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'Michigan Chillers' author on what makes a Northern Michigan Halloween

Johnathan Rand plays with his dog Brody and "Polly the Poisonous Plastic Python" inside Chillermania.
Johnathan Rand
Johnathan Rand plays with his dog Brody and "Polly the Poisonous Plastic Python" inside Chillermania.

Tonight is Johnathan Rand's favorite time of year.

He's the author of Michigan Chillers, a children's horror book series that swept the shelves of elementary school libraries all over the state in the early 2000s. After finding success as a self-published author, Rand expanded his trademark, alliteration-heavy titles to the "American Chillers" series.

The series is nearly complete with only five states left to go.

Rand (that's his pen name; his real name is Christopher Wright), still lives in Northern Michigan, just south of Cheboygan. His personal bookstore and workspace, "Chillermania," is open throughout the year.

It's filled floor-to-ceiling with Rand's work, horror memorabilia and a few practical joke hidden about. He spoke to IPR's Michael Livingston.

LIVINGSTON: What excites you most about tonight? Do you have any Halloween traditions you'll be celebrating?

RAND: It's funny because with the nature of what I write, it's almost like Halloween is every day for me. So, I don't necessarily have you know too many traditions for Halloween. I'm always reading spooky, scary books but I don't really have too much in the way of spooktacular traditions or anything like that.

What's the recipe for telling a good scary story? I imagine it's as much about the delivery as the content?

Yeah, it is. I try to take into consideration where I might be. If you're outside, if you're around a campfire, and it's dark, that really sets the stage. Consider the audience as well. Stories for teenagers might be a little too intense for somebody that's seven years old. But the bottom line is, I think kids like to be frightened. They like that spooky, scary ghost story. So I try to create an element of suspense, an element of surprise, a meaningful ending that they can take away.

What were some of the scary spots in Grayling where you grew up?

I was afraid more of skunks than anything. But I remember one time in particular ... there was a movie based on a book that came out in the 70s. It was called "Food of the Gods" and it was based on the old HG Wells book about forest creatures; caterpillars, bees, rats. They ate this food that turned them into these gigantic creatures.

Well, I went to see that show and I was going to do some night fly fishing. I was out and in the middle of the stream, I looked up river, and in the moonlight I saw these gigantic wings coming right at me. And I think that was probably one of the scariest things. ... It turned out to be a blue heron that flew right over top of me. I had a lot of things like that happen throughout growing up in a grazing area.

Now that you're an adult, are there places in Northern Michigan that still scare you?

There's an old house ... toward Traverse City that I actually took a picture of and used for the cover of a book years ago. I love seeing the old places because it just leads the mind to wander. You think, 'I wonder what's the story behind that.' There's a lot of old cemeteries and just a walk in the woods with the leaves falling [is scary].

Early this morning I was outside, and there were two horned owls communicating with each other - and it was the coolest. Those moments that are so memorable and just have always stuck with me.

What were some of the challenges that came with self-publishing 'Michigan Chillers?'

I was really ignorant of the publishing industry, and how things and how things really worked. But I had this idea and I really thought I could make it work. The challenge for me was getting the books into bookstores, where they would actually be seen.

I thought, 'people come to Northern Michigan and they don't necessarily go to book stores but they do need to eat, sleep and put gas in their cars.' So my wife and I went around to as many restaurants, gas stations and hotels, and put these books in as many as we could. And that really worked because kids would pick them up, or parents would get these books for their kids and then they'd take them back down state.

What's unique about a Northern Michigan Halloween that you can't find downstate?

It's almost like like "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day." You get these these incredible colors, the leaves blowing through the air. Today is absolutely perfect for Halloween. You look out, there's leaves falling off the trees and it's got that aura of mystique.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.