A native of Illinois, William Gorman is an author and ghost-lore historian whose horror yarns and ghostly stories have appeared in Severed Tales, Nightside, The Sterling Web, Nightmares, and The Rockford Review. And also in Ghost Whispers: Tales from Haunted Midway, a collection comprised of spooky legends and lore from his hometown. His first novel will be published in 2016.
Please tell our readers a little about yourself. Were you born and raised in the Rockford, Illinois area? How did you become interested in collecting folklore and ghost stories from the region?
Yes, I was born and raised in Rockford. Living in Ohio now. When I was a kid in the 1960s, my grandfather really got me fascinated with all things dark and macabre. He was a stage magician and a ‘mentalist’ in the golden days of vaudeville, so he had a lot of great stories to share… like the time he met Houdini and things like that. Plus he subscribed to FATE magazine back then, which meant there were plenty of ghost stories and unexplained supernatural chronicles lying around the house to be read. It created the perfect breeding ground of sorts, and it all ended up having a life-changing impact on me.
I also remember he had various clippings he’d cut out and saved over the years, from local newspapers and periodicals, all having to do with spirit sightings and haunted house lore from the Rockford vicinity and across northern Illinois. I eventually inherited the folder of clippings, and as I grew older I just began adding my own snippets to the collection as I found them. That folder would later become the central core of Ghost Whispers with stories like “Emma” and “The Drowning of Nellie Dunton”.
What is your favorite story from Ghost Whispers: Tales from Haunted Midway, and why? How did you research the tales?
I think my favorite story from GW is “The Swimming Hole”. I had put out an ad looking for personal paranormal experiences from people, but no one was answering. Then a co-worker walked up and sat down beside me at one of the city’s big hospitals where we worked together, and she said, “I hear you’re looking for true ghost stories.” Over the next half-hour she proceeded to tell me this amazing tale — almost word for word the way it’s written in the book — while I scribbled furiously in my notepad. It must have all been cathartic for her, and it turned out to be a very emotional recounting for both of us when she was finished.
I also really like “Kinderhook’s Haunted Farmhouse” because it’s so creepy. The idea of the townsfolk walking out into those dark cornrows after midnight with nothing but their flickering lanterns, then hearing the awful moaning sounds coming from the abandoned farmhouse. And seeing misty faces peering out the pitch-black windows at them….faces with gaping mouths and lifeless ‘grapeskin’ eyes? It gave me chills while I was writing it and it still gives me chills today every time I reread the damn thing!
Researching everything meant a lot of endless hours in the library’s Local History & Geneology Room. A whole lot of hours. I practically lived there for many months while working on the book. I already had the newspaper clippings, of course, but certain things still had to be unearthed and verified: places and names and more places, exact dates. There were no earlier books for me to follow so I was in uncharted territory basically, breaking new ground as I went. Spent a lot of time in a lot of different area cemeteries, too.
The stories in Ghost Whispers are written in a traditional narrative form, interwoven with personal experience, as opposed to the more typical “haunted travel guide” style. Why did you choose this writing style in particular?
I’ve always preferred the traditional narrative form, I suppose. It’s like telling someone a secret, almost, like whispering it to them before a fire with all the doors bolted and the lights out. When I started actually writing the stories down in 2000 or 2001, working from my notes and clippings and those personal accounts I’d collected, I used to bounce them off a friend named James Simmons, who was then the editorial director at Southern Illinois University Press. I would finish a tale and send it to him for his advice, and he’d write back and say: “Scratch that! It reads like a travel brochure you find in any roadside gas station. Start over!”
Well, after a few more times he wrote and said, “That’s it….right there. You finally found your ‘voice’, and it’s a voice the reader will always trust. Tell everything in that voice from now on.” So I did. And most people agree this narrative style brings a closeness between the author and reader which otherwise might not be there. Mr. Simmons had Ghost Whispers under consideration for publishing by the SIU Press, but unfortunately he suffered a stroke and stepped down from the editorial board before I could complete the collection.
Until you published Ghost Whispers in 2005, there were few (if any) books on ghost stories in northern Illinois outside of Chicago. How did your readers react to Ghost Whispers? Were there any stories that generated controversy?
Yes, there weren’t any at all really. I remember several books on Chicago hauntings, and there was a thin compilation of mostly articles called Ghosts of Galena. But that was about it. I remember thinking about Midway, though, the name first given to Rockford when it was founded because it lay roughly ‘midway the distance between Chicago and Galena’ — and I decided our stories needed to be told as well. I dug out my folder of clippings, dusted it off and began formatting a table of contents to go by, then I put out the call for local residents to send me their own spirit encounters, so I could intersperse those stories among the well-documented ones.
When GW finally came out in 2005 it caused a bit of a stir. A lot of people asking what? Who? Where can I get that? Copies disappeared quick from Borders and Barnes & Noble, even the old Media Play on East State Street. I remember sneaking in there and doing what Neil Gaiman calls a ‘stealth signing’….autographing all my books and then trying to get out again before anyone starts asking questions. It was a fun time, what with the book popping up in the newspapers and on local television. No controversy that I can recall, but I did submit one of the stories once to be read on the air by late-night radio show host Art Bell when he still had his Coast to Coast AM program.
The story was “The Terrible Legacy of Marah Penfield” and it got chosen, so Art read it aloud over the airwaves on Halloween night. A few of his listeners called in later and commented on how it was one of the most horrific things they had ever heard! One day the Rockford Public Library contacted me to say they wanted to organize some haunted bus tours and walking tours based around my collection of lore, so that was pretty exciting. Today the tours are quite popular, and I’m proud to know I had a big role in jump-starting things in that direction; getting a city the size of Rockford on the map, so to speak, paranormal-wise. A librarian once told me that Ghost Whispers was one of the most stolen books from the public library system — you know, kids checking it out and never returning it, presumably using it as a guide to go in search of the places I wrote about — so I take that as a great compliment also. I think.
Please tell our readers about your upcoming supernatural suspense thriller, due out in 2016.
It is titled Blackwater Val, and it’s my first novel. The story is set in Illinois, in a fictitious small town which sits atop a series of disregarded, paved-over plague pits: cholera pits containing forsaken victims from back when the village was first founded, and malaria pits — what was once known as ‘blackwater fever’ by the old-timers. A recently widowed father of one returns to this town with his dead wife’s ashes to scatter and with his psychic daughter accompanying him. What they find there, the unspeakable terror of it, shakes the world they know to its foundations. The book has plenty of mystery and suspense going on, some dark mythology, even a little local history thrown in.
There’s a reclusive witch who haunts the landscape, and a malignant fallen angel that has come in the guise of savior. And naturally, there are the lingering spirits of the plague-pit dead. It’s a story about damnation and transcendence really. The choices we make or don’t make in life, doing the right thing. Making one final stand….even when all seems lost. And about the profound effect the dead can have upon the living. The novel is due out in March of 2016 from award-winning Crystal Lake Publishing, who has described it as being reminiscent of early Stephen King or Robert R. McCammon. I don’t know about that, but the entire thing is a real thrill for me at this point.
How can our readers stay in touch with you if they would like to know more about your writing and upcoming releases?
They can find me at http://williamgorman.weebly.com/ for right now. The site will have links to my Amazon page and to Crystal Lake, and I’ll be upgrading and adding to it as the publication date draws nearer.
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