Ben Gibson has a habit of surprising people with his knowledge of intensely local lore. Oftentimes when a stranger mentions that they’re from a small town he’s never heard of, Gibson is ready with a whole host of native facts.
“I’ll respond with ‘Oh that place where they have the local legend of the firebird or that small town where they have outhouse races?’” he says.
Gibson is no stranger to small town life. He hails from Mansfield, Texas, a hamlet near Fort Worth where history looms large. His grandmother was the president of the local historical society and his family maintained the Gibson Cemetery.
“I grew up around historical society proceedings and keeping up graves,” he says. “I don’t know if I had an abiding fascination with ghost stories and things like that but it was definitely a part of the fabric of my childhood.”
Gibson’s time in Mansfield isn’t why he stays at the ready with small town American minutiae though. The Texan has a lot of obscure facts about American cities and regions swimming around in his head because he’s the Commissioning Editor for The History Press USA, a subsidiary of Arcadia Publishing that is behind the prolific Haunted America book series.
If you’ve ever taken a step just about any bookstore, you’ve likely seen one of these Haunted America books adorning a “Local History” shelf near the front of the shop. Titles range from big cities (Ghosts of Boston) to small cities (Haunted Greenville, South Carolina) to general regions within the United States (Haunted Chippewa Valley). The books’ covers are usually accompanied by an over-sized moon, creepy branches, and a historical landmark (though cover designer Anna Burrous says she gets some creative wiggle room).
History Press has thousands of historical tomes in circulation and the Haunted America imprint is particularly voluminous. Gibson estimates that there are at least 337 Haunted America books published, though there could be more that snuck past the website’s tagging system. And the team behind the series is almost always in the process of producing more.
“Our catalogue is vast. If we had a book on every town and neighborhood in the country, we’d be happy. And we’re not far from it,” Gibson says.
Due to their ubiquity and a focus on regional stories, the Haunted America series has become something like the spooky publishing dark matter of every Halloween season. The books are readily available for nearby residents looking to learn more creepy facts about their hometown or any tourists trying to plot their next ghost tour. Arcadia Publishing has even started adapting some of the titles into a series of books aimed at children. The series is among History Press’s steadiest sellers (albeit a seasonal one, with most titles being released and sold in October).
“Compared to our other books, they do pretty well,” Gibson says. We’re not always looking for these runaway sellers, we’re just looking for ‘can we sell through our print run in the first year?’”
Runaway sellers or no, Haunted America books are a real presence during Spooky Season. The secret to how they planted their Halloween flag is really no secret at all. Ghost stories work. Local stories work. When you combine the two, you have yourself an audience.
“Unlike other publishing companies that will pump out 150,000 copies of a book to try to sell 50,000 or 100,000, we have a really good idea of where our books are going. That’s because we have a really good sense for the audience so there’s not much margin either way,” Gibson says.
History Press maintains relationships with gift shops, book stores, and similar local curiosity retailers. Through those relationships, they receive feedback on what local ghost stories are underrepresented.
“One of the books we did was on (Haunted) Lincoln’s Springfield, Illinois. That came from a gift shop people saying ‘we always get these kind of questions on the tour so has anyone ever written a book on this?’” Gibson says.
Above all else though, the books’ many authors are crucial to finding the right stories in the right markets. Haunted America keeps a diverse and deep pool of local writers to pen new titles in the series. These individuals often know which stories are legitimate and which others are hot air. Crucially, they also know what tales will be relevant for a geographically insular audience.
History Press has a link for author submissions on its site. The best resource for recruiting local authors though, as it turns out, are haunted tours. It’s through one of those haunted tours that author Cody Polston came to the Haunted America series.
Polston is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico and has been a ghost hunter for nearly 35 years. A creator of the Southwest Ghost Hunters Association, his first experience with the paranormal came when he was eight years old and his YMCA summer camp counselors took him and his fellow campers for a spooky sleepover at a nearby raggedy house.
“I remember we went in and all the kids went upstairs and were telling ghost stories,” he says. “Then the door opened. The counselor shut it and the door opened again. The next thing I remember is all these kids running down screaming downstairs. Back out in front of the house all the counselors are frantically counting kids. But I’m looking at the door and a little shade part and this guy looked through. No one ever told me what was going on. That sparked an interest in mysteries and ghosts.”
When Polston started his own Albuquerque ghost tour, he realized that it would be nice to have a book covering a lot of the local hauntings he covered to sell. After self-publishing with a vanity press turned out to be a “bad experience”, Polston received an email from History Press and was off to the races with titles like Haunted Albuquerque, Ghosts of Old Town Albuquerque, and Haunted Tombstone.
“The royalty rates are decent. The support you get behind the scenes is great as well – interviews, signings, and all that. They’re a good company to work for. I’ve done four books with them already.”
As a veteran in the ghost hunting business, Polston also appreciates Haunted America’s focus on local histories.
“A lot of times if you’re looking for truth, (history) is where you’re going to find it,” he says.
In researching his supernatural Albuquerque books, Polston discovered that a lot of small town spooky stories tend to get lost to history…or at least the details get smudged. He recounts one story in which occupants of Hotel Andaluz in downtown Albuquerque reported seeing a standard spectral lady in a white gown. When researching the story further in archival newspapers, Polston discovered that there was an older story regarding the hotel from the ‘70s in which a young country singer died in New Mexico and her spirit had been spotted in the places she had performed, including the Andaluz.
“Since this place opened and closed so many times, the story got disremembered,” Polston says.
Making sure no story gets disremembered is an unintended but pleasant byproduct of the Haunted America series. Canonizing a ghost story in print brings a level of both finality and authority to local legends. Polston notes that paranormal storytelling and investigation has radically changed since the dawn of the internet and the arrival of popular ghost-hunting shows on television.
“When the internet came along it became more about personal experiences and not truth,” the writer says.
The Haunted America series is about getting scared but it’s also about preserving history. And preserving history is a team effort. Though gift shop recommendations and haunted book stores make up the most lucrative route to authors for Haunted America, Ben Gibson says sometimes the best way to learn about local history is to listen to the locals.
“Sometimes the way we get submissions is that people call our bluff. I’ll say ‘I’m sure we’ve got a haunted book on that.’ And they’ll be like ‘Well you do, but it doesn’t cover these stories.’”
And that’s why Haunted America is at 337 books and counting.