Friday, May 25, 2018

Opening Up to Death: Using Ritual as a Coping Mechanism

All my life, people have assumed that I’m obsessed with death, and while to some extent that may be true, the more accurate answer is that I’m terrified of mortality and therefore so consumed with the concept of death that I’ve truly fallen madly in love with life. As such, I tend to live life passionately, and because of that excitement, I’m often always planning and multitasking too many projects and trips to keep up with, not to mention how careful I am about honoring my relationships with friends and family, never leaving without a giant hug and never hesitant to tell those I love how much they mean to me.

But as a woman raised in the Catholic faith, I’ve struggled to find my identity because I knew that the religion wasn’t something I completely agreed with, nor followed in my heart of hearts. While I think some of the practices are beautiful, and while I continue to maintain my beliefs (on my terms) to a certain degree, my journey exploring other faiths and practices has been a true blessing, not to mention one of the most enlightening spiritual paths I’ve had the opportunity to take.

Witchcraft was always something that sat in the back of my mind, but as a little girl who was taught “a man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads[1]” all I could think of was fire and damnation, and I was terrified about exploring something that –from what I read—aligned with a lot of my beliefs about energy, nature, death, balance, and cleansing.

Because of this, I’ve spent the past few years exploring the craft with a special focus on ritual as a coping mechanism for death, as well as looking at it through the lens of a guiding point in an effort to build a healthier relationship with mortality. As the past two years have brought with it the death of two of my grandparents, and the suicide of one of my aunts, I’ve been searching for a way to both honor death and celebrate life, forever looking for the balance between the light and the dark.

Now I have a rich history of depression swimming in my genetic makeup. I’ve battled chronic depression, insomnia, panic attacks, and severe anxiety for most of my life, and I’ve found that ritual has helped me not only to assuage some of my anxiety, but to express my grief and trauma through a way that promotes self-care while still acknowledging the great forces around me, thus grounding me emotionally and spiritually.

As such, here are some of the practices and rituals I’ve kept and stayed true to over the years. I hope they help bring you peace and comfort in trying times.

Remembrance Altars

When my aunt died, it was unexpected, and it was the first time anyone close to me had passed. When my grandfather and grandmother passed, and in such a short time after, the agony that followed was suffocating. To honor their memory and help keep their spirit alive, I made remembrance altars so I had/have a place to go in order to talk to them, pray, etc. as I worked through the stages of grief. For me, this aids with the grieving process because 1) it’s an honest reflection of death and one’s mortality, 2) it lessens the feeling of loneliness while still being true to the finality of the experience, and 3) it allows me to mediate and remember them through moments of joy, love, and peace, thereby showing the beauty of life rather than focusing on the sorrows of death. Some of what I use/d on my altar(s) include: 
  • White pillar candles (sometimes dressed with essential oils/herbs depending on the connection I’m looking for, i.e. love, advice, memory, etc.)
  • Personal items of the deceased (for example, on one, I use my grandmother's beads and the prayer card from her funeral)
  • Quartz crystals (white)
  • Dried flowers (again, depending on the connection I’m looking for)
  • My rose-infused rosary from Rome, Italy.

Funeral Rituals

My grandmother and I were very close, so at her wake, and then later at her funeral, I wanted to make sure she was buried with a farewell that suited her grace, especially because one night, she held my hand and apologized for me having to watch her die. To me, the western tradition of not handling our dead is a true loss because I think there’s something very beautiful and healthy about personally preparing our loved ones for their next journey. While emotionally, and at times physically painful--as grief can manifest in a variety of ways--I found every moment I spent with her prior to her death, and after, a true blessing. It is a great gift to be able to reassure and love someone during what makes for the scariest, and sometimes most painful, moment of their life, and as I told her then, there was nothing she ever needed to apologize for. She took care of me as a child, and now it was my turn to hold her hand and take care of her. 

I think, to some degree, my mom would agree as well. 

 As you can imagine, my grandmother's death was traumatic for me, in a lot of ways--Alzheimer’s is a cruel, horrid disease—and I grieved hard while sorting through home videos, photographs, letters, and old birthday cards.  At the funeral, my mother and her siblings put her purse (which in the later stages of the disease, she consistently lost and asked about) in the casket, and inside her purse, I put a long letter that I wrote to her (which can be read here). The following day, I carried a rose to her grave, and read a poem I wrote in her memory for everyone, including her, to hear. It was a beautiful moment of connection and closure, and I feel very much at peace knowing that I said goodbye in a way that was more than be standing in a random funeral home for four hours.


Before I visit one of my altars, a grave, or if I even just sit down to meditate, I like to ground myself. Usually I picture myself sitting in the woods, surrounded my trees and a subtle light. As an avid listener of Mantras for Precarious Times by Deva Premal, I usually take my beads and do the chant for the removing of obstacles, i.e. Om Gum Ganapatayei  Namaha. I envision roots moving through my feet and into the earth, grounding me to the world and the energy around me. This has especially helped me during the acceptance stage of grieving as it lessons my anxiety about death and helps me to see it as a cyclic part of life, something that is neither a blessing nor a curse, but rather another step in our journey. 

Insomnia/Sleep rituals

Sleep has never been my friend, and during times of grief, it becomes particularly difficult for me to sleep as I’ve struggled with nightmares and insomnia for as long as I can remember. In fact, it’s taken me most of my life to get matters under control. I have one tea ritual that I like to use, as well as another recipe (along with some products) that I’ve found to greatly help me achieve a state of peace and serenity during the night.

  • Hedgewitch Apothecary’s Tea, Enter the Sandman
  • C&C Apothecary’s Dream Salve
  • Burning (or chewing) mugwort
  • A sachet of lavender and balsam fir inside your pillow
  • My Dream Milk Recipe

      • 1 cup warm milk (heated either on the stove or via the microwave depending on your preference)
      • A dash of cinnamon (sometimes, I like to stick an entire cinnamon stick in there if I have one)
      •  A splash of vanilla
      •  Honey, to taste 

    Grief Cleansing

    Last but not least, I have two water rituals that I like to do in times of trauma and grief, but also as a means of self-care. Each of these, to some degree, is reminiscent of baptism, but something that always bothered me growing up is that baptism wasn’t a repetitive act. I love the idea of using water and prayer to cleanse us of our pain and suffering, thereby allowing us to start anew. As such, I like to charge a small bowl of water under the new moon/full moon as a way to heighten my experience with starting fresh/understanding the cycle of life.

    (1) Bath Ritual

    For this, I usually run a bath and fill it with Epsom salts and essential oils (usually lemon). If I have some dried roses, I’ll throw some in the tub, too, along with some rosemary. I’ll line the tub with rose quartz (love and spiritual nourishment), selenite (guardian angels) and amethyst (spiritual connection and protection) and in between the crystals, I’ll put seashells that I've collected at the beach. Usually I light white candles during this as well, and then as I’m soaking in the tub, I’ll concentrate of waves of light washing over me, helping to lessen the trauma and grief with each metaphorical wave that crashes against my body. Even focusing on the in and out of waves at sea is a great calmer, and again, it reinforces the idea--in a gentle way--that what comes in to the life, must also be taken back.

    (2) Crystal Cleanse/Meditation

    If I’m feeling particularly tense, I like to wind down in the evening with a couple rounds of moon salutations, followed by a light shavasana (or corpse pose) to help me relax and sort through my emotions. For me, this is useful at any stage of the grieving process, but especially during times of denial, anger, and blame. In those cases, I usually cast a circle and work within it, sometimes even lining my body (third eye, throat, and heart chakra) with quartz crystals during shavasana. 

    [1] Leviticus 20:27

    Tuesday, May 8, 2018


    Good Morning, Everyone:

    Today in the Madhouse, I'm featuring author Gwendolyn Kiste where we'll talk reversed fairy tales, female empowerment, and chat about her short story collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe. I have to say that I absolutely loved and was taken with this collection, and I found myself connecting with the stories inside it on a very real, emotional level. For those of you who know me, you know that I have a soft spot for the beautiful grotesque and that I think horror is one of the best genres in writing for learning coping methods and survival skills. Kiste's work incorporates all of that, but with the softness of a first kiss and the subtlety of a sharpened dagger. 

    I'm beyond excited to have her here with me today, but for those of you who are new to her work, let me give you a proper introduction.Gwendolyn Kiste is the author of And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, her debut fiction collection available now from JournalStone, as well as the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shimmer, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, LampLight, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye as well as Flame Tree Publishing's Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology, among others. She currently resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts.  

    So stay away from the spinning wheel, try not to the eat the apple, and get ready to dive into a world of birds, towers, and women who like to break the rules.

    With seashells and owl feathers,
    Stephanie M. Wytovich 

    Tell us about your book. What gave you the idea to create this collection, and in your opinion, what does it represent at its most literal and figurative heights?

    To be honest, I was inspired to put together the collection when my now-editor, Jess Landry, at JournalStone reached out to me and asked me to submit a book to her. I knew I had more than enough stories for a collection, but I’d wanted to wait until the right opportunity came along. I already admired Jess and all the work she’d done as an author, and I was so thrilled to be able to get on board with her as an editor, so I was sure that this was exactly the opportunity I’d hoped for. So I went through my work and really pored over which pieces went together. Once I’d winnowed everything down to nine previously published stories, I finished up a handful of new tales for the table of contents that were along a similar vein, and suddenly I realized I had a book! It felt a little like magic when it all came together.

    To me, the collection is all about outsiders. It explores stories of people who have been pushed out of life, and bullied or entirely ostracized because of societal expectations. The horror mainly comes from that everyday dread of figuring out how to live in a world that’s so often hostile to anyone who’s different. In particular, it was important to me to have a collection that focused a lot on female characters and the relationships between them. Growing up, I always yearned for more female-centric stories, and once I had the chance, I knew that’s what I wanted to write.    

    There were so many beautiful stories in this collection that it’s hard for me to pick a favorite. However, I was particularly taken with the first story, “Something Borrowed, Something Blue.” The imagery of birds juxtaposed with femininity and birth is written with such care and fragility, that I’m curious, what inspired it?

    The simple answer for this one is that I just really love birds. Owls, crows, vultures, even pigeons—I’m a pretty big fan of all of them. Somehow, I also manage to spend a lot of time with birds too. I’ve held baby owls, been followed by murders of crows across town, and observed (from a safe distance) as mother and father birds taught their babies to fly.

    Part of what draws me to birds, beyond how beautiful and fascinating they are, is that they’re tied to this idea of freedom. Flight can be such a metaphor for independence, and for letting go of the past and moving into the future or even the unknown. That mystery of birds definitely gives them a tinge of horror too, a certain kind of uncertainty or strangeness.

    On the other hand, childbirth is one of the most terrifying things in the world to me. It’s so violent and yet treated so casually in society, like women should just be able to “bounce back” within minutes, despite how many changes, physically and emotionally, it puts new mothers through. As I was doing some free association in a drafting process, I imagined a connection between the freedom and mystery of birds and the terror of childbirth, especially in circumstances where the new mother is disregarded by those who should care most about her. It was certainly a painful story to write at points, but I like to think the ending is ultimately an optimistic, if not a little bit creepy, one.

    “The Tower Princesses” reads like a reverse fairy tale, much like “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray.” I love that you’re empowering women through your retellings of these stories and tropes that we’re all familiar with, most of us even, from childhood. What effect are you hoping these stories have on how women are portrayed in the horror industry, both the writers and their characters?

    I very much hope that these stories expand upon women’s roles, especially in horror, and give us a chance to reclaim our own narratives and make us into something more than victims. To be fair, horror has always included more strong female characters than many other genres, but in particular when looking at fairy tales, women are too often relegated to waiting for the prince to come and save them. With both “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray” and “The Tower Princesses,” I wanted to subvert that trope and allow the female characters to fight for and discover their own paths. It can be so easy to internalize the stories we’re told from childhood, and for me, as a writer, I like to take the tales that might have quietly built up one narrative for readers and look at that same story from a different and hopefully more challenging perspective. We can still love the things we grew up with, while at the same time realizing that some of the “lessons” we learned were dated and even at times damaging.      

    “The Clawfoot Requiem” was another favorite of mine, and to me, it’s a perfect example of the beautiful grotesque. For readers who are unfamiliar with the terminology, how would you describe the beautiful grotesque, and to add on to that, how do you like to tackle it in your writing?

    For me, the beautiful grotesque is all about finding the lyrical and the elegant in images and themes that are commonly seen as unnerving or even outright disgusting. In my writing, I might take an image—the bathtub of blood in “The Clawfoot Requiem” or the gory childbirth in “Something Borrowed, Something Blue”—and depict it in a way that isn’t there solely to “gross-out.” Instead, the focus is on what’s quietly lovely and hopefully emotionally resonant in the creepy moment.

    One of my favorite things about the beautiful grotesque is that it can be a strange kind of coping mechanism. Horror in general helps readers (and writers) to deal with the more terrifying aspects of life. By taking that one step further and not just dealing with the things that terrify us but also making those things beautiful, it can simultaneously enhance the horror while also adding an odd level of comfort. Because if something’s beautiful, it can’t just be horrifying, right? There’s certainly cognitive dissonance in the beautiful grotesque, and personally, I think that makes it even more appealing to me, how the juxtaposition challenges expectations.

    To me, the collection read like a whimsical, haunted fairy tale, so I have to ask. What’s your favorite fairy tale and why?

    It’s obviously so hard to pick, but I’ll have to go with Baba Yaga. She’s such a fascinating and still underappreciated character. I love her capricious nature, how she’s as likely to assist the protagonist as she is to antagonize them. Plus, who wouldn’t want to live in a house with chicken legs, and ride around in a mortar and pestle every night? She’s definitely quite the gal!

    However, in terms of my favorite fairy tale retelling, that would be “The Company of Wolves.” It was the first Angela Carter story I ever read, and it was a complete revelation for me. Ever since discovering it in an undergrad literature class, I can very honestly say I haven’t been the same.

    What takeaway do you hope your readers leave your collection with?

    It’s interesting, because I don’t necessarily have a specific takeaway for the collection. I’m happy with whatever the readers discover for themselves while reading these stories. That being said, if I had to choose, I hope that those who feel like the outsider or the Other come away feeling at least a little less alone in the world. And for anyone who doesn’t necessarily feel like the outsider, then maybe they’ll have more understanding and compassion for those who don’t belong. I can be a bit too optimistic about the future, but I still like to believe that one day, we’ll have a world where we don’t deliberately lock people out of opportunity and out of life and happiness. I think literature can provide one way for us to move toward a more inclusive society, and I would very much like for my work to be part of that.

    How did you come to writing and who are some of your influences?

    Like so many of us, I’ve been writing pretty much since I could pick up a pencil. I put together my first little books of stories when I was around six years old, complete with really terrible illustrations. (I’m definitely not a visual artist!) I’ve always loved horror and the darker side of fairy tales, so as a voracious reader as a child, it seemed like the most wonderful possibility for me that eventually, I could be a writer too.

    My biggest influences are definitely Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, and Angela Carter. Their fiction never ceases to surprise me, no matter how many times I read and reread their stories. As for authors writing today, Brooke Warra, Farah Rose Smith, Eden Royce, Christa Carmen, Calvin Demmer, and Christina Sng are just a few who consistently inspire me with their work. It’s a wonderful time to be a horror and dark fantasy writer, for sure.     

    Can you give us an insight into your writing process? Any habits or rituals when you sit down to write?

    I’ve found over the past year or so that I actually write best when I don’t have a typical pattern but instead switch up where I write and when. I have a dedicated writing desk at home, but I love to get out of the house when I can. To coffee shops, diners, any place that has Wi-Fi and sometimes even places that don’t. My biggest challenge is to make sure nothing about the process of writing feels too rote. I can’t get into that creative headspace if that happens.

    I will say, though, that a cup of coffee is always a great motivator. It’s the one ritual that never fails for me!  

    What books are sitting in your TBR pile?

    Too many to count, honestly! In the next month or so, I’m looking very forward to reading Larissa Glasser’s F4, Chthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth from Martian Migraine Press, Craig Laurance Gidney’s The Nectar of Nightmares, and an advance copy of Christa Carmen’s debut collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked. I’ll probably also reread a couple books in there too, including Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws as well as Literary Witches by Taisia Kitaiskaia and illustrated by Katy Horan. So many incredible books, and so little time!

    What is next in store for your readers?

    My debut novel, The Rust Maidens, is coming very soon! Based primarily in the year 1980, it’s about a group of girls in a Cleveland neighborhood who are slowly turning into the rust and rot that surrounds them. It includes some of my favorite themes such as body horror and coming of age, and it also has some elements of a very weird, gothic fairy tale too. That will be released through Trepidatio Publishing, an imprint of JournalStone, and should be coming out in September.

    While the novel is my big project for the year, I also have a number of short stories that will be making their way into the world soon as well. In particular, my horror story, “An Elegy for Childhood Monsters,” will appear in Suspended in Dusk 2 from Grey Matter Press, and my cosmic horror tale, “A Lost Student’s Guide to Surviving the Abyss,” will be part of the Welcome to Miskatonic University anthology from Broken Eye Books.  I have a couple other pieces that I can’t announce yet, but hopefully, there will be several more things to come in 2018.   

    What advice do you have for writers working in the horror genre?

    It might seem obvious, but write what scares you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not the usual things that are deemed “frightening.” In fact, sometimes, the most unusual fears create the best and more distinctive stories. If it unnerves you, then it’s worth exploring. Especially when writing horror, it’s often easier and less painful to take the easy way out, to look away from the things that truly bother us, but when you dig deep into the recesses of who you are and what truly terrifies you, that’s when I think a writer is going to find that vein of truth in their work. And that’s what’s more likely to resonate with readers.

    Book Description & Blurbs

    A murdered movie star reaches out to an unlikely fan. An orchard is bewitched with poison apples and would-be princesses. A pair of outcasts fail a questionnaire that measures who in their neighborhood will vanish next. Two sisters keep a grotesque secret hidden in a Victorian bathtub. A dearly departed best friend carries a grudge from beyond the grave.

    In her debut collection, Gwendolyn Kiste delves into the gathering darkness where beauty embraces the monstrous, and where even the most tranquil worlds are not to be trusted. From fairy tale kingdoms and desolate carnivals, to wedding ceremonies and summer camps that aren't as joyful as they seem, these fourteen tales of horror and dark fantasy explore death, rebirth, and illusion all through the eyes of those on the outside---the forgotten, the forsaken, the Other, none of whom will stay in the dark any longer.

    "Ravishingly beautiful and profoundly haunting." -- Maria Haskins, author of Dark Flash

    "These stories come from the shadows under the merry-go-round, and they're eager to drag you back there with them." -- Sarah Read, author and editor at Pantheon Magazine
    "A lyrical journey of blood, loss, and secrets, Kiste's debut collection takes you from a cursed orchard to a world that looks all too familiar. Dark and beautiful, And Her Smile is not to be missed." -- Jacob Haddon, editor of LampLight

    Promotional Links

    Wednesday, May 2, 2018

    THERE ARE BOOKS FOR YOU IN HELL: Dark Regions Press to Raffle off 10 copes of The Eighth

    Exciting news! I'm currently in the author spotlight (AH! IT BURNS) over at Dark Regions Press. We'll be doing some fun stuff over the next couple of weeks and right now, Dark Regions Press is giving away 10 copies of my debut novel, The Eighth over on Facebook and Twitter. 
    Be sure to like their page and head over to join the fun. 
    Book Summary:
    After Paimon, Lucifer’s top soul collector, falls in love with a mortal girl whose soul he is supposed to claim, he desperately tries everything in his power to save her from the Devil’s grasp. But what happens when a demon has to confront his demons, when he has to turn to something darker, something more sinister for help? Can Paimon survive the consequences of working with the Seven Deadly Sins-sins who have their own agenda with the Devil—or will he fall into a deeper, darker kind of hell?
    What They're Saying:

    "The Eighth is a stellar horror debut from Stephanie Wytovich. An intimate, painful map of personal and literal hells that would make Clive Barker proud." - Christopher Golden, New York Times bestselling author
    “The Eighth is an intense tale of love, betrayal, damnation and regret. Paimon's story draws you in with lyrical language and lush imagery that is both beautiful and disturbing. This story is definitely not safe for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach, immersing you in a world of pain and darkness.”-Angela Crawford, Horror Maiden Book Reviews

    “Stephanie Wytovich’s The Eighth is a savage tale of betrayal, regret, and the dark side of love in its many forms. The poetic imagery she sprinkles throughout balances the brutality with beauty.”  Chris Marrs, author of Wildwoman and Everything Leads Back to Alice

    “A fierce and emotionally intense debut.”- Craig DiLouie, author of Suffer the Children
    “A brilliant debut from a major new talent, full of darkness, fire, and devilry. Indeed, the sins in this novel are so well realized that I fear just a little for Ms. Wytovich’s soul.”- Rio Youers, author of Westlake Soul and Point Hollow
    Loosely based on the Hades of Dante’s Inferno, Wytovich’s depiction of the underworld is truly terrifying and it’s likely that it would scare the hell out of Alighieri himself.”-Shane Douglas Keen, This is Horror UK
    “…a raw, bloody and intriguing portrait of obsession and pain.”-Unnerving Magazine

    “Stephanie Wytovich is by nature a poet. THE EIGHTH is both pure poetry, and purely poetic. From the first lines I floated in imagery and lyricism, in sensuality in its strictest sense, a feast of the senses. A hedonist would revel! [Both Aleister Crowley and Oscar Wilde come to mind in this regard.]”- The Haunted Reading Room


    This year, I'm going to be attending/vending at the Merrimack Valley Halloween Festival in Haverhill, MA. I'll have copies of my poetry collections (Hysteria: A Collection of Madness, Mourning Jewelry, An Exorcism of Angels, Brothel, and Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare), and my novel (The Eighth). The Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival 2018 will feature at least more than SIXTY authors, artists, and filmmakers. Panel discussions. Brand new book debuts. And, of course, Trick or Treat candy.

    Event Details:
    Saturday, October 13th, 2018, from 10am to 4:30pm.
    Haverhill Public Library
    Haverhill, MA

    I'm really excited for this event, not just because it will give me the chance to meet more readers, but also because I'll be getting to see my writing family again, some of who I only see maybe once a year (or maybe every other year at that). I'm also planning on taking some time to explore Massachusetts, and in additional to Haverhill, I'll be hanging out in Boston, Amherst, and Salem. I plan on leaving offerings at Emily Dickinson's and Anne Sexton's grave, visiting the Dickinson museum, and spending lots of time photographing and researching Salem for a literature class I'm designing.

    This opportunity is perfectly timed because this past semester, I taught Dickinson, Sexton, and Hawthorne. Beyond the confessional poets obviously having a huge influence on my work, I'm also using their work for a larger non-fiction project that's been in the making, so having the chance to honor them at their resting place will be a beautiful moment for me. It's kind of like when Patti Smith talks about visiting Plath's grave in her memoir, M Train (which if you haven't read that book, I highly recommend doing so). As for Hawthorne, I plan on doing some more work to prepare for my visit to Salem. I teach a lot of his short stories, which I'm madly in love with, and I've of course read The Scarlet Letter more times than I care to count, but I also want to read The House of the Seven Gables, as well as some other witchcraft inspired books (not necessarily by him), such as The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike. All in all, I think it will be a refreshing trip both mentally and emotionally, and I'm very much looking forward to spending time in a new place with people I've grown to love.