Author Q&A

An American Ghost Story: Lisa Menzel Talks Hauntings, Native American Lore, and the I&M Canal

The new historical horror novel, Stel Parad, by debut author Lisa Menzel is based on true events and a curious legend that followed the completion of Chicago’s I&M Canal project that displaced the Potawatomi in 1848. Although the canal is abandoned, its presence lingers as an eerie reminder to our dark American history.

“poetic and idiosyncratic… Readers who enjoy seemingly impenetrable puzzles will find plenty here to unscramble…” 

Publishers Weekly

About Stel Parad

Chicago, 1845.

I&M Canal gravedigger Enda Hughes buries a hanged man on Suicide Hill. A priest dies of a sudden heart attack.

When a curse is found pinned to the church door from a stranger claiming he was denied alms, it sets off a chain of mysterious events that begin to plague the town of Keepataw.

When the canal foreman alerts Enda to an order of phantom monks seen wandering the cemetery, it calls everything she and her apothecary husband, Keir, know into question.

As revengeful deaths, ancient visions, sinister monks, and visitations from unsettled spirits plague their town, the Hughes and encamping Native American tribe must use their medicine and magic as a barrier to save themselves from the unholiest of brotherhoods.

  1. What inspired you to write Stel Parad?

Stel Parad is based on the haunting of phantom monks in St. James Cemetery in Lemont, IL. I found the legend of the curse in an old periodical and started the story from there.

  1. What is the significance of the title?

Stel Parad is Swedish for Numb Parade.

  1. What drew you to tell a story invested in Native American culture?

I wanted to depict events as they were. Tribes traded with settlers originally and intermarried in addition to fighting wars alongside them. The government at the time terrified people into believing things to obtain land. Those beliefs turned into new wars across the north and west. I held a purse a Potawatomi girl left her pioneer friend in case she didn’t survive the Trail of Death. She wanted her to remember who she was. Every square inch of beads took an hour. It was six inches by four by three.

  1. Your book is a rich, historical horror and the 1800s figure prominently. What kind of research did you do?

I read seventy-five 19th-century texts including pioneer and Native American journals my grandfather published and Medicine Society rites in addition to novels and spell books.

  1. Historical horror is underrepresented in the genre. Why does historical horror appeal to you?

This genre is interesting because it’s rich in history. Kind of like if you had a haunted Queen Anne house that could talk.

  1. The writing style and prose of your novel has been likened to the qualities found in Poe and other atmospheric novels from that time period. Why did you choose to write in this style?

This was the first time I heard a book described as atmospheric and it’s been popping up everywhere. I’ve also read huge authors complaining about research they did and were accused of all kinds of pretense in the delivery. No one tied them to a harpsichord and made them fake regency. They just had to be timely and translated as they researched. Same here. I wanted the text to feel like a living journal. I typically write in first person in the voice of the characters or even in second person if I really need to talk to the audience. I think the audience finds third person in past tense most comfortable. It’s how we’re accustomed to receiving news and events that affect our survival. I think people write their blogs and journals in present tense to get things off their chests and organize their thoughts. This might be how we would have sounded if we look at old pioneer journals.

  1. Tell us about the characters in the book.

Whereas this is an ensemble saga, the largest parts are Enda, the gravedigger, her husband, Keir, the apothecary, Drogo Kavalye, the new sentry and Sugmuk, an elder of his tribe and newspaper publisher based on a Chicago historical figure.

  1. Who was your favorite character to write and why?

For all the main characters, their perspectives and liking something about each, I love Einer. He wanted something more than life. I think everyone can relate.

  1. Evil plays a huge role in the story’s events, particularly revealing itself in the form of a spirit or ghost. Tell us more about this.

I think people get a sense of evil from misfortunes beyond our control or things we did that produced unforeseen consequences. Also injustices done to us. Things done out of spite. A lot of hauntings occur due to unfinished business. I think being able to pray or talk to a spirit is appealing to make a petition to the universe, which might not be working in our favor. Sometimes it’s just about talking to each other.

  1. In Native American culture, the world of the living and the dead often intermingle. Why do you think this is?

Native American people often refer to the dead in the present tense. They believe our ancestors send us messages. So do I.

  1. Burying the dead is a sacred act. Talk about the role this plays in the book.

It is said William the Conqueror’s father was an apothecary and gravedigger. Many Europeans can trace themselves to him. I wanted to represent how a community handles death and loss from various perspectives. Mandeville is also a family name representing how people war with themselves. Many wars are fought between distant relatives.

  1. You clearly have a fascination for cemeteries and ghosts. How did this come about?

I always thought old cemeteries were beautiful at sundown. I was always captivated by their stories. I’ve had a lifelong preoccupation with hauntings.

  1. Your novel is currently a series in development with interested A-list cast and crew! Can you share any details with us about this exciting news?

Not just yet.

  1. What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a crime/dark comedy novel, Favorite Knives, set in 2007 on the underground music scene as well as a novel, Burn One All the Way Down, about a haunting in 1988 Chicago. Both are being adapted to features. My producing partners and I are working on multiple projects. Stel Parad is set to have three more installments with the vernacular and events coming into their respective era until the modern age.

About the Author:

Lisa Menzel’s ancestors were immigrant farmers in Minnesota who fed the mocked and starved Chief Medicine Bottle in their soup kitchen. In November of 1865, he was executed after a dehumanizing trial for his role in several raids during the Dakota Wars. After WWII, her grandfather went to work in Chicago for R.R. Donnelley, publishing many Native American accounts including the works of Charles Eastman and autobiography of Chief Black Hawk.

She began her writing career as a Chicago rock music journalist for Lumino Magazine, interviewing the likes of The Offspring, Local H, Jeremy Enigk and Kasabian before becoming a screenwriter, director, cinematographer and editor. Her debut dark fantasy feature, Thinking Speed, was honored by Women in Film & Television. Today, she is a producer, developing several series’ and films. She is an award-winning portrait and nature photographer, whose work has been published in American Road Magazine. Splitting her time between Los Angeles and the Midwest, home is above one of Chicagoland’s most haunted cemeteries along the I&M Canal.

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