Chicago author Cynthia Pelayo's new novel tells the ghost stories of the city's past

Inspired by real-life historical events and tragedies throughout the city, “Forgotten Sisters” arrives March 19.

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Cynthia Pelayo is an award-winning writer from Puerto Rico who’s lived in Chicago since she was 2. Her upcoming novel “Forgotten Sisters” tells the story of two sisters living in a haunted house near the Chicago River.

Tyler Pasicak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Chicago is home to many, many ghost stories.

Chicago author Cynthia Pelayo’s new novel “Forgotten Sisters” is inspired by several of them — including a real-life horror story recounting the 50 to 100 presumed suicides (according to the Digital Research Library of Illinois History) at a Lincoln Park bridge erected in 1894. Eventually, the bridge was dubbed the “Suicide Bridge” because of its reputation, and was torn down in 1919. Still, many Chicagoans to this day maintain that the site is haunted.

With a background in journalism, creative writing and poetry, Pelayo, as a novelist, crafts stories that blur the line between history and fantasy. She intertwines bits and pieces of fairy tales from Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, focusing on the darker aspects of classic stories like “The Little Mermaid” and “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.”

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“Forgotten Sisters” is Cynthia Pelayo’s upcoming historical fiction/horror novel based on real-life events and tragedies in Chicago.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“Forgotten Sisters” tells the story of modern-day siblings Anna and Jennie Arbor, living in a creaky, rattling old Ravenswood dwelling along the Chicago River that is home to the spirits of generations past. Anna produces a ghost story podcast out of her bedroom to counter the loneliness she feels after the tragic deaths of their parents, while her sister Jennie, who wants nothing to do with ghosts, spends her days repairing music equipment.

Like any good horror story, there’s a shocking twist: The sisters are confronted with an increasing number of bodies floating by their home in the river below. Anna grows obsessed with reading the news reports and begins her own investigation into the history of the deceased: Who were they before they ended up in their murky, watery graves? Everything comes to a head when the dreadful truth is revealed.

Pelayo said she references historical events in Chicago history to honor the memories of the victims. One such event was the S.S. Eastland disaster of 1915, which Pelayo learned about while on a haunted Chicago tour several years back. She became fascinated with the horrific story — the passenger ship capsized while docked along what is now the Chicago Riverwalk resulting in the death of 844 people, mostly immigrants from Poland, Italy, Ireland, and other European countries — and incorporated it into the novel.

“Those immigrants came here for the same reasons my dad did,” she said. “If they had still been here, what would their story have looked like?”

Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Pelayo moved with her family to Chicago when she was 2. She grew up in Hermosa with her two older brothers and was raised in a non-traditional household by her dad, Roberto Rodríguez. He was a stay-at-home parent while her mother worked daily to keep a roof over their heads.

Pelayo said she always wanted to be an artist, and her dad encouraged her to hone her craft from a young age. The two would spend hours together watching news shows like “Dateline” and “60 Minutes,” which helped pique her interest in journalism.

“He always felt like it was important to know what’s going on in the world,” she said.

“My dad always knew. He’s like, ‘You’re gonna go to college. I don’t know for what, but maybe you can be a journalist.’ And that’s where the writing came in. That was something he could identify with and he wanted me to love it too.”

Her father died last March in his home at the age of 77.

“I just wish he could have seen all this,” Pelayo said.

Last June, just before Father’s Day, Pelayo was the first Latina to receive a Bram Stoker Award, for her 2022 poetry collection “Crime Scene.” She is also the first Puerto Rican-born author to win the award, considered among the highest achievements for horror and dark fantasy writers.

After accepting, she sang “Que Bonita Bandera,” Puerto Rico’s unofficial national anthem onstage.

“I wanted people to see how proud I am to be Puerto Rican,” she said. “I always want that front and center.”

As for what’s next, Pelayo is working on a novel tentatively titled “Red Gate Woods,” set to be published in 2025.

“Chicago’s a character in every single one of my books,” she said. “And I think for the time being, I’m going to continue doing that. I love this city so much.”

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