Friday, April 2, 2021

March '21 Madhouse Recap

Hello and Good Afternoon, Friends and Fiends!

March is one of my favorite months and I’m sure the fact that my birthday is tucked inside there has nothing whatsoever to do with that (chuckles manically). Aries energy aside, I rang in 32 this year covered in dogs with violets in the air, and honestly, I’m feeling pretty good these days, which is quite an accomplishment because I wrote about creative burnout a few years back and it was something that I was really struggling with. I had to learn to take breaks, to be okay with not writing constantly, and to accept that I don’t always need to be working to be valid (yes, this is easier said than done, and yes, I still struggle with this concept).

I spent a lot of March relaxing. I built a truly insane number of puzzles (and I’m working on an impossibly cool Edward Gorey one now), listened to some of my favorite vinyl by candlelight, caught up on some podcast episodes, watched ShookLuckyTheVigil and Promising Young Woman, and checked out the Frida Kahlo: an Intimate Portrait photography exhibit at the Frick. I also decked out my house in fresh flowers (daisies, sunflowers, roses, daffodils) and celebrated Ostara with my parents, which was beautiful. I also did a ritual with my Rose of Jericho where we watched it uncurl and bloom as a meditative exercise to welcome rebirth. We then all wrote down what we wanted to nurture, grow, and invite into our lives this year, and then we burned bay leaves in my grandmother’s cauldron. What was especially cool is right when my dad lit the fire, my grandma actually called his cell to check-in and tell us she loves us.

On the book side of things, I read all over the place this month:

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Dolly by Susan Hill
  • Strange Academy, Vol. 1 by Skottie Young
  • How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
  • I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez
  • Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
  • The Nightgown and Other Poems by Taisia Kitaiskaia

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m teaching two young adult classes currently and I’m having just the best time diving into the genre with my mentees. We’ve been reading some incredible books this semester and the discussions have been really thought-provoking and deep, so a lot of my time and energy has been put into working outside the horror genre this month, but you know I’m never too far away from my home…

In fact, I’m thankful to be teaching the second round of Witch Lit with LitReactor this month—which is always a blast!—and on the poetry front, I published an article with them titled: The Sound of Absence: Utilizing White Space in Poetry. If you haven’t checked it out yet, it’s good thought fodder for poets and fiction writers alike!

I also hosted two fabulous ladies in The Madhouse in March: EV Knight and Meghan Arcuri. We chatted about 80s cover art, imposter syndrome, writing outside our comfort zone, and our horror origins. You can check out what they had to say below:

I'm currently working on a handful of projects, and I got great news a few days ago that I'm looking forward to sharing with you all soon. But until then, submissions for the HWA Poetry Showcase Vol 8. are currently open and I encourage you all to submit and write and play with the form. If you want to read the full announcement post, you can do so here, and then the guidelines can be found here.

Until next time
Stephanie M. Wytovich

Thursday, April 1, 2021

HWA POETRY SHOWCASE, VOL 8 MEET AND GREET

Hello and Good Morning, Friends and Fiends:

As most of you know, April is #NationalPoetry Month, and the Horror Writers Association (HWA) is opening submissions for the eighth installment of the HWA Poetry Showcase. The showcase will open today, April 1st and run until May 31st and is open for HWA members only.

Full details to submit can be found here.

Note: I will be editing this year’s anthology alongside judges Sara Tantlinger and Angela Yuriko Smith. All types of poetry are welcome and encouraged, as well as all types of horror, although poems that elicit themes of child abuse/pedophilia, racism, homophobia, or transphobia will be immediately dismissed.

Also, I want to take a moment to welcome and celebrate Angela Yuriko Smith who will be taking over as editor for me next year. We'll be working closely together this time around as I mentor her, but I hope you'll all send her well wishes and congratulations. I couldn't be happier to hand the showcase off to her very capable hands!

With that said, let’s meet the judges and have a little chat!

SMW: When did you first get into poetry? If you remember the first poem/author you read, feel free to include it here and talk a little about why his or her work has stuck with you all these years.

ST: I know it sounds cliché, but like for many of us, Edgar Allan Poe was my    gateway into the world of horror poetry. I remember studying his pieces in middle school, and by that point I already loved R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, so having this introduction to how horror could be extended into poetry and wasn’t just for novels has influenced me ever since. I was also dealing with grief and a traumatic loss in late middle school, so I think Poe’s own focus on grief was something I intuitively became more and more drawn toward, but it took me years of studying his work and growing older myself to really appreciate the catharsis and peace I found in his words.

AYS: The first poem I remember reading was “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. It was somewhere around third grade, so it was the perfect level of macabre romance for an impressionable girl. Noyes paints such a vivid picture I saw every detail in my mind—and such details! The road as a ribbon of moonlight, Tim the ostler's "hair like mouldy hay," the fated black-eyed daughter braiding her hair with hope. I remember gasping at the end, my hands trembling. She broke her own heart, I remember thinking, but with a musket—for love! It was my first tragedy. For me, the entire world expanded in a breath and became a different place. It was still Cheyenne, Wyoming and I was still sitting on the edge on a dusty playground but that poem blew everything up and put me in a new universe... one inhabited by bold words of intense gravity. They pulled me through the white space, like a wormhole, and deposited me in a brilliant new existence. It was probably the first time I'd experienced metaphor in this way, and I was amazed that saying the moon was "a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas" conveyed a better understanding than "it was a windy night." “The Highwayman” thrilled me with the power of language. I vanished into this place of claret velvet coats and black-eyed women who managed to thwart unjust authority at any cost.  Alfred Noyes had conjured an escape from the mundane for me. This was true magic.


SMW: What are you hoping to see this year from poetry submitted to the showcase?

ST: It’s easy to fall into familiar tropes with horror, so I’m really hoping to see writers take those tropes and put unique spins on them. I want poetry from diverse voices and perspectives, poetry that doesn’t shy away from visceral descriptions, and poetry that captures a story within its limited lines. Don’t be afraid to send us your darkest pieces, and really evoke all the senses when you immerse us deep into your lyrical worlds.

AYS: I hope to find work with the potential to leave me gasping like “The Highwayman,” but in a new voice building a new world. Poems have the power to awaken the dormant parts of us with images and ideas. Ahead lies the potential for poetry that takes our breath away among the frigid stars before plunging us to suffocate in the underworld. As long as it leaves us breathless, I will love it. Some of these poems have already been written and sit waiting for submissions to open. Others will be scribbled out on a deadline. All have the potential to break up the grey, mundane matter in our lives and bring forth new dreams and demons. But to be more truthful, I don't hope that we will see breathtaking poetry—I'm certain of it. The HWA is soaked in dark talent. I'm excited to see what they/we conjure.

SMW: It’s no secret that speculative poetry is certainly getting more popular. How do you interpret the rise in dark poetry over the years?

ST: Dark poetry has been with us for such a long time, from historical scops to a Twitter-sized poem online, we’ve always been telling each other horror stories through poetry. It feels natural that in these uncertain times dark poetry would rise again -- and it’s very exciting to see it continue to gain traction! Social media definitely has a huge part in that; it’s easy to share and promote what we write, but dark poetry in particular has a unique flavor and enticement. Honestly, after the start of the pandemic and lockdown, my brain struggled to focus on super long works, but poems felt like home. A lot of us find comfort in horror, and dark poetry is equipped to give us those short, descriptive, beautifully haunting bursts of stories and songs. I certainly hope we see this trend continue in its popularity, and I strongly hope publishers see the value in that and pay poets more for their work.

AYS: Poetry is able to impart a special vision of reality more true than actual fact. Comparing poetic truth and factual truth is like comparing a fresh apple to a painting of an apple. They can both be called apples, but the poem is the experience, and the factual truth is just a mouthful of old paint chips. A poem is biting into reality to feel the juice run down, sticky, and sweet enough to catch a summer day or a first kiss—or death if it's poison. The facts without poetry are flavorless, safe, and bland. Alfred Noyes could have just let his highwayman promise to return at dusk. "Cool," Bess (the landlord's black-eyed daughter) would have probably replied. Instead, the dashing robber promised to return "When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas, When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor..." and thrilled not only Bess, but the rest of us.

I think this ability to express truth in 3D is why poetry, especially dark poetry, is in demand. The last year was a dark one, but this isn't a sufficient way to sum up all the agony, shock, and fear we collectively experienced. To say "It was a tough year" is like calling a painting of an apple an apple and expecting it to be a good snack. It's not wrong to call it an apple but it hardly does justice to the depths of pain many have endured... still endure. Dark poetry allows us to share that emotion in a way that lets us sink our teeth into it and taste the bitter tang that stabs our eyes until we weep. 

Many people don't understand how to experience deep emotion. When we learn to walk, we also learn strong emotions are something to keep inside. Even before social media flattened our lives into viral smiles, we had the pressure of conforming to artificial standards. This is why art matters. It's a pressure valve that allows toxic sentiment to escape. Poetry is a way we can smile and say "everything is not fine" without losing face and friends. People can read a poem about life collapsing and witness their own shame, despair and loathing reflected there. They are allowed to experience the catastrophe from a safe distance and then safely tuck it away on a shelf... or become a poet themselves. Either way, it's a win for poetry, and that is a win for us all. Here's hoping the mainstream keeps exploring dark poetry and we can assimilate them into the shadows with us. For the greater good, of course. 

Bios:

Sara Tantlinger is the author of the Bram Stoker Award-winning TheDevil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes, and the Stoker-nominated works To Be Devoured, Cradleland of Parasites, and Not All Monsters. Along with being a mentor for the HWA Mentorship Program, she is also a co-organizer for the HWA Pittsburgh Chapter. She embraces all things macabre and can be found lurking in graveyards or on Twitter @SaraTantlinger, at saratantlinger.com and on Instagram @inkychaotics.

Angela Yuriko Smith is an American poet, publisher, and author with over 20 years of experience in newspaper journalism.

Her first collection of poetry, In Favor of Pain, was nominated for a 2017 Elgin Award. Her novella, Bitter Suites, is a 2018 Bram Stoker Awards® Finalist. In 2019 she won the SFPA’s poetry contest in the dwarf form category and has been nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize for poetry.

She co-publishes Spaceand Time magazine with author husband Ryan Aussie Smith. Space and Time has been publishing fantasy, horror, and science fiction poetry and prose for over five decades. For more information visit SpaceandTime.net.

Her work has been published in several print and online publications, including the Horror Writers Association’s Poetry Showcase vols. 2-4, Christmas Lites vols. 1-6 and the Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy anthology, winner of Alberta Book Publishing’s Speculative Fiction Book of the Year.

Angela currently enjoys living in Independence, Missouri with her husband and fellow author and narrator Ryan Aussie Smith and their pack of dogs.

To find her books, visit her Amazon page.

Stephanie M. Wytovich is an American poet, novelist, and essayist. Her work has been showcased in numerous venues such as Weird Tales, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Fantastic Tales of Terror, Year's Best Hardcore Horror: Volume 2, The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 8, as well as many others.

Wytovich is the Poetry Editor for Raw Dog Screaming Press, an adjunct at Western Connecticut State University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Point Park University, and a mentor with Crystal Lake Publishing. She is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and a graduate of Seton Hill University’s MFA program for Writing Popular Fiction. Her Bram Stoker award-winning poetry collection, Brothel, earned a home with Raw Dog Screaming Press alongside Hysteria: A Collection of Madness, Mourning Jewelry, An Exorcism of Angels, Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare, and most recently, The Apocalyptic Mannequin. Her debut novel, The Eighth, is published with Dark Regions Press.

Follow Wytovich on her blog at http://stephaniewytovich.blogspot.com/ and on Twitter @SWytovich​.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Beautiful Horror: A Guest Post by Meghan Arcuri


Hello Friends and Fiends--

Today in the Madhouse, I'm honored to host author Meghan Arcuri. I feel like I've known Meghan forever, and she's one of the sweetest, kindest, most welcoming people I've met in the business. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of meeting or reading her work yet, Arcuri is a fiction writer whose short stories can be found in various anthologies, including Borderlands 7 (Borderlands Press), Madhouse (Dark Regions Press), Chiral Mad, and Chiral Mad 3 (Written Backwards). She is a Bram Stoker Award® nominee and is currently the Vice President of the Horror Writers Association (yay!). She currently lives with her family in New York’s Hudson Valley and you can visit her online at meghanarcuri.com, facebook.com/meg.arcuri, or on Twitter (@MeghanArcuri).

I asked Meghan today to sit down with me and chat about what initially drew her to the horror genre and have she navigates her space within it. Her response--as expected--was beautifully written and a breath of fresh air, honesty, and vulnerability. I have no doubt you'll enjoy her words, and likely will find some of yourself in the essay below.


Until next time,

Stephanie M. Wytovich

Perfectly Imperfect
by Meghan Arcuri


Can I let you in on a little secret?

Horror didn’t always grab me.

In fact, when I was younger, I hardly read any at all.

So when Stephanie asked me to write this blog, the following thoughts jumped into my head:

You don’t know as much as anyone else.

You’re a fraud.

You know nothing.

Say no.


Similar thoughts crept in when John Palisano asked me to be the Vice President of the Horror Writers Association:

You don’t have anywhere near the same horror background as these people do.

You’re a fraud.

You know nothing.

Say no.


I grew up in a stable home with supportive, loving parents. I felt safe. I had my health and a great group of friends. My biggest worries involved getting good grades and deciding whom to ask to the prom. I enjoyed stories with good heroes and happily ever afters. I hadn’t the time (nor the stomach) for scary things and ambiguity; I was too busy trying to be perfect. To be a “good” girl who always did the “right” thing.In my quiet, sheltered life, I had zero perspective.

Then I grew up and started living a little. Although I didn’t experience anything I couldn’t handle, the bumps along my journey opened my eyes, broadened my view.

And that perfection I had wanted? Unattainable. Striving for it unsustainable. It was downright exhausting, in fact. (Pro tip: parenting and perfection don’t mix.)

I started writing about the time I came to this realization. A lame, tame urban fantasy that brought me to Borderlands Boot Camp, surrounded by horror writers.

Try writing horror, they said.

It’ll be fun, they said.

And you know what?

They were right.

I listened. I read more horror. I tried writing my own.

And a whole world opened up to me.

I’m drawn to horror because it is the antithesis of what I was drawn to as a child, the antithesis of who I was (and even who I still kind of am).

Complicated, messy, and raw, horror gives you characters you love to hate, or characters you love and hate. Like the perfect gentleman who quietly sizes up your innards (Hello, Hannibal).

It gives you magics, dark and mysterious. Maybe that magical forest (or person, or object) will provide you with the answers you need; or maybe it’ll unleash something more sinister. (See Boneset and Feathers by Gwendolyn Kiste … please.)

It gives you endings that at first seem neat and tidy but—look out—the rug gets pulled out from under you on the last page, the last paragraph, the last sentence, and all that remains is a guttural sound or a “What the f—?” emanating from your lips. (Brian Keene’s DarkHollow and Paul Tremblay’s A HeadFull of Ghosts come to mind … thanks, guys).

The contradictions, the darkness, the ambiguity are all incredibly refreshing to someone who has always tried to stay on the straight and narrow.

Horror allows me to play, to be someone I’m not, to experience the dread, the despair … all within the safety of the pages of a book.

So why didn’t I read much horror when I was younger?

Simply put, I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t have enough perspective. But now I’m a little older, a little wiser. Sure, I’m still the same rule-following, goodie-two-shoes I always was. If I’m being honest, I still like my good guys and happily ever afters, too. But I have more experiences, more sorrows, an expanded world-view. I know life isn’t perfect, and it’s not supposed to be.

And this is what draws me to horror: its beautiful imperfections.

Friday, March 5, 2021

A Creepy Cover’s Worth 50,000 Words: Art Madness with EV Knight

 Hello Friends and Fiends--

Last month, I reread Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix and dove back into the wild, untamed realm of the 80s for some research. Since then, I've been itching to pick up the whole lot of books that Valancourt has in this series, especially after reading Elizabeth Engstrom's When Darkness Loves Us a few years ago. I bring this up because my guest today is smitten by 80s cover art, too: the gore, the bodies, the magnificent mystery and intensity of it all. Just try to keep us away!

Today I welcome EV Knight to The Madhouse to talk about her horror origins. EV Knight is the author of the Stoker nominated debut novel The Fourth Whore. She has also written a novella titled Dead Eyes for Unnerving Press’s Rewind or Die series. Her short stories and poetry can be found in a number of anthologies, magazines, and the HWA’s 2019 Poetry Showcase. She received her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in 2019. EV can be found wandering the haunted streets of Savannah, Georgia with her husband Matt, and their four naughty sphynx cats—Feenix, Luna, Bizzabout Fitchett, and Ozymandias Fuzzfoot the First.

EV's works is feminist, intense, and doesn't pull any punches, which is just how I like my horror. I know you folks will enjoy her work as much as I do, too, so read on and enjoy, and please be sure to follow her on Twitter to stay up to date with all her publishing adventures: @EVKnightAuthor.

Stay scary,

Stephanie M. Wytovich

A Creepy Cover’s Worth 50,000 Words

by EV Knight

I was a child of the eighties which means that my formative years crossed paths with the heyday of pulp fiction horror. This is not to say that prior to finding horror, I wasn’t already a voracious reader—I certainly was. Raised on Grimm’s fairy tales and Beverly Cleary, I found my active imagination hooked. But when adrenaline-fueled trips to the Scholastic Book Fairs could no longer satiate my hunger, I stole my mom’s Harlequin Romance novels. Lusty covers of glistening pecs and half-torn frocks coupled with the taboo of printed sex entertained me for a time until I got caught with one in school. God bless my teacher though. Rather than discipline me for reading above my maturity level, she introduced me to a set of historical teen romances. I enjoyed them until I cracked a code. You see, the cover art always showed the main female protagonist standing in front of a landscape fitting the setting of the novel. Slightly behind her and a little smaller stood the boy who was her initial love interest and in the bottom right corner of the illustration was another boy—the competition for her love! Guess what I figured out about five books or so in? The girl ALWAYS ended up with the small guy in the corner. I tested the theory with a few more books and that was it. Boring.


By fifth grade, I’d switched to mysteries. Agatha Christie was my favorite, then Robin Cook’s medical thrillers. The covers of mysteries—at least at that time—usually consisted of flashy fonts and one or two “Chekov’s guns” floating in a void beneath the fierce title. While I preferred mysteries and thrillers to romance, I discovered a pattern to them as well. Someone I’d already met was the killer and the smart detective would eventually figure it out after falling for a few red herrings. With the killer in custody, the protagonists would crack a joke, and everyone would live happily ever after. (I know I’m grossly simplifying other genres and I beg forgiveness. The opinions expressed in this guest blog are my own and do not necessarily represent Ms. Wytovich or any other blogger).

But then, one magical day in the local pharmacy, something happened that would change my life. While waiting for whatever terrible tasting medicine the doctor had prescribed for me for a fever that kept me home from school, I spun a rack of paperbacks standing in front of the counter. There was a cover with a porcelain doll’s head, cracked, chipped, with a piece missing over her eye. Now, I may be a little cloudy on the details, but I think there was blood running down her forehead. In the background was a decrepit dollhouse with spiderwebs in the windows. Oh, it was beautiful, and I had to read it. I had to know what this cover illustration meant. My mom, bless her heart for never censoring the books I read, bought it. I read it all, cover to cover that day. It was creepy and scary and I had no idea what would happen. No character felt safe. Anyone could be the next victim and I was doubtful this book would have a happy ending.

I rode along with my mom to the pharmacy, the grocery store, anywhere I might find a rack of horror and she was always willing to drop the five bucks. I picked the books based on their covers and it wasn’t until later that I began also reading the blurbs on the back. I started reading horror and I never looked back. That year, for Christmas, I received my first Stephen King novel—Pet Sematary. (Spoiler Alert) It did not end happily ever after. Inspired by the way words could be arranged in such a way to elicit actual fear, real live goosebumps, and the certainty that Hannibal Lecter was in fact hiding in my closet, I knew I wanted to write like that as well. And with every word I wrote, I imagined a kick-ass cover to go with it.

The draw of good cover art is still strong enough to get me to buy a book even if I’m not so sure about the back cover blurb. Horror has some great authors but also, some really talented artists. Daniele Serra designed the cover for my Stoker nominated debut novel The Fourth Whore and I’m dying to write a book to match one of Lynn Hanson’s amazing artful covers. It’s no longer the eighties, but attention spans have never been shorter. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then I think horror book covers coupled with “anything could happen” plots will ensure readers for years to come.

Monday, March 1, 2021

February '21 Madhouse Recap

 Hello Friends and Fiends—

Can you believe it’s already March 1st? I feel like time has no meaning anymore, but February was full of lots of meditation and critical thinking for me, not to mention the celebration of Women in Horror Month. There were so many great spotlights and articles that ran throughout the past few weeks, and I wanted to take a moment to personally thank everyone who mentioned my name or promoted my books. It’s such an honor to have people read and talk about my words and that’s something that just never gets old.

I was fortunate to have LitReactor publish my WiHM article, which was a list of authors and books that have terrified me and/or completely taken my breath away. If you want to check that out, you can do so here: 5 Hauntingly Brilliant Women You Need to Read.

I also wanted to take a few minutes to bring some attention to the women I showcased on my blog last month: Laurel Hightower, Claire C. Holland, and R. J. Joseph. I asked each of them how they got involved or invested in the horror genre, and their responses were beautiful and noteworthy, and they showed that horror isn’t just a genre filled with blood and gore, but rather a means to talk openly about survival and justice and mental health, i.e., the human condition. If you haven’t checked out their words yet—here or elsewhere—please do. You won’t regret it. 

I also spent some time this month editing for a client, blurbing a fantastic poetry collection, and writing some poetry of my own. I did an interview about strange communications with Leza Cantoral and Lindsay Lerman via Black Telephone Magazine, and then I finetuned some details on a personal project of mine, too. I excitedly sent some work out for the first time in a long time, and also signed on for a project with Cemetery Gates Media where I’ll be writing a Litha/Midsummer inspired folk horror story to share with you all later this year.


Reading wise, I tackled the following books. Some were new to me, some were rereads, but what I can say is that my reading has felt all over the place lately, and I absolutely love that. For so long, I’ve shackled myself to the horror genre, and while that will forever and always be a staple in my TBR pile, it’s so nice to read outside of my primary genre, too, and as a writer, I feel like it better informs my writing, and then as a human, I also feel better informed about the world around me.

  •  Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix
    • Note: If you’ve read some of the books mentioned here, please let me know! I’m looking to purchase some more and I’m always down for suggestions/recommendations.
  • Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • The Witchcraft of Salem Village by Shirley Jackson
  • The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
    • Note: This was my classic read of the month. What should I pick up for March?
  • Drowned Country by Emily Tesh
  • Find Layla by Meg Elison
  • Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire
  • The Invention of Ghosts by Gwendolyn Kiste
    • The full review can be found over on my website here!
  • Plant Witchery by Juliet Diaz
  • Dearly by Margaret Atwood

March will bring with it a host of deadlines, both personal and professional—plus, my birthday! —and while I’m very much looking forward to tackling the work (and being SUPER caffeinated all month), I’m grateful that Dennis and I took some time last month to relax and reconnect. We walked in the cemetery, visited Phipps’s Conservatory’s Bonsai Tree and Orchid exhibition, cooked together and geeked out over WandaVision--which I'm loving (season finale this week!). I also did a ton of yard work last weekend, and while I’m definitely more of a fall/winter gal, I’m actually looking forward to Spring and to getting outside more, and I think a lot of that has to do with a book I’m currently reading about Forest Bathing…but more on that next month!

Until next time,

Stephanie M. Wytovich

Monday, February 22, 2021

WRITING JUSTICE INTO EXISTENCE: THE SOCIAL IMPACTS OF HORROR WITH R.J. JOSEPH

Hello Friends and Fiends--

Today in the Madhouse, I'm sitting down with R.J. Joseph, a writer of exceptional talent and a scholar with razor-sharp intellect. She and I met at Seton Hill during one of the SHUWPF residencies, and not only is she the type of person who I could talk to for hours, but she has this beautiful energy and sense of humor that makes her light up any room she walks into. 

She's joining me today to talk about her origins with the horror genre, and how she uses her writing as a way to invoke themes of balance, social justice, and discourse surrounding the female form. Also, be sure to check her out on Twitter at @rjacksonjoseph and on her blog at https://rjjoseph.wordpress.com/

Until next time,

Stephanie M. Wytovich

No, Life Ain’t Fair…but I Can Make It So

by R.J. Joseph

“That’s not fair!”

Mama met my oft-repeated childhood refrain with, “Life ain’t fair,” in what became a household song she and I sung together.

My child’s heart became deeply wounded when faced with what I perceived to be injustice of any type and I never understood why Mama would think it was okay to just accept these things as given. It didn’t matter to me then whether the issue was a large one or a small one: the person who stole from another person and the one who got the big piece of cake while everyone else got a tiny one were both way, way out of line. While growing up helped me to better understand scale and nuance in these situations (as well as the realization that life is, indeed, unfair), the passage of time did nothing to quell my frustration at the existence of grave injustices and the thought that some people would just be allowed to walk through life unpunished for their deeds against others. For me, horror is partially a means to try to balance those scales and even tilt them in the opposite direction. Using this tool as a Black, female horror writer serves two main purposes towards this goal.

Female horror writers are more widely accepted into the genre now than in the recent past. So are Black horror writers. For horror writers existing at the intersection of Black and female, however, the road is still one harshly traveled, even if less so than previously. The remaining obstacles are ones other writers are rarely forced to consider. Some experiences I write about are determined to exist outside the horror genre when they’re clearly frightening to me and a large segment of the population who also happens to be Black and/or female. There’s often an unnamed “problem” with my writing that can’t be articulated but still prevents the writing from being published. My characters are unrelatable, even to other Black people, who don’t have any empathy for my characters’ circumstances because they aren’t their own. Yet, I continue to write. In refusing to shut up and stop telling stories, I’m working with other Black, female horror writers to try to enact balance to what’s offered within our beloved horror genre.

My stories, themselves, often center on the experiences of Black women. These lives don’t represent a monolith: there are endless experiences within the diaspora. They do represent women I know, as well as the woman I was, am, and will be. Their lives are filled with wrongdoing, fear, and victimhood. When I tell their stories, their lives become also marked with ways to gain justice for themselves. I love to write characters who have strength they know exists but don’t know how to harness. They may be afraid of themselves and what they’re capable of doing. I think about the unfairness of the “strong Black woman” stereotype and write about the women who aren’t really as strong as outsiders want to paint them, so they aren’t charged with helping these women. When society or their partners label them as monsters because they react to circumstances forced upon them, some of my characters lean into their monstrosity and create the lives they want for themselves. The scales of justice tilt whatever way I want in my writing, so the lives of those Black women take turns we might not always see in real life.

Horror is my vehicle towards creating the type of world where I want to live. I want to live in a world where every writer has the same opportunities to fail or succeed without prejudice throwing some out of the game before they get started. I want to live in a world where the experiences of Black women aren’t dismissed as invalid or unimportant. No, this life ain’t fair. But I’ll continue writing justice into existence as I continue to write myself and other Black women into existence. Then it will be so.

Author Bio:

Rhonda earned her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University and currently works as an associate professor of English. She has had several stories published in various venues, including two anthologies of horror written by black female writers, the Stoker award finalist Sycorax’sDaughters and Black Magic Women, as well as in CampfireMacabre, a flash fiction anthology, Slashertorte: An Anthology of Cake Horror, and the Halloween issue of Southwest Review. Her academic essays have also appeared in applauded collections, such as the Stoker award finalists Uncovering Stranger Things: Essays on Eighties Nostalgia,Cynicism and Innocence in the Series and The Streaming of Hill House: Essays on the Haunting Netflix Series. Rhonda’s essay from The Streamingof Hill House, “The Beloved Haunting of Hill House: An Examination of Monstrous Motherhood” is also a Stoker award finalist for 2020.

Her most recent short story, “Witness Bearer”, can be found in the charity anthology, Twisted Anatomy: An Anthology of Body Horror.

Rhonda can be found lurking (and occasionally even peeking out) on social media:

Twitter: @rjacksonjoseph
Blog: https://rjjoseph.wordpress.com/
Email: horrorblackademic@gmail.com

Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/rjjoseph

Saturday, February 20, 2021

DRAWN TO THE DARK SIDE WITH CLAIRE C. HOLLAND

Hello Friends and Fiends--

Today in the Madhouse, I'm hanging out with Claire C. Holland and talking about what initially drew her to horror. Holland is a poet and writer from Philadelphia, currently living in Los Angeles. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found reading or binge-watching horror movies with her husband, Corey, and her Wheaten Terrier, Chief Brody. She is also a feminist, a tattoo lover, and interested in all forms of art strange and subversive. 

I Am Not Your Final Girl is her first book of poetry, and for those looking to read more about her process and intention with the book, you can zip over to a previous interview I did with her here. Needless to say, I'm a huge fan of Holland's work, and she's definitely one of my go-to people when it comes to talking horror films, so be sure to check out her collection and follow her on Twitter at @ClaireCWrites.

More soon,
Stephanie M. Wytovich

Drawn to the Dark Side
by Claire C. Holland

I think horror was always a part of my identity, lurking somewhere deep in my bones, long before I ever realized it.

All things being relative, coming of age during the early aughts as a girl was no picnic. It’s only recently – in the last few months, really – that we’ve begun as a society to reckon with the unique brand of blatant misogyny imposed upon women, especially celebrities, during the first decade of the new millennium. Characterized by Perez Hilton, vicious tabloids, and stringent, sexist double standards, the early 2000s weren’t terribly different from the world we live in today; still, from the perspective of a post-MeToo America, it feels nonetheless shocking to look back on the cruelty piled upon women in the name of “entertainment.”

Forever a Britney fan, I watched the New York Times’ documentary Framing Britney last month with a box of tissues and my fists curled tight in anger. The documentary illustrates Britney Spears’ precipitous rise to ultra-fame as a teenager—what we’ll call the “Madonna” period, during which time she was asked invasive questions about her relationships and the status of her virginity, but was still considered a “good” girl—to her subsequent fall in the media, starting with her breakup with Justin Timberlake—the beginning of the “Britney is a slut” narrative adopted by most media outlets—and culminating in the night she shaved her head and threatened a paparazzo with an umbrella. That’s when people started calling her crazy, thus completing the usable lifecycle of a woman.


I promise I’m reaching a point.

That documentary brought up feelings I thought I’d long buried. Outrage and protectiveness, and also sadness for what could have been – not just for Britney, but for all of us girls. Where would we be, mentally and emotionally, if we weren’t raised by a savagely misogynistic society? I see the women around me thriving despite the world we were brought up in, a world of “catfights” and competition, a world where you could only be a Jessica (virgin, polite, smiles a lot) or a Christina (whore, ‘nough said), and you’re invisible by 30 anyway. A world we still live in, even if sexism is less barefaced.

But here’s a secret I’ve learned over the years: If you’re looking for an out, horror can be an escape route.

As a little kid, I delighted in watching Jaws and being the only one who wasn’t afraid or disgusted when Quint got bitten in half by the shark, spewing blood out of his mouth and gasping his last breaths. I felt brave, and it scratched a tomboy-esque itch of mine that, over the years, was otherwise mostly snuffed out by everything society was telling me I should be. Constantly praised for being “sweet” and quiet, and for never, ever causing a problem, I implicitly learned that I needed to be that way always.

But horror was always there, too, somewhere in the periphery, whispering in my ear and calling me over to the dark side. It started with the goth girls – Nancy from The Craft, Stokely in The Faculty, Ginger of Ginger Snaps. Oh, and Katie Holmes in Normal Behavior – that was a big one. These were the girls I secretly wanted to be or be friends with… or something. They scared and excited me with their belligerent, kohl-rimmed stares, their belly shirts and piercings, and their flagrant refusal to smile and make nice at the appropriate moments. They seemed self-assured and self-possessed in a way I could only dream of at the time. I couldn’t be them—how could I? it seemed impossible—but I could borrow pieces of them to bolster my own strength.

A smudge of dark eyeliner, or just a little bit of attitude. A skirt my mother wouldn’t approve of. Small things, maybe, but they gave me a small, secret confidence. They made me feel more like me.


I kept watching the movies and seeking out more like them. I quickly found that the women I related to weren’t on my TV screen very often, and they weren’t in most Oscar-winning movies. I began the slow, years-long process of realizing that all the complex, angry, sexy, twisted, multi-faceted women I saw myself in most weren’t in the mainstream, and more often than not, resided in the horror genre. These characters became a lifeline and a blueprint for me over the years, showing me the alternatives to living according to others’ expectations and inspiring me to misbehave.

Turns out they’ve always been there.