Interview with Sylvia Shults, Author of Ghosts of the Illinois River

Sylvia Shults is a ghost story addict. She loves them so much she’s written quite a few of her own. She also writes horror fiction and romance, and is the first to admit that there’s a very fine line separating the two. When not behind a keyboard, she can be found out in her garden, wandering the woods, riding her Ducati Monster motorcycle, or happily lost in a book. She lives in Pekin with her husband, two furry German shepherd daughters, two rotten cats, and far too many books.

As an accomplished author with several book credits under your belt, what appeals to you about the paranormal and why? What was the first story you wrote with that theme?

I have always been a complete sucker for a good ghost story. I mean ALWAYS, back to when I was a little kid. I’ll devour anything with the word “ghost” or “haunted” in the title. Why? I think it’s a combination of things. There’s the history aspect. I’m fascinated by the stories of people that lived in this world before we did. It’s basically the same place, but some things have changed so much. And of course, there’s the whole afterlife thing. What happens to US, to our souls, after this body ceases to function? Do we hang around, just to see what happens next? Do we hang out just to scare the living, just for funsies?

I think what appeals to me most about ghost stories is the incredible range of the darn things. There are stories of revenge from beyond the grave, stories of ghosts seeking help with unfinished business, spirits watching over loved ones, even ghostly animals. I never, ever, ever get tired of hearing ghost stories!

The first story I personally wrote with ghosts in it would have been either “Al’s Night Out”, about Al Capone coming back for a night on the town, or “The Song Remains”, about a dead rock star who haunts his band mate. I disremember which of those I wrote first. Both stories can be found in my collection of horror short stories, The Dark at the Heart of the Diamond, which will be released by Dark Continents Publishing on August 15th, 2012.

What was your favorite tale from your book Ghosts of the Illinois River? What has been your reader’s favorite?

I’m very fond of “A Close Call”, which is about Abraham Lincoln meeting up with a wendigo (a Native American spirit monster) on his trip down the Illinois River, heading for New Orleans. My favorite story when it was happening to me is “Ghosts Are People Too”, that tells of the time I’ve spent with Norman, the resident ghost at the Peoria Players Theater. But my favorite story to read is “A Dog Named Tige”. I always get choked up when I read that one out loud. Never fails. The audience seems to like it too.

The story a lot of people comment on, from Ghosts of the Illinois River, is later on in the book, a historical story about the phantom of Diamond Island. I learned a very interesting technique from Stephen King. It’s an incredibly subtle technique, and I’m not sure anyone other than a fellow writer really picked up on it. In his book Under the Dome, there are a few chapters where he writes in present tense instead of past tense. There’s a mob scene, people gather, accusations are thrown, and the scene erupts into violence. The use of the present tense makes things very immediate and very suspenseful. I read Under the Dome while I was writing Ghosts of the Illinois River, and I chose to tell that story using this technique. It’s such a weird, creepy story all on its own, and using the present tense just ramps up the creep factor. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “That story really weirded me out, and I don’t know why!” I tell them, “Here’s why. There is actually a reason for it.” I’m not sure that makes it people’s favorite, but it certainly makes it memorable. Which is just fine!

Tell us about your new book The Taming of the Werewolf. What inspired you to recreate this Shakespearean tale?

I do have to give credit for the idea for The Taming of the Werewolf to my husband, Rob. He was taking a Shakespeare class at about the same time I was getting the urge to write a mashup. I toyed with the idea of doing a zombie story, maybe The Swiss Family Robinson with zombies, where they get marooned in a mall or something, but the idea just wasn’t gelling for me. Then Rob suggested The Taming of the Shrew, but making Katharina into a werewolf instead of simply a misunderstood woman. That idea jumped out at me, grabbed me by the throat, started shaking, and wouldn’t let me go! That entire book, from “aha” moment to final draft, took me six weeks to write. And it was BUNCHES of fun!

You are currently working on a new book about a famous haunted place along the Illinois River: Peoria State Hospital. How did you become interested in the old asylum and why?

Again, it was Rob who introduced me to the Peoria State Hospital. He grew up around this area, while I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. I had cut my teeth on stories about Resurrection Mary and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, but I had never heard of the Peoria State Hospital. One night, when we had been dating for about two years, we were out driving around in my car, and he said, “How’s your car running? Pretty well?” I said, yeah, it did all right. Then he explained that where he was thinking of driving, the buildings tended to mess with cars that weren’t in tip-top mechanical condition. I wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not, but I most certainly was intrigued. (Much later, when I started to do the research for the book, other people mentioned that the hospital seemed to cause car failure. So it wasn’t just Rob making up stories to fool with his gullible girlfriend.)

Fast forward a few years, to October 2008, when the Bowen Building was still open for tours. Some friends and I went to the building and sprung for one of the evening tours. That was my first experience ghost-hunting, and it’s described in Ghosts of the Illinois River. Even then, I didn’t really realize what an incredible resource I had, just across the river and a ten-minute drive from my own house. It wasn’t until a bookstore manager suggested that I write a book collecting people’s weird experiences at the asylum, that I really began to research the place. The stories, yes, the stories are amazing. But that place — that place is amazing too. It has a hold on people, a fascination that just won’t let go. And now I’m under its spell too, I’ll admit it. I hope to share that wonder and terror with readers when Fractured Spirits: Hauntings at the Peoria State Hospital comes out.

I have to ask, what is the strangest food you have ever eaten, and why don’t you like the color orange?

You’ve been poking around my website! (grins) When I was a kid, my mom would fix all KINDS of weird food. Most of it was edible, although I adamantly refused to eat stuff like Hubbard squash and moussaka, which is made with eggplant and which my sister and I uncharitably referred to as “moose-caca”. But my mom’s cooking did allow me to brag at school the next day that I had eaten shark for supper the night before. (I still love shark.)

Nowadays, I’m a grownup and can eat whatever the hell I want. One of my hobbies is hunting, and another is wild-food foraging, so these days I dine (by choice!) on things like pickled venison heart and raccoon slow-cooked in red wine. I’m also extremely fond of stinging nettles. Whiz them in a food processor, mix them up with some breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese and a couple of eggs to bind it all together, make little sausages out of the mixture and fry them up in butter … heaven. Also, you haven’t lived until you’ve had homemade elderberry wine. Just sayin’.

Oh, and I have no particular reason to be prejudiced against the color orange. It’s just fine when it’s on a pumpkin. Anywhere else, it’s just … I dunno … meh. I much prefer purple.

Do you have any upcoming events? Where can our readers go to find out more information about you and your books?

I’ll be at a couple of book signings in the Peoria area in the next few months. I’ll be at the main branch of the Peoria Public Library on Saturday May 19th, from 1 pm to 4 pm. I’ll also be at Duryea Days in Peoria Heights, on Saturday June 23rd. Then the next weekend, the last weekend in June, I’ll be headed down to FandomFest in Louisville KY. Road trip!

My website is, or you can visit for more spooky goodness. I can also be found at several places on Facebook: the Ghosts of the Illinois River fanpage, Darkheart (for my horror fiction), or Sparkleheart (for my romance fiction). If you decide to visit, please stop by and say hi!

Sorry guys, this page is copyright Black Oak Media, 2012. You do not have permission to copy this for any reason. Please learn how to cite your work.


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