Long before Lovecraft developed a secular cult by describing a world where nature’s gear-wheels fell off, or Stephen King got rich translating Jungian fears into supernatural terrors, humans looked into the darkness and knew fear. That which we cannot predict or control has always terrified us, and somehow, that terror has always been… well… fun. So versifiers, from ancient bards to modern professor-poets, have long buttered their bread telling spooky stories with the lights off.
With the highly commercialized veneer surrounding horror literature today, themes of terror and unlife seem far removed from schoolbook poetry. But death, the ultimate unpredictable force, has always lingered in poetry, often as an active force—even more so before humans discovered penicillin. Compilers Barnstone and Mitchell-Foust find examples of blood-chilling dread throughout poetic history, including Egyptian funerary texts, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and this bleak prize-winner from Fitzgerald’s translation of Homer’s “Odyssey”:
Thus to assuage the nations of the dead
I pledged these rites, then slashed the lamb and ewe,
letting their black blood stream into the well pit.
Now the souls gathered, stirring out of Erebus,
brides and young men, and men grown old in pain,
and tender girls whose hearts were new to grief;
many were there, too, torn by brazen lanceheads,
battle-slain, bearing still their bloody gear.
From every side they came and sought the pit
with rustling cries; and I grew sick with fear.
|Hans Baldburg Grien, "Death and the Maiden"|
Some classic poets included herein are renowned for utilizing horrifying themes. French Décadents like Baudelaire and Rimbaud frequently described death, monsters, and shambling unlife in their works, while Poe and Christina Rossetti are known for little else (unfair though that is). That undergraduate staple, Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” deservedly gets included here. But some poets, often sanitized and squeaky-clean for high school textbooks, demonstrate surprising horror traits when de-bowdlerized, like this, from Lord Byron’s “Manfred”:
From thy false tears I did distilSomehow, despite having studied poetry myself, I didn’t anticipate these themes extending into living times. Besides a few dedicated genre poets like Bruce Boston, I didn’t know anybody still wrote that way, not when most poets teach college courses and winsomely court the tenure committee. Therefore, most surprising of all, nearly half this collection derives from poets currently, or recently, living. One doesn’t think “horror” when teachers and other eminences name Rita Dove, Billy Collins, or Ciarán Carson. Maybe we should.
An essence which hath strength to kill;
From thy own heart I then did wring
The black blood in its blackest spring;
From thy own smile I snatch’d the snake,
For there it coil’d as in a brake;
From thy own lip I drew the charm
which gave all these their chiefest harm;
In proving every poison known,
I found the strongest was thine own.
These contemporary poets, however, simply feel different from their classical precursors. Modern horror poetry, like modern poetry generally, deals less in universal truths and broad archetypes; it favors greater intimacy. That is, it would rather bare the poet’s soul than describe humanity generally. Yet despite this intimacy, these poems are surprisingly humane and inclusive. George Bernard Shaw said only the deeply personal is ever truly universal. That certainly conveys in poems like Bryan Dietrich’s “Zombies”:
Beside a tombstoneWith our medicine, science, and technology, we today delude ourselves that we’ve established control. We exclude chance and mortality from our decisions, screaming YOLO while simultaneously stockpiling our retirement accounts, believing we’re eternal. But poetry, itself innately anti-modern, obstinately reminds us our illusions fool only ourselves. This collection, a mere sampling of poems designed to cause fear, channels a world our spirits cannot forget.
you make your final stand. Stealing the arm, shoulder
and all, from one who may have been your father, you fend
them off for a while, waving his limb before you
the way you would a dowsing rod, a hand of glory.
Living, you tire. Fighting, you fall. Past lovers
get to you first, their mouths glorious, their bums hot.
What teeth they have to rip rivulets down your shins.