Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Literature of the Ouija Board

good bye
Picture by Jessie Terwilliger

I've been having a grand time reading Paul Collins's wonderful book Sixpence House (which I will discuss in an upcoming post).  Today I want to share a story he tells about Patience Worth.  "Her name is forgotten today," Collins begins, "but at one time she--or her spirit, at least--was very famous indeed."

In the early years of the 20th century, Caspar Yost claimed that he had discovered "a new poet and novelist; or rather, ... a very old poet an novelist."  Using a Ouija board, Pearl Curran--a St. Louis housewife--communicated with the spirit of Patience Worth, a Puritan woman who, as Collins writes, soon became "a veritable Oprah's Book Club in spirit form."

During the 1920s, a whole Patience Worth industry arose.  Worth authored a series of novels and poems, all written via Ouija board, and all of which were extremely popular.  As Collins writes, "People believed it--even, amazingly, after Patience Worth wrote a Victorian family melodrama.  Considering that neither Victorians nor novels had existed in Worth's day, this was an impressive achievement indeed."

I love Collins's snappy sarcasm--but his telling of this strange story is also full of insight.  He points out that Worth's popularity emphasizes how much we want to believe that "all writers are somehow vessels for Truth and Beauty when they compose."  He compares this to our desire to imagine characters who develop their own will and "take over a book."  But as Collins points out, "The reality tends to involve a spare room, a pirated copy of MS Word, and a table bought on sale at Target.  A character can no more take over your novel than an eggplant and a jar of cumin can take over your kitchen."

Singer in the Shadows: The Strange Story of Patience WorthI am thrilled to find that there is an entire book about the Patience Worth story, written by Irving Litvag: Singer in the Shadows: The Strange Story of Patience Worth.  I think this must go on my Halloween reading list.  This definitely gives a whole new meaning to the genre of "spiritual" writing!


  1. Smithsonian magazine had a feature story about Pearl Curran/Patience Worth last year:

  2. Thanks, Penny! Off to go check it out.

  3. Sounds interesting! Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I may try to get my book club to read this as our October (Halloween) selection this year.

    I've heard of the story of Patience Worth, but it's been a long time ago. It may have been in one of those cheesy "Stange Stories" paperback books of Frank Edwards - munfriends and I ate that stuff up for a while back in our formative years....

  4. Biblio: What fun to read it with a group! Maybe you could bring in a Ouija board to the club and see if you can make contact with the spirit of a critic?

    The book has good reviews on Amazon and I am looking forward to reading it, but I'm making no promises for it...

    Frank Edwards is new to me. Sounds like fun.

  5. I liked Banvard's Folly, so I am going to have to check out Sixpence House. I love these literary curiosities.

  6. I loved Sixpence House too, and this part very much intrigued me! Although ouija boards give me the creeps and I won't go near one without a ten foot pole, I'll happily read about them. Putting Singer in the Shadows on my list! (Have you read Will Storr vs the Supernatural? A great journalistic nonfic/memoir Halloween read.)

  7. I am not going to speak against this book, because I haven't read it, but more generally, your comments remind me of something that has frustrated me in things I've read about religious/spiritual thought of the last century: that we tend to write about it forma present perspective, which makes it very easy to laugh at people who thought things we now consider defunct. I don't mean this grouchily, or angrily, more just that I would really like to understand how it FELT to be in that time, not a description of how wrong they all were back then, you know? What kind of woman must she have been? IS it possible that she really BELIEVED she was channeling this spirit? I think that tells usmore about writers, in some sense, than looking back from an anachronistic world view, if that makes sense?


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