Recently, Madge Simon asked me if I would be interested in writing an article on Dark Poetry for her column in the Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association. I gladly obliged, and the article just appeared in the September issue. With her kind permission, I am reprinting it here, along with several of the poems discussed.
On a Dark and Narrow Way
It’s a pleasure writing something about Dark Poetry rather than the more restrictive Horror Poetry, for the simple reason that I’ve only been writing horror poetry for perhaps the past fifteen years or so but dark poetry for most of my creative life.
For me, the distinction between the two is fluid and frequently depends upon my purposes and audiences. I consider the pastiches I’ve done of Lovecraft and Poe (such poems as “The Dweller on the Edge of Day,” “Night’s Plutonian Shore,” and “The House Beyond the Field”) primarily as horror for the simple reason that they are based on specific images, characters, or landscapes already made accessible by the earlier authors. The context—in the case of all three poems, In Darkness Drawn, a chapbook to be distributed at the World HorrorCon 2008—impelled me to focus on creating a certain texture through words and structures.
Because the things—the things—the poems were talking about do not exist (the contemporary hubbub about the imminent zombie apocalypse notwithstanding), they seemed most effective when the verse forms were familiar to readers, as real as possible. In each case, stanzaic, metered verse with a carefully chosen rhyme scheme was selected as a vehicle, first to introduce readers into the world of poetry, in which data and facts are secondary to image and emotion; and then into a world of horror, in which the primary images have no direct correspondent in objective experience. The intent was to immerse readers comfortably into one imaginative universe before exploring a second.
Because of the two-step distancing in horror poetry (and for that matter, in science fiction and fantasy) most of my distinctively horror poems are narrative—either overtly, as they introduce a character and take him/her/it through a narrowly limited situation; or covertly if the character is not directly identified but its outré nature is implied, as in “The Dweller on the Edge of Day.”
The third element that helps me identify horror poetry is language. In a very real sense, horror literature of any sort depends more obviously on manipulation of language than do other forms. As an exercise to prove the point, I gave a presentation at World HorrorCon 2012 in which I reproduced a paragraph from Lovecraft’s “The Picture in the House”—admittedly prose but of a texture and rhythmic intensity that almost approaches poetry. In the original, the second paragraph reads:
Most horrible of all sights are the little unpainted wooden houses remote from travelled ways, usually squatted upon some damp, grassy slope or leaning against some gigantic outcropping of rock. Two hundred years and more they have leaned or squatted there, while the vines have crawled and the trees have swelled and spread. They are almost hidden now in lawless luxuriances of green and guardian shrouds of shadow; but the small-paned windows still stare shockingly, as if blinking through a lethal stupor which wards off madness by dulling the memory of unutterable things.
Specific words stand out, immediately identifying the passage as horror, even though it is just about a simple landscape: horrible, remote, travelled, squatted, gigantic, squatted (as if once were not enough), crawled, swelled, lawless, luxuriances, shrouds, shockingly, lethal, stupor, madness, unutterable, things.
Then, to demonstrate how critical this vocabulary is to the story, I ‘rewrote’ the paragraph, toning things down a bit:
The most disagreeable sights of all are the small weathered wooden cottages far from the highways, usually set on some grassy hill or angled against large boulders. For more than two centuries, they have sat there, while foliage has spread and trees have grown larger and larger. Now they are almost screened in by an unfarmed bounty of green and shadows that seems to supervise them; but the small-paned windows still watch fearfully, as if looking askance through a disinterest that keeps mental instability away by putting the damper on reminders of things that are too unpleasant even to talk about.
The technical difference is that my version takes longer by about ten words, but the difference in atmosphere, tone, feeling, adumbration…the two passages are light-years apart. Lovecraft without his distinctive language, both in his prose and in his verse, would be tedious, flat, and boring. His language—even when he overdoes certain words like eldritch and rugose—simply is his horror.
Much the same goes for my horror poetry. Language is paramount; cross-currents of rhythm and sound pattern highlight key words that by themselves unmistakably indicate genre. Beneath the layers of that language, vampires and werewolves and ‘unutterable things’ may wander, but the verbal texture remains paramount.
My dark poetry is something quite different. These are poems that emerge from within in ways that verses about creatures and monsters—which quite frequently end up comic, as in the limericks in A Verse to Horrors: An Abecedary of Monsters and the Monstrous—never can. Whenever I write about literary horrors, I am constantly aware of myself as vates, as maker, as creator of things that do not exist but that I wish to bring momentarily into animation. The act is, if you will, artificial in the extreme.
My dark poetry, however, is organic, uninhibited, frequently unanticipated. Perhaps the best example are the verses that compose The Warren Poems (in Matrix—Echoes of Growing Up West, 2010). They were originally composed twenty years ago during the year or so following my father’s death and incorporated into a small-press edition of verses, Matrix—Poems, in 1995.
To this day, I consider them among the most ‘horrific’ things I’ve written, not because they flaunt vampires and demons and zombies, but because now, from the perspective of two decades, I cannot conceive of the person who wrote them.
At the time, although I did not know it then and would not know it for another half decade, I was undergoing a severe depressive episode that coincided with my father’s death. Our house was literally falling apart around us; the rear wall had separated from the foundation by a good four inches along the entire back, and we could see daylight between the wall and the ceiling in our bedroom. I was diagnosed with marginal diabetes, but I had seen the toll the disease had taken on my father and was perhaps overly concerned with my own health. I was progressively getting deafer, although the time when I would need double hearing aids was still in the future. I could barely stand to be in the same room with my family because I either could not understand what they were saying or they had to yell at me to get my attention…which made my anger worse. And for two or three years, I had become increasingly aware of ringing, jangling, hissing, booming, and assorted other internal sounds.
During that time, I was convinced that I was going crazy. When I asked a doctor what I could do about…well, about everything but especially about the noises, he responded blandly, “Tinnitus. Live with it.”
Then my father died.
When I started on The Warren Poems, it was as therapy, although I would not have put it quite that way. I simply had to write them. The process was simple. I took a key moment in my life, when things seemed particularly difficult or unsettled, transferred that moment to a poor fellow named (intentionally) ‘Warren,’ then proceeded to make his life a living hell. In real life, I was threatened with molestation; in Warren’s life, it happened. The theory was that if Warren could make it through to the end of the poem, I could survive as well.
This went on for nineteen poems; then I wrote the final one: “Warren Says Farewell to His Father’s Ghost.”
And the need for Warren disappeared.
I am grateful to Warren for many things, not the least for actually keeping me sane during a difficult year. But I am also grateful to him for forcing me to look back at my writing—especially my poetry—and realize how essentially dark nearly everything I had written was. I even wrote a Christmas program one year for our church; after she read it, my wife looked at me and said, “You can’t perform this in church!” It was too dark even for her.
Warren also gave me perspective when, a few years after Matrix was published, I was diagnosed with clinical bipolarism extending back as far as my teen years. No one—least of all I—knew about the problem until I was in my forties. That’s a long time to live with darkness, especially under the assumption that everyone else had the same feelings, the same emotions, the same driving needs…but that they were strong enough to bear up under them. The Warren Poems and subsequent ‘mainstream’ pieces became ways of understanding my own darkness by transferring it outside of me, examining it, exploring, exploiting it, and in the process creating (I hope) art.
When I finally began writing about horror—especially my books on Stephen King—and then writing horror itself, the transition was easy. Technically, my horror poetry deals with a more controlled vocabulary, with more precisely determined rhythms and sounds; but essentially there is not that great a difference between it and my non-horror poetry.
Ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties can be fun; battling the darkness is not.
* * * * * * * * * *
Dreams brought me to this catacomb—
Dank necropolis breathing heavy rot
Through sable soil moldering with age.
Dreams unspeakable—drawn from ancient tomes,
Dark whisperings—brought me here. I wait, caught
Between sleep and madness—in this close cage.
All around they rise, creatures of the gloam,
Twisted, tortured, skeletal—they rise from plots
Of creviced marble, fingers crooked with rage.
In dim-light, pale bones gleam like polished chrome,
Ragged cerecloths counterfeit hangman’s knots—
Fell accoutrements aching for a stage.
They shamble, scuff beneath an arcing dome
Of root-clogged earth, haunted by worms and clots
Of new-dead flesh, corruption’s equipage.
I back into a ravaged, crumbled combe,
Hope to hide from their contempt, their quick hot
Gasps of hatred, their murderous rampage.
In dream, this fearful darkness felt like home,
Familiar, comforting—yet now, distraught,
I feel it smothering, black doom’s presage.
Closer—they surge across bedeviled loam—
I shudder, scream— my tears avail me naught—
My cursed dreams gape…I’ve earned their deathly wage—
—In the Void: Poems of Science Fiction, Myth and Fantasy, and Horror (Borgo Press, 2009): 107.
“Night’s Plutonian Shore”
“Tell me what thy lordly name is…”
—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”
Some say the way is Stygian dark,
Cerberic, fraught with harms,
Phlegethonic, its wild flames stark,
Impervious to spoken charms,
Impregnable to arms.
They tell of wells of bleak dismay
Assaulting pilgrims’ souls,
Of horrors waiting to betray,
Demand their fill of terror’s tolls
Like gnarled, vicious trolls.
But worse—the curse of nival ways,
Of palely vapid streams,
Hung low with heavy-frosted bays
Where woad and madder—ghastly gleams—
Choke paths to darker dreams;
Where ash-streams clash with frozen stones;
Where melancholy dwells;
Where time-lost souls proceed with groans
To hidden, nightmare-ridden cells,
To endure prodigious hells.
—In the Void: Poems of Science Fiction, Myth and Fantasy, and Horror (Borgo Press, 2009): 109.
In the House Beyond the Field
Cold beyond white fields it stands,
Empty, lone, outlined
With grey, landscape winter-bland,
Blind façade unlined
By twisted, dead ivy strands.
White-framed, shuttered windows stare
Blankly at bare trees;
All about, a distant air—
Neglect, loose debris
Fluttered in an icy glare.
But inside…inside, where dark
Shadows roam in rooms
Abandoned to waiting, stark
Emptiness, shapes loom—
Unfocused, horror’s birthmarks:
Beneath raw floorboards a heart
Beats judgment, throbs guilt;
Behind a bricked wall, apart,
Aslant, quickly built,
Moans cascade with subtle art;
In one room, undead wails rise
From thick, black, sealed vaults;
In one, cats’ ungodly cries
Screech without a halt;
In one, a raven looms, flies….
In a dead man’s mind, a flask
Of wine spills, parches;
Room to room in solemn Masque
Death softly marches—
Ghosts resume bloodcurdling tasks.
—In the Void: Poems of Science Fiction, Myth and Fantasy, and Horror (Borgo Press, 2009): 110.
The Dweller on the Edge of Day
Between light and dark, in twilit
Afterglow, of neither day
Nor night but shunned by each—
Afraid of night, of sunlight slit
Into portal dreams that prey
On stuttered, sullen speech;
Afraid of day, too numb to pit
Rampant light against the sway
Of midnight’s selfish reach;
But caught, unwilling to submit
To either, lest one betray
My bleakest fears, impeach
This half-life nothingness as fit
For neither breath nor death, flay
Consciousness to screech,
A wail, an agony—commit
Me to damnable decay,
Beyond all healing reach,
Beyond all saving reach.
—In the Void: Poems of Science Fiction, Myth and Fantasy, and Horror (Borgo Press, 2009): 108.
A Verse to Horrors
There’s something as darkness approaches,
There’s something Uncanny that broaches
The cask of our reason
If but for a season
And makes us as squirmy as roaches;
It may come all at once, in a flash—
Taut-muscle, and hustle, and brash,
Huge and abhorrent,
It may rush like a torrent,
Fangs glistening and ready to gnash;
Or it may be more subtle and slight,
A flickering trick of the light,
An after-sight sheen
That is scant to be seen
But that haunts us throughout the long night.
It may be disease or disaster—
Our bodies may stiffen like plaster;
Flesh rot off bone,
Beauty come crone,
‘Til we wish death would creep along faster.
Whatever the Thing, though we fear it
We will whistle brave nothings and jeer it—
But deep in our hearts
We feel panic’s darts,
The breaking of sweat as we near it;
And the Horror becomes one with us—
We may pray, we may scream, we may cuss;
But when it is finished
We find we’re diminished
To gross tissue, pooled blood, and raw pus.
— A Verse to Horrors: An Abecedary of Monster and the Monstrous (CreateSpace, 2012).
WARREN—PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A NEUROTIC
Awake at two am, waiting for the leak
he knows will come, must come
(as it has come for three long years
of nuzzling black whammy into cracks
and lifting butt-end shingles to finger
secret recesses for dampness)—
he knows the roof is sound, knows it
with the upper layerings of little grey
cells that constitute his mind—but
in the darker damper places he
knows knows knows that it will come
must come is fated to come and
drip drip drip insidious dampness
into the drywall, into the two-by-fours
that frame the window,
into the four-chambered tissues of his
waiting heart and clog the arteries
of his life
with thick white pasty sludge…
part drywall, part stucco, part
rarified adust of his melancholy fears
—Matrix: Echoes of Growing Up West (Borgo Press, 2010), 163
WARREN EVALUATES THE EFFECTS OF ARIPIPRAZOLE
Words grow hauntingly,
Roll half-tauntingly from the mind
Where once, not long ago,
Image poured and metaphor
Fused meaning with high passion—
And also darkled shadows, fear, and dread.
Instead of rocket highs and
Widely barren plains, unbroken now
By crest or depth, unfurrowed in the
Lassitude of listlessness,
Numbed and dumbed and stilled.
To walk is easier thus.
Each step-by-step level and unruffled.
Horizons no longer loom. Twilights
Linger until the moon herself sleeps settled.
And dawn creeps slowly on until she
Merges unbeknownst with noon.
And thus it is. And is. And is.
And whether that is good,
I do not know.
—Matrix: Echoes of Growing Up West (Borgo Press, 2010), 188.
* * * * * * * *
Michael R. Collings is the Senior Publications Editor for JournalStone Publishing; an Emeritus professor of English from Pepperdine University; author of the best-selling horror novels The Slab and The House Beyond the Hill, as well as other novels and collections of short fiction, poetry, and literary essays; and an inveterate fan of all things grammatical and syntactical. His writing are available here, at starshineandshadows.com, at journalstone.com, and at hellnotes.com.