebeca does the same thing when she moves in with the Buendia family. She eventually gets better, just like Margarita did, once she "surrendered to family life."

Death by Gold Cyanide
At the beginning of Love in the Time of Cholera, the aged Dr. Juvenal Urbino is called to the scene of a suicide. The victim is a crippled war veteran who has killed himself using gold cyanide vapors. García Márquez witnessed a similar death firsthand. As a child, his grandfather brought him to meet "the Belgian," a World War I veteran who'd lost the use of his legs. The image of the man—his crutches laid neatly next to his cot and his Great Dane lying dead next to him—was recreated in detail in the novel's opening scene.

The Banana Plantation Massacre
One of the more shocking passages in One Hundred Years of Solitude describes the massacre of 3,000 men, women, and children during a workers' strike at the Macondo banana plantation. There was, in fact, such a plantation near García Márquez's childhood home in Aracataca, and he grew up hearing about a massacre that supposedly happened when he was an infant. No one seemed sure how many people died (1,000 or 3,000), but the official government record, which was suspect for several reasons, showed only nine deaths. In the novel, the government denies the event altogether.

The Solace of Little Gold Fish
The Colonel, García Márquez's beloved grandfather, was also trained in metallurgy and spent many years as a jeweler, crafting small gold fish that became a symbol of his family. Those same fish, crafted by Colonel Aureliano Buendia, make a memorable appearance in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The Mark of Ash Wednesday
One of García Márquez's most vivid childhood memories was one Ash Wednesday when the illegitimate sons of his grandfather visited his family with crosses of ash still on their foreheads. This visceral image inspired the 17 illegitimate sons of Colonel Aureliano Buendia and their mysterious assassinations. Each of them died after being identified by the permanent mark of the cross on their foreheads.

A version of this article originally appeared in mental_floss Magazine in 2009.

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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
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As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
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"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
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In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
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For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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This Harry Potter Candle Melts to Reveal Your Hogwarts House—and Smells Amazing
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Warner Bros.

As it gets darker and colder outside, the thought of lighting a candle in your room and curling up with a good book becomes more appealing. A sorting hat candle from the Muggle Library Candles Etsy store makes the perfect companion to whatever Harry Potter book you happen to be re-reading for the hundredth time this season. According to the Cleveland news outlet WKYC, the candle slowly reveals your Hogwarts house as it burns.

From the outside, the item looks like a normal white candle. But when lit, the outer layer of plain wax melts away, allowing the colorful interior to poke through. The candles come in one of four concealed colors: red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, and green for Slytherin. The only way to know which house you’re destined to match with is by purchasing a candle and putting it to use. According to the label, the scent evokes “excitement, fear, and nervousness.” The smell can also be described as lemon with sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli.

Due to its viral popularity, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Etsy store has put all orders on hold while working to get its current batch of shipments out to customers. You can follow Muggle Library Candles on Instagram for updates on the sorting candle, as well as other Harry Potter-themed candles in their repertoire, like parseltongue and free elf.

[h/t WKYC]

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