According to Sylvia Shults, her passion for ghost stories started when she was 9 years old and summer vacations were spent in Wisconsin swapping spooky tales with her sister and cousins.
The excitement of those stories has lasted decades for the Chicago-born author who now resides in Pekin, just 10 minutes from the old Peoria State Hospital. It’s a convenient drive for the librarian of 25 years who has made a co-career of collecting and sharing stories from such reputedly haunted locations.
“I like to say I sit in dark, spooky places so you don’t have to,” the author admitted recently with a wide grin.
While it may seem an odd pastime for someone who grew up with a near-crippling fear of the dark, Shults didn’t set out to write true ghost stories. She started her writing journey in the romance and horror genres. It was only after a publisher asked her to write a book about Peoria State Hospital that she made the leap into paranormal nonfiction, where she has earned a devoted fanbase.
Earlier this year, readers and publishers alike voted to award Shults first place in the occult and paranormal nonfiction category of the BookFest Spring 2022 Book Awards. Her award-winning book was Days of the Dead: A Year of True Ghost Stories, which contains 366 unique tales, one for every day of the year.
“It is actually a full year of ghost stories,” said Shults. “I found one for Leap Day, which just thrilled me. Some of them are recurring hauntings and some of them are a particular murder that happened on such and such a date. So, I was able to find a ghost story for every single day of the year. It took me two years of research and 14 months of writing, but it’s done.”
Shults is constantly writing and researching, sometimes churning out multiple books in a year. Her award-winning Days of the Dead was published in September 2021 and her newest offering, Grave Deeds and Dead Plots, was released in August of this year. The new book showcases stories that hug what Shults calls the “vanishingly thin” line between true crime and paranormal stories.
While researching for her latest work, Shults found enough material for four or five more books. She already has plans to turn Grave Deeds and Dead Plots into a full series, but first she’s wrapping up an homage to those summer vacations years ago. Her next book will focus on sights seen at haunted zoos, museums and amusement parks.
Shults has long been an avid reader. Her father says she taught herself to read when she was 2. As she grew older, Shults poured over dark fairytales. That love of stories led her to graduate from Monmouth College with a history concentration, followed by a master’s degree in history from Illinois State University.
‘I LIKE TO SAY I SIT IN DARK,
SPOOKY PLACES SO YOU
DON’T HAVE TO’
— Sylvia Shults
She continues to put her reading and research skills to good use in her job at Fondulac Library in East Peoria, where she often finds herself taking advantage of the interlibrary loan program to gather ghost stories. Like any true storyteller, sharing the information she finds is the biggest thrill.
“I love collecting ghost stories. I consider myself more of a paranormal reporter than anything else,” she said. “There are investigators that go out and they get all technical about the phase the moon is in and what’s the temperature and if it’s raining or not … They take very careful notes about where the cameras are placed and everything. I like that. I respect it to the moon and back because I don’t do that. I collect stories and I share them with everybody.”
Along with her books, Shults shares ghost tales through a podcast called Lights Out with Sylvia Shults. She’s also in great demand as a public speaker and has been a guest on programs such as Ghost Hunters. Locally, Shults travels to libraries, historical societies, schools and private events to discuss ghost stories and historical cases like the Lizzie Borden trial.
Fans of Shults’s work know her lectures often include tales from the old Peoria State Hospital. Upcoming lecture attendees may also hear about historical oddities like the curse placed on Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. That story is from the first chapter of Grave Deeds and Dead Plots.
When the weather turns colder, the ghost stories don’t stop. While Shults is busiest in October, she also has a whole book of Christmas ghost stories called Spirits of Christmas.
“I was researching Days of the Dead, just starting to pay attention to the dates of things, and I realized that I was coming across quite a few stories that were happening in December. So, I thought, how cool would this be to do a Christmas-themed ghost story book?”
Shults’ favorites are the ghost stories and traditions of the Victorian era. With the rise of spiritualism, the people of that time were fascinated with the paranormal and occult.
“I love doing the presentation on Spirits of Christmas because I get to talk about the Victorians and … about the weird games that they used to play at their Christmas parties,” said Shults. “They had something called Snapdragon where instead of bobbing for apples like at Halloween, this was a dish of brandy with raisins in it. The brandy was set on fire and the game of Snapdragon was you reach into this flaming bowl of brandy and pick out a raisin, which is also on fire, and pop it into your mouth. I’m telling you, these were weird people.”
Meanwhile, Shults is always thankful for her readers and followers. “I’m really grateful that people are responding so well to Days of the Dead,” she said. “I’m really thrilled that I’ve gotten that first place recognition.”
You can find Sylvia Shults’ books and her lecture schedule at sylviashults.wordpress.com.