8 Surprising Literary Easter Eggs

AbeBooks
AbeBooks

Video games and movies aren’t the only media to contain inside jokes, allusions, and puzzles; some literary giants are in on the act, too. Whether it’s an odd quotation, invented place, or mysterious pattern, these tidbits—which can escape detection on a first reading—often have a special significance for the author. Eagle-eyed readers have long been searching for and sharing these literary Easter eggs, and we’ve rounded up eight sneaky and surprising examples below.

1. A CHARACTER FROM A PREVIOUS NOVEL // THE GREAT GATSBY

The Great Gatsby cover
Amazon

"Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry 'Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!'"
– Thomas Parke D’Invilliers

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald includes an epigraph (usually a quotation from another writer at the start of a book or chapter) by Thomas Parke D'Invilliers. So far, so normal—except that Thomas Parke D'Invilliers was another character invented by Fitzgerald. D’Invilliers appears as an “awful highbrow” poet and friend of Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise, which was published in 1920, some five years before The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald never publicly admitted authoring the epigraph, despite the fact that numerous people asked him for details of D’Invilliers so they might seek permission to use the quote themselves. However, Fitzgerald’s authorship was confirmed when a rare signed and inscribed copy of The Great Gatsby came to light in which Fitzgerald finally claims the epigraph as his own—by scribbling the word “myself” below the imaginary poet’s name.

2. AN ACROSTIC POEM // THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS

Through the Looking Glass book
Simon & Schuster

The huge success of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass meant that author Lewis Carroll was always being asked who the main character of Alice was based on. Carroll was generally coy about giving an answer, although many suggested that she was based on family friend Alice Liddell. It later emerged that he had first invented the story while amusing the Liddell girls on a boat trip down a river. Attentive readers soon noticed Carroll was not so coy after all—he had included an acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass entitled "A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky," in which the first letter of every line spells out “Alice Pleasance Liddell."

3. A LITERARY FEUD // BETJEMAN BIOGRAPHY

John Betjeman The Biography cover
Amazon

Bevis Hillier, the official biographer of poet John Betjeman, took the Easter egg one further when he concocted an elaborate hoax to fool rival Betjeman biographer A.N. Wilson. Hillier forged a love letter from Betjeman to a work colleague, which found its way into Wilson’s hands. Thinking he had a scoop, Wilson published the letter in his book. Unfortunately, journalists reviewing Wilson’s book soon noticed that the first letter of each sentence in the forged letter spelled out “A N Wilson is a sh*t,” and Hillier later revealed he had orchestrated the hoax in revenge for a terrible review Wilson had written of his Betjeman biography.

4. A SHOUT-OUT TO A SIGNIFICANT OTHER // THE HANDMAID’S TALE

The Handmaid's Tale cover
Books-A-Million

In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, fans puzzled over the significance of some graffiti that main character Offred sees etched into a desk. The letters read “M. loves G., 1972.” Wily readers later noted that Atwood (M) had started a life-long relationship with fellow author Graeme Gibson (G) in 1972.

5. AN EPIGRAM REFERENCING THE JFK ASSASSINATION // ON THE STORM PLANET

Quest of the Three Worlds cover
Amazon

Cordwainer Smith was the pseudonym used by East Asia scholar and psychological warfare expert Paul Linebarger to write science fiction novels. In his 1965 novella On The Storm Planet (often included in the collection Quest of the Three Worlds), Smith added references to the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy using an epigram inserted into the text. The first letter of each word in one seemingly-normal string of sentences spells out “Kennedy shot,” and a few pages later another epigram adds “Oswald shot too.” Amazingly, this hidden message does not disrupt the flow of the writing, making the Easter egg even harder to spot.

6. RUNES HIDING A MESSAGE // LORD OF THE RINGS

The Fellowship of the Ring cover
Amazon

J. R. R. Tolkien was a language professor at Oxford University, and his love of words and language inspired his novels. On the original title page of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien inscribed two of his invented writing systems in the borders, which at first glance appear to be mere pretty decoration. However, some clever fans have since translated the lettering to reveal his hidden message. The full translation reads: “The Lord of the Rings translated from the Red Book of Westmarch by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Herein is set forth the history of the War of the Ring and the Return of the King as seen by the Hobbits.”

7. A FORESHADOWED PROTAGONIST // IT

It cover
Simon & Schuster

Stephen King is well-known for including numerous Easter eggs in his novels, often linking characters and places from one book to the next, creating a complex criss-cross of allusions and references. One of King’s most random Easter eggs is included in his novel IT (1986), in which one of the tormented children is Eddie Kaspbrak, who King casually mentions lives next door to Paul Sheldon and his family. Paul Sheldon then turns up as the unfortunate protagonist in King's novel Misery (1987) just a few years later.

8. COLLEGE DOPPELGÄNGERS // LESS THAN ZERO

Less Than Zero cover
Pan Macmillan

Bret Easton Ellis reimagined his own alma mater, Bennington College in Vermont, a number of times in his books, renaming it Camden College. Known in the 1980s for being one of the most expensive American schools, Bennington was also famed for its openness to experimentation and, some say, debauchery—elements Ellis used in his plots. "Camden College" first appears in Less Than Zero (1985), but also crops up in The Rules of Attraction (1987), American Psycho (1991), The Informers (1994), and Glamorama (1998). Strangely, Ellis isn’t the only one to use “Camden College” in his books—fellow Bennington alum Jill Eisenstadt (in From Rockaway, 1987) and Jonathan Lethem (in The Fortress of Solitude, 2003) also use Camden as a cipher for Bennington in their novels. Nor do the Bennington doubles end there: Donna Tartt, another classmate of Ellis, also uses a Bennington-esque college in The Secret History (1992), but she names it Hampden.

11 Chilling Facts About Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House

Can a house be born bad? That’s the question Shirley Jackson asks in her classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Released in 1959, the gothic novel follows four strangers who converge on a purportedly haunted house to “scientifically” seek out evidence of the paranormal. Things rapidly devolve and the characters—in particular, the novel’s lonely protagonist, Eleanor—realize, too late, that they’re in over their heads.

Upon its release, the novel sold briskly, earning Jackson a National Book Award nomination and high praise from critics. In its review, The New York Times called the story “caviar for connoisseurs of the cryptic” and described Jackson as “the finest master currently practicing in the genre of the cryptic, haunted tale.” It also caught the attention of Hollywood, and within four years MGM released a film adaptation, directed by Robert Wise. Since then, the novel has been made into a play and into a widely panned 1999 movie. On October 12, the first ever television series based on the novel will be released by Netflix.

Whether you’re getting ready to dig into the horrors of Hill House on Netflix or a fan of the original novel, here are 11 facts about The Haunting of Hill House you should know.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY REAL-LIFE PARANORMAL INVESTIGATORS

A photo of a ghost in the 1890s
The National Archives UK // Public Domain

Jackson was inspired to write the novel after reading about a group of 19th century “psychic researchers” who rented a house they believed to be haunted in order to study paranormal phenomena. The researchers studiously recorded their experiences in the house, and presented them in the form of a treatise to the Society for Psychic Research. In her essay “Experience and Fiction,” Jackson explained that she was most intrigued by the way the researchers revealed their own personalities and backgrounds throughout the study. “They thought they were being terribly scientific and proving all kinds of things,” she explained. “And yet the story that kept coming through their dry reports was not at all the story of a haunted house, it was the story of several earnest, I believe misguided, certainly determined people, with their differing motivations and backgrounds.”

2. JACKSON HAD A TERRIFYING SLEEPWALKING EXPERIENCE WHILE WRITING THE NOVEL ...

Early on in the writing process, Jackson awoke one morning to find something terrifying atop her writing desk: A note, with the words “DEAD DEAD” scrawled upon it, written in her own handwriting. Jackson, who loved ghost stories but did not believe in ghosts, brushed the strange discovery off as sleepwalking. In “Experience and Fiction,” she wrote that she used the strange note to motivate her, explaining, “I decided that I had better write the book awake, which I got to work and did.”

3. ... AND MADE AN UNSETTLING DISCOVERY WHILE RESEARCHING HAUNTED HOUSES.

A haunted house on a hill
iStock.com/DNY59

Before she began writing The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson scoured magazines and newspapers for photos of houses that seemed haunted. During her research, she stumbled upon a photo of a house in California that had a particular air of “disease and decay.” She was so struck by it, she asked her mother, who lived in California, if she could find any additional information about the house. Her mother’s response shocked Jackson: Not only was she familiar with the house, but Jackson's own great-grandfather had built it. After standing empty for many years, the house had been set on fire—possibly by a group of townspeople.

4. THERE WAS ORIGINALLY MORE THAN ONE VERSION OF ELEANOR.

In A Rather Haunted Life, Shirley Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin writes that Jackson initially struggled to decide what kind of character her protagonist, Eleanor, would be. Jackson wrote three different iterations of Eleanor before settling on her final version. One, according to Franklin, was “a spinster with a swagger”—a far cry from the introverted Eleanor of the finished novel.

5. IT'S A GHOST STORY WITHOUT GHOSTS.

Jackson often referred to the novel as a “good ghost story” despite the fact that it doesn't have any overt ghosts. Instead, it’s the house itself that seems to do the haunting. In her notes for the novel, Jackson explained, “The House is the haunting.” While much of the novel is left ambiguous, Jackson was clear about the connections between Hill House and her protagonist, Eleanor. “Jackson clearly intended the external signs of haunting to be interpreted as manifestations of Eleanor’s troubled psyche,” Franklin explains in A Rather Haunted Life. At the same time, Franklin notes, “The novel makes it clear that something in the house brings out the disturbance in Eleanor.”

6. JACKSON'S HUSBAND WAS TOO AFRAID TO READ IT.

Jackson’s husband Stanley Edgar Hyman was a well-known literary critic and professor who enthusiastically read all of his wife’s books—but not The Haunting of Hill House. According to Franklin, “For the first time he refused to read her manuscript: He found the concept of ghosts too frightening.”

7. THE NOVEL HAS EARNED COMPARISONS TO THE TURN OF THE SCREW.

Since its release, critics and fans have drawn comparisons between The Haunting of Hill House and the writings of everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Hilary Mantel. But the comparison that comes up the most is to Henry James’s classic novel The Turn of the Screw. In her introduction to The Haunting of Hill House, Laura Miller explains that the two novels share common themes, including “a lonely, imaginative young woman” and “a big isolated house.” In his 1981 book Danse Macabre, Stephen King writes, “It seems to me that [The Haunting of Hill House] and James’s The Turn of the Screw are the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.”

8. IT WAS JACKSON'S FIRST PROFITABLE NOVEL.

The Haunting of Hill House wasn’t just Jackson’s most popular novel: It was her first profitable novel. “Hill House was a financial and critical triumph," Franklin writes. “For the first time, a novel of [Jackson’s] had finally earned back its advance and was even making a profit.”

9. SHE SOLD THE FILM RIGHTS FOR $67,500—AND USED THE MONEY TO BUY A WASHING MACHINE.

When Jackson sold the movie rights to Hill House for $67,500 (“an astronomical fee for the time,” notes Miller), it propelled her family into true financial stability for the first time. They used the money from the film to pay off their mortgage and all other debts, and to buy living room drapes, a player piano, and a washing machine and dryer.

10. ROALD DAHL SENT JACKSON A LETTER AFTER READING IT.

Roald Dahl
Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Legendary children’s author Roald Dahl was so struck by The Haunting of Hill House, he wrote to Jackson suggesting she write for television. According to Jackson biographer Lenemaja Friedman, Dahl asked her to “consider writing a script for a television show that Ellyn Williams was doing in Britain.” It’s unclear whether Dahl himself was working on the show (his TV series Way Out premiered in 1961, two years after the publication of Hill House), but Jackson ultimately refused his request.

11. THE NOVEL HAS A LOT OF FAMOUS FANS.

Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Guillermo del Toro, and Carmen Maria Machado are all huge fans. Del Toro included Hill House in a series of six classic horror novels he curated for Penguin, Maria Machado called it “the scariest novel I’ve ever read,” and Neil Gaiman has written that, while plenty of novels have scared him, Hill House “beats them all.” Stephen King, meanwhile, has written that Hill House has one of the best openings he’s ever read, calling it “the sort of quiet epiphany every writer hopes for.”

JK Rowling's Newest Obsession? A Teenager's 350-Year-Old Math Notebook

Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images
Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images

Inspiration can be found in surprising places—including the math notebook of an 18th-century farm boy. As the BBC reports, a collection of 350-year-old doodles posted on Twitter recently went viral, and now they've caught the attention of author JK Rowling.

The Museum of English Rural Life shared pages pulled from its archives in a Twitter thread on Saturday, October 6. The book, dating from 1784, belonged to a 13-year-old boy named Richard Beale from Biddenden in the English county of Kent. It was primarily a math notebook, but the owner also apparently used it to explore his artistic side.

Beale scribbled some elaborate drawings around his equations. In one doodle, a pair of triangles spans the width of a city street. In another, an angle overlaps with a mountain with a burning fortress at its peak.

One figure, a black-and-white dog, appears throughout the book, leading the museum to believe it may have been the teen's family pet. Beale also sketched a picture of a chicken wearing trousers.

J.K. Rowling retweeted the thread on Sunday, to which the museum responded with a request for her to make the pants-clad chicken the protagonist of her next book series.

She responded: "Way ahead of you. He's best friends with a duck in a balaclava."

The notebook is part of a collection of farm diaries that was donated to the Museum of Rural English Life a few years ago. Researchers looking to appreciate Beale's detailed doodles in person can access them through the museum's reading room.

[h/t BBC]

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