Thursday, November 11, 2021

Creating Strange Nests Out of Blackout Poetry: An Interview with Jessica McHugh

Hello friends and fiends,

Today in the Madhouse, I'm sitting down with my pal Jessica McHugh and talking about her recent blackout poetry release, Strange Nests, which was formed/inspired by the novel The Secret Garden. If you haven't checked out her Bram Stoker award-nominated collection A Complex Accident of Life, you'll want to be sure to do that and check out this Madhouse Interview as well. 

Lost in the garden, 
Stephanie M. Wytovich

SMW: What about The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Barnett called to you for this project?

JM: It was a couple of weeks after my brother died. Except for meeting up with family to help clean out his room, I’d been holed up at home since he passed away from an overdose on January 11th. By the 25th, I was desperate to be around people again. So I went to my favorite bar, White Rabbit Gastropub, for some comfort. I was chatting with my bartender-turned-friendo Kahla Moon about potential books for my next collection--I wasn’t looking to start anything new for a while; we were just listing out female-authored classics for fun. But when we added The Secret Garden to the list, something about it stuck out to me. I honestly don’t know why, but I texted my husband right away to ask if he could swing by the local used bookstore and pick up a copy on his way home. He did, and it’s a really cool copy, but its pages were a little too slick for a lot of blackout poetry techniques. The next day, Kahla gave me her childhood copy, which turned out to be just as large as the one my husband got, but the pages were more conducive to art. I did use the first copy for a few pieces, but I used Kahla’s for most of the poems in the collection. So it felt precious...and charged with energy if that makes sense. Also, though the covers of each book depict Mary at the garden entrance, one version has her going in, and the other has her coming out. That, to me, felt representative of the journey I was about to take. When the first line of the first poem I found was, “There’s lots of Alive in dead things,” I knew I had to use The Secret Garden for my next collection, and I had to do it immediately.

SMW: What was your relationship to The Secret Garden prior to this project and how did it change by the time you were finished with it?

JM: It wasn’t a favorite when I was younger. I read it in elementary school and owned a copy--though I’m not sure I ever read it more than once--and I saw the 90s movie in the theater--which I also don’t think I saw more than once. I don’t believe I appreciated or could even grasp the book’s dark and complex themes at that time. But when I started searching for poems, the deep sorrow and loss within the book really spoke to my own; it even seemed to touch on the complicated nature of our relationship and other familial issues, as well as his relationship to the addiction that eventually took his life. As I moved through the stages of grief, I felt the characters moving with me, giving me a new, deeper appreciation for them and the story in general.

SMW: You’ve talked about how this book became a catharsis, a vehicle for your grief. Can you talk a little more about that and about how poetry is helping you heal?

JM: I find when I do multiple pieces from the same book, it gets distilled down to its core themes and recurring images. Because of my previous ignorance of these themes in The Secret Garden, I had no idea I was walking into a living breathing representation of the grief process. But after a few poems, I realized I was in for something that was going to become deeply personal. There are so many characters who shut down and become cold when confronted by death, which is totally understandable. I felt much of the same initially after my brother died, but--and this is a sensitive subject for many, I know--due to the nature of his death and decades-long addiction, I also felt relief. For me, my family, and mostly, for him.

But it also allowed me to confront certain reactions to his death. Things I wish I hadn’t learned about that day or heard a grief-stricken family member admit. There are details and descriptions I wish didn’t live in my memory, and I tried as best I could to transfer them somewhere else, onto the page. And maybe add a little glitter. Though I’m still healing--probably always will be--this book was a huge part of getting me through the roughest patches.

SMW: The title Strange Nests is so evocative to me. It channels these complicated feelings of identity, growth, and what we consider or think to be as safe spaces or our homes. What does this title represent to you and how does that fit in with themes present within the book?

JM: Thank you! I have to thank cover artist Lynne Hansen for that. The working title of this collection was actually “The Birds Other Animals Shouldn’t Charm,” but Lynne admitted she kept forgetting the title, and honestly I kept tripping over the words every time I said it aloud. So when she mentioned maybe finding a new title, I came up with a few more options, one of which was Strange Nests. I really loved what it evoked in the sense of blackout poems themselves being nested strangely inside existing prose, as well as the complicated nature of my familial relationships. The lies we tell, the things we gloss over, the times we hold our tongues because we think it’s the polite thing to do: these choices become the scraps from which we build our nests and pretend to be comfortable inside.

SMW: In your poem “Daylight” you write: “I was a ghost. / Or a dream. / Alone. / Or with a raven.” When I read this, I was immediately taken by your interpretation of the line here. How everything was final, yet not, concrete, yet continuing and shapeshifting into the next line. As a poet, how do you know when you cut your line, and does your process for black-out poetry influence this at all?

JM: Unlike the poems in A Complex Accident of Life, I moved these pieces all around to create a narrative in which the people affected by the loss of “he” and “she” at the beginning of the collection have been devoured, possessed, and transformed by death (aka the raven). Most of the time when I’m coloring a poem I don’t quite know how I’m going to write it out until it’s finished. Sometimes the line cuts are based on a gut feeling, but these were deliberate because the subject really had been all of those things. Eric was all of those things. I was all of those things. Each stage was real and life-changing in its own way. And you never really move on from them. You don’t leave anger behind when you move on to depression; it just becomes less evident when depression’s draped over top. But all the emotions are still there, waiting for the right light to shine upon and resurrect them all over again.

SMW: Throughout the collection, there are allusions to the garden: “wild blooms,” “growing ivy,” “damp earth.” How does horror survive in the garden, or maybe better yet, how is horror shaped/conquered by the garden? 

JM: I’d be lying if I said I wasn't somewhat obsessed with gardening metaphors, especially in horror. I mean, I have a novel called “Rabbits in the Garden” due out from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing too, and the sequel Hares in the Hedgerow features St. Agnes, patron saint of girls and gardening. I think I gravitate to these themes because I enjoy taking that dirtiness of gardening and mixing it with the perceived “dirtiness” of horror and the “dirtiness” of womanhood in a way that creates an evocative image of power and transformation. And when you consider the myriad varieties of flowers and plant life that requires different environments and nutrients to thrive, especially as it relates to people and their fears, you open yourself up to a vast world of gory gardening metaphors. I don’t know why, but it’s super fun for me.

SMW: The raven is a reoccurring character throughout the poems. How did you connect with this bird while writing? What did it come to mean for/to you?

JM: I knew the raven would be recurring as soon as I saw “Mr. Craven” on nearly every page, but I didn’t expect it to become one of the most important characters in this story. The raven, for me, represents Death but also part of the healing process, because the subjects (both the deceased and those mourning them) eventually transform into the raven. Death isn’t something we leave behind. You can’t run from it. You can’t reason with it. You have no choice but to let it ride roughshod over your heart and learn to live with--maybe even love--the tracks it leaves in you, deep enough for the debris of grief to gather into nests, in which Death forever roosts.

SMW: I think my favorite poem (and it’s hard to pick, trust me!) would have to be “Flower-Bed.” It’s seductive, magic, and fierce in what it wants and what it will take, and it reminds me of your collection A Complex Accident of Life in that it’s feminist, unapologetic, and tinged with rage, which you know is totally my thing! What are some of your favorite pieces in the collection and what about them sticks out to you?

JM: It’s tough to admit this, but I think my favorite poems are the ones that would probably hurt me and my family the most. “An Abiding Chap” and “Drowsy,” notably. I put them at the beginning because they feel the rawest...and real. As an addict, my brother really “lived on a dare,” as shown in a palette of healing and fresh bruises in “Drowsy,” and his illness was absolutely “answered with a secret nod.” But I’m also a fan of “Exclamation” and “Hungry,” because I feel like the visual and poetic aspects are really strong.

SMW: This collection is broken up into three parts: body, root, and knife. Why did you choose those words as markers for the sections?

JM: These represented the stages of grief for me. Body is the immediate, even physical, reaction. The loss itself, the hollowing out feeling you get when you realize you’ll never hear someone’s voice again or see their smile, and how that loss possesses you, even starts to consume you. Root is what grief plants in you, the blooming and growing of the ghost that sits heavy in your throat and begins to change so many parts of you--past and future. Because the ghost of the deceased isn’t the only thing that haunts; you also take on grief as its own living breathing thing and slowly, the line between blurs, then vanishes. Knife is accepting that you’ll never be the same again, and the release that comes with that truth. It’s embracing the pain of loss as another aspect of having loved, even if it’s ugly or sharp or makes you feel like you’ve been turned inside out and you’re not sure how long you’ve been walking around with your guts on the outside. It’s recognizing that no matter what you do to heal, you never reach the end of grief; only a changing of seasons.

SMW: Something that I’ve always admired about you and your writing is your ability to not only write across genres but to beautifully blend them as well. Can you talk a little bit about your process with creating these gorgeous multi-genre manuscripts—whether that’s in relation to your poetry or your prose?

JM: I wish I could articulate how I go about it, but truly, even when I’m writing the wackiest plots and characters imaginable, I just try to write the lives within that story authentically, and for me, an authentic life is a goulash of pretty much every genre. All around us every day, there is romance and horror and mystery and tragedy and comedy, but a lot of people miss all that because...well, they’re not looking. I’m always looking. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing in bars and restaurants; between customers and staff, regulars and strangers, there’s so much going on at any given time. So many emotions, so much energy, so many choices about what to share with others and what to keep hidden. Whether they know it or not, humans slip in and out of multiple genres every day, and I count myself lucky I get to watch and draw inspiration from them.


Jessica McHugh is a novelist, poet, and internationally-produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She's had twenty-five books published in thirteen years, including her bizarro romp, "The Green Kangaroos," her YA series, "The Darla Decker Diaries," and her Bram Stoker Award-Nominated blackout poetry collection, "A Complex Accident of Life." For more info about publications and blackout poetry commissions, please visit

Strange Nests Summary:

Beyond ancient gates, among thorny overgrowth and carnivorous blooms, a raven called Death waits tirelessly for its chance to roost within us. Using scraps of love, remorse, anger, and pain, it weaves. With erasure, memory, and discovery, it binds. And from the garden of wounds that grows within our broken hearts, it builds Strange Nests.

In the follow-up to her Bram Stoker and Elgin Award-nominated collection, A Complex Accident of Life, Jessica McHugh uses poetry, design, and illustration to unearth the horrific, consumptive, and transformative nature of grief from the pages of the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic, The Secret Garden.


"In Strange Nests, Jessica McHugh paints for us painful and exquisite meditations on death and dying. Her gorgeous poems remind us that what the dead leave behind are us, who miss them tremendously." – Cynthia Pelayo, Bram Stoker Award-nominated poet and author of Into the Forest and All the Way Through

"Jessica McHugh's Strange Nests is a beautiful, somber reflection on life, death, grief, and the bonds between siblings. A wondrous read that will lull you into a lovely breathless silence."--doungjai gam, author of glass slipper dreams, shattered 

“Strange Nests is a brilliant collection of poems that speak in a subtle voice of deep darkness. Jessica McHugh conjures real magic here.” - Jonathan Maberry, NYTimes bestselling author of Relentless and Ink

“Jessica McHugh finds the deep truths hidden in plain pages. This collection will plant rose bushes in your heart. You’ll feel every bloom and bleed with every thorn.” - Sarah Read, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Bone Weaver's Orchard 

“McHugh’s newest offering of blackout poetry is more than words circled on printed pages, each set of two pages shows the original page covered in beautiful, colorful drawings, the poetry outlined, and the second page with the reborn poems. The combination is two pages that visually excites our eyes and new poetry that touches our soul.”

— Linda D. Addison, award-winning author, HWA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, and SFPA Grand Master

Monday, November 1, 2021

October '21 Madhouse Recap

Hello Friends and Fiends—

Blessed Samhain and Happy Belated Halloween!

I’m writing to you after a month of shrieks, screams, chills, and haunts, and honestly, I’m sad to see it end (even if I do celebrate Halloween all year round!). I kicked off the month by drinking too much apple cider, eating some caramel apple slices (and okay, some candy apples), and doing some holiday baking—all of which, let’s be honest, I continued to do throughout the month only to top it off by seeing a shadow cast production of Rocky Horror Picture Show on Devil’s Night (which was also Apollo’s 5th birthday!).

This month, Dennis and I celebrated our 4th wedding anniversary (5th year together) by going up to Seven Springs for the day. We walked through their fall craft festival, shared some Halloween macaroons, and then rode the ski lift and took a beautiful walk together. We also treated ourselves to dinner at Polymath Park, Tree Tops Restaurant, which I seriously can’t recommend enough! The view? The ambiance? It was beautifully romantic.

Dennis and I also attended our first Baltimore Comic-Con. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about a convention strictly set up around comics (compared to the horror focus I’m used to), but there was plenty to keep me occupied and I ended up leaving with some collectibles, a few great horror/sf graphic novels (thank you, Aftershock Comics!), and some grotesquely wonderful artwork for our house. It was unfortunate that a bunch of the artists and authors I wanted to see/meet had to cancel, but I have a strong suspicion that we’ll be back in the future, so I’ll be curious to see things when it’s operating at full capacity.

Because we were in Baltimore, we obviously needed to hit up some Poe haunts as well. My brother Scott and I visited Poe’s grave and memorial together at Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, and then Dennis and I visited the Poe House a few days later. Both of these were big literary bucket list items for me, so I was thrilled to finally experience the history still percolating in the city (not to mention check off some boxes on my Atlas Obsurca list). Dennis and I also met up with RDSP’s Jennifer Barnes and John Edward Lawson for some great food, conversation, and company. It felt good to smile like that again.

Pop culture and literary adventures aside, Scott and I also visited the National Aquarium and had the best time—talk about an interactive, unique experience. The jellyfish invasion exhibit was a huge highlight of the trip for me AND I even got to pet a moon jelly! Side note: for those of you who don’t know, I’m obsessed with jellyfish, so this was a big moment for me. Another big October highlight for me was visiting the Van Gogh Immersive Exhibit. Everything about it was breathtaking. 

On the writing front this month:

  • I started October strong by participating in a Horror Poetry Panel via the Hampton Public Library in celebration of Jezzy Wolfe’s collection Monstrum Poetica and Lucy A. Snyder’s collection Exposed Nerves. We talked monsters, beauty, rage, and empowerment, and it was an absolute blast. A big thank you to Raw Dog Screaming Press for moderating, and to my fellow panelists Donna Lynch, Cynthia Pelayo, Lucy A. Snyder, and Jezzy Wolfe for their continued brilliance and inspiration.
  • The cover reveal for Black Spot Book’s anthology Under Her Skin dropped and you can view it, and all it’s beautiful majesty here. A big round of applause for Lynne Hansen for her work on it. It’s truly stunning.
  • My column 5 Nonfiction Books to Get Spooky with This Fall was publishing via LitReactor. You can read it here.
  • My novelette—DRAWING DOWN THE SUN—a Midsummer tale about ancestral history, female rage, and family secrets, is included in the anthology A Conjuring for All Seasons, which will be published by Cemetery Gates Media on November 2nd. The book is currently up for preorder, and it includes other novelettes by Hailey Piper, Gaby Triana, Donyae Coles, and K.P. Kulski.
  • I signed a contract with Vastarien: A Literary Journal for my poem “Night Mare,” which was inspired by Henry Fuseli’s painting “The Nightmare.”
  • I participated in the Lit Balm Poetry Reading on October 30th and read alongside a bunch of insanely talented writes (like Denise Dumars, John Reinhart, Ken Poyner, FJ Bergman, Linda Addison, and more!). If you’d like to catch a record of our readings, you can do so here.

I snuggled up with the following reads this month:

  • The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell 
  • Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith
  • Lonely Receiver by Zac Thompson
  • Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark by Cassandra Peterson

On the media front:

  • I tried to watch some more horror and scary fun movies this month…because obviously. New (and new-to-me) ones that I enjoyed were: Till Death, Are You Afraid of the Dark (Limited Series—yay Carnival of Doom!), Halloween Kills, and Censor.
  • I finished Brand New Cherry Flavor—which AH! Still obsessed with Catherine Keener, but the body horror? The messaging? THE WITCHCRAFT? I’m officially obsessed and really hoping for a season 2. In the meantime, I definitely plan to pick up a copy of the book soon. What a refreshing, creepy, wild ride! I also finished watching Only Murders in the Building and I got a kick out of the finale. This was such a fun show to watch and I’m looking forward to the next season.
  • Skeptical but intrigued nevertheless, I checked out the Amazon Prime series I Know What You Did Last Summer and honestly, I’ve enjoyed it. I can remember watching the movie when it first came out as a kid and it terrified me, so there was a nice bit of nostalgia in watching this, even if it was vastly different—which I appreciated. I wish all remakes/revisioning took different and/or new approaches to the storyline. Looking forward to more episodes next month!
  • Dennis and I binged Clickbait. When it first came out and everyone was talking about it, I wasn’t terribly drawn to the idea of it (was expecting something more akin to SAW, I think), but I have to say that I really liked it and it was fun to uncover the mystery with Dennis as we watched. We rarely watch the same shows together, so it was cool to have someone to talk through theories with this time around…even if I was wrong literally every time.
  • We finished What We Do in the Shadows and I feel a little conflicted about it. I didn’t hate the season like some people did; in fact, I thought there were some pretty fantastic and hysterical moments. I’m curious to see what happens in the next season, especially after that finale, but I do hope the writers find their voice a bit more as things move forward. Having said that, that siren episode? Loved it. And when the Sire escaped? My god, I haven’t laughed that hard in a while!
  • The Boulet Brother’s Dragula (season 4) kicked off last month and I’m already shook! The performances and overall cast/judges have been great, and the energy is definitely potent and savage this time around, which yes!
  • I also added the latest season of The Great British Baking Show to my rotation, too. Do you folks love cooking shows as much as I do? TGBBS just brings me comfort like no other and it’s something that Dennis and I both enjoy together, which is always a plus (he can only take so much horror). I tried to watch the other AHS series, Death Valley, but by the time I made it to the third episode, I just couldn’t anymore. *sigh*

I also heavily dove into some podcast episodes this month:

Halloween itself was a pretty chill day--which was what I wanted/needed. I watched some film favorites, carved pumpkins, and for the first time in my life, I was home and living somewhere where I could pass out candy to Trick or Treaters. Dennis dressed up as Lock from Nightmare Before Christmas and I had way too many of these Cookies 'N Creme Filled Marshmallow things I found at Giant Eagle. No regrets! Anyways, it was an absolute blast and we went through (I think?) 9 bags of candy, had a Michael Myers party in our yard, and kids were lining up around the block for our house...which is good because now that people know we're here and cool....we're going to amp up the horror for next year since they all feel safe (insert Vincent Price laugh here--mwhahaha).

Now it's off to Spirit Halloween stores for discounted decorations!

Keep it spooky, 

Stephanie M. Wytovich 

Friday, October 1, 2021

September '21 Madhouse Recap

Hello friends and fiends,

September was filled with the start of a new semester, the beginnings of a few classes, and finals weeks in one of the graduate courses I’m teaching (pray for me, I’m still grading). It was also filled with Mabon (one of my favorite sabbats), our little one’s anatomy scan, the start of a new job/career path for Dennis, and my brother’s wedding. Needless to say, we all had and continue to have full hearts this month as our family got a little bit bigger and filled with more love and happiness.

On a personal note, I’m noticing that I’m starting to slow down a bit in terms of what I can and can’t do throughout the day, which is a bit frustrating because I’m a lunatic, but I’m coming to terms with it. My body is swollen, I’m retaining water, and my heating pad has become my best friend. In terms of pregnancy cravings, I’m leaning toward lemon, honey, raspberries, and pineapple, and I can’t get enough coconut/pineapple bubbly; I’ve also been rewatching The Vampire Diaries and it’s a fantastic comfort to me. Needless to say, I’ve been trying to take naps and do small things that bring me joy like covering my house in fresh flowers and harvesting mint, and making fresh tea blends. I also took Ron Finley’s Masterclass in Gardening because plants bring me joy and help me to relax.

On the writing front:

  • This month brought an acceptance to the Chlorophobia anthology published by Ghost Orchid Press. My poem “The Forest’s Handmaiden” is a dark, witchy piece about a woman’s relationship with the forest and I’m so excited for you folks to read it soon.
  • Were Tales: A Shapeshift Anthology went live last month and there just might be a poem about a were crow in there by yours truly. You can pick up a copy of the anthology here.
  • I was awarded a LOHF Writer’s Grant and am completely over the moon about it because it will help me with my continued research for some curriculum I want to build/am building in order to offer more affordable continued education classes. I’ll be teaching Witch Lit again this December with LitReactor, and I’m hoping to have some more tricks and treats up my sleeves for 2022, so be sure to keep your eyes and ears open.
  • The Halloween issue of the Southwest Review is now available. The cover art is jaw-droppingly beautiful and my poem “Family Offerings” kickstarts this gorgeous issue and I still can’t believe my name is in this journal. An absolute bucket list moment for sure. You can pick up a copy of the journal here.
  • I shared a guest post by Geneve Flynn in celebration of the upcoming poetry collection, Tortured Willows, a collaborative effort from Christina Sng, Angela Yuriko Smith, Lee Murray, and Geneve Flynn. You can read it here.

In terms of what I’ve been reading this month, I’ve done a mix of class prep and pleasure reading:

I’m also almost finished with The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell and it’s making me want to reread the Bronte books that I have as well as seek out the other ones that are still on my TBR list.

Some other media I’ve been enjoying:

  • We kicked off the month seeing Shang-Chi and I gotta tell you folks, it was absolutely incredible. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have called myself a Marvel fan—never really got into the who superhero thing (outside of Batman), but since Dennis and I reconnected, I’ve just kind of jumped in with both feet and I’m definitely a fan of the MCU now. I also had to take a peek at Marvel’s What if? series, especially when I heard that there were zombies involved!
  • Dennis and I checked out Candyman earlier in the month and I about squealed when I saw the Tony Todd cameo. We also finally watched Cruella, which I absolutely adored.
  • I’ve still been enjoying Only Murders in the Building, but I added the latest seasons of What We Do in the Shadows to my rotation, too, and I just started Midnight Mass as well.   I also finally got around to starting Brand New Cherry Flavor and I’m LOVING it so far! Catherine Keener is absolutely majestic.
  • I finished Nine Perfect Strangers, which I super enjoyed, AHS: Red Tide which was meh, and then Dennis and I binged the third season of Sex Education¸ too.  I have to take a moment to sing my praises of this show from the rooftops because I literally cried watching it. It is so incredibly wonderful to have a show that tackles gender, diversity, sexuality, and inclusivity in such an accessible way, and my heart was just so full watching it. I wish I would have had something like this around while I was growing up, but even still, I’m happy to have it now and thrilled for the younger generation watching this and exploring facets of themselves through the show.

I also listened to a handful of podcast episodes:

I’m so happy that today is October 1st and I intend to take a nice long fall walk this evening and then snuggle my puppies while watching a horror flick (I still need to finish Malignant so maybe I’ll finally get around to that?). I hope everyone’s spooky season starts off with lots of haunts, cackles, and tricks and treats, and if you need something fun to do tomorrow, I’ll be hanging out via Zoom with some of my pals from Raw Dog Screaming Press as we chat poetry and celebrate the release of Jezzy Wolfe’s collection Monstrum Poetica and Lucy Snyder’s ExposedNerves. More information on registration for the event can be found here:

With a full heart and an even fuller cauldron,

Stephanie M. Wytovich

Monday, September 20, 2021

Tortured Willows, Skydiving, and the Magic of Poetry

Hello friends and fiends, 

Today in The Madhouse, I'm excited to share a guest post by Geneve Flynn in celebration of the upcoming poetry collection, Tortured Willows, a collaborative effort from Christina Sng, Angela Yuriko Smith, Lee Murray, and Geneve Flynn. 

On Being a Baby Poet and Jumping Out of a Perfectly Good Plane

by Geneve Flynn

I once paid money to jump out of a perfectly good plane.

As I walked to the tiny aircraft, I started to have serious doubts. The weather was glorious: typical Australian sunshine and endless blue skies. It seemed much more sensible to stay on the ground and enjoy being alive for longer than the next hour.

“Don’t worry.” My tandem skydiving instructor grinned as he did a final check on my harness. “You’ll be strapped to me, and I’ll be looking after myself.”

The terror of imminent, splattery death evaporated, leaving behind the fierce buzz of adrenaline.

We circled up to ten thousand feet. When he asked if I was ready, I said yes. We scooted along the narrow bench and dropped out of the plane like a pair of stones. The freefall was incredible and loud and hilarious. There isn’t much dignity when your cheeks are flapping and your hair is probably whipping your instructor in the mouth. There’s no time for fear, only exhilaration.

It was only when I watched the video afterwards and saw myself tumbling out into nothingness that my stomach swooped.

I could have died! What idiot takes such unnecessary risks?

Writing for Tortured Willows felt very much the same. When Angela Yuriko Smith and Lee Murray invited me onboard, along with Christina Sng, to write fifteen poems for a collection to expand on the conversation begun with Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, I felt that same desire to stay on safe ground.

I knew how to write short stories; I had never written any poetry. The only poems I knew were limericks, and there’s only so many ways you can write about the Asian female experience of otherness in that format.

Who was I to have poems alongside these accomplished poets? Black Cranes had won the Bram Stoker and the Shirley Jackson awards and been nominated for a string of others; what if I couldn’t follow up such phenomenal success?

Then Lee revealed her excitement at sharing space with Christina and Angela—two award-winning poets—and me. I’ve read Lee’s poetry and it’s gorgeous and fine, like a scalpel glinting in moonlight. She also has work featured in the Horror Writers Association Poetry Showcase. Multiple times.

I realised then that she trusted I wouldn’t fall. We would all leap together.   

I dived in and allowed myself to play. I explored different forms, knowing I would probably look ridiculous but it didn’t matter—I had signed up; the only way was through. I wrote as fast as I could, trying to outpace my imposter syndrome.

What happened next was wonderful. I experienced that same sense of freedom and free-falling abandonment. I had fun. It didn’t matter if my face looked like a windsock [with] a bit of drool escaping. I was trying something new and creating and letting myself be terrible.

The upside? It wasn’t as terrible as I thought. I made work that gave me shivers and made me cry and allowed me to rage. Poetry gave me new ways to expand on the conversation Lee and I, and all our contributors began with Black Cranes. The poems in Tortured Willows are deeply personal and we each tackle the many facets of otherness as an Asian woman. It feels important and I’m so thankful I got a chance to be a part of it. There’s still so much to say, and we aren’t done talking.

Plus, I didn’t die.

Author Bio:

Geneve Flynn is an award-winning speculative fiction editor and author. She has two psychology degrees and only uses them for nefarious purposes.

She co-edited Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women with celebrated New Zealand author and editor Lee Murray. The anthology won the 2020 Bram Stoker Award® and the 2020 Shirley Jackson Award for best anthology. It has also been shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award, Aurealis Award, and Australian Shadows Award. Black Cranes is listed on Tor Nightfire’s Works of Feminist Horror and Locus magazine’s 2020 Recommended Reading List.

Geneve was assistant editor for Relics, Wrecks, and Ruins, a speculative fiction anthology which features authors such as Neil Gaiman, Ken Liu, Robert Silverberg, James (SA) Corey, Lee Murray, Mark Lawrence, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Angela Slatter. The anthology is the legacy of Australian fantasy author Aiki Flinthart, and is in support of the Flinthart Writing Residency with the Queensland Writers Centre.

Geneve’s short stories have been published in various markets, including Flame Tree Publishing, Things in the Well, and PseudoPod. Her latest short story, “They Call Me Mother,” will appear in Classic Monsters Unleashed with some of the biggest names in horror, including Joe Lansdale, Jonathan Maberry, and Ramsey Campbell.

Geneve loves tales that unsettle, all things writerly, and B-grade action movies. If that sounds like you, check out her website at

About Tortured Willows

Bent. Bowed. Unbroken

The willow is femininity, desire, death. Rebirth. With its ability to grow from a single broken branch, it is the living embodiment of immortality. It is the yin that wards off malevolent spirits. It is both revered and shunned.

In Tortured Willows, four Southeast Asian women writers of horror expand on the exploration of otherness begun with the Bram Stoker Award-winning anthology Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women.

Like the willow, women have bent and bowed under the expectations and duty heaped upon them. Like the willow, they endure and refuse to break.

With exquisite poetry, Christina Sng, Angela Yuriko Smith, Lee Murray, and Geneve Flynn invite you to sit beneath the tortured willow’s gravid branches and listen to the uneasy shiver of its leaves.

Release date: 7th October 2021

Publisher: Yuriko Publishing—

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

August '21 Madhouse Recap

Hello friends and fiends—

August is always a hectic month, but we’re here, we’re moving, and school is back in session baby! I’ll be teaching seven classes during the fall semester…yes, you heard that correctly. Seven! They’ll be filled with horror, monsters, and all things that go bump in the night, and I’m beyond excited to dig into the material and have some great discussions with my students.

In my undergraduate short story class, I always start us off with a deep dive into Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s work, and we’re tackling her masterpiece “The Yellow Wallpaper” to kick things off. We’re at the midterm point in my MFA class on editing via Southern New Hampshire, and then I started advising two thesis students at WCSU as well. Also on deck at WCSU is a class on horror and the mystery novel, and then a class on middle-grade literature and speculative poetry.

If you’re interested in the reading list for the horror/mystery course, we’ll be reading:

  • The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix
  • Survive the Night by Riley Sager
  • If I Disappear by Eliza Jane Brazier
  • The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
  • Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

If you’re interested in the reading list for the middle-grade course, we’ll be reading:

  • Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Omnibus by Alvin Schwarts
  • The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
  • Root Magic by Eden Royce
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman

I’m also teaching another section of my
Witch Lit class this December via LitReactor. It’s a mix of lecture, critical study, and creative writing, and we’ll talk about everything from the archetypal  characterization of the witch, to the sociological and political influences she’s had throughout history, to the embodiment of empowerment and female rage that we’re seeing both on and off-screen today. If you’re interested in the course, please check it out, and if you have any questions about it, I’m happy to speak to them directly.

In terms of what I’ve been reading this month, I’ve done a mix of class prep and pleasure reading:

  • The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix
  • Survive the Night by Riley Sager
  • Here, The World Entire by Anwen Kya Hayward
  • The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner
  • Strange Nests by Jessica McHugh
  • Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Outside of that, Dennis and I have really been enjoying the produce from our garden and we’ve made some pretty tasty meals with the tomatoes and peppers we’ve grown. We had a nice little harvest of Cubanelles, green peppers, and jalapenos, and honestly, Dennis makes the best guacamole around, so the baby and I have been pretty happy campers. I also whipped us up a Cubanelle and corn chowder that didn’t disappoint, and our mint harvest has been unbelievable, so I have bundles all throughout our house drying now so I can make a nice blend of peppermint tea to enjoy during my third trimester.

  • We’ve also been binging True Blood together so that’s been a nice comfort rewatch for me, and I even read the first Sookie Stackhouse book recently, so it’s been cool to revisit everything and do some compare/contrast. Some other stuff I’ve consumed media-wise:
  • I finished AHS Stories and felt blah about it overall. I liked the first two Murderhouse episodes, but after that, I was kind of tuned out.
  • I started AHS: Double Feature this past weekend and I’m intrigued by the first two episodes. There is some The Shining meets Salem’s Lot vibes going on there, so I’m hopeful. I also like the aesthetic and color scheme a lot.
  • I’ve been watching Nine Perfect Strangers and digging that a lot. It’s giving me major And-Then-There-Were-None feelings and I’m here for it!
  • I also completely binged The Chair, which I can’t recommend enough, especially to all my higher education friends. Totally a great watch as we all held back to school…and to campus this fall.
  • I also listened to a few podcast episodes here and there:

Other than that, I’ve been working on a bunch of different projects, some of which I just turned in to editors and others that are still under lock and key. If you want to check out my latest LitReactor piece, a letter to Charles Bukowski, you can check it out here. What I can say is that the HWA Poetry Showcase will be going through a final round of proofreading this week, and then it will be sent off to the good people of the HWA so it can be placed into layout to get all dolled up for its debut later on this year.

Needless to say, it’s been a busy month, but fall is when I start to really wake up creatively, so I’m always inspired and eager to be working on something while my favorite spooky ASMR channels play in the background. 

I hope you’re feeling inspired and excited, too.

Only 60 days until Halloween!

Lost in a pumpkin patch,

Stephanie M. Wytovich

Friday, August 13, 2021

HWA Poetry Showcase, Vol 8: TOC Announcement

Good Morning, Poets and Poetry Lovers!

Today in the Madhouse, I'm thrilled to share with you the TOC and cover reveal for the HWA Poetry Showcase Vol. 8. We had a ton of wonderfully dark and delicious submissions this year--close to 200!--which made the competition incredibly intense, so I want to take a moment to thank all of you who submitted to the anthology; it was, and remains, a true honor to read your work. I also want to send out a special thanks to Sara Tantlinger and Angela Yuriko Smith for all their hard work and insight as judges--as always, it was wonderful working with you ladies!--and to Robert Payne Cabeen, who not only provided us with a beautiful poem but who provided the cover art for the showcase this year. Bob's artwork is always absolutely stunning and I'm thrilled to showcase his talents in this respect, too.

I also wanted to highlight our top three poets this year, whose work will be featured in a separate spotlight courtesy of the HWA Poetry Blog: Ingrid L. Taylor, Lee Murray, and Brenda S. Tolian. Congratulations!

This year is particularly special for me as it will be my last year editing the showcase. After four wonderful, poetry-filled years, I am thankful to the HWA for trusting me with this project, to John Palisano for supporting and encouraging me, and to David E. Cowen for initially recommending me for this position. It has been a journey and a delight, and I've learned so much about the market, the genre, and our fantastic community along the way. Thank you for the scares, the nightmares, and the verses, folks. I hope to return the favor someday (insert evil laugh here).

Below is the TOC (although the order will be slightly adjusted upon print):

Artist/Poet Showcase:
  • Robert Payne Cabeen-- "Run Away"
Crystal Lake Poetry Contest Winner:

  • E.F. Schraeder-- "Cherry Blossoms (On Mourning a Distant Mother)"

Showcase TOC:

  1. Bright Tapestry by Carina Bissett
  2. On the Altar of a Beseeching Bell, Woebegone with Captivity by Saba Syed Razvi
  3. Necrow by Querus Abuttu
  4. Afterlife by Mercedes M. Yardley
  5. Girls Who Create Monsters by Jeannine Hall Gailey
  6. Lucky Charm by Cynthia Pelayo
  7. Revelation 9:15 by Benicio Isandro
  8. orchid moon by Lee Murray
  9. Note for My Sisters When I Am Gone by Patricia Lillie
  10. All of the Ghosts Are Gone by Chad Helder
  11. What Monster is This by Ingrid L. Taylor
  12. Low Tide by Sarah Read
  13. ritual for reuniting with my favorite demon by Kailey Tedesco
  14. Sugar by Jacqueline West
  15. Visiting Hours by Vince A. Liaguno
  16. On Darkest Night of Faerie Bright by Sumiko Saulson
  17. A Woman's Weapon by KC Grifant
  18. Epiales by Caitlin Marceau
  19. the umami of blood by Michael Arnzen
  20. Ferrywoman of Geoje-do by Patricia Flaherty Pagan
  21. Our Nightly Voyage by Amy Langevin
  22. The Serpents' Tale by Lisa Morton
  23. We Are Born of Blade and Blood by Naching T. Kassa
  24. Buried by Lindy Ryan
  25. Seedling by Beverly Lee
  26. Dead as Brains by Lorna D. Keach
  27. Shadecrest Palisades by Manny Blacksher
  28. Skinwalker Moon by Brenda S. Tolian
  29. The Song of the Wandering Zombie by Graham Masterton
  30. Teeth by Brad Christy
  31. The Silence of God by Jamal Hodge
  32. A Garden of Flesh by Deborah L. Davitt
  33. Moon by Corrine De Winter
  34. Mine Offenses by R.J. Joseph
  35. Restless Spiritualists by Amanda Hard
  36. Night Out at the Old Circus by Ian Hunter
  37. Carefully Tended Horrors and Gardens by Trisha J. Wooldridge
  38. Carrie by Emma J. Gibbon
  39. Vargas Visits the Monastery (a Vampyre speech) by Patricia Gomes
  40. Long Forgotten by EV Knight
  41. Win, Lose by Donna Lynch
  42. The Madness of Monsters by Sheldon Woodbury
  43. Your Eyes, Umber Dark, A Disease by Lonni Nadler
  44. Death Mask by Stephanie Ellis
  45. The To-Do List that Never Ends by Kerri-Leigh Grady
  46. To Necrophilia by Katherine Kerestman
  47. There Is No Difference Between an Eye and a Mouth by Donyae Coles
  48. How Date Nights Bring You Ever Closer: A Forbidden Haibun by Terrie Leigh Relf
  49. Waning Moon by Alicia Hilton
  50. In a Place Somewhere Inside by Ronald J. Murray

Sunday, August 1, 2021

July '21 Madhouse Recap

Hello friends and fiends—

I think I cursed myself by saying that June was a slow month because July was anything but! In addition to being noticeably pregnant now (and obsessively cleaning and preparing my house for the little one this winter), I’ve been juggling a lot of projects, writing deadlines, and getting ready for my upcoming courses this fall—not to mention I’m currently teaching a graduate course and taking a psychology course at Point Park.

On the writing/editing front, there’s a lot of exciting things happening:
  • I’m moving forward with getting the 8th volume of the HWA Poetry Showcase organized and edited now. I’ll be making a TOC announcement this month, so please be sure to keep an eye out for that. In the meantime, if you want to check out the earlier versions of the anthology, you can do so here.
  • My poem “The Returned” was published in Nightmare Magazine. You can read it here.
  • Jezzy Wolfe’s poetry collection Monstrum Poetica is available for preorder with Raw Dog Screaming Press, and Lucy Snyder’s forthcoming poetry collection Exposed Nerves just had its cover reveal, which you can view here. Keep a close eye out for a preorder announcement soon.
  • Point Park interviewed me about my Elgin award nomination for The Apocalyptic Mannequin and wrote up a lovely article for their website. You can read it here.

The end of my first trimester and the beginning of my second zapped my energy so I watched a lot of movies and tv shows:

  • I loved the Fear Street Trilogy. What an absolute blast! I was fortunate to win advance screenings of the films, so I was pretty much on cloud 13 (that’s the cloud the horror fans hang out on). This has a lot of rewatch potential in my eyes and I’m sure I’ll be hanging out in Shadyside again this fall.
  • Stoker – a great psychological flick.
  • Son – this was dark and intense, and I really enjoyed it
  • Two horror shorts: White Girl and Separation—If you’re a fan of Cronenberg, give Separation a go!
  • American Horror Stories—so far, I liked episodes 1 and 2, but 3 and 4 fell flat for me.
  • Mare of Easttown – truly amazing. I wish I would have watched this sooner with everyone else.
  • Black Widow—Loved this, too. The commentary on human trafficking coupled with the pro-choice undertones and female awakening/uprising was really inspiring. I was happy to see Marvel go there.  
  • Loki—Now, I love Loki and I enjoyed the series, but I’m jaded about this. Oh well.

I’m currently on an audiobook kick, so I haven’t been listening to as many podcasts lately, but I managed to squeeze in a few episodes this month that I really enjoyed:

When it comes to what I’ve been reading:

  • Bath Haus by P.J. Vernon
  • Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca
  • Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson
  • Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich
  • Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
  • The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix
  • Here, the World Entire by Anwen Kya Hayward

I also managed to sneak in a couple short stories by Amparo Davila and I’m very much enjoying her work! If you haven’t checked out her collection The Houseguest and Other Stories, be sure to add it to your TBR list.

August is going to be intense as I head back to school, ease into a new routine, and type “The End” on a few lingering projects. With that said, I was happy that I got to go see a movie in theatres last month (I didn’t realize quite how much I really missed doing that), and Dennis and I went to a fantastic horror-themed drag show that was truly amazing and something I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

Until next time, I’m hoping that everyone stays safe and healthy and sane, and I really hope we can all see each other soon, so please take care of yourselves and your families and know that Halloween is only 91 days away!

Stay spooky,


Creating Strange Nests Out of Blackout Poetry: An Interview with Jessica McHugh

Hello friends and fiends, Today in the Madhouse, I'm sitting down with my pal Jessica McHugh and talking about her recent blackout poetr...