This month we have an eclectic group of poems from some bright stars poetry—Greg McWhorter, D.G. Sutter, Ann K. Schwader, Amy K. Marshall, S. J. Girón and Carol MacAllister.
We also have another treat in store for you this time! Our guest is none other than Christopher Conlon. One of the brightest stars of contemporary literature, Chris is now delving into genre poetry and prose. Christopher Conlon is best known as the editor of the Bram Stoker Award-winning anthology He Is Legend, a celebration of Richard Matheson’s career featuring original stories by Stephen King, Joe Hill, Whitley Strieber, Joe R. Lansdale, John Shirley, Nancy A. Collins, and many others. Originally a Gauntlet Press limited edition, He Is Legend was reprinted in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats by Tor, has appeared in multiple foreign translations, and was a selection of the Science Fiction Book Club. Conlon’s first two novels, Midnight on Mourn Street and A Matrix of Angels, were both finalists for the Stoker Award, and he is the author of four books of poetry including Starkweather Dreams, which received The Black Glove’s Horrorhead Award. His verse anthology A Sea of Alone: Poems for Alfred Hitchcock, with new work on Hitchcockian themes from some thirty poets, appeared in 2011. Conlon’s most recent book is The Oblivion Room: Stories of Violation, recently published by Evil Jester Press. A former Peace Corps Volunteer, Conlon holds an M.A. in American Literature from the University of Maryland. He lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
The Horror in Horror Poetry
Until recently I had never even heard of “horror poetry.”
Oh, I’m quite familiar with Edgar Allan Poe, and I’ve read some of Lovecraft’s verse. But when Marge Simon first used the phrase in a letter to me, I’ll admit that I responded, “What’s that?”
I’ve been a publishing poet for two decades now, but my forays into the horror genre began only within the past couple of years (mostly by happy accident). As a result, though I’m reasonably well-read in the field generally, there are gaps in my knowledge—horror poetry being chief among them. So I’ve been reading a lot of poems published within the genre lately; liking some, not liking others, but always with a doubt nibbling away in my mind.
Something bothers me about the entire concept of “horror poetry.”
What bothers me, I’ve come to realize, is that a significant percentage of all poetry—the mainstream literary type, I mean—is, at least potentially, horror poetry. Whether it’s Sharon Olds writing her terrifying descriptions of emotional abuse, disease, and death, or Ai spinning her dramatic monologues of racism and violence, or William Heyen conjuring our (possible) coming environmental catastrophe, portrayals of horror—real horror—are everywhere in American verse.
“Yes,” I hear the objection, “those poems might be frightening in some ways. But they’re not what we mean by horror poetry.”
Maybe it’s me, but when I read in a genre horror poem for the umpteenth time of misty moors, of shadow-heavy castles, of creeping things in the moonlight, of elegant vampires materializing in the crepuscular dark to suck at the necks of erotically-supercharged young maidens, I am not frightened.
In truth, I find such writing silly.
“To scare,” wrote the poet Winfield Townley Scott, “is thin purpose in poetry.” Thinner still when the attempt to scare doesn’t come off. And attempts to scare using the familiar tropes I’ve listed hardly ever come off.
The failure is even more comprehensive when such poems are written in antiquated English (lots of “thee” and “thou” and “m’lord”) or using poetic devices centuries out of date. (Heroic couplets, anyone?)
A poet must know the traditions, yes. A poet must know Shakespeare and Dryden and Keats and Shelley.
But, just as a writer of horror fiction would be unlikely to succeed without familiarity with contemporary fiction—not just Stephen King but John Updike, Toni Morrison, Jose Saramago, dozens more—a writer of horror verse must know the major poets of his or her time. Without understanding what’s happening in poetry now, what’s been happening for the past twenty or fifty years, no poet can hope to communicate to readers today. Such poets are left writing imitations, mostly bad ones, of verse modes of a hundred years ago or more.
And if they stick to traditional horror tropes—the vampire, the werewolf, the forbidding castle—they’ll communicate nothing of much meaning to anyone, though they might manage to get their efforts published in low- or non-paying fanzines which give them an ego boost and allow them to think of themselves as “published poets.”
Is it completely impossible to utilize the familiar tropes effectively? Of course not. But a poet who does so absolutely must have something new to bring to the party.
Listen to this excerpt from “Death and Murder,” a poem by Sharon Olds from her collection The Father (Knopf, 1994), which envisions a daughter’s response to her dad’s illness and slow death:
We tried to keep him alive, cut him and
piped him, tubed him, reamed him, practically
keelhauled him and it could not be done,
death took him, in our hands, and turned him
into that imitation of himself.
That’s what murderers do, they take
your sight, taste, touch, hearing,
they set in your place the thing which looks
exactly like you, which can do nothing,
anything can be done to it
and it will not care, it is shameless, no honor
is innate to the body…
This poem presents the oldest character in the world, Mr. Death himself, who’s done the most predictable thing on earth: He “took” someone. But Olds understands that what people fear is not the cliché Mr. Death of the skeletal fingers and slashing scythe; such exhausted images have no potency left today. Instead, Death becomes something very real here, and extremely frightening: an actual murderer. The poem contains the insight that, to us helpless human beings, all death is a kind of murder—murder by cancer, by heart attack, by stroke, by automobile accident. Whatever the cause, we all face the final loss of “sight, taste, touch, hearing,” and become that thing—a corpse—which “looks exactly like” us, but “which can do nothing.” We protest, we fight, we plead—as we would if faced with a literal, human murderer—but to no avail. Mr. Death “takes” us, yes—but in a real sense he murders us.
Folks of a certain age will remember the theme song for the old MARY TYLER MOORE show—it was called “Love Is All Around.” I’m tempted to revise that here to “Horror’s All Around,” because finding topics for poems of horrific content is as easy as turning on the TV or picking up a newspaper. Or, for some people, looking at the blinding shadows of their own lives.
Horror poetry? Try Olds, Ai, Heyen. And lots of others. Horror truly is all around.
Last night I dreamed of Anne Frank
again. She stood in a white dress
at the end of a tunnel black
like a sewer. Are you there?
she called in perfect,
faintly British English,
her voice reverberating back
onto itself. I do hope
you’re there, because I’m alone
here and I’m very hungry.
I watched her scrape black fog
from the cylindrical wall
and put it in her mouth, saying,
You see, I eat shadows here.
I checked my pockets, finding
only handfuls of shadow. They spilled
from my coat, washed down
the tunnel, ran over her bare feet.
Oh no, she said, I was so hoping
you’d brought something else…
And then I was not there.
She ran toward where I
had been, calling, Hello, did you bring
chocolate? I love chocolate! And fruit,
and almonds. She stopped then,
looked around. Fell silent.
After a while, her fingers
reached to scrape
me mechanically from the wall.
And, without expression, she
placed me slowly
into her mouth.
(Originally published in Pembroke Magazine #29, 1997)
Starkweather Dreams: Countdown
Nebraska, January 27, 1958
She won’t know,
as the two figures materialize
on the road before them—a young man
with a shotgun, and a girl—that
In forty-seven minutes the young man
will be ripping a hunting knife
through her vagina,
Or that in forty-three minutes
he’ll be pulling the pants down
from her dead body,
Or that in thirty-eight minutes
he’ll place the shotgun behind her head
and burst her brain like crushing an egg,
Or that in thirty-seven minutes
he’ll order her to walk down
the steps of the storm cellar,
Or that in thirty-five minutes
she’ll stand in the Nebraska night
unable to move for terror or breathe,
Or that in thirty-four minutes
she’ll watch him shove her fiancé Bob
down the steps and explode six shots
into the back of his skull,
Or that in twenty-eight minutes
he’ll march both of them
across the frozen ground, shotgun
at their backs,
Or that in twenty-five minutes
he’ll order them both out
of the truck, the girl holding
the gun on them as they move,
Or that in twenty-two minutes
he’ll demand that they pull over here,
stop right here, while the girl tells them
they damn well better do it,
Or that in sixteen minutes
the shotgun will be aimed at Bob’s neck
while the girl rifles through his wallet
and extracts four dollars,
Or that in twelve minutes
the young man will declare You just do
what I tell you and you won’t get hurt,
Or that in four minutes
Bob will ask Don’t you drive
a Ford? Black? ’49?
Or that in two minutes
he’ll turn the truck around
to give those kids a lift to town,
Or that in one minute
he’ll look at her and say, We should
pick ’em up, I think I know that guy,
Or that in one second
two figures will materialize
on the road before them, a young man
with a shotgun, and a girl…
(Originally published in Poet Lore Vol. 100 #3-4, Fall/Winter ’05 )
My Mother, Remembering Michael
A lifetime later, jaundiced
and cirrhotic, on her back
in the bed from which, in
a week or ten days, para-
medics will lift her, she hears
this, coming from her bed-
side radio, about the mother
of a girl murdered 13 years
before, whose remains have
just been found: that she,
the mother, went to the funeral
home, lifted the top of
the little coffin, and touched
her daughter’s bones.
“It was my way of saying
goodbye,” she said.
Light is dim in my mother’s
shuttered room. She tries
to place the bottle back
on the bedside table, but
it falls. Empty, anyway.
She finds her hand lifting,
outside her control, lifting,
but touching only air.
(Originally published in Poet Lore Vol. 95 #4, Winter ’00-’01)
What There Is
What there is
is three sheets of paper:
certificate of birth,
8:04 a.m., 31 July 1955,
with two blue footprints tiny enough
to freeze breath in lungs;
and of death, 10:40 p.m.,
same day, “14 hours” typed
antiseptically under Length of Stay
in This City or Town;
and the third—
head and two hands
engulfed by waves
of Kodak satin
in a coffin smaller
than any coffin should be.
I speak to him sometimes,
this little big brother—parents
dead now too, and buried and burned
(Originally published in Poet Lore Vol. 95 #4, Winter ’00-’01)
I hide in dark
corners of your day,
slither in long shadows
cast across your path.My voice teases under
wind’s gusty breath.
As light fades,
you may see me nearing,
you may hear my hungry cries.
As west consumes the day,
you will feel my craving breath
touch your supple flesh.
In blue twilight,
terror parts the silent veil.
The chase begins.
(Northampton House Press)
On Eldritch paths to glory turn
As Kings of old did also yearn
Let blood flow throughout the land
Prick thy neighbor and take thy stand
Kill thee a maid of purity absolute
Spill her blood for surety resolute
A dark thing growing will seem amiss
Fear not a reaper from the abyss
Times have come for thrones to emerge
Hewn of stone and crafted to serve
Erupting violence of archaic tribes
Split asunder by ancient ties
Swift swords of justice they do slash
Twill spill the blood and leave a gash
A blood-filled chalice to the brim
To slake the thirst of he who wins
Can a king control a demon though?
An ether-thing part friend and foe?
Forget not chants and glyphs to cry
Else carve thy destiny—prepare to die
Gladius sanguis et mors
Gladius sanguis ego facio imperium tuum
A Seer’s Guide to the Haunted Labyrinth (A Raven Above Press—Winter 2012)
Songs for the Raven (James Ward Kirk Fiction—Spring 2013)
Bare bones poke through dry, chafed skin—
a reflection of a meaningless life.
Heroin drips from corroded veins,
pierced countless times by dirty needles.
Heart pumps for the last time.
The finality of death sets in.
A man bled dry from dependency,
a man haunted by the need.
Many feet above, the hands that pushed.
A pistol to another’s head.
Cocaine caked around her nostrils.
She falls at an urgent speed.
On the ground, hordes of the living dead.
One heroin addict, being gnawed to shreds.
One coke-head, seconds away from feed.
Three up high, cleansing their pack.
Artwork by Sandy DeLuca © 2013
The moans rise to greet the living,
forced aloft, like rising waves of heat.
Their own dependency satiated.
Collaboration of the Dead (via Matt Nord, who runs Norgus Press—July 2011)
The Quiet One
Ann K. Schwader
Her neighbors rarely notice her at all.
She tends her garden, keeps her cottage neat,
& regularly occupies a seat
At Sunday services, so there’s no call
For them to venture past that soft gray wall
Of silence. Past her prime, though vaguely sweet,
She blends into the bustle of their streets
& disappears. It’s only in the fall
When stark October settles like a doom
On fields & town alike that she reclaims
Her elder self: the rituals she learned
In other lives, the manuscripts—& tombs—
She pillaged for the knowledge of such Names
As would have once condemned her to be burned.
(Previously published in her 2011 Hippocampus Press collection, Twisted in Dream)
The Watching of Whales
Amy K. Marshall
In darkness drear of remind’d druj
Swayed Ahab sleeping soundly,
Whilst round him ringed in haloed light
Lurked he who shadowed decency.
In distant dreams, this phantom man,
The Captain had defiantly
Stowed aboard, this wild Parsee,
With whom he kept society.
As nighttime deep’d and gloom befell
The moans of wraiths ineffable,
Lost Gomorrah’s judgment yoked
Peaceful calm and unsought Death.
And all the while, alongside drifts
The carcass bloodied, rent, and maimed
This monster, silent, soon predicts
The mortal end of him aggrieved.
“I have dreamed them again.”
A sleep-drenched whisper, Impermanence surrounds,
This minute craft shifts on the sea,
Fedallah frowns and long expounds
Upon the fate ‘twix he and he.
Two hearses traverse waves, not ground,
Conveying souls eternally bound,
Forevermore shall I your pilot be.
Eyes like fireflies in that gloom
Portend the end, that coming doom,
When neither hearse nor coffin bears
The mortal ruins of either there.
Truly Immortal Must Ahab Be!
O, cry of wanton, condemned man, whose
Loss assured by prophet dim
In cheerless light of dead-hung night
In words that succor grim—
“Only hemp can kill thee.”
Twisted words like corrupt-coiled line
Exact their lethal toll and bind.
As grey comes dawn, the morn debauched,
Stir other men who, so depraved,
Cast their lots with one obsessed.
The queer harpooner reaches, grasps
The waif-pole lantern spent at last
And snuffs it out.
The windward whale, the last to rend
Alongside Pequod, among the din
Of mislaid men whose fatal flaw
Is haunted still within this one, Fedallah.
“Ransom of God.”
(Re-Making Moby Project—Sweden May, 2013)
she steps from shadows
white teeth glinting
succulent lips plump as moonglow
delicate fingers reaching
towards soft flutter of tiny wings
it was but moments ago
when she touched
stepping across the threshold
not daring to glance down
at darkness below
where anguished cries
from repentant lips
in her lover’s gleaming eyes
she felt warm
sensed secrets of lives lived
a thousand times before
it was into those eyes
firm arms holding her
as she tasted nectar so fine
so ripe with scented dreams
her heart racing
crashing against her tiny chest
in thrashing frenzy
their moments were stolen staccato
interplayed with cautious listening
lest they be discovered by he
with sharp tongue
and sharper lance
in the folds of billowing curtains
they stroked soft curls of hair
drinking sweet perfume
watching the moon shine in the darkened eyes
teeth gleaming as pearls on black velvet
soft flesh beckoned
with muffled gasping
a ruby world glistening
now she stands in moonlight
soft flutter of tiny wings
brush her ear
shy smile crossing her face
one hand reaching towards the sky
the other glancing her breast
as she gives thanks to the darkness
that brought her light
but for a moment
the angry bellow of her husband
disturbs her reverie
and with a swish of silken thread
she turns to answer
his loathsome call
white teeth glinting
(Previously published in The Goddess of the Bay)
so I want to throttle you
shake you up so you can’t speak
pierce your tongue with
your own glass illusion
shattering your pedestal
smashing candy coated lies
deleting infinite files of denial
it was all a game
a wall of concern to scale
a suit of armour to wear
into the next millennium
but the soul is still naked
and when the beginning meets the end
we still have to come back again
continue the dance
till the steps are in sync
and trembles of betrayal
shudders of desire
(Previously published in In Our Own Words Generation X” anthology)
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