Stephanie M. Wytovich’s latest poetry collection, On the Subject of Blackberries, dishes up sugar-coated fruit pervaded with poison and decay, each poem a rot-infested berry picked by a bleeding hand from a bush of brambles.
The most harrowing part of this collection is Wytovich’s raw confession of mental health struggles brought on by postpartum depression following the birth of her first child. She speaks candidly and bravely about this issue in the “Author’s Note” and “The Witchcraft of Writing,” both of which darken the stage for what’s to come.
Divided into ten sections, the collection begins with “the memory of poison,” dark drupelets that, bitten into, squirt with tart paranoia, shred with thorns as sharp as raptors’ talons. Wytovich paints imagistic words in black and beautiful strokes—some with a desperate flourish, others with a spatter of rage.
Throughout, we encounter revelations of instability and turmoil masked with a smile that’s begun to crack:
“I force my body into a kindness” (35)
“a black mound of sugar, / hysterically unhappy / but polite” (36)
You’ll find beliefs abandoned and a violent darkness, now embraced; murderous admissions rising from a whitewashed tomb.
In the third section, Wytovich shares sparks of light, a needed breather from the smothering angst of the opening pieces.
Wytovich’s poems remind me of Emily Dickinson’s, cloistered with her depressive and damning thoughts, of murders premeditated—or committed with motives unanalyzed, as if surprised at the results of spontaneous action.
My favorites: “I carried knives”; “I washed out the space in my head”; “The quiet kill of stars pushes darkness.”
The collection, which Raw Dog Screaming Press has published in hardcover, is sprinkled with Victorian etchings that complement overall themes and images from individual poems. This is a gorgeous volume for any reader’s collection. Add it to yours.
Wytovich asks, “Do you think I’m safe with these / dirty hands?” (114) You be the judge.
On the Subject of Blackberries was a delectably disturbing read. You owe it to yourself to taste its bitter fruit.
New LGBTQ horror/gay romance novel available now for purchase
Today’s the day! I just released my latest LGBTQ horror novel, The Covenant Sacrifice, into the world like the winged beast that haunts the cover!
I’m excited about and grateful for the journey it took me on as a writer and as a human being. The Covenant Sacrifice was a long time coming. Here’s the story—and my thoughts on the book.
Developing the idea for The Covenant Sacrifice
I first got the idea about a “dead cemetery”—one whose available plots are all filled and from which the dead return to abduct the living—back in 2008. It took me five years to fully develop many disparate scraps of ideas and reach the point where I could begin plotting. (Here’s my plotting spreadsheet from 2013.)
I had a positive character arc—a hero’s journey structure—already planned, so I needed to come up with a ghost of and old wound from the past for my protagonist, Jarod Huntingdon, to overcome. I chose a traumatic experience of homophobia that broke Jarod’s relationship with his childhood best friend, Scotty. Story circumstances would wedge Jarod between a rock and a hard place in resolving this festering issue at the climax of the tale.
And, I thought, what better way to raise the stakes for Jarod if I threatened his primary desire to start a family by endangering his identity, as well as people he loves? This situation would force him to make an impossible choice: a choice between giving up what he wants most in life in order to spare a loved one from a terrible, deadly fate.
Jarod’s character arc, then, would involve repairing a romance gone wrong. Not his relationship with his girlfriend, Kelly, but with another gay man. Yet, my work on the book stalled.
I was ecstatic when Obama took office in 2009 but because the political climate had changed for the better toward LGBTQs (I ain’t complaining, I assure you), making (I thought) Jarod’s struggle with his orientation and coming out less relevant. So, I back-burnered The Covenant Sacrifice for years—until Trump came to power. Relevancy returned. I resurrected the book and began working on it diligently again.
Drafting and editing The Covenant Sacrifice
In 2019, I made a draft available for beta reading and got feedback from readers and an editor. I incorporated all this, worked on the manuscript a few more years, and sent it off for developmental editing in 2022.
That led to a lot of work that I didn’t relish doing—rewriting and adding scenes. I thought all my revisions were complete but, in reality, they were only beginning. However, all that heavy lifting made for a better book. I upped the wordcount by 10,000 words to the final 81,600 (392 pages in trade paperback).
Readying the book for publication
Next came the nitty-gritty of line editing and copy editing. After I finished making my editor’s suggested changes, I went over the manuscript again (for about the twenty-fifth time, and I’m not exaggerating the number of drafts I ultimately produced).
I finally laid out the book in Adobe InDesign, using 12.5-point type—big enough for geezers like me to read. Fans over forty will appreciate this, I hope. I think the book looks beautiful. Let me knopw what you think in a comment below.
I thought I was done with the book. I wanted to be done with the book. Apparently not. Things I’d missed in countless manuscript printouts seemed to jump out at me. I corrected the errors in both the paperback source files and ePUB versions.
I ordered another proof, and found more freaking problems! I wanted to scream and tear my hair out.
Marketing and promotion are the least favorite aspects of my novel-writing process. But they’re essential if you want to sell books as an independent author–publisher. (I do, I do!)
I submitted the novel for book tours and social media promotion, wrote press releases (here, I made the The Bradford Era), and made a virtual whore and general nuisance of myself, posting links and sending emails everywhere I could think. I’m still beating the promotional bushes and will continue into the fall.
Now, it’s release day. I can take a little breather (but not much of one because I still have much left to do) to consider how far I’ve come with the book.
Horror and gay romance share the spotlight in The Covenant Sacrifice
In early reviews, some readers shared that they didn’t care for the romance in it. (When it’s clearly marketed as #LGBTQhorror and #GayRomance, I wonder why they would read it in the first place, but…)
In short, the romance in TCS isn’t a subplot, but rather a dual plot, along with the horror spine. That’s the way it turned out. The resolution of the horror plot depended on protagonist Jarod Huntingdon making his impossible choice and accepting himself as a gay man. It definitely upped the stakes for him to resolve the issue in order to find a chance at ultimate happiness.
There isn’t much hardcore horror in the book. It’s a bit tame according to current standards. (But things could get much worse in a sequel…).
And I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t exactly push the bounds of horror with this story or take new ground for the genre. But the subject matter was sentimental and the writing style nostalgic for me. Let me explain.
Written for sentimental reasons
Considering when I first got the idea for The Covenant Sacrifice—two years after I came out as gay—the book deals with a young man from a conservative Christian background who wants to start a family of his own. But he can’t connect with his girlfriend and finally discovers why.
This situation is decidedly biographical. But I think it will speak to many who have been in (or are still in) similar circumstances. I want to encourage LGBTQ readers to come out and remain true to themselves as unique human beings, loved and accepted by God.
I wrote this story to process my life change and memorialize where I’ve come from, with marrying a woman, divorcing amicably, and coming out. Although it’s way too late for me to start a family, I always wanted children. So I put much of myself into the development of Jarod Huntingdon and his struggle.
Written with a nostalgic style
At one point, when I was proofing the printed copy of the novel, it struck me that the POV, the voice, the narration I adopted in the book was different from what I’d written before (except for maybe Death Perception), and different from how I write today. It was like I was reading someone else’s work. (If any other writers have experienced this, please start a discussion with me in a comment.)
I was going for third-person limited POV, but at times I rose to a distant height that verges on omniscience. I’m still studying omniscient POV, so I hope what I accomplished in The Covenant Sacrifice works for readers.
In no way am I trying to brag here, but over the years, more than one reviewer has remarked that my writing reminds them of Stephen King’s (see the comments in Praise for The Covenant Sacrifice).
I don’t know whether everyone who reads the book would say this about my writing (I doubt it, truthfully), but I took it as an enormous compliment, and I do feel my writing style in The Covenant Sacrifice harks back to the horror fiction published in the 1970s and 80s.
This book, then, is my love letter to King and all the writers who were published during the first explosion of horror back in those days, when I fell in love with the genre. Some won’t like my book because it doesn’t push the envelope or accomplish anything especially new or daring in the horror universe.
But I like The Covenant Sacrifice for the simple things it is—spooky, romantic, sentimental, and nostalgic. I hope you do too.
If you’re interested, get the book
Okay, I’ve blathered long enough. If you want to know more about The Covenant Sacrifice, visit the book page and click the links beneath the cover image.
If you’re interested in LGBTQ horror, creature horror, supernatural horror, cult horror, folk horror, religious horror, occult horror—with an equal helping of gay romance—check out The Covenant Sacrifice. You can read a brief excerpt here.
Thank you much. I appreciate all my readers more than you know.
Could I ask one more favor? Scroll down and share this post on social media or email. And, while you’re at it, why not subscribe to my monthly email newsletter to stay abreast of future book news? Thanks again.
Asylums once used to confine those deemed mentally unfit to linger, forgotten behind trees or urban development, beautiful yet desolate in their decay. Within them festers something far more unnerving than unlit corners or unexplained noises: the case files left to moulder out of sight, out of conscience.
Stephanie M. Wytovich forces your hands upon these crumbling, warped binders and exposes your mind to every taboo misfortune experienced by the outcast, exiled, misbegotten monsters and victims who have walked among us. The poetry contained in Hysteria performs internal body modification on its readers in an unrelenting fashion, employing broad-spectrum brutality treatment that spans the physical to the societal, as noted in Stoker Award winner Michael A. Arnzen’s incisive introduction.
The number one rule in writing is that if you want to write, and write well, you must write every day. Poetry is no exception. When I decided I wanted to become a poet—something I distinguish greatly from being a fiction writer—I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Poetry doesn’t have a huge market, it certainly doesn’t pay well, and to add to the frustration, when you throw genre on the table, you’re looking at a dead end.
Except you’re not.
I’ve dabbled in literary—as I think every up-and-coming poet should—but anyone who knows me realizes my heart is firmly cemented in the black shadows of horror. So not only am I a poet, but I’m a horror poet, and contrary to the monsters and creatures that we all know and love, we do exist and there is a market for us.
And for you, if you’re willing to take the jump.
My connection with poetry has always been very visceral and intuitive, and I’ve come to realize, that unlike my prose, it’s not something that I can just sit down and work on routinely like a job. I need inspiration, crave it, and much like a succubus, I bleed the art form dry when I’m done. It’s hard for me to describe it, but for anyone who has seen what Bo does to her victims in Lost Girl, you can get an idea of how poetic energy works for me. Before I can act, I need a source. A vein. Something living that I can tap into.
Usually it’s art.
Most of the time it’s music.
Sure, I have times where I experience a swell of emotion spiraling inside of me and it’s easy to find the words to expel it, but other times I need to look at or listen to something so I can get hold of its story. Pinterest has been a great optical vessel because I can sweep through pages and save visuals and sayings that speak to me, and make collages or boards based on a specific piece or particular emotion. This is a great way to do character studies or pinpoint locations, and I find myself coming back to it more and more when I need assistance purging a poem.
Spotfiy, however, is my auditory mistress. I pace my writing based on the song I’m listening to, and I recently became enthralled with artists such as Jill Tracy, Johnny Hollow, and Sopor Aeternus. Their music is dark, seductive and beautifully gothic; it’s a wonderful aid when it comes to soft, psychological horror. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that one of my favorite pastimes as a horror writer is creating and administering the kill scene. In poetry, you don’t have the luxury of going on for pages about a kill. You have to be quick, fast, practiced, and effective. Much like if you were actually going to commit a murder.
So let’s write a horror poem using this process.
Step 1: Find your victim. Put on your favorite, high energy song or look up a piece of artwork. (These don’t have to be scary. They just have to elicit emotion). For example, here’s my current inspiration:
Currently playing: “Click Click Boom” by Saliva
Victim: A stalker
Step 2: Predict their next move. If it’s not scary, how would you make it creepy? If it is, how does it make you feel? This will give you your topic. Here are thoughts I jotted down:
Observations: He doesn’t see me watching him, watching her. He thinks he’s going in for a kill, but doesn’t realize that tonight… he’s the victim.
Step 3: Stalk and take notes. Write down individual words or phrases that come to mind when thinking about the subject matter.
Notes: Oblivious, sloppy, unaware, misogynistic, rape, watching, young, pain, knife, old blue jeans, broken, pervert, swelling sex, doesn’t understand, who does she think she is, I deserve this, curls, masturbation, innocence, gun.
Step 4: Go for the kill. Be creative and don’t limit yourself. Feel free to play.
Here’s what I came up with using this process.
Her Stalker’s Stalker
By Stephanie M. Wytovich
He watched her pull her auburn hair
Back into a loose ponytail, moaning
As flyaway strands caressed her teenage face.
He stroked the barrel of his gun, pretending it was her
Fragile hands around his cock,
Thinking, hoping, that after tonight he
Wouldn’t have to imagine it anymore.
He liked to watch her like this—
Catch her in the throes of passion
As she discovered her womanhood,
Felt what it was like to touch herself
Between the legs—but what he didn’t
See, was me. Me pulling back my soft,
Black curls into a ponytail, and
Fingering my knife as I watched him
Watching her, while I planned my kill.
I’d love to know how this process worked for you. Send your creations and trophy kills to wyt3319(at)gmail(dot)com, and I’ll showcase your poems on my blog at: http://joinmeinthemadhouse.blogspot.com/
Stephanie M. Wytovich
About Stephanie M. Wytovich
Stephanie M. Wytovich is an alum of Seton Hill University where she was a double major in English Literature and Art History. Wytovich is published in over 40 literary magazines and her collection of poems, HYSTERIA, will be released this summer. She is currently attending graduate school to pursue her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction, and is working on a novel. She is the Poetry Editor for Raw Dog Screaming Press, a book reviewer for S.T. Joshi, Jason V. Brock, and William F. Nolan’s Nameless Magazine, and she plans to continue in academia to get her doctorate in Gothic Literature.