Whenever I’m asked which authors inspired me to become a writer, it’s reflexive to namedrop Hemingway and Steinbeck with ease. East of Eden remains the most perspective-altering book I’ve ever read, while Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories continues to capture newfound intrigue with each re-read.

But I am also compelled to include Jonathan Rand alongside these greats. For those who didn’t have the pleasure, Rand wrote a series of children’s horror stories called Michigan Chillers, with titles like “Kreepy Klowns of Kalamazoo,” “Aliens Attack Alpena,” and “Strange Spirits of St. Ignace.” The Michigan Chillers series was so successful that Rand’s tiny log-cabin residence became inundated with out-of-state fan mail requesting titles for their hometowns. Rand obliged, and American Chillers was born a few years later.

As a child, monsters were my biggest preoccupation. I dressed for Halloweens ’94-‘06 in various ghost, zombie, mummy, and werewolf costumes.  Elementary art teachers would shake their heads as I drew sunset-monsters, empty-vase-monsters, and bowl-of-fruit monsters.

Naturally, I became completely engrossed in Michigan and American Chillers. Jonathan Rand was my idol. The “about the author” page implied that Rand was a recluse from Northern Michigan who lived with three dogs, slept all day, and wrote ghost stories all night. That’s the dream, I told myself, and I truly meant it.

When I grew older, I came to realize that every single Chiller novel had the exact same cookie-cutter plot: two kids discover monsters living in their town, the disbelieving adults remain oblivious, the kids experience a few close calls with death, and then they discover a weakness and defeat the monsters. The last scene  never failed to include both tweens debriefing at an ice cream shop somewhere, laughing the whole thing off, and breathing sighs of relief. A kid nearby would overhear them and say, “Gosh, aliens? That’s the spookiest thing I’ve heard since gargoyles came to life and terrorized my hometown. Name’s Ashley, I’m from Gaylord…”

But as a kid, I didn’t care. Plots be damned; with each new book I immersed myself in a world of sinister spiders, gruesome ghouls, and strange spirits. Copyrights and plagiarism were damned as well; I wrote my own Michigan and American Chiller stories with free rein, right down to the last chapter segue into the next ghost story. Truthfully, I owe Jonathan Rand paramount credit for inspiring my desire to write.

Then one day, I discovered something intriguing. I had just finished the last chapter of “Mackinaw City Mummies” and noticed a new page in the back that wasn’t in the older books. It read:


COME VISIT CHILLERMANIA,
THE WORLD HEADQUARTERS FOR BOOKS BY JONATHAN RAND!
Located in Indian River, Michigan

“Chillermania,” I whispered to myself with reverence. “The World Headquarters.” My heart leapt with excitement. I had never been to a world headquarters for anything before, and I pictured a county-fair-sized amusement park dedicated entirely to Michigan Chillers. Rollercoasters through a frozen Traverse City landscape replete with abominable snowmen. Bumper cars resembling Great Lakes Ghost Ships. A funhouse filled with Petoskey Poltergeists and Detroit Dinosaurs. I imagined book vendors wandering the park, dressed in monstrous character, selling copies of Rand’s latest spine-tinglers. And maybe, just maybe, Jonathan Rand himself liked to hang out there on a daily basis, signing autographs and taking story ideas from imaginative twelve-year-olds.

Spring Break was coming up, and I begged my parents to take me there. And God bless them for humoring me—I imagine they had their sights on Florida—because they agreed. So after school on Friday, we drove north to cold, slushy, snowbound Northern Michigan. Because we were saving Chillermania for the apex of our week, we spent the first few days exploring the natural springs of Wequetonsing, driving the Tunnel of Trees, and checking out the graveyards of Cross Village. The melting snow and spring fog made for a very Rand-like experience, and I supplemented each day’s activity writing my own Chiller stories.

Finally, the day came to visit Chillermania. On the drive to Indian River, I could hardly contain my excitement. As we exited the highway and headed towards town, I kept my eyes glued to the windows, scanning the woods for roller coasters and big top tents.

And here’s the sad part: We passed it. It wasn’t until we’d driven through downtown, scratched our heads, and turned around that my mom pointed out a small, roadside store no bigger than a Starbucks. “I think that’s it!” she exclaimed, though the disappointment in her voice was obvious.

My heart sank. There were no rollercoasters. No waterslides, no bumper cars, and no 3D IMAX movie screens. There wasn’t even a monster statue outside the door! It was just a plain, wooden edifice with “CHILLERMANIA!” written in a creepy block font above it.

I was glowering silently, so my dad tried to brighten the mood. “Well, we didn’t come all this way for nothing, let’s check it out!” When we entered, I saw that it was really nothing more than a bookstore. A bookstore that only sold Jonathan Rand books, which, as an adult reflecting on this now, seems like small business suicide. We were the only customers that day, and the only other face in the store was a bored-looking old woman flipping through the pages of “Ogres of Ohio” behind the cashier’s desk. My dad offered to buy me a T-shirt that said “I survived CHILLERMANIA,” a caption that was starting to take on a crueler meaning than the shirt intended.

I was well beyond the age for pouting, but I still felt deeply betrayed. The advertisement in the back of every Michigan Chiller book made Chillermania out to be the grandest of spooktacular attractions, and here I was at a lame old bookstore full of titles I already had at home. In a last ditch effort, I approached the lady behind the checkout desk. “Excuse me,” I stammered. “Does—does Jonathan Rand ever come in here?”

She smiled warmly. “Oh yes! Quite frequently, in fact. He lives here in town, you know.”

My face instantly grew brighter. “He does? Do you know where his house is?”

Her smile grew wider. “As a matter of fact, I do. He’s my husband.”

Well, that quickly turned the tide of the visit. We got to small talking about their dogs, their log cabin, and even dear John’s irregular sleeping habits. I was starting to think this wasn’t such a waste of a trip after all.

Just then, a jet-black Jeep Wrangler rolled into the parking lot. The custom plate on the front spelled out “CHILLR” and a man with black sunglasses and a long ponytail stepped out of the driver’s seat and walked in. It was him! The one and only master of chills, Jonathan Rand!

Here was my author-hero before me, and all I could do was stare, speechless. The woman at the counter intervened. “John, this young man and his family came all the way from Grand Rapids. He says he’s a big fan of yours.” And she smiled at him with that warm beam that all writers’ spouses display when they’re proud of their partner. “He wants to be a writer too someday,” my dad piped up, grinning. Everyone in the room must have known I was over the moon right then.

Mr. Rand looked at me with impressed eyes. “And what do you like to write about?”

“Monsters.”

It was a reflex response. I couldn’t believe it; here I was at Chillermania talking with Jonathan Rand about writing scary stories. I told him about my own Chiller stories and recommended about a dozen more titles he should use for future books (which I’m sure he loved), and he gave me tips on how to write suspenseful scenes and hash out characters. A half hour had passed before we knew it, and he made sure to sign my new T-shirt as well as the books I’d brought from home. Lastly, he asked if I’d read his latest story, pointing to a rack full of “Bionic Bats of Bay City.” When I shook my head, he pulled one off the shelf, scribbled out a signature, and wrote:

“To Nick, the biggest Chiller fan of them all.”

What books did you read as a kid? Have you ever met a famous author? What’s the strangest place you’ve ever been on Spring Break? Funny how all of those questions now have the same answer for me. Steinbeck and Hemingway must have had their share of fan encounters over the years, and I’m sure it would’ve been a humbling experience to meet them, but the celebrity encounter that will always stand out in my memory is meeting Jonathan Rand at Chillermania in Indian River.

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