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Was It All a Dream

Last night we drove out to the suburbs to go to Fuddrucker's for some burgers. I'd never been to this suburb before, and the Fuddruckers there looked odd - it was shaped like a castle, with turrets and everything, and the parking lot was bizarre. The whole place was isolated, tucked away all by itself, near (but not in the parking lot of) a mini mall and next to a Union Pacific Railroad office. Until we made it right to the front door, we weren't even sure if the place was open. There were only a couple of employees visible, and most of the tables were vacant. 

But service was friendly, and the place featured the most magical pop machine ever - through a nifty touch screen, you could get all sorts of wonderful concoctions, like vanilla Barq's root bear, raspberry Sprite, cherry vanilla Coke, and peach Mellow Yellow. I had all of these things. Ronni had grape Hi-C. Only one spout, but endless options. 

By the time I got home, the castle-shaped Fuddruckers with the magic pop machine just seemed like one of those places you run into in dreams now and then. ALMOST real, but not REALLY real. Remembering the place is just like remembering a dream, except that it wasn't (if it HAD been a dream, they probably would have sold vintage Star Wars action figures of characters that never existed at unbelievable prices, like they do in most of the other odd places I find in dreams) (back in the early 90s I had a good two week run of finding such places in dreams and acquired such figures as a guy named Bespin Hespin, Grand Moff Tarkin (of whom there was not yet any such figure) and Lando in a "pin the tail on the donkey" outfit). 

I want to go back and try the bison burger with a strawberry mellow yellow. But I have a feeling we'll get there and find that it's a tire center now, and has been for years.

The Working Life

My favorite thing to do on tours is pull up alongside unsuspected cars and passers-by.  A giant black bus that says "ghost tours" on it is the single greatest instrument ever created for the purpose of messing with people. Sometimes I'll challenge cabbies or CTA busses to a race. Sometimes I'll ask people if they have any grey poupon (still funny after 20+ years!), and sometimes I'll ask if they want to follow us to the body dump.

Last night, outside of the alley the Trib once called "The Alley of Death and Mutilation," I saw a silver sheet containing a couple of pills on the ground. They looked like loratadine, but upon picking them up, I saw that they were anti-diarrhea medicine.


"Good news, everybody!" I shouted into the mic. "Look what I found!"

Later, as we pulled up to the traffic light at Halsted and Harrison, I opened the door next to a black vehicle. "Hi, guys!" I said.

The driver smiled. "I've been on your tour!" she said.

"Awesome!" I said. "You know where we're heading now?"

"Probably that house, huh?" she asked, meaning Hull House, which has been said to be haunted since at least the 1860s,

"Yep," I said. "Hey, you want some medicine I found on the street?"

I like my job. 


When I was a kid the fourth of July was just about the biggest day of the year. We'd go to my grandma's place in Windsor Heights to see the parade (or ride in it with bikes covered in streamers), then play in the carnival they set up in the park, swim in the community pool, and watch fireworks. Neighbors came and went. There was Pepsi. 

Nowadays it's still a fun day for me - folks in my neighborhood really do seem to enjoy blowing stuff up. Walk around the neighborhood and there's a fireworks display bigger and more impressive than we had in Windsor Heights going on in just about any given direction at any given time. It's really quite a sight to see.  It never feels like the big EVENT that it was when I was a kid, though.

Also, it is about 101 degrees out today, and that's not okay. I allow the city 1-2 weeks per year of miserable heat, and the same for the miserable cold. It's using up the heat awfully early in the year. 

Last night, according to the best of my records, I ran my 500th tour. It probably wasn't really my 500th, though. I didn't start keeping records until recently, and filled in the blacks of the last 7 years with old emails, LJ entries, etc. Still - 500+ tours. I have a new "e-single" for Llewellyn coming out in the fall about spending time at the site of the HH Holmes Murder Castle (which I think MAY be about to turn into a regular ghost hunting theme park, so I was lucky to get in when it was still pretty much virgin territory). I may have a couple more "singles" out through them ahead of my new GHOSTS OF CHICAGO book next year. Also, there'll be three other Chicago history-oriented books - one on the silent film biz here that I'm doing with Michael Glover Smith, one on "dead jerks," and one on crime. No news on any new novels coming out. 

A guy referred to me as "a terrible skeptic" on the radio last week. He meant it in a nice way, though, so I'm not complaining. I'd much rather be a terrible skeptic than a guy who believes anything and makes stuff up constantly. I always bend over backwards trying to at least get the history right - even though that gets me in trouble now and then. 

It's tough to be in the ghost biz - most intelligent people hear what you do for a living and immediately assume that you're either a jackass or a dumbass. And with good reason - the field is crowded with asses of all varieties. I try to keep a level, skeptical head about things, though I know that's not exactly good for business. In general, people don't want a guy who says "I can't explain this picture; maybe someone else can, but I sure can't." They want "This shadow is definitely a picture of a little girl who came back from the dead, crying to be remembered. This place is freaking haunted, bro." And they don't really seem to care if the history behind a story checks out or not.  I fit into this field about as well as I fit into the YA book scene these days.

But the work is fun, the historical research behind the ghost stories is endlessly fascinating to me, and I get to go inside of lots of nifty places. Also, I've managed to avoid having to do anything I'd find all that humiliating on TV so far. 

Sometimes I wish I felt that I was smart enough to get into politics. But every time I have CSPAN on and there's something happening in Congress, it's like an a.d.d. nightmare for me to imagine trying to sit still in that place. 

Started reading Vanity Fair by Thackeray last year and had to put it aside. Now I'm back at it. Very funny book! I like Thackeray's attitude. And I like that it's a "novel without a hero." Some of mine are like that. 

Ghost Bustin'

I can't talk about this TOO much yet, but on Tuesday I went into the basement of the post office that was built on the site of the  HH Holmes "Murder Castle" in Englewood with a History Channel crew. I had a recorder running mainly for my own reference, but I couldn't resist leaving it running in the old tunnel that is said to have been a part of the original castle (the end of it definitely goes into the original footprint).  And I got a recording as clear as any 'ghost" recording I've ever heard. I can't say too much yet - it's on a "need to hear" basis. I'm very rarely impressed with ghost evidence; I always tell people that "there's no such thing as GOOD ghost evidence, only COOL ghost evidence." The stuff I got down there was as cool as it gets.

I've been busy with ghost stuff all week. Monday and Tuesday I was filming Holmes stuff for the history channel, and the last two days I was out scouting locations for another one of the ghost shows that emailed me. Today I'm working up some "e single" stuff that'll eventually be used to promote the new ghost book I'm doing for Llewellyn. In between this, I'm doing six or seven tours this week. 

This is my career now, I guess. I still have some novels in the hopper, but the nonfiction projects seem to come into my hands much easier these days. Can one make a living in the ghost hunting field without coming off as either a jackass or a dumbass? We'll see!

Ghosty business

Doing a lot of tours lately - 5-8 a week. I love doing it. Every time I'm on the bus, telling stories, it's the only time my brain calms down from stressing about book stuff.  Most of the rest of the day I just drive myself nuts with it.

Starting some new book projects this week, though. For I am a glutton for punishment.

Ah, memories

Today I was crossing the street when I saw the person I was meeting up the block, going the other way. I turned around and ran to meet up with her. The guy in the car nearby laughed and said "Run, run, faggot!"  It took me back to high school. Ah, memories.

And last night I got a pretty good taste of what it would be like to run a ghost tour for the cast of Jersey Shore. The 7pm tour was great - one of those nice crowds where no one's obnoxious, no one seems dumb, and everyone's there to have a good time on the tour, not to shout "woooooo" out the windows or bug me to go to a bar. The 10pm tour, though, had a group of 21, of whom 19 seemed to think they had booked a private pub crawl and behaved accordingly. Lots of yelling, lots of threatening to leave bad reviews on Yelp if I didn't take them to some bars, etc. There were some good people in the group, but the rest of them ruined the tour for everybody. Very good thing there were no kids on that one.

It's sort of a personal weakness of mind that I have very little tolerance for people like this. I do not really consider douchebags to be my equals. When confronted with an aggressive, obnoxious drunk, my instinct is to want to grab their back of their head and slam it into the nearest blunt surface. Hard. Probably because it was guys like that who were always calling me a "faggot" in high school.

Today I gave an all-day private tour to a novelist from South Africa, and we managed to talk our way into the Fisher Building - one of the neatest skyscrapers downtown. Once offices, it's now condos, but the doors still have the frosted glass window with the names of whatever office used to be there on them. So someone's living in an apartment with a frosted-glass door that says "Thiel Detective Service" on it. Whoever has that place wins at life. I would spend all day in that place just sitting at my desk, dusting the debris off of my 38 and wondering where the next case was coming from. I'd call my wife a "dame" and talk about how long her legs were a lot. I'd be the coolest guy EVER.

It's called The Fisher Building. One of my favorites in the city already, but now I think it tops the list.

Take Me Out to the Graveyard

Man, I've been busy lately! Here's some of what I'm doing:

 - finishing up a book called "Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks from Chicago History"

 - Doing more podcasts - we did a new one for Chicago Unbelievable the other night, tromping around the abandoned graveyard once used by the old asylum (and where one of the jerks in the "jerks book" was dumped. It was really spooky! I'm now engaged in a new "Ghosts of Chicago" book (publisher TBA very soon), so I've been kicking up my ghost-busting schedule a notch. I never seem to FIND much on a ghost hunt, but I'm enough of a skeptic that I don't really expect to. I don't want to write about places I haven't been, though!  This old graveyard extended clear out to the grocery store parking lot nearby, and is estimated to be home to about 38k bodies, most of which are probably still there. Here's a pic from our trip there - they yellow streak is just a falling snowflake, but this is one creepy snowflake pic. 

In somewhat related news, there's a new Chicago Unbelievable ebook about "The Curse of HH Holmes." Rumors have gone around for years that everyone involved in the trial of Holmes (the "Devil in the White City" guy), died or came into misfortune after the trial. I thought that was probably just something pulp writers made up years later, but it really was a big story in papers in the years after the execution; papers identified about 30 victims (in addition to the guy who ratted him out, who was later shot to death in Chicago and buried in - you guessed it - the old asylum graveyard pictured above!) The mini ebook is only a buck. My next Holmes project is going to be reconstructing his 1895 trial (I'm about halfway done; it'll be a full-length legal thriller) and speaking at an event with his great great grandson at the end of the month.  I'm of the opinion that stories about the guy are greatly exaggerated (his estimated number of victims goes up by another hundred or two every Halloween), but researching him is one heck of a rabbit hole. 

Oh! And there's fiction news! My attempt to write all this ghosty-business into a funny middle grade book has finally resulted in a full manuscript, which my agent will be sending out soon. I also have a YA book about a rock and roll banshee out on submit at the moment that I hope someone really lets me have fun with - I want to make videos of the band and pretend it's a real thing and see if we fool anybody.

So, I'm keeping busy. I have 3-4 more books that I NEED to write this year, and I'm doing 4-5 ghost tours a week (and having a blast on them)


When Mrs. Kingfield's class is assigned to write a story, Brendan Butte is just joking around when he starts writing one about a kid who has to go to the bathroom really, really, badly, but the only one is on top of a ten story obstacle course. However, the story is so much fun to write that he just can't stop...... A short work from Adam Selzer (I Put a Spell On You, Random House 2008 and Andrew North Blows Up the World, Random House 2009, among others), THE OBSTACLE COURSE is a story for young readers about the joy of creative writing (in a way). Appropriate for all ages, includes an active table of contents.

New short ebook - only 99 cents!

Where Is Newt: Raw?

We weren't political at my house when I was a kid. When I asked my mother if we were Republicans or Democrats, she thought for a second, then said, "Well, we're registered Republicans" in a tone that made it clear that she wasn't that into being a Republican. They sure as heck aren't Republicans now.

My memories of politics in general are pretty vague. I remember seeing Reagan on TV when I was six or so. Someone was asking him if he was firing anyone, and he said "No, I'm not firing anybody!" in a cheerful voice. I thought he seemed like a nice guy.

I remember that in 1988, in the run up to the caucus, we went downtown one day when a million people were handing out buttons. My parents were for Jesse Jackson at the time. I was confused when my mom explained that he was quitting the race and wanted everyone to vote for Dukakis now. Wasn't that who he was running against? My parents were for Dukakis that year.

The whole time I was a kid, Terry Branstad was governor of Iowa. When he came out at a minor league baseball game and was roundly booed, I felt like I ought to join in, but my parents told me I should boo if I didn't know what I was booing about. Good advice.

Meanwhile, when he was up for re-election when I was in fourth grade, I heard a kid say "Branstad wants to tax the poor and let the rich get off." This may be the first moment I had an opinion about politics - I thought that sounded stupid. I didn't believe it, though. This guy was the governor, not the Sheriff of Nottingham. Who was going to say that we should tax the poor and let the rich get off?

I was still only vaguely aware of politics in the mid 1990s, still formulating opinions. My parents stepped back and let me. I remember a few occasions when I expressed some political opinion and they told me why some people thought differently (in a way that made me think THEY must have thought differently, though I now know they certainly didn't).

Even at 14, I only had a general idea of what the difference was between a liberal and a conservative. It was right around this time that Newt Gingrich went on a program called "Newt: Raw" on MTV. In this program, he discussed politics with a small cross-section of people (most, if not all, young) and the usual MTV news anchors. MTV could get serious when it wanted to. I had just moved to Georgia, just a district or two away from Newt's stomping grounds.

Over the course of the program, I seem to recall Newt noting that he was against both abortion AND welfare. This did not compute with me.

Further, he seemed to be in favor of corporal punishment in schools. I believe he said something along the lines of "in my day, it was just a given that if you got out of line, you'd get a whipping."

"Wow," I thought. "This guy is a jackass." If he was a conservative, I was a liberal. A few years later, when he was up for re-election, Gingrich nearly lost to a guy who sold cookies at the mall. Then he resigned in disgrace and I thought we were rid of him.

Maybe I'm remembering it wrong, but I'd like to see how a clip of him saying he was in favor of corporal punishment would play today. This would have been right around the time he advocated bringing orphanages back. Together with his recent notion of getting rid of child labor laws and I'm starting to get the notion that we don't need to argue against this guy - you just have to read Nicholas Nickleby.

Newt: Raw is not readily available online. I can't find it on youtube, I can't find a place to download it, and I don't see any torrents - just a handful of vintage newspaper articles.

Meanwhile, Newt has opened a headquarters in my old hometown of Urbandale. The GOP nearly shut down the government and defaulted on our debts in order to keep from taxing the rich. Branstad is governor again, and in a book of mine that Flux published last month, the characters have a plan to plant a pressed ham on the window of his mansion. That'll show 'im.
A discussion with the creative crew and cast of THE ADVENTURES OF PETE AND PETE. In the DVD commentary the creators mention that they wanted every episode to be "funny, sad, strange and beautiful," which has pretty much been my mantra ever since. I have those words framed on the wall above my desk, along with "ragged glory," another thing they mention in the commentary. I think I pretty well nailed it in the new "Extraordinary." If a big climax where they shout out the "St. Crispin's Day" speech from Henry V while rolling a Wells Fargo Wagon full of unicorn crap through the streets of Des Moines isn't funny, sad, strange and beautiful with a sense of ragged glory, I don't know what is.

See the video.

I particularly enjoy "Arty"'s story about the Des Moines Register. I remember "The Big Peach" well.

Meanwhile, I'm reading Vanity Fair by Thackery for the first time and enjoying it tremendously. Snarky good fun. There's a great quote along the lines of "Some there are, and very successful too, mere quacks and fools: and it was to combat and expose such as those, no doubt, that Laughter was made."

Aidan (my stepson) is in town for Thanksgiving. Last night when he arrived I asked where he wanted to eat, and he immediately said "Harold's Chicken Shack!" He picked a local joint over McDonald's! I've waited a long time for this day.

I don't think I've mentioned that we now have THREE cats - my other two were joined by Fi, Ronni's old cat from Columbus, who is now about 12 years old. It's now 3 against 2 most of the time, and they know it. I started giving them canned food daily about a year ago (it's easier for Crookshanks to digest), and now they won't leave me alone. All morning they climb all over me until I give them a can, then in the evening they start campaigning for a second one (despite the fact that they've never gotten one). Fi and Helena beg at the table during dinner, and as soon as we go to bed, Crookshanks will howl at the door until we let him in. Fi is probably the best-behaved of the lot; the worst he gets is the table-begging, and he's not as brazen as Helena (who will grab an empty chair and sit even get on the table if you step away for a second). Naughty, naughty cats.

I have two books out on submit right now, and a couple of approaching deadlines for nonfiction, but the huff and hiss of having two books out on the same day two weeks ago took a lot of the wind out of my sails. I'm having trouble getting motivated to work on anything new this week at all. This is one of those months where I feel like I'd be better off changing my name to Big Jake and becoming a truck driver instead of keeping up this career as a writer.

Still working on a series of Smart Aleck's Guides to Shakespeare, though. I was initially hoping to have guides to Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar out this month, but I'm not happy enough with them yet to put them out. They'll be e-book exclusives, but NOT exclusive to amazon. They're starting to pull a lot of dirty tricks in order to get authors to be "amazon exclusive," but I don't like them enough to do that. I'd like to see indie stores do a better job of getting into the ebook world than just aligning indiebound with google books. I avoid even linking my "traditional" books to amazon anymore. Some of the new "Smart Aleck's Guide" series may come out via traditional publishers, but I feel like authors who aren't trying to establish a niche in the ebook world right now (especially us midlisters whose books aren't at Target) aren't thinking ahead.

I might even put out a novel as an e-book exclusive. My "Satanic YA" novel is a good candidate there - I can't really imagine any publisher putting that one out and marketing it properly. They'd all make REALLY sure that none of the title/marketing mentioned the "great for kids who worship the devil" angle in order to get it into Barnes and Noble, and then when Barnes and Noble didn't carry it anyway, I'd feel like I watered it down for nothing. Kinda like how Obama bent over backwards using bits from old GOP health care plans to make his plan acceptable to them, but still didn't get any of their votes. I really wish the two new books had been titled "Fairy Godmofo" and "Debbie Does Detention," the original titles, instead of "Extraordinary" and "Sparks," but those titles were both non-starters with sales and marketing. I can't help but wonder if they'd have an easier time finding their niche with the originals. Same goes for "I Kissed a Zombie and I Liked It," which I wanted to call "Dead Guys Have No Reason to Live." The title they used got us a lot of attention, but I'm not sure it was all the right KIND of attention for the book. One benefit of e-publishing is you get more say in who you market to.

Being back in the ghost tour world has been fun - it's also pushed me headlong into research again. Yesterday on Chicago Unbelievable I posted the long-lost Philadelphia North American article that was the source of several famous H.H. Holmes quotes (which I think that paper probably invented).