Dawsyn Wilson ’26  |  Published April 04, 2023

Ghosting Her Readers

Sylvia Zethmayr Shults ’90 is award-winning author of paranormal non-fiction.

HAUNTING WORDS: Classics major Sylvia Zethmayr Shults '90 has used her love of history, as we... HAUNTING WORDS: Classics major Sylvia Zethmayr Shults '90 has used her love of history, as well as a lifelong passion for hearing and telling stories, to be a published author. MONMOUTH, Ill. – Your mind tells you that the long hallway you’re staring down has been deserted for half a century, but you can’t shake the feeling that – somehow – you’re not alone in the building. Did a light just flicker a few doors down on the right? Was that a footstep you heard right above your head?

Or is it possible that you’ve just been reading too many books by Monmouth graduate Sylvia Zethmayr Shults ’90? A librarian at the Fondulac District Library in East Peoria, Illinois, by day, Shults is the author of horror stories and paranormal non-fiction, mostly by night.

“I sit in dark, spooky places so you don’t have to, then I come out and tell you all about it,” said Shults of her method of research.

Her recent book, Days of the Dead: A Year of True Ghost Stories, won first place last year in the Bookfest Awards.

The work represented a shift for Shults, who had previously authored several shorter, fictional ghost stories.

“I sit in dark, spooky places so you don’t have to, then I come out and tell you all about it.” Sylvia Zethmayr Shults


“I’m lucky enough to live within 10 minutes of one of the most haunted places in Illinois – the Peoria State Hospital,” said Shults of the building, shuttered in 1973, that was once one of the finest facilities in the world for the care of the mentally ill.

Her new book, Grave Deeds and Dead Plots, a collection of true crime stories with a twist of paranormal, is the first book in a series.

“I’ve actually collected enough material for the next four books or so,” she said. “There are going to be at least five books in the series, which is really exciting for me. I never thought I’d be writing a series, but here we are.”


How it began

Shults said she has always wanted to be a writer. Growing up, she would keep herself company by telling herself stories while she did her chores.

“Ever since high school, I’ve had the dream of being a writer,” she said. “It grew out of hearing a lot of stories and reading a lot of stories, and it just kind of evolved from there into telling a lot of stories.”

Her love of her genre came from horror stories she heard as a child.

“Ever since high school, I’ve had the dream of being a writer. It grew out of hearing a lot of stories and reading a lot of stories, and it just kind of evolved from there into telling a lot of stories.” Sylvia Zethmayr Shults


“I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, so my father would always tell me stories of the Resurrection Mary and the screaming mummy at the Field Museum and all these wonderful Chicagoland ghost stories,” she said.

What fascinates Shults the most is the history within the ghost stories.

“Because the history, these lived experiences, are why we have the ghost stories,” said Shults, who was a classics major at Monmouth. “And sometimes the ghost stories help us understand the history a little better. That’s what I want people to take away from my books – that history is this treasure trove of these amazingly incredible stories.”


The ‘magic’ of good writing

Shults loves many aspects of writing, including how the author can use their imagination to create something from nothing.

“It is such a wonder to me still that a writer can basically pull stuff out of thin air and write it down, and people will be interested in it,” she said. “It’s a sort of magic to me that somebody can use their imagination and then turn around and share it with other people. That sharing is one of the many beautiful things people can do.”

Shults’ favorite part of the writing process is research, as she loves going out and finding true ghost stories.

“What really gets me going is finding a ghost story that I haven’t heard before, because if I haven’t heard it with all the reading I’ve done, then it’s a pretty good bet that my readers haven’t heard it either.” Sylvia Zethmayr Shults


“But what really gets me going is finding a ghost story that I haven’t heard before, because if I haven’t heard it with all the reading I’ve done, then it’s a pretty good bet that my readers haven’t heard it either, and it’ll be new for them,” she said.

Shults’ advice to aspiring writers is to “read, read, read,” as reading others’ works gives writers a foundation they can use with their own work and provides tools to craft their writing into something better. When she reads, Shults likes to observe what authors do, and then implement some of it into her work. One technique that Shults has brought into her stories came from Stephen King’s Under the Dome. She pointed out how King mostly uses past tense in his work, but in one scene, he switched to the present tense.

“What that shift to present tense does is it brings the writing and the storytelling into the moment,” she said. “It gives it a sense of immediacy. It gives it a sense that you are there right now.”

Shults has even picked up writing lessons by reading her own work. A while back, the Fondulac library displayed books by local authors, and one of the works was a collection of short horror stories she’d written. As Shults re-read her work, the stories she felt held up best over the years were ones with a human element.

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