"Hysteria was a muse unlike any other that I've worked with, and she crept inside my mind like an ever-present nightmare that I couldn't get rid of. We spent insomnia-fueled nights together in the asylum as we explored the breaking points of the mind. We looked into the eyes of a killer, played inside the head of the deranged, and explored the psychosis of the truly insane. She held my hand as we walked down the wards and into the treatment rooms so she could shock me full of reality. Hysteria showed me the truth about people, and more importantly, she showed me what they were capable of." (p.6)
So Pittsburgh-based writer and editor Stephanie Wytovich introduces her debut collection of poetry, Hysteria, and quite frankly it couldn't be put much better.
From A to W (Wytovich organized her poems in alphabetical order), she unabashedly, unapologetically haunts readers with gut-wrenching stories and tight imagery of everything horrific-from vicious revenge murder to scary stalking to disturbing mental illness to heartbreaking disease-raw people and situations we want to pretend aren't reality, she viciously displays right in front of our face.
Wytovich spent months researching all things horror from performing a paranormal investigation at The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum and visiting the West Virginia State Penitentiary (where she spent most of her time in the psych ward/infirmirary) to watching horror and psychology documentaries and even pouring through abnormal psychology text books and "reading way too much Freud."
"A Killer Recipe" (p.9) starts the terror unexpectedly with a parenting warning-broadly relatable, though; it almost read as a news story-as a parents' true nightmare is raising a killer. She shakes readers with her words:
Perhaps his parents
Should have read the
If tamperered with,
Sour language and
A taste for sadism may occur
If so, rinse with regret
And repeat until guilt
Washes it away,
Or you're poisoned
From the consequences.
Other longer tales Wytovich drags readers through with extreme visuals, just enough mystery to leave imagination soaring with fright, and a punch ending, as in "Bracelet of Blades" (p.27), a stellar heart-wrencher:
She sat there
Surrounded by old friends
As she started to weave
Them in and out
Of her wrists,
Wearing them like a
New, metallic bracelet
Adorned in crimson red
Immersed among the lengthy sagas are short, sharp poems of merely a haunting impression that, too, provide mystery and ample between-the-lines room for readers' shivers, as in "Bind" (p.18): "I can't get off/Unless I'm/Strapped/Down…"
"No Vacancy" (p.98) a mere eighteen-line piece of a murderous innkeeper (we think), could literally be turned into a movie script. Readers wonder with each chilling line what vile thing is happening and how it will end.
From poem to poem, the voice switches from victim to perpetrator and from extreme gore and death endings to mental horror and seemingly open endings as in "Tea Party" (p.131). An externally light narrative, a woman has daily tea parties with imaginary friends. Behind the light with Wytovich's words, the situation reads dismal, as the woman is progressively revealed trapped in an institution, doctors constantly on watch.
More visual pieces are the majority, though, like "Marketplace" (p.88, about a cannibal) and "Necro-let-me-feel-ya" (p.97) one of the creepiest to read. Wytovich describes the process of a sexual attraction to corpses in intense detail: "…Scrape the dirt from underneath your nails,/Adjust your stiff, rigid limbs/So I can enter you in the grave…"
Stories of disease bring the horrors of cancer to reality as in "Body Suit" (p.25): "…Turning my cells against each other--/Cannibals of red on red, white on white, engulfing both body and spirit…"
Body image, cheating and domestic abuse make strong cases for feminist cause whether intentional or not. "Lipstick" (p.84) is the story of a girl literally making herself bleed for big lips (I hesitate to give away the punch end); "On My Terms" (p.102) is a brutal fantasy-like story of a woman killing her ex; "Shower Scene" (p.118) takes readers through what's generally assumed to be a cleanse after rape; "The Cheater" (p.138) is gory revenge to the max; "Think of Me" (p.145) takes readers on a chilling revenge ride.
"Vagina Dentata" (p.151) is most apparent and one of the rare pieces regarding an imaginary horror (or is it?): a woman's vagina containing teeth, giving fear to the male sexual partner for injury or castration. Admittedly, perhaps as a female reader, it's somewhat amusing* to read-typically in culture, it's the male genitalia described as monstrous (*no genitals in reality should be scary or repelled outright, since it is fiction, its still an enjoyable, feminist cautionary tale).
"…the horror genre has been as male-dominated as the field of psychology over the past century, and in some ways has also been slowly evolving along with it. Wytovich is a part of that evolution, and while Hysteria is not necessarily a "feminist" book, per se, it brings a voice into the genre's conversation about identity in a way that I think is fantastic and very necessary. Stephanie Wytovich is working in a tradition of writers that run from Mary Shelley to Poppy Z. Brite - women who have refused to lobotomize the hysterical muse inside and instead have unleashed their dark side on the world. We really need to hear this voice more often…"
And while reviewing Hysteria, it might be remiss to ignore the fact that the majority of horror writers are men. Though the poet herself in the book doesn't mention an outright feminist intent, creative horror writer Mike Arnzen precludes the book with an essay pointing out nicely (p.8):
The only vexation in really the whole book ironically comes in this very essay by Arnzen, when he writes of feminism in a rather blasé fashion, first of all, by putting quotes around the very loaded term that comes with decades of hard work to gain equality in multiple forms. Arnzen writes (p.8):
"I don't want to go so far as to say this is a "feminist" book, since it has higher ambitions than just being some kind of tract asking us to overthrow patriarchy."
Interestingly, he goes on to describe (p.8):
"Wytovich is exploring gender reversals, and feminist ideas, but she's doing it in a way that may be just as skeptical of feminist claims as it is of anything else, as this is what the irrationality of madness can do: challenge our assumptions, sometimes by cutting right to the heart of the matter and extracting it before our very eyes."
Thankfully, in an interview Wytovich did for Les Femmes Folles (Full Exposure: I edit this online journal) in July 2013, when asked "Does feminism play a role in your work?" she appropriately and fittingly elegantly replied to this admittedly deep and loaded question: "Short answer, yes. Very much so."
Arnzen's ironical introduction and recognition of this extremely heavy topic aside, all of the works in Hysteria could too each be reviewed in detail, even the short ones-given the philosophical undercurrents and poignant darkness between the lines. Her uncanny ability to blur the lines between reality and surreality with her downright bluntness and such modest amount of words is rare.
She suitably ends the collection with a tale on the horrors of childhood, complementing the starting piece about parenting. "Word Vomit" (p.157) is a recounting of an all-too-familiar adolescent bus ride with hurtful teasing, and an appropriate not-so-pretty childhood fantasy ending.
This collection in entirety with Wytovich's refreshingly emotionally dynamic language is quite strong, unapologetically raw, not allowing any freak thought to escape. Hysteria forces readers to relish these dark corners of the mind-as Wytovich ends her introduction quaintly: "Madness lives inside of us all. / It's just a matter of finding it, and knowing how to keep it hidden. / Stay Scared,"
Oh, we will.
Sally Deskins is an artist and writer who examines the work of artists who are female. Her most recent writing publications have been in GALATEA RESURRECTS and HER KIND and forthcoming in PRICK OF THE SPINDLE and BOXCAR POETRY.