HUDSON — "The two-story house my father built sits on five breezy acres in Central Illinois."
Thus begins, on a deceptively pastoral note, the anything-but-breezy ghost story called "The House Friends."
It has been constructed, like the house, on a firm foundation of McLean County turf by a Bloomington-born, Hudson-reared author named Richard Agemo.
That rich and loamy terrain is as good for raising ghosts from the grave as it is for corn from the furrow, as it turns out.
Or maybe you already knew that.
Before "The House Friends" comes to its discomfiting end 20 pages later in a nearby barn where the sounds are as crucial as the sights, you're practically assured of at least a half-dozen sudden drops in body temperature.
Straight from spine's top to bottom.
Perfect bedtime reading for a chilly-rainy pre-Halloween October's eve, in other words.
"Richard Agemo," it should be noted, is the author's pen name, and the one by which he requests he be solely identified for this interview.
Pen name or real name, his story — part of a new Halloween-ready anthology, "New Ghost Stories III," that hit bookstore shelves in the United Kingdom a week ago (Oct. 17) — is a prize-winner.
Which isn't too shabby for Agemo's first try at a ghost story.
Especially one being first published in the U.K., no less, where the ghost story is something of a national institution. (For we Yanks, "New Ghost Stories III," is also up for grabs on stateside Amazon, at a mere $14.95, plus shipping.)
Credit a (U.K.) writer named Shakespeare for nurturing Agemo's interests in spectral visitors, be it Hamlet's dad or Richard III's nagging battlefield phantoms.
"I think that's where my interest begins," says the man who, in fact, attended the Illinois Shakespeare Festival as he was growing up here, and these days blogs passionately about the playwright (www.richardagemo.com).
Among 600 entrants in the third annual ghost story contest sponsored by U.K. publisher The Fiction Desk, "The House Friends," placed third.
Agemo's story isn't just another shaggy-dog haunted house thriller.
It's deeply rooted in his upbringing here.
Which is one of the reasons why it ought to resonate with Pantagraph-area readers: The narrative proper remains firmly rooted to its north-of-Hudson setting, but it freely name-drops and references all points near, from Lake Bloomington, to both Bloomington and Normal, to the village of Hudson itself.
"It was totally rural, isolated for sure ... surrounded by cornfields," says Agemo of the house his father built, around five miles north of Hudson and two miles east of Lake Bloomington.
Like the lonely house described in the story, it sat on five acres, but was not a farm.
Scarier, perhaps, than anything: "It took a LONG time to mow the lawn."
Eventually, Richard's family moved from isolation into Normal, where he attended Normal Community High School.
But the isolation, in a sense, endured: "I was kind of the outsider ... not part of the in-crowd thing," he says.
"But I remember having some really good English teachers who encouraged my writing early on as I started with poetry, fiction, essays and plays."
Agemo continued his education at the University of Illinois, followed by a year of college in France. He landed in Washington, D.C., where he works as a business consultant to pay the bills.
"But I spend most of my time with writing," he notes, including his first, ghost-free novel, "about a 16th-century poet in London who is framed for treason." His second and third efforts, still works in progress, involve the creation of electric autos in early 20th century America and a futuristic tale "involving the space program."
But the work that has gotten him the most attention to date, his prize-winning ghost story, didn't seem to stand a ghost of a chance at first.
"I'd written a first version of it several years ago, and I showed it to my first reader, who was also my significant other, and she didn't like it. At all. She hated it, so I shelved it."
Eventually, he retrieved it some five years later when he found himself in a writers' workshop needing a ghost story for a competition.
In its final form, the story mixes autobiography (the house and its moorings) with his own meditation on what he calls "the notion of a place holding a grip on somebody and not letting go ... 'The House Friends' tries to take that idea to an extreme level."
The acreage in the story also sports a barn and a pond, both locations of which will prove fateful for most concerned ... "most" being a cast of characters all tied to the turf for various reasons.
The hero, Edward Rymes, is a divorced physics teacher from Chicago who gets a chance to buy the childhood home and grounds, dubbed Windy Acres, from the current owner. The latter is aware of Edward's attachment to the property and has promised to give him first dibs at buying it back should the day come.
Suffice it to say, the passion for that patch of McLean County earth runs deep among some other characters who enter the fray.
At the end of the day, says Agemo, the moral of this tale is the venerable "be careful what you wish for ..."
In the case of "The House Friends" winning its prize and seeing print in the country that practically invented the ghost story, that wish has resulted in far less bone-chilling consequences.
The moral, instead, has become "never say never again."
"After I wrote this, I said to myself, 'That's probably it in terms of ghost stories.' Then, just the other day, I had another idea come to me ... for another ghost story."