What is hell? It is many things to many people. It is erotic pleasure… It is torture… It is duty… It is a playground of lust… It is the canvas for the debut novel of talented author Stephanie Wytovich and her telling of an unholy square of hellfire in the novel The Eighth. Coming from a background in poetry and a passionate heart riding the border of light and dark, this incredible voice has the first of many acclaimed horror stories ahead of her for many to experience and connect with. Taking sometime between her writings, puppy and life in the darkness, writer Jay Kay sat with her to talk the acclaim of her work. Her fingerprint on hell. The reflection of her and the reader with all lust, sex and passion, inspiration plus so much more for the Horror News Network.
Interview conducted by Jay Kay @JayKayHorror
Jay Kay: Thank you so much Stephanie for taking the time out! Could you please talk about where the overall story of The Eighth came from and the idea that your debut work is critically acclaimed including those who judge the Bram Stokers?
Stephanie Wytovich: Hi Jay! Thanks for having me. I’m thrilled about the attention that my debut is getting and as it’s my baby (demon) as it were, it feels exceptionally wonderful to be read right now.
A lot of blood, sweat, and holy water went into creating this book, to say the least. The Eighth was my master’s thesis for Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction Program, and it is heavily influence by classical art and literature, as that is where my undergraduate background was focused towards. As a literature major, I became obsessed with Alighieri’s The Inferno, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, and when I discovered Clive Barker in Graduate School, coupled with my love of Renaissance Art and the stylings of Francisco Goya, I knew that I had to do some type of classic-genre mash up for my thesis. Couple that with a love of horror and dark fantastic, and with being raised Catholic and boom—The Eighth was born.
JK: Your storytelling reflects your first love of poetry. Talk about how you got into writing poetry as well as how it reflects “The Eighth”?
SW: I first started writing poetry as a child at the suggestion of my therapist. I was having a really hard time processing some events in my life, and as such, I wasn’t very talkative. My therapist suggested that I start to write down my feelings in a journal and talk about them that way, in a safe space, to lessen my fears and anxiety about confrontation. Shortly after that, I had filled pages with stories and poems about monsters and madmen, and it was obvious to everyone that I was projecting and combating my fears by writing horror to instigate survival, and I kind of just never stopped.
The Eighth, to me, wouldn’t have been complete without some poetry, and since writing poetry is part of my process for writing fiction, I included reverse prayers throughout the text as a way to up the emotional ante and include some classic hymnal influence as well.
JK: What were some of the overall inspirations that played into your writing of The Eighth? I sense some Clive Barker, how far off am I?
SW: Oh, you’re spot on. Clive Barker is a HUGE influence for me, and I adore both his writing and his art. His book Mister B. Gone had a really strong effect on me for lots of reasons, but mostly because I wanted to write a story from a demon’s perspective, AND I also wanted to write an unlikeable character as well. I feel like he showed me how to do that, and he inspired me to create my own hell and my own sins. That matched with my art and literature background pretty much opened the seventh seal for me.
JK: Talk about the core characters of The Eighth? You weave a very intense, sexually driven and emotional square between the Devil, Rhea, Arazel and Paimon. How much of that comes inside you versus other literary works and writing over your life?
SW: My characters are all battling outside forces while they battle personal urges and morals as well, so that definitely makes things a little more intense because I have a demon who hates being a demon, a woman who is condemned for lust but also recognizes that it’s her only means of survival, and a human who hates being human. These deep-seated moral betrayals that they fill influence their decisions and force them to behave outside their norm, which as a result naturally creates a lot of other problems that force them to accept and celebrate their true selves.
As I mentioned, I grew up Catholic, so I’m pulling a lot from there, as well as my own Catholic guilt, which side note: does that shit ever go away? As for personal heartbreak, the story sings to me for a lot of reasons that I won’t go into, but I will say that I find myself heavily relating to Paimon’ s need to protect something that he doesn’t necessarily love, and Rhea’s need to run to darkness after everything has been ripped away from her.
I think while Rhea can be unrelatable at times, not to mention harsh, that yes, this makes her an unusual protagonist, but I didn’t want to write a story about someone finding the light. I wanted to write a story about how the darkness could be the light. It’s a story about regret and redemption, and I think it forces people to see how they relate to these characters, even if makes them uncomfortable. Essentially, Paimon and Rhea make the choices that we all think about but never admit to, nevertheless do.
JK: In The Eighth, we see mirroring reflections of heaven and hell within prayer and religious practices. Can you talk about finding a common thread between the two worlds and understandings in the storytelling?
SW: Well, what’s interesting about the world as we’ve seen it now, is that there is no Heaven. Paimon mentions in the beginning that God stopped listening to him long ago, so the God he submits to now is Him, aka, Lucifer. Now, where does the relationship for good and evil, Heaven and Hell stand as the series continues? LOTS, but that’s pretty much all I can say for now.
I will give you a hint and tell you that I’m in love with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, and that I think the show Lucifer is beyond beautiful.
JK: The description within the book is exceptional. You have different focuses of description for the different levels of the story. Everything from Paimon reflecting on his soul and time on earth. Locations like hell, earth, the sea of lost souls as well as the smells, colors and especially the seven deadly sins. For a first time novelist, you show a great amount of practice and talent. Where did this come from and how do you approach description?
SW: I tend to be a visual learner, and with poetry, I got a lot of practice with that, but if I’m to be completely honest, so much of what I was able to do with that book came from the instruction and advice of my mentors, instructors, and critique partners from Seton Hill’s MFA Program.
I probably (okay, definitely) owe William H. Horner my soul, and God knows I’ve already sold a portion of it to Michael A. Arnzen, ha! But seriously, though, without my tribe’s support, this book would have never happened, and I’d walk through fire time and time again to thank them for what they’ve all done for me.
JK: Many authors have tackled the concept and embodiment of the devil as well as hell. How did you want to put your fingerprint on it and what pitfall did you not want to deal with?
SW: I like the idea of the Lucifer being this charming, seductive beast of a man who masquerades as something or someone we all want, but is really the vial of poison that becomes our death sentence. I like the balance of horror and the erotic, so that niche in the genre works well for me. Mind you, in my world, Lucifer is specifically looking for a woman to rule by his side, so that’s a bit different than what we typically see, but I’m also influence by mythology, so that’s not too terribly different from the Hades and Persephone story, either.
What I think is very different, and it’s something that I’ve always been firm on and have had to defend on multiple occasions both in school and during the editing process, is that I didn’t want a innocent, pure, virgin-in-a-white-dress female character who is sought out by evil because she is something to be corrupted. To me, that story is so played out and I’m sick of watching and reading it, never mind the fact that 9/10 the woman ends up in the victim/damsel in distress role. I wanted my female character, Rhea, to be the embodiment of fire. She’s broken, she’s dark, she’s raw and honest, and that’s why the Devil is attracted to her. It’s not because she’s something he can control, but rather that she’s something that will make him stronger because she, herself, is completely badass and fierce.
Will some people hate that? Sure, but I think in order to see a change in the market, we have to be willing to break stereotypes and push our stories and our characters in new directions.
JK: Speaking of hell and the devil, you tackle the seven deadly sins. Talk about giving their personalities and a voice along with one of the lead characters Rhea the power to sense them?
SW: Rhea’s unique quality is that she can see people’s auras, and the colors that she sees represent their deadly sin: greed, envy, lust, wrath, pride, sloth, and/or gluttony. This makes her a target for a lot of reasons: 1) it’s emotionally and psychologically tacking on her because she quite literally sees the worst in people 2) there is talk of an uprising in Hell and The Seven are making moves to overthrow the Devil and as such, are looking for a weapon and 3) Lucifer needs someone by his side to fight, and having someone who can see the sins, when he can’t, definitely would work to his advantage.
Poor girl. Looks like she has her hands full.
As for The Seven, ah, let me tell you, they are my favorites. I feel like I get to flex my poetic skills most with them as I create seven beautifully unique monsters that plague us all at one point or another in our life. I tried to make them as strikingly visual as possible, yet give each their own voice that is also plays into their sin. For instead, Wrath tends to be a hot head, and Lust can’t keep it in her pants, so everything comes out as a sort of seductive innuendo for her.
JK: Let’s just be honest, the book is hot! You deal with everything from love to lust to passion to sex. As an author and a woman, how do you handle this subject matter in a way that will not take away from the novel? Has the foundation of sexuality caused a stir with fans of your work?
SW: I think my readers know that when they pick up a book by me that it’s going to be blunt, that it’s going to deal with the dichotomy of the beautiful grotesque, and that I’m going to straddle (ha) the lines between sex and death and play with it a lot, sometimes to the point that readers are uncomfortable. But hey, I think uncomfortable is good and when we go out of our comfort zones, we learn and evolve and see new viewpoints and thought processes that we might not have considered before. I’m also a sucker for Freud and Jungian philosophy so there’s a heavy dose of that in there, too.
As to how I handle it? I like to turn readers on, and then repulsive them, sometimes vice-versa, and sometimes at the same time. I’ll use heavy doses of imagery and poetic devices like repetition, stream of conscious, and alliteration to influence the pace, and therefore heighten the senses, quickening the description, and then slowly it down. Writing is a lot like sex—it’s all about the pacing and the connection you feel to your partner/character that brings about the final er, climax, as it were.
Has that been hard writing that way as a female? Yes.
Do I think that’s a problem? Yes.
Does that make me want to continue writing more of it to break down stereotypes of what and how a woman should write? Fuck yeah.
JK: How much fun was it to write the sex and where did the inspiration for the torture sequences came from?
SW: Oh, writing the sex scenes and the torture scenes were an absolute blast. They were the easiest and fastest parts of the novel for me to tackle, actually. And I know, I know, as my father would say: “Stephanie, what is wrong with you?”
Jokingly of course, at least I think…
But yes, to me, these scenes are where I get to flex my visual and poetic muscles the most. I also get to use my art history knowledge the most there too, and that’s very rewarding on a personal level to me because I’ve extremely influence by art, both classic and contemporary, and I try to surround myself with it as much as possible. I love the work of Francisco Goya and Francis Bacon, and I’m highly influenced by Dada and the Surrealists, so when I get to incorporate their messages and work and styles into my own art, it’s hard not to smile and be happy about that.
JK: Talk with me about Arazel? She is one of the most human, passionate and truly enjoyable characters of the book.
SW: Arazel is my girl, and she was really fun to write. Originally, I hadn’t even factored her into the story as a lead character, but she quickly wrote herself into the bigger picture and will continue to be our rising phoenix as the story progresses. Wink-wink.
Her inspiration came from the stereotypes that I was talking about beforehand though. Instead of having Rhea, our mortal leading lady, be the kind-hearted compassionate and relatable character, I wanted it readers to connect with Arzael, our feisty redhead who looks like a madam, is the ringleader of the circle of Lust, and is the Devil’s blood slave.
Again, I’m trying to reinforce the idea that not everything is what they look like or seem to be, and that the world, or underworld in this case, can’t be just be seen in black and white. I like to think that The Eighth is celebrates the gray area.
JK: On the other hand, we have Rhea who lives a nightmare from almost the first moment we open the book. Was she always a character that would have so much weight on her and go through so much torment from her demons both inside and out?
SW: Yep. Rhea had zero chance with me from the moment the book was just an idea in my head.
JK: Was Paimon always to be a demonic hitman/bounty hunter?
SW: Yes. I loved the idea of Paimon as a collector, because it’s something that he did in his mortal like that quite literally killed him, and now he’s being forced to do it in Hell. There’s also a message (and motif) that I’ve been weaving through the books about the dangers of being a collector, and how what you end up collecting defines you in the end.
There’s also a heavy play on words here because the more Paimon collects, the less he has, so the warning is definitely there, not to mention the idea of flipping the meaning of words, which is something else that I do quite frequently in the novel as well.
JK: Was it difficult to find the character arcs as well as origins within the pages of “The Eighth”?
SW: I think I wrote about seven drafts of the novel while I was in graduate school—not all complete drafts, mind you—and I also scrapped the book completely at one point. To say writing this book was difficult doesn’t even begin to describe the process.
It was hell. *chuckle
JK: Two of the great themes from “The Eighth” include vulnerability and betrayal. Can you touch on these particular focuses and what it means to the core characters?
SW: Vulnerability and betrayal both define and destroy my characters, and like I mentioned before, it’s something that is constantly forcing them to look at themselves throughout the story as they react to conflict. I think the most important thing these themes do though is make them accept themselves for who they really are, and there’s something frightfully beautiful about that… not to mention terrifying.
JK: Were there any phrases or words that you wanted to be very aware in the writing and storytelling?
SW: I did a lot of reversals in the book and made certain words carry meanings that we would typically associate the exact opposite with.
My favorite phrase is: “Bless me my sins.” It’s a reverser prayer, and instead of asking for forgiveness from God, my characters are praying to Lucifer and asking them to bless them and accept them for their faults.
Fun fact: Writing the reverse prayers actually scared the hell out of me, and there were several moments while writing this that I had to step away and get some head space. I actually had a terrible reoccurring nightmare about the Devil while writing this book, and while it highly influenced me in the writing process, it also sent me into a severe bout of insomnia for about two and a half years.
JK: What did Dark Regions Press bring to the book, editing and promotion of the book?
SW: Dark Regions gave me my fantastically, wonderful editor, Lynne Jamneck, who I quite honestly couldn’t have done this project without. She was a tremendous help, and her support and understanding of the book and my vision really helped to bring the piece around to its fullest potential.
They also helped a lot with the marketing and social media campaign of my book, which was wildly helpful, and a great comfort, because I felt like they were just as excited about the project as I was.
JK: What is next for the series? What about with you and where can we find out more?
SW: I’m planning on writing two more books for the series, the second one tentatively titled: Deadly Sin. I’m really excited about where it’s heading and I’ll be sure to share more information as I can when it’s available.
As for other projects, my poetry collection Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare will be out from Raw Dog Screaming Press, and I’m also in cahoots with a top-secret special project with Dark Fuse. More on that soon!
Readers can feel free to stalk me on Twitter @JustAfterSunset, and also on Facebook (Stephanie M. Wytovich) and on Instagram (Swytovich). You can also find me and my blog through my website at www.stephaniewytovich.com.
Stephanie M. Wytovich is a technical writer by day and a horror writer by night. She is the Poetry Editor for Raw Dog Screaming Press, an adjunct at Western Connecticut State University, and a book reviewer for Nameless Magazine. 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-nominated poetry collections, Hysteria: A Collection of Madness, Mourning Jewelry, An Exorcism of Angels, and Brothel earned a home with Raw Dog Screaming Press, and her debut novel, The Eighth, is simmering in sin with Dark Regions Press. Follow Wytovich at http://www.stephaniewytovich.com/ and on twitter @JustAfterSunset