Thursday, September 21, 2017

Alice in Wonderland and My Top Five Favorite Fantasy Movies

I collect editions of Alice in Wonderland, and this week, a rather exciting addition to my display showed up in the mail for me. While we were at dinner the other night, Dennis found a copy of the book with illustrations by Salvador Dali to commemorate the story's 150th anniversary. Naturally, I had to have it, and honestly, the book is absolutely gorgeous and I highly recommend it if you're interested or a book collector, like myself.

This alone got me thinking about fantasy and how that while I'm drawn to horror, there's no denying that I fell down the rabbit whole with fantasy as a young girl and have been smitten by the genre ever since. I love the idea of make-believe and fantastical places and creatures. I was--and remain to be--fascinated by mythology and fairy tales and the concept of folklore. I used to pretend there were monsters and fairies under my bed and play under there for hours. I had imaginary friends that I chatted with and fought with and quite honestly, scared the hell out of my parents with, but what I'm getting at here is that I was always somewhere else, the girl with an imagination too big to be contained in one room. I needed worlds to disappear to, to play and get beautifully, wondrously lost in. 

Even thinking about these memories makes me smile, and as such, I wanted to share with you my top five favorite fantasy movies, Alice and Wonderland excluded because honestly, there's no competition there. She's my girl and everyone needs to smoke hookah with an existentialist Caterpillar at least once in their life. 

1. Pans Labyrinth: This is one of my most favorite movies and the soundtrack is utterly gorgeous; I write to it often. Here, Ofelia, the stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer escapes into a dark, yet beautiful fantasy world complete with one of my favorite monsters. This movie speaks to me on so many levels because every child wants to be the chosen one, the one who has this secret destiny waiting for her just around the corner. Ofelia escapes the tragedy of the world around her by falling into legend, and as a result, we get to see how the light in the darkness, the life in all this death. 

2. Labyrinth: Ah, the goblin king. What a great story, and you can't beat David Bowie showing up in your bedroom to grant your wishes and take your little brother away. The characters are great--shout out to Ludo, who is my favorite!-and Jim Henson really went above and beyond here with his puppets. I remember watching this for the first time clear as day.

3. The Wizard of Oz/ Return to Oz: A classic at its finest, The Wizard of Oz is a staple in my family. I swear my dad can recite the entire movie by heart, and the lot of us practically raced to the theater when Wicked came to town. As a kid, I loved the journey and world building that the story lets us be a part of--the Emerald City always my personal favorite-- and the Wicked Witch is just a hoot. In fact, my brother was terrified of her for a very long time when we were kids. But as I grew up, I grew to appreciate the books as well and the depth of Oz and the cities beyond it made me fall in love with it even more. 

When I saw Return to Oz, I actually quite liked it better and yes, that's partly due to the fact that it picks up in an asylum and Fairuza Balk--who I love--is Dorothy. Throw in a headless queen and a giant pumpkin though and it's damned near impossible for me not to fall in love.

4. Bridge to Terabithia: This book broke me and the movie did a good job of salting my wounds, too. I love stories where worlds are built as a way to cope with stress, depression, or tragedy, and this book hit those points hard. I love how it details friendship through a world built around trolls, monsters, and ogres. After I read this book, I went outside with my neighbor and we built our first fort in the woods. 

5. The Dark Crystal: First things first: Fizzgig is my spirit animal and probably my favorite creature of all time. If ever I connected with something, it's that feisty little fella. But jokes aside, I love how dark yet spiritual this move is. The prophetic nature of it and the Mystics paired with the grotesque nature of the Skeksis is alluring and trippy and I love how crystal healing and chaos magic comes into play here. Plus, Aughra- Keeper of Secrets is sassy and funny as hell and that's what I have a Pop Funko of her on my desk.

NOTE: Hat tip to pretty much everything that Roald Dahl ever created. I devoured: James and the Giant Peach, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and The Witches as a kid. In fact, The Witches absolutely terrified me, and after a recent viewing of it, I can see why. Hell, it still scared me.

Also, a shout out to The Spiderwick Chronicles.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

BUILDING PUPPETS IN THE MADHOUSE: AN INTERVIEW WITH DANGER SLATER

Hello Friends--

Today in the MADHOUSE, I'm interviewing Danger Slater about his book, Puppet Skin. I remember first hearing about this book from John Skipp on the Three Guys with Beards podcast, a weekly show were Christopher Golden, Jonathan Maberry, and James A. Moore 'get together to discuss popular culture, books, movies, and whatever else crosses their minds.' The idea behind it--middle school children earning their marionette strings at graduation and being turned into puppets--was fascinating to me, and the uncanny grounding that it had immediately caught my interest. It's been on my TBR pile for some time now, and boy am I glad I finally got to it! I'm very much looking forward to checking out more of Slater's work, and I urge you all to do the same.

With puppet feed and nightmares,
Stephanie M. Wytovich

Tell us about your book. What gave you the idea to create this world, and in your opinion, what does it represent?

I have no idea where this or any other idea comes from. You know how it is. Or maybe you don’t. I don’t know. But for me, random shit passes through my head all day like white noise on the radio, provoked by all manner of catalysts. So it’s not just snippets of stories, nascent and half-formed, but it’ll be like ANYTHING at ANYTIME. I look at my cat and think: Catto Blatto Farty Fatto. It’s nonsense, so most of it floats on by. No worries. But every once and a while I’ll fixate on something. And, even rarer than that, it’s starts getting bigger and bigger. Snowballing. And then, all of a sudden, oh look, this idea is the size of a book now!

That said, Puppet Skin is about a world where all human children are turned into wooden marionettes on the day they graduate middle school, converted into wood in a violent and disgusting process that involves attaching strings that hang down from the sky and fill the person up with ‘puppetfeed.’ It’s a book about growing up, and all the terror that brings!

Can you talk a little about Hannah’s character? I really loved the dichotomy that you let her have because while she’s rebellious, she’s also obedient, and I’m curious how you found the balance with her as she fights the concept of getting her strings.

I didn’t think finding a balance was all that hard. You can be rebellious and obedient, in turn. As Walt Whitman wrote “I am large, I contain multitudes.” No opinion, no experience, nothing is absolute, and no singular decision can encompass the entirety of ‘you.’ This is especially true as a teenager -as Hannah is in the book- when you’re really in the process of exploring all these avenues within yourself. People think school is all about learning how to do math and reading The Scarlet Letter and shit (and it is a little bit about that stuff, sure) but it’s also where you learn if you want to be a part of the system, or be outside it, and where disillusionment and liberation come at you in a steady stream. You gotta ask yourself: does “growing up” mean acquiescing to someone else’s version of adulthood? Is this inevitable?  For some of us, and I include myself in this lot, growing up is an unending process. Perhaps it’s my providence as a writer -or at least, a task I’ve opted to take on- trying to understand why, even when the answer is and will remain ineffable. So yeah, I just tried to imbue Hannah with all of that. Easy-peasy lemon-squeezy.

What was your favorite part of the story to create and explore? Did you find any of it cathartic to write about, and if so, in what way?

I put a lot of myself into my characters. Part of the joy of writing this book was figuring out where the pieces of Hannah (a teen girl) and me (an adult man) intersect. My thought was, if I could hone in on that, on the similarities between her and I, then her struggle should be relatable to just about everyone. I remember asking a fellow writer, Jessica McHugh (who writes a YA book series, among other things) about writing a teen girl character. I’m like, “What do teen girls talk/care about?” and she was just like “I dunno dude, same shit as everyone else.” Haha. That advice was very helpful to me, because it was so obvious! Hannah’s struggle is the same as my struggle is the same as yours, though the circumstances may vary, the emotional core or want/need/fear/success a universally human experience.

Personally, puppets (mannequins, dolls, you name it) really freak me out. I thought one of the scarier parts of the book were Hannah’s interactions with her parents because her Mom came off as very flat (which, duh? She’s a puppet), but her dad was almost non-existent, literally there to go through the motion and only come alive when spoken to. It was almost like a case of the body snatchers for me, and I found it very impressive the way you pulled that off but still managed to create this parental relationship with Hannah and her parents throughout. Having said that, what part in the story was the most difficult to write and how did you power through it?

Most difficult….hmmmmm….I guess, the most difficult thing is trying to answer this question. Haha. I don’t know. It’s all difficult. And at the same time, it’s not. Out of everything I’ve ever written, this came out the easiest. This might be because it was the most personal. And if you’ve read the book, you know it kinda wallows in this gray area between hope and despair, so trying to keep in that headspace for the eight months or so it took to write the book, was not necessarily a pleasurable experience, but it was a cathartic one, so I guess it’s a wash.  

I thought the infection scenes were some of the more powerful parts of the book, and they really stood out to me as this mishmash of body horror meets creature feature fiction. As such, I’m kind of curious…why puppets? What fascinates or repulses you about them, and do you have a favorite story or movie that you found particularly influential for this book?

I mean, why not puppets? It’s perfect for the metaphor and they’re creepy as fuck. The book couldn’t have worked any other way.

I’m a big fan of body-horror in general, and the more visceral the better. Stuff like Cronenberg’s The Fly  or Carpenter’s The Thing, stuff where you can’t trust your own body, or the bodies of people around you. But I also like campy stuff too, with a bit of humor, like the stuff you find Troma putting out. And if we’re talking movies, there is, of course, people like Charlie Kaufman and the films he wrote that, while not horror, really cut to the core of what being human means, which in itself can be quite horrifying. Sometimes the scariest stuff isn’t the monster that lurks in the dark, it’s knowing you’re all alone, and there’s no such thing as monsters. I guess the idea is, hopefully, taking all these disparate elements and figuring out what to use and where and when to see if I can’t build something exciting and original on the shoulders of the greats.

How would you describe your writing style to those who are new to your work?

I write like a trash can full of fireworks going pop-pop-pop-pop.

What is next in store for your readers? Have you considered writing a sequel to Puppet Skin?

A sequel? Hell no! Everything that this story needed to say has already been said, and unless someone hands me a big wad of cash, I’m personally not interested in revisiting it. That said: SOMEONE HAND ME A BIG WAD OF CASH PLEASE.

Up next, though (Nov. 2017, Fungasm Press) I have a book called He Digs A Hole, a domestic body-horror story dealing with marriage about a man who wakes up one night and decides to cut off his hands and replaces them with gardening trowels and begin digging an impossibly deep hole in his own backyard, much to the chagrin of his wife and neighbors. And that’s just the first chapter. 

Who are some of your influences in the genre? Do you have any writing rituals that you tend to follow either before/during/or after you write?

I like to write first thing when I wake up while listening to music, really loud. I have a playlist I’ve been building for years. It’s got almost 900 carefully curated songs, things that mostly either give me an emotional reaction (I love female vocalists like Amanda Palmer and Regina Spektor) or like, really loud abrasive punk stuff that gets me all jacked-up. But I’ll mix it up with movie soundtracks, EDM, folk, hip-hop, and whatever the fuck else that happens to speak to my soul. I’ll find my fingers typing to the rhythm of the music sometimes. It’s preeeeeetttty cool.

What books are sitting in your TBR pile?

I just started reading The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. She’s just the goddamn best. I didn’t discover her until recently (I mean, I knew who she was, but I had never read her until recently). I haven’t checked out that Handmaiden’s Tale TV show they based off her book yet, but far as I can tell from the commercials, it looks pretty neat. After that I was thinking of rereading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, which I haven’t read in probably 15 years, but remember really enjoying. The last two books I finished were The Big Meat, by Carlton Mellick III and The Warblers by Amber Fallon. Both excellent.

If you could give one piece of advice to new writers, what would it be?

If you ever win $20,000 on a scratch-off lottery ticket, you should throw a party so massive that you spend the whole thing in one night. Then, the next morning, when you wake up all red-eyed and hungover, if you’re really serious about this thing, start writing a book.

Friday, September 15, 2017

A FINAL NOTE TO MY NANA.

When I was little, my grandparents used to watch me while my mom and dad were at work. I have letters that I used to write my Nana and practically have her signature memorized from all the cards I've saved over the years. There are countless pictures of me sitting in my Nana’s laundry basket and smiling, and if I close my eyes, I can almost hear her say “how can a little girl sleep so much?” and then bring me pancakes while I watch cartoons in her bed.

Baby Stephanie and her Nana
When I think of her, I think of hot chocolate and freshly made cookies, clip on earrings and big, beaded necklaces, and the way her hands used to hold mine in the hospital room when she was scared. I think of her trying to teach me how to cook and then giving me a plate of meatballs and telling me to go watch the news with my pap because I was measuring everything wrong, and I remember the first time I baked cookies with her—early on when she was first diagnosed with dementia—and how her cookies were triple the size she used to make them. She’d get angry but then laugh really hard at the baking sheet, and god, her laugh was magical. A big, full body laugh that just lit up the room.

I remember playing bingo with her in the kitchen while we watched The Price is Right and she’d make me a bologna sandwich for lunch, and I remember asking her how to speak Polish and then her trying to teach me a few words here and there while we sat together on the porch swing outside. My love of flowers stems from my grandparents and the beautiful garden they had together, so when I see hydrangeas, I will forever think of her, just like how when I see roses, my granfather is the first face in my mind.

We used to spend every Christmas day at my Nana’s, so when it snows, I’ll think of her then, too, along with all the polish food she’d make next to my pap’s freshly grown beets and my demands for her potato salad. 

At dessert, she’d fill the entire dining room with her cookies, and it was always a hard decision trying to figure out which one’s were worth the calories that night—but it was never really a problem because she’d send all of us home with a box of cookies and a few nut rolls for good measure.

I don’t have to tell you, but I’m really going to miss her baking.
There is a love and a comfort in your grandmother’s cooking that can’t quite be measured my anyone else.
Like Mother like Daughter like Granddaughter

I could go on and on for hours, but what I’m getting at here is that I think I’ve been really blessed in life to have the relationship I did with my grandmother. We would go Christmas shopping together every year and when I got Edgar, I immediately got in my car and drove the hour it took to get to her house just so she could see all his puppy wrinkles. She was an extraordinary woman who loved her family and traveled the world and the memories we share are endless. In fact, I can’t think of a single event that she missed, whether it was my softball games (rain or shine), or my graduation days (high school-graduate school). I don’t know if she ever understood what I do or write exactly, but that didn’t stop her from coming to my poetry readings and meeting my friends and colleagues while I got my horror on. Every time that I went to see her, she’d ask me if I was still writing, if I was teaching. I would always tell her yes, and she would just brusquely say “good,” as if that was the only thing that mattered.

But my Nana had been sick for a long time and the past two years have been heart-breakingly difficult for all of us. In a lot of ways as I get ready for her funeral this afternoon, it’s like I’m mourning the loss of her for a second time. I’ve sewn imaginary curtains with her in the hospital room and whispered names under my breath so she could remember them and not be embarrassed. I’ve gone and sat with her and laughed while she told me about how handsome Eric Dance is and then proceeded to blush when he came on the screen, and I remember bringing her a huge bouquet of blue and gray flowers and then her yelling at me for spending money and shoving a ten back in my pocket.

Whether it was at the hospital, the house, the nursing home, or the hospice, I always tried to tell her how beautiful she was and how much I loved her because I never knew when the last time I would see her would be. She would blow me kisses and then kick my ass in rummy, because no matter what stage of Alzheimer’s she had, that woman could play cards and she was fierce.

We did have one conversation that I’ll never forget though, and it was in the hospital after her first fall. I was holding her hand while they were putting a catheter in and she looked at me and said “Stephanie, I’m so sorry you have to watch your grandmother die,” and my heart just broke in half.
I tried my best not to openly weep, and I held her hand and told her that I loved her and that there was no place I would rather be than next to her, that she spent her whole life taking care of me and now it was my turn to hold her when she was scared and love her like she’s always loved me.

And then she smiled with tears in her eyes.

Me and Nana, Christmas, 2014
Nana,

I will never, ever forget that moment, and I wouldn’t trade a single moment that we spent together, good or bad, sick or healthy. I know that you’re going to look beautiful today and mass is going to be gorgeous tomorrow. Dennis is going to cantor, and I know you only met him twice, but he’s that handsome guy who gave me the ring you thought was pretty, yeah? Well, he has a beautiful voice so I’m happy you’ll finally get to hear him sing.

Mom and I are going to do the readings and then I have something special planned for you at the cemetery. I think it will make you smile.

Oh, and try not to clean everything in Heaven, okay? I’m sure God has everything under control. Oh, and say hi to great-grandma for me. I saw a picture of her yesterday and you look just like her.

I love you so much.
See you soon. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Five Movies That Ruined My Childhood

Greetings Horror Fans,

I recently got back from seeing IT the other night, and holy shit was it fantastic. Not only did it exceed my expectations, but it really gave me a lot to think about it terms of 1) why this movie/book is so terrifying and 2) why this movie/book is so successful. I love everything about the story from the concept of fear being individualized, to the family dynamics it explores, to Pennywise the Dancing Clown luring Georgie down the sewer. 

But this post isn't about why I loved It. 
This post is about the movies that ruined my childhood.

Now let me be frank--I was way too young to be watching any of these movies, but you folks know me, and some of you even know my family, so none of this should really surprise you. We bleed monsters and madmen here in the Wytovich clan. Having said that, the fear that this movies instilled in me at a young age not only shaped my phobias growing up, but they also fascinated me, hence one of the many reasons I grew up to write horror. So before I start the list, I want to thank the writers and directors of these films because without them, I would be entirely too normal and life would be very boring. 

1. Salem's Lot by Stephen King; Tobe Hooper (1979)

I can still vividly remember watching this in the basement with my mom. She was ironing and I was curled up on the couch, my eyes glued to the screen as Danny Glick came to Mark Petrie's window and asked to be let in. Growing up, I had a love/hate relationship with vampires because while I was completely enamored by them, they also scared the shit out of me. I had two windows in my bedroom growing up, and this movie made me check that they were locked each night...and sleep with the covers around my neck.


2. Pet Sematary by Stephen King; Mary Lambert (1989)

This was the first book that I read by King, and I remember reading this one in my bedroom and staring out the window at our shed. We had our own little pet sematary back there, complete with my goldfish (Cory, Shawn, and Topanga) and most recently at the time, my rabbit, Fluffy. Now Fluffy was my first pet, and she died a truly horrific death, one that I still see in my nightmares on occasion, and god dammit if after reading that book and watching that movie if I didn't think she was going to come back like Church did and eat me alive. To this day, I still don't like going near the shed at my parent's house, and we rarely, if ever, bring up Fluffy anymore.


3. Arachnophobia by Dan Jakoby, Al Williams, Wesley Strick; Frank Marhsall (1990)

I have yet to watch this movie in its entirety and I probably never will. If anything is responsible for my crippling fear of spiders, then this move is what's to blame. And yeah, yeah, I know. B-Horror at it's finest and all that jazz, but I will never forgive my dad for calling me downstairs to see that spider attack the girl in the shower. Literally, every day when I wash my hair, I think of this scene. Little did I know that in a few short years, I'd be reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and dealing with a whole different mess of problems...


4. Tremors by S. S. Wilson, Brent Maddock; Ron Underwood (1990)

This one actually makes me laugh a lot when I think about it, because I can remember being in my Jasmine pajamas and jumping on the couch with my dad while I played 'sandworm attack' in the living room. I was terrified to walk on the floor after watching this, so my dad pushed the couches together and set up chairs so I could still play. When it was time for bed, I merely crawled across the couches and chairs until I got to the steps and went to my room. The fear didn't last long, but man do I remember being sure I was going to be sucked into the floor that night.



5. It by Stephen King; Tommy Lee Wallace (1990)

There are countless reasons why this movie scarred me as a kid, and as a result, I wasn't able to watch the entire movie until I was in my early twenties. I remember coming downstairs and asking my dad what he was watching, and before I knew it, a fucking clown was climbing out of a shower drain and trying to eat Eddie. Jesus. As if I already wasn't afraid of getting attacked by a mutant South American Spider, now I had to worry about Pennywise the Dancing Clown trying to lure me in a sewer, which ironically, I still can't walk over today without having a mini panic attack. Also, if you're keeping track, Stephen King has a solid 3/5 here and therefore wins the title of responsibility for my childhood nightmares.