In October 2015, I went on an Austin ghost tour with some fellow members of the local chapter of SCBWI. We met at the Omni Hotel, then strolled around downtown, visiting the Driskill and the Texas State Capitol and other buildings with haunted histories while our guide, Monica Ballard, regaled us with stories of sinister secrets, ghastly murders, and eerie experiences.
I love the night and especially love walking around my favorite places at night, seeing them by moonlight and learning their shadows. I would’ve had a good time exploring Austin in the dark regardless of what the topic was. But add ghost stories to a late-night stroll, and I’m in my happy place. I enjoyed myself so much that, when the tour ended, I bought a copy of Haunted Austin: History and Hauntings in the Capitol City by Jeanine Plumer to read more about Austin’s ghosts. I took the book home and gobbled up all the good stories inside.
I had no idea on that night back in 2015 that six years later I would be adapting Plumer’s book for middle grade readers.
In 2020, I wrote my first book in the Spooky America series from Arcadia Publishing: The Ghostly Tales of New England. I was excited about the chance to adapt one of the Haunted America books for young readers and loved learning more about New England, an area of the country I’ve visited a few times and whose history and scenery I love. But I really wished I could write about some ghosts closer to home, so when the opportunity came along to write the haunted history of my own town, I was thrilled. The Ghostly Tales of Austin comes out on Monday, and I can’t wait to share the spooky side of my city with young readers.
I put a lot of heart into this book and learned a lot about Austin along the way. Did you know that Austin suffered a devastating flood in 1900? Or that a ghost wagon haunts Westlake? Some of the stories in this book are not for the faint of heart. For instance, I suggest you don’t read Chapter 2 about Josiah Wilbarger while you’re eating. But if you’re going to the Capitol anytime soon, you should definitely read Chapter 9 before you arrive, so can be on the lookout for the ghost of Colonel Love. And I highly recommend visiting Mount Bonnell while in Austin, but you might want to leave before sunset if you don’t want to experience anything unsettling.
I have fond memories of that ghost tour back in 2015, and I’m proud to now have a part to play in passing down the spooky history of a city that I love. Austin’s ghosts await. If you’re willing to meet them, pick up a copy of The Ghostly Tales of Austin!
If you want an unsigned copy of the book, you can order it from Amazon or, better yet, from BookPeople, Austin’s own one-of-a-kind local bookstore. But if you would like a signed copy, you can order directly from me for $12. Send me a message via my contact page with your name, address, and what you want written in the book (either just a signature or a dedication). I’ll let you know how to send payment, then I’ll get to the post office ASAP, and you’ll have a personalized copy of The Ghostly Tales of Austin before you can say poltergeist three times*!
*Just to be on the safe side, I do not actually recommend saying poltergeist three times.
I recently became a member of Uncommon, a young online community that calls itself “a front porch for the internet.” In creating my Uncommon profile, I was asked to write about some of my favorite things. The first one that came to mind was Halloween. This is what I wrote:
I was born on Halloween. Long before I arrived, my family celebrated this holiday with gusto—costumes, pumpkins, and scares for all ages. As a kid, my birthday parties were always held at home, at our house with its acre-sized backyard full of old sheds and forts and other good places to haunt. When night fell, the costumed party guests had to follow the trail of jack-o-lanterns through the backyard, reading creepy notes and encountering masked ghouls and terrifying traps at every turn. This was my favorite time of the year. After a hiatus when there were no appropriately-aged children in the family, we started the Halloween parties up again, though now I am on the other side of the horror. I set the traps. I wear the masks. I write the notes that lead the new generation of victims down the trail of jack-o-lanterns. I haunt my childhood home with pride. It’s still my favorite time of year.
Despite the fact that I’ve eaten way too much sugar this week, Halloween for me as never been about the candy. And although I like horror movies and ghost stories, it’s not really about those either. What makes this holiday special is the way my family celebrates it.
For me, Halloween is opening up cobwebby crates and breathing in the musty smell of ghosts that haven’t seen the light of day in a year. It’s watching my dad pose a dummy with careful precision, adjusting the gloves and boots just so. It’s listening to my brother brainstorm outlandish schemes for scaring his children. (Don’t worry, they’re fine.) It’s watching my mom hang “the witch’s laundry” on the clothesline and hearing my three-year-old niece quote Bram Stoker. “Beware! The dead travel fast!” (Yes, she really does this.) Halloween is running around the backyard at night with my cousin, wondering why it still creeps us out even though we know who the monsters are. It’s seeing my aunt’s costume for the first time. She never tells us what she’s going to be and it’s always something awesome. Halloween means smiling at my husband as he shakes his head at the rest of us. Sometimes I think he must feel like he married into the Addams Family.
It’s looking out into the dark and seeing the glow of a jack-o-lantern face. It’s pointing my flashlight at a homemade tombstone and saying, “Uh-oh… this one’s for you.” It’s removing our masks at the end of the party and all talking at once, each and every monster and victim sharing his or her story and battle scars.
Halloween, to me, means screams and laughter in equal measure.
October is drawing to a close. My family celebrated early this year, and the party was another one for the record books. Everyone survived despite what their tombstones said. Tomorrow is Halloween, and I’ll be at home, handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, scaring them with my fake spiders and bubble wrap, and hoping that they’re having at least a fraction of the fun I had when I was their age.
Happy Halloween, everyone! And thanks for celebrating with me all month. If you missed any of my October posts, you can catch up here:
Next month I’ll be taking a bit of a break from blogging. I’m sure I won’t be completely silent, but it’s time I buckle down and get some serious work done. When it comes to real fear, ghosts and goblins have got nothing on deadlines and word counts. I’ll miss you though! And I promise to be back soon.
Not enough bats in your belfry? Too much eye of newt in your witch’s brew? Ghosts hanging a little limp? Clowns refusing to cooperate? Have no fear! Er… wait. Scratch that. Have MORE fear! Master your Halloween decor with these tips.
6. Heads Will Roll! (That’s Why You Have to Weigh Them Down.)
It’s always a little embarrassing when your neighbor comes over after a windy day, hands you a skull, and says, “Um, I think this might be yours.” Then you’re all like, “Alas! I mean, thanks. I was looking for that.” These days, people are doing amazing things with Styrofoam, which means we no longer have to rob cemeteries or steal from medical schools to have realistic-looking Halloween decorations. But while plastic and Styrofoam look like the real thing, they do not carry the heft of a real human head, making them easy playthings for the wind. Therefore, you have to find a way to make them stay put. Following this simple advice will help keep you from losing your head this Halloween.
Options: Hollow plastic skulls are easy to weigh down with gravel or a few golf ball sized rocks. If there’s no hole in the skull, just make one, either on the bottom, if you want to be discrete, or on the top if you want to secure it to the ground and give it a gruesome cause of death. Styrofoam skulls can be stuck to the ground with a stake or a piece of a wire clothes hanger. Then again, they don’t actually have to sit on the ground at all. This year, I have a levitating skull that bobbles at the end of a wire hanger two feet above my graveyard.
[Note: It’s not just skulls that get away from us. The wind can wreak havoc with all kinds of decorations. Don’t be afraid to get tough on those tangled spider webs and flapping phantoms. Unruly poltergeist? Fix that ghost to a post! Fool climbing onto your roof? Tie that clown down! Show those ghouls who’s boss.]
7. The Materials Are Coming from Inside the House!
Trying to get a decoration to work? Before you run to the store for supplies, look around your house. You may find everything you need to make that ghost or goblin come alive. Here are some normal household items that come in handy when spookifying your yard:
Wire Clothes Hangers: I’ve already mentioned the benefits of pieces of wire for securing skulls, but they can also be useful whole. Those bats in the photo above are all attached to one wire hanger which was then easily draped over a small tree branch. Can’t see it in the photo, can you? You also can’t see it in real life. It blends right in with the tree much better than even twine does and now there are no knots to untie or strings to cut. I did the same thing with four small ghosts, hung at varying heights on one hanger, and they came out pretty good too.
Shepherd Hooks: These garden tools are perfect for hanging lanterns or creepy signs or ghosts. Like the hangers, they pretty much disappear at night. This year, I used one of mine to hang a skeleton, who sways flirtatiously just above the grass, and display a lightweight haunt who appears to be swooping forward. For other months, these hooks are also easy to turn into candy canes by wrapping them with red and white lights.
Bed Sheets: This may sound unoriginal, but old bedsheets really do make good ghosts. For my ghost this year, I used a sheet draped over a $1 green plastic pumpkin, with holes cut out of it so that the eyes show through. I also weighed down the plastic pumpkin with a few rocks to keep it from flapping around too much.
Other Useful Items to Keep in Your Decorating Box:
Large safety pins
Black spray paint
8. See the Terror, Hear the Terror, FEEL the Terror!
[Note: Readers who live in my neighborhood, why don’t you just go ahead and skip this tip. That’s it. Move right along to number 9. Nothing to see here. Or hear here, or feel here…]
All too often, our Halloween decorations are focused only on sight, but, as with any creative endeavor, we should really be trying to appeal to as many senses as possible. If a trick-or-treater can simply close her eyes to avoid the horrors of your house, then it isn’t as horrible as it could be.
Sound: There are lots of store-bought Halloween decorations that make sounds, usually either ear-piercing screams or creepy sayings delivered from a mouth whose movements don’t quite match the words. But if you want something a little different, that costs next to nothing and doesn’t require batteries, I’ll let you in on a pretty genius little idea I had. [Neighbors! I told you to skip this tip! Shoo! Shoo!] Ok, here it is. Get the biggest bubble wrap you can find. If you’re like us, you won’t even need to buy any. You can just go into your garage and pull it out of all the Amazon boxes that you’ve been meaning to recycle all year. Then lay a big piece of it on your sidewalk or front porch and put a thin rug on top of it. Not a doormat– that’s too heavy. Just a little throw rug. When the little monsters get close to your door, POW! POW! It’s great to watch them jump. The only problem is that some of them figure it out and start jumping up and down to pop them all. But that’s ok. Just have more sheets on standby and switch them out between groups of trick-or-treaters.
Touch: This one’s great because it gets the parents. [Neighbors, for the last time, GO AWAY! Stick around any longer and I’ll put a toad in your kids’ trick-or-treat bags on Halloween night. Or a cup of coffee.] I can’t take credit for this one. It was my husband’s doing. All you need is: a screen door or glass door that opens out, some fishing line, a small hook, and a giant spider. Above our front porch, we have several giant hairy spiders clinging to the gutters and drain pipes. They are not especially “realistic” looking, but they are awesome and make really fun decorations. However, one of those spiders is connected to a fishing line that goes through a hook on the top of our porch and connects to our glass door. So… when the glass door opens, the giant spider drops down. The kids are usually out of range either because they’re too short or because they’re too close to the door, but the smiling moms and dads standing a few feet back? They make perfect vicitms. 🙂
To add the sense of smell to your Halloween display, read on. As far as TASTING the terror? I guess you could buy really bad candy, but that just seems mean.
9. Carve Real Jack-o-Lanterns.
I’ll probably get some push-back on this one due to concerns about sharp objects and fire hazards and vegetable abuse, but there is nothing like the feel of pumpkin guts squishing beneath your fingers, nothing like the smell of candle-singed pumpkin flesh, nothing like the flicker of flame casting shadows behind triangle-shaped eyes and sharp, pointy teeth. I hate to say it, but those little LED things don’t even come close. But even if you do opt for a light that doesn’t actually burn, at least carve a pumpkin. Or two. Or twenty. Let them light the way for all the little monsters that will soon show up at your door.
One of the joys of carving real pumpkins is the wait. I don’t have any pictures of this year’s crop yet, because it’s much too early to carve them. Jack-o-lanterns don’t last long in a Texas autumn. Within days, their pointy teeth will curl in, revealing wrinkly gums, and their eye sockets will turn black and fuzzy. Lift the lid and you’re sure to get one last eerie surprise, as spider-webby mold stretches from the rotting bowl within. I taped skeletons to my windows and hung ghosts over my graveyard at the end of September with no worries except that the neighbors might give me funny looks. But jack-o-lanterns… they have to wait.
If you think you’ve outgrown the ritual of pumpkin-carving, read “The Things a Picture Holds” by Annie Neugebauer, and see if it doesn’t make you want to run to the store for a pumpkin and a sharp knife, and maybe some s’mores fixings too.
Skip this one if you must. Or buy plastic gourds and glow sticks if you really want to. But at my house, there will always be at least one real pumpkin with a lit candle and that unmistakable aroma of a Halloween tradition.
10. Be weird.
Austin, Texas, is known for keeping things weird. I appreciate that and help out whenever I can. No matter where you live, when you decorate for Halloween this year, be creative, be scary, be thorough, but also be a little bit weird. Include a random skull-on-a-stick in your cemetery or cage something that doesn’t look like it needs to be caged or put your yard art in costumes. It scares people in whole different way.
Whatever you do this Halloween, have fun, be safe, and don’t forget to check behind you once in a while. After all, the best decorated yards are the ones that make it easiest for the real creatures to hide.