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Read the Ghost Story Anthology That Inspired Three Classic Scary Stories

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The best time to write is often when there is nothing else to do. This trick certainly worked in 1816, when a single writing contest—born out of boredom caused by intense and unseasonable rain—led to the creation of several classics that helped shape the Gothic literature genre: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, John William Polidori's The Vampyre, and Lord Byron's poem "The Darkness." The writers drew inspiration from variety of places, but one of the most important catalysts was a French anthology of German ghost stories called Fantasmagoriana. An abridged version of the tome of spooky tales, titled Tales of the Dead, has since been translated to English—and it can be read online.

Fantasmagoriana was curated and translated by Jean-Baptiste Benoît Eyriès in 1812. Eyriès hand-selected eight frightening tales from German literature to present to a French audience. Lord Byron had the book on hand while staying at a villa near Lake Geneva with Polidori, his personal doctor. Mary Godwin (soon to be Mary Shelley), Percy Shelley, and Godwin's stepsister Claire Clairmont came to visit, but they all found themselves trapped inside due to the nasty weather. Lord Byron entertained his visitors by reading aloud from Fantasmagoriana, along with other scary stories like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Christabel."

While Lord Byron captivated his audience with stories of ghosts and spirits, a dark storm outside created the perfect atmosphere. The spooky mood inspired the group to create their own versions of scary stories in a friendly competition. According to The Lady and Her Monsters, Lord Byron declared "We will each write our own ghost story."

The writers worked at their own pace, each struggling to get started on their story and being secretive with their ideas. Mary Shelley later said those summer nights were what started her famous novel, and named two stories from Fantasmagoriana that directly inspired Frankenstein: "The Family Portraits" and "History of the Inconstant Lover."

As Mary Shelley wrote in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein:

When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw -- with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, -- I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.

Polodori settled on expanding one of Lord Byron's discarded ideas. His story became The Vampyre, which is considered the first portrayal of the vampire as we know it today. The doctor would also claim that the writing sessions led to another story, Ernestus Berchtold, which was inspired by the rumors of Byron's affair with his half sister. Lord Byron, meanwhile, wrote "The Darkness," an apocalyptic tale of a world without any light.

Thanks to Archive.org you can read the English version of the anthology that inspired these classics for yourself. Maybe after reading, you'll be inspired to write your own scary stories to tell this Halloween.

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

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Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain
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The Time the Oxford English Dictionary Forgot a Word
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain

When the complete edition of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary debuted in 1928, it was lauded as a comprehensive collection of the English language, a glossary so vast—and so thorough—that no other reference book could ever exceed its detail or depth. In total, the project took seven decades to catalogue everything from A to Z, defining a total of 414,825 words. But in the eyes of its editor James Murray, the very first volume of the dictionary was something of an embarrassment: It was missing a word.

Looking back, it’s impressive that more words were not lost. Assembling the OED was a nightmare. Before the first volume—an installment consisting of words beginning with the letters A and B—was published in 1888, multiple editors had taken (and abandoned) the helm, and each regime change created new opportunities for mayhem. When James Murray took command in 1879, the Oxford English Dictionary could best be defined by the word disarray.

The irony of making this massive reference book was that it required millions upon millions of tiny, tiny pieces of paper. Every day, volunteers mailed in thousands of small strips of paper called “quotation slips.” On these slips, volunteers would copy a single sentence from a book, in hopes that this sentence could help illuminate a particular word’s meaning. (For example, the previous sentence might be a good example of the word illuminate. Volunteers would copy that sentence and mail it to Oxford’s editors, who would review it and compare the slip to others to highlight the word illuminate.)

The process helped Oxford’s editors study all of the shades of meaning expressed by a single word, but it was also tedious and messy. With thousands of slips pouring into the OED’s offices every day, things could often go wrong.

And they did.

Some papers were stuffed haphazardly into boxes or bags, where they gathered cobwebs and were forgotten. Words beginning with Pa went missing for 12 years, only to be recovered in County Cavan, Ireland, where somebody was using the papers as kindling. Slips for the letter G were nearly burned with somebody’s trash. In 1879, the entire letter H turned up in Italy. At one point, Murray opened a bag only to find a family of live mice chewing on the paperwork.

When Murray took over, he tried to right the ship. To better organize the project, he built a small building of corrugated iron called the “Scriptorium.” It resembled a sunken tool shed, but it was here—with the help of 1029 built-in pigeonholes—that Murray and his subeditors arranged, sorted, and filed more than a thousand incoming slips every day. Millions of quotations would pass through the Scriptorium, and hundreds of thousands of words would be neatly organized by Murray’s trusty team.

One word, however, slipped through the cracks.

Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Media Specialist, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Bondmaid is not the kind of word people drop during conversation anymore, and that’s for the best: It means “a slave girl.” The word was most popular in the 16th century. Murray’s file for bondmaid, however, reached back even further: It included quotations as old as William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the Bible.

But then bondmaid went missing. “Its slips had fallen down behind some books, and the editors had never noticed that it was gone,” writes Simon Winchester in The Meaning of Everything. When the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1888, bondmaid wasn’t there. (That volume of the OED does miss other words, but those exclusions were deliberate matters of editorial policy—bondmaid is the only word that the editors are known to have physically lost.)

When the slips were later rediscovered in the Scriptorium, Murray reportedly turned red with embarrassment. By 1901, some 14 years after the exclusion, he was still reeling over the mistake in a draft of a letter addressed to an anonymous contributor: “[N]ot one of the 30 people (at least) who saw the work at various stages between MS. and electrotyped pages noticed the omission. The phenomenon is absolutely inexplicable, and with our minute organization one would have said absolutely impossible; I hope also absolutely unparalleled.”

All was not lost for the lost word, however. In 1933, bondmaid made its Oxford dictionary debut. It had taken nearly five decades to make the correction.

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Rent an Incredible Harry Potter-Themed Apartment in the City Where the Series Was Born
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The Muggle city of Edinburgh has deep ties to the wizarding world of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling wrote much of the book series while living there, and there’s even a pub in Edinburgh that named itself after the author for a month. Now, fans passing through the Scottish capital have the chance to live like their favorite boy wizard. As Digital Spy reports, a Harry Potter-themed holiday home in the city’s historic district is now available to rent for around $200 (£150) a night.

Property owner Yue Gao used her own knowledge as a fan when decorating the apartment. With red and yellow accents, a four-poster bed, and floating candles adorning the wallpaper on the ceiling, the master bedroom pays tribute to both the Gryffindor dormitory and the Hogwarts Great Hall. The Hogwarts theme extends to the lounge area, where each door is painted with a different house’s colors and crest. Guests will also find design aspects inspired by the Hogwarts Express around the apartment: The second bedroom is designed to look like a sleeping car, and the front door is disguised as the brick wall at Platform 9 3/4.

Pieces of Harry Potter memorabilia Gao has picked up in her travels are hidden throughout the home, too. If visitors look closely, they’ll find several items that once belonged to Rowling herself, including the writer’s old desk.

Take a look at some of the photos of the magical interiors:

The apartment is available to rent throughout the year through canongateluxuryapartment.co.uk. And if you can tear yourself away from the residence for long enough, there are plenty of other Harry Potter-themed attractions to check out in Edinburgh during your stay.

[h/t Digital Spy]

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