R.L. Stine Doesn’t Have One of These: Chillermania

September 22, 2016 — We had just left St. Ignace, a city on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and were headed south down the middle finger of the state. We had about three hours to go before our first oddity of the day, a massive Christmas store in the Bavaria-themed town of Frankenmuth. Three hours is too long a stretch of road without an oddity stop for my taste, but I’d resigned myself to it. Just didn’t find anything the night before when I’d poked around online. Half an hour down the road, though, my wife pointed at a billboard.

“What’s Chillermania? That says it’s at the next exit.”

“I think Chillermania’s a convention. And I think it’s in New Jersey.” I was conflating it with the Chiller Theater Expo.

“Don’t argue with me, argue with the billboard.” She was in the passenger seat, so she did some quick Googling on her phone. “It’s a horror bookstore.”

“Sounds awesome.”

“Wait. A children’s horror bookstore…”

“Even better.”

“That only carries books by somebody named Johnathan Rand. Ever heard of him?”

“No, but now I have to find out about him. Let's go.”

The address for Chillermania was 1651 South Straits Highway in Indian River, so we stuck it in our GPS and took the next exit. And goddamn did it give us a Halloween morning before our Christmas afternoon.

There was only one other car in the small parking lot when we pulled in under the big sign with the T-Rex and a bat and the phrase, “World Headquarters for Books by Johnathan Rand!” But it was the exterior of the building that really spoke to me…in like Zacherley’s voice.

Actually, it was two buildings. One was small and wooden, its door and windows covered in lurid illustrations of monsters: An evil doll with black eyes, a shark, a two-headed dragon. “Enter at your own risk!” one of the illustrations said. Plastic skeletons were laid near the entrance around an ADT sign. The other building was a big, white warehouse covered in red eyes and black silhouettes of ghouls and creepy trees and spiders and gravestones and bats.

Normally I’m trepidatious about entering strange places, but that place couldn’t have been more welcoming to me if they’d thatched the roof with welcome mats. I jumped out of the car and charged into the small wooden building before the rest of my family had even unbuckled a single seat belt.

Inside was carnival of book covers, brightly colored and exploding with monsters. There were cover posters on the walls, books face-out in the racks in a repeating pattern of ghosts and aliens and gargoyles that was mesmerizing. Adding to the ambiance were Halloween decorations—some fake skulls, a mummy, rubber bats hanging from the ceiling, a spider web across the window. It was July.

I was the only customer, and the woman behind the counter approached me warily, probably because I was spinning around in awe.

She gave me and my family (who finally entered and took the edge off my weirdo-ness) the story of the place. Johnathan Rand is a pen name of Christopher Wright, a self-published author from Michigan who turned that pen name into a Michigan brand through force of will and a prolific output.

He started writing in 2000, publishing the books himself and then selling them himself by convincing local hotels to stock his books in their lobbies. The strategy seemed to work, and he began writing kids books like crazy. Today, he has multiple series aimed at children of various ages. He started with his Michigan Chillers series, each book taking place in a different town in Michigan. I imagined growing up on the books in Michigan, meaning that each town I drove past would be irrevocably connected to a monster. “Oh look, Petosky. They had poltergeists there. Calumet? That was terrorized by the Copper Creature. And Detroit isn’t broken from its industrial breakdown, but from its dinosaurs.”

Rand/Wright expanded that idea to his American Chillers line, with each book focusing on a different state in the country. He also wrote a couple of other children’s series, as well as a few adult books, the latter under the name Christopher Knight. That explained the preserved bat in a glass frame on one wall with the label, “Real South American vampire bat caught by Christopher Knight – 2006.” Actually, it didn’t explain that at all.

But it did explain the building next door, which I assume is where he stores all his books in his pre-Amazon business model.

“Is he around?” I asked the woman.

“He comes by regularly, but this week he’s at a horror convention.” She pointed to a picture of him at the front of the store that showed a tall, tanned, laid-back guy in dark sunglasses, a black goatee, and long black hair pulled back into a ponytail. He seemed to come off more Floridan than Michigan. It did not say under the photo “The R.L. Stine of Michigan.” Sorry, had to be acknowledged.

We picked up a few books, which was a lot of fun because we got to pick them based solely on their comic-book covers like I used to do back when I was a kid. The names of the books were of the sort that demanded exclamation points (in fact, I think the store’s name is technically Chillermania!): Terror Stalks Traverse City, Invisible Iguanas of Illinois, Mississippi Megalodon. We also picked up his American Chiller for New Hampshire: Haunting in New Hampshire.

Eventually, we left the artificial Halloween inside for the summer heat outside and hit the road for towns without stores dedicated to people who have thrived at scaring kids.

I still haven’t read any of the books we picked up, nor has my eldest, I don’t think, but that’s fine. We’ll remedy that soon. Beyond just reading experiences, they’re even better to me as mementos of that weird little morning and that unique little place in Michigan.