Works on this list include literature with genuinely frightening or disturbing horror elements as well as genre works with some level of literary value, if only a powerful emotional effect. That is, in one way or another, all these are works of horror with significant merit as works of literature, to my mind.
This list is still in progress, so please help me add to it. Works of significant quality only, please–I understand the vagueness of the term “quality,” so using your own standards is fine. I’m hoping other people will have some good suggestions for me. As you can see, I’ve read a lot of this sort of thing, and I’m always worried I’m about to run out.
Robert Aickman, The Wine Dark Sea (1988) or any other collection Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (1937) Eric Basso, The Beak Doctor: Short Fiction 1972-76 Thomas Bernhard, Gargoyles (1967) Algernon Blackwood, “The Willows” (1907), “Ancient Sorceries” (1908) Paul Bowles, The Delicate Prey (1950) Mary Butts, From Alter to Chimney-Piece: Selected Stories of Mary Butts (1992)–stories originally published between 1922 and 1937 Ramsey Campbell, The Face That Must Die (1979) Walter De La Mare, The Return (1922) Stephen Dobyns, The Church of Dead Girls (1997) Guy Endore, The Werewolf of Paris (1933) Brian Evenson, Dark Property (1995) Dennis Etchison, The Dark Country (1982) Thomas Harris, Red Dragon (1981), The Silence of the Lambs (1988) John Hawkes, The Beetle Leg (1951), Travesty (1976) Susan Hill, The Woman in Black (1983) Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery” (1948), The Haunting of Hill House (1959), We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) Henry James, “The Beast in the Jungle,” (1903), “The Jolly Corner” (1908) M.R. James, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), or Collected Ghost Stories (1931). T.E.D. Klein, The Ceremonies (1984) Tanith Lee, Dark Dance (1992) Tommaso Landolfi, An Autumn Story (1975) Fritz Leiber, Conjure Wife (1943), Our Lady of Darkness (1978) Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1989); those stories and others also in The Nightmare Factory (1996) H.P. Lovecraft, “The Rats in the Walls” (1922), The Dunwich Horror” (1928), “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1936) Arthur Machen, “The White People” (1904) Robert Marasco, Burnt Offerings (1973) Richard Matheson, I Am Legend (1954) Patrick McGrath, Spider (1990) Gustav Meyrink, The Golem (1928) David Morrell, The Totem (1979) Oliver Onions, Widdershins (1911) Victor Pelevin, “The News from Napal” in The Blue Lantern (1994) Jean Ray, Malpertuis (1943) Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Voyeur (1955), Jealousy (1958) Dan Simmons, Song of Kali (1985) Peter Straub, If You Could See Me Now (1977) Whiltey Streiber, The Wolfen (1978) Theodore Sturgeon, Some of Your Blood (1956) Roland Topor, The Tenant (1964) Wilfrid Sheed, The Blacking Factory & Pennsylvania Gothic (1968) Dirik Van Sickle, Montana Gothic (1979) Patrik Suskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1986) H. Russell Wakefield, The Best Ghost Stories of H. Russell Wakefield (1978)–stories first published mainly between 1928 and 1935 Paul West, The Women of Whitechappel and Jack the Ripper (1992) Edith Wharton, The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton (1973)–stories first published between 1909 and 1937 Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Collected Ghost Stories (1974)–most stories first published between 1903 and 1927)
All right. Enough seriousness. It’s time for a bit of the dark side’s subtle chuckle.
Halloween may be the one yearly celebration I support whole-heartedly, give or take a battery-operated glow-in-the-dark screaming skeleton or two. It doesn’t have much in the way of a questionable historical background and isn’t drenched in either patriotism or Christianity—which is why we don’t get a day off for it. Although I’m typically working myself to the point of zombie idiocy in October, the month also comes with various pleasures: baseball playoffs, Pumpkin Ale (Buffalo Bill’s original only please, no knockoffs), weekend trips to the mountains for the changing leaves (not in San Diego, but that’s another story), parties where people feel more free than usual to act like sexually depraved Puritans on the rampage, and finally my favorite: horror movies.
Once, half-jokingly, A.L. Nielsen called me a “goth poet.” I don’t look the part, but it’s not entirely untrue. Longer poems like The Haunted Baronet (essentially impossible to get at this point, although I'd be glad to send you the text) and “The Monstrious Failure of Contemplation” (in Haze) certainly use the history of horror literature as a taking off point for their explorations. My two books of fiction, Dead Carnival and Walking Dreams, are clearly related to horror literature as well, with many avant twists of course. But as I’ve been watching horror movies over the last few weeks, I’ve been wondering why there’s not that much use of the tropes of the horror genre in contemporary poetry.
There are exceptions. Kevin Killian’s Argento Series is a very strong work. Daphne Gottlieb’s 203 book Final Girlgot quite a bit of attention, although its poems finally didn’t hold my attention. A little too flatly narrative, a little too gaudy in the packaging, which is like a horror movie, sure, but still. Alice Notley and C.A. Conrad are interested in tarot, but even though they both have something of a warrior mentality (of a very anti-war sort), they see their uses of magic as on some fundamental level healing, or at least as a kind of revolutionary freedom. But I’m talking horror here, the kind that may not have any redeeming qualities beyond exploring all the strange places that the human creature can imagine itself going. Fear, paranoia, dissociation, degeneracy, disintegration, that sort of thing. The moment when you go one way and your body another.
There are probably many reasons for the rather limited connections between contemporary poetry and horror literature. A politicized poet might rightly complain that the stylization of horror in a world of so much real violence remains a distraction from more profoundly important matters. And of course there’s the difficulty of lifting such work out of cliche. At least several of my musician friends from Philadelphia, for instance, (I won’t name them but they’re welcome to name themselves) think that horror images are just too cartoonish to lead to first rate music. Besides, genres like horror, sci fi, detective literature and others are often associated with the most naive, manipulative uses of narrative. To the extent that poetry (at least some of it) remains a kind of writing that can go beyond or question narrative, genre literature especially might seem that which poetry exists in opposition to, at least on the level of structure and development.
I can’t really say that horror is underused in contemporary poetry compared to other genre literatures. Poetry has taken up the concept of the detective perhaps more readily (especially French poets: I’m thinking of Oliver Cadiot and, if I’m recalling correctly, Emmanuel Hocquard), but uses of science fiction and speculative literature may be more rare. Frederick Turner’s The New World, a new formalist book from the mid 80s, is a book length science fiction epic that almost could be interesting, although it may very well be ruined by its pseudo-epic language. But I can’t think of much other science fiction poetry. And once we consider older literature like the graveyard poetry of the 18th century, as well as Coleridge, Poe, and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” there may very well be more than enough poetry linked to the gothic tradition.
So, what about it? Is the idea of poetry and horror a contemporary dead end? Is there just as much of it as there needs to be? Is there more than I’m aware of? What am I missing? Is the very idea an irresponsible stylization of violence?
I welcome your responses as I head back to my very own 13 Days of Halloween. Up right now on my reading list is Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which I’ll be teaching in my speculative literature course tomorrow.
I first met Maryrose Larkin in the later 1990s, when she still lived in the DC-Baltimore area. I believe it was Buck Downs who put her in touch with me. I published some of her work in my poetry magazine Situation, and she gave a reading in the Ruthless Grip Poetry Series that I hosted, when the series was still held in the Ruthless Grip Art Project gallery on the corner of 15th and U. Not long after that, Maryrose left the east coast, and I traded e-mails with her on occasion as she traveled west in various stages. She stopped in Lawrence, Kansas for several years, then ended up in Portland, Oregon, where she now lives, and where for several years she has been involved with the Spare Room collective, a group that organizes poetry readings and other arts events. There’s a very good set of poets in Portland these days, including Kaia Sand, Jules Boykoff, Joel Betteridge, Cynthia Kimball, Rodney Koeneke, and a number of others. When I was in Portland for the first time in my life at the end of March, to give a reading with Lorraine Graham hosted by the Spare Room group, the event was a genuine pleasure, with a good dinner beforehand and drinks after, and best of all a thoughtful and responsive audience. The Portland poetry community reminded me how much in the San Diego area I miss having a context in which innovative poetry is thriving in the city itself, not just at its universities. Maryrose is one of the people in Portland whose commitment to running literary events makes that kind of community possible.
This year, Catherne Daly’s i.e. press, out of Los Angeles, has published Maryrose’s first full-length collection of poetry, The Book of Ocean. And a fine first book it is, with sharply etched rhythms, and an intellectual complexity that’s insightful and emotionally resonant. Central to The Book of Ocean is a sense of the world and human experience in it as a kind of layering, almost a palimpsest like in the work of H.D., in which the peeling away of each layer reveals a further layer of significance.
From the beginning of the book’s opening poem, “Brief Gravity”:
I rhyme with the ground
and all at once it falls apple I am apple apple severed from tree not the snake or a woman but tree itself is discovery a force based on the world
something terrible had gone wrong, now I think something happened, but just a planet
everything earth occurs in resemblance In the material world, physics trap a pound of feathers in a pound of gold
10, 5 a man falling out of an airplane a woman falling out of a sky
(Note: The limitations of Blogger won't allow me, or at least I can't figure out how, to retain the original spacing of the poems, which are open field verse in which white space is crucial to the rhythm).
There are at least four main interweaved conceptual strands of The Book of Ocean, some of them highlighted in this poem, others emerging more blatantly elsewhere. There’s the geological, the literal fact of the earth and its geological strata as a condition of materiality, time and change. Closely connected to this is the historical; time and change understood in the context of human beings as a group. Then there’s also the self, a process of reflection and creativity, connection and dissolution. Finally, there’s a mythological impulse, the straining to find an overall meaning to all these layers of existence.
This mythological impulse, again reminiscent of H.D., is reflected by the organization of the book into six sections: Natural History, Gardens, Hours, The Life List, Music, Ocean. But crucial to The Book of Ocean is that the mythologically coherent totality that the book’s organization might suggest often collapses in the poems themselves. If there’s a mythology here, it’s one that deconstructs itself, challenging its own overarching meaning-making drives. The same can be said of the book’s other conceptual strands. There’s tension, action and reaction, but finally no stable whole. If earth and history make the self possible, the self shapes comprehension regarding earth and history. But there are also ways in which self struggles against earth and history, while earth and history confront the self with its often painful limitations.
The opening of the poem “Baptism” suggests some of the particulars at stake in these concepts:
Beginnings are found countries born just and raw
Imagine: fingers dark against white strange gardens earth gnaws earth new enclosing
her memories of arrival in this country
Here, the figure of the immigrant (or perhaps the slave) has become the self who records memories of change in countries and landscapes, while confronting and being shaped by the newness of “white strange gardens.” In context with the rest of the poem, these lines suggest that the concept of the immigrant is essential to human experience. The movement from one landscape, nation, culture, and natural environment to another seems an unavoidable change in the history of the self. While calling up particular histories of immigration, “Baptism” shows that the concept of the immigrant is not relevant simply to some people’s histories, but can serve as a resonant metaphor for many selves and their travels.
I'm often skeptical of such large scale myths and metaphors, because of the way they sometimes ignore historical specifics. And it’s precisely the fact that it shares this skepticism that makes The Book of Ocean so convincing to me. Given all the interweaved concepts, none finally controls the other, and none allows for more than a partial understanding of any phenomenon. The poems are filled with ellipses, with boundaries that can’t be crossed and statements that aren’t quite made, with silences and absences:
Fire fixed or wandering aster
illumed by earth this body
over silence I cannot pass
(from “Night House”)
In fact, many moments in The Book of Ocean teeter on the edge of intelligibility, as if at any moment coherence could be swept away for good.
Most of the poems in the book are ultimately about processes of interaction more than definitive conclusions, as the opening of “Changeling” implies:
We cross the phenomena of light
Here is what we have twisted There is the nature of
A name is not description but ornament, becoming and undergoing
To be wholly replaced as we travel
Look how quickly she becomes other, a changeling
In circumstances like these, understanding can never be either fixed or permanent, but becomes a fundamentally interactive process. And what The Book of Ocean finally shows is that writing poems can be a way of engaging the interactive condition of the changeling. The book’s finely honed rhythms, alternately clipped and wave-like, never let either the repetitions of the ocean or the disconnection of the fragment become dominant modes.
If you ask me, the world of poetry needs more people like Maryrose Larkin. She works on her writing carefully and consistently, and takes an active role in the life of local poetry communities. She’s not trying to be a power-broker or an in-the-poetry-world-news tastemaker. The Book of Ocean isn’t going to make any high profile Best of the Year poetry lists although probably it should, and it certainly makes my list, for whatever that’s worth. I don’t mean that I’m against writers whose work or personality has achieved a higher profile, or who are more eager to obtain attention for their concerns. But it’s important to remember that a lot of the hard work of poetry, the writing of it, and the effort of bringing a community of shared interests together, is done by people whose commitment to poetry may be more important to them, and bring more significance to their life and their interactions with others, than either broader public recognition or official reward.
Although I would hardly make a case for them as objective categories, and certainly not pure oppositions, when I think about who reads (or listens to) my writing, I tend to distinguish between two concepts: an audience and a reader.
Audience, to my mind, implies a certain size; it’s defined first and foremost by numbers. It’s therefore a deeply capitalist, bureaucratic concept. The moment that numbers of readers are the base issue, an work of literature has become a product whose effects, as a product, are measurable. How many units produced and sold, what name recognition was gained and in what venues, who made or lost money; who showed up for the reading and who paid for it; all are related to notions of audience. An audience is a demographic, a social segment that can be categorized, sometimes very specifically (as in a niche market, for instance). But however specifically defined, a demographic always remains to some degree faceless, a mass. Or it if has a face, it has many faces simultaneously, seen from the distance of the performer on a stage or the bookstore cashier who sells copies of a book to a line of customers. An audience may admire a work, love it, may worship or even fantasize about its creator (or replacing its creator), but the sense of distance remains essential. If there is an encounter between people—and there is—it always takes places across the distance of the produced moment and all the mechanisms that go into producing it.
My notion of a reader is more intimate, or perhaps better, conversational. If audience is always at least part mass, a reader is always specific, a particular person with a particular history who engages with the writing in a unique way. And perhaps engages even with the writer: there might be a conversation, a direct give and take about the work. I’m always pleased if someone tells me they like my writing, but it’s even more interesting when they say something specific about their reaction, what the work led them to think, or to do, to criticize or embrace. I don’t want to sentimentalize such moments; they can also be disturbing. I’ve thought more than once, “How could somebody possibly say that?” Still, and whatever my own relation to my writing, in such conversations I get a sense of the specific and often surprising effect of that writing in a world of others. The possibility of engaged conversation is important to me, whether about literature or any other topic. It’s a moment of close contact between people on a subject of shared interest to them. I don’t think it goes too far to say that good conversation has been one of my life’s central pleasures, and often a conscious goal. My writing itself often feels like part of a conversation.
But I’m a non-purist. I’m even anti-purist at times, while trying not to act too pure about being anti-purist. I’ve read to large audiences, and it can be great. I know that books are produced at a cost, that money is part of how books reach readers, that to insist on having readers while rejecting audiences implies a privatized mechanics of exchange that doesn’t escape capitalism so much as it has its own economic and social features, some potentially questionable. I want people to pick up copies of my books, and having an audience can help a writer have readers. At its best, an audience is nothing more than a gathering of individuals who want to listen. Besides, the image of being stuck in a room, surrounded by three or four people who have been reading my work over a lifetime, seems more like a dream of hell than heaven, unless good food and drink is involved. I don’t want my work’s value defined only by some in-crowd. I want it out in the larger world as well.
There’s finally a certain degree of the unknown involved in the idea of a reader. Quite seriously, I never know who will read my books, or why. Some of my colleagues and close friends don’t read them (they know me too well to need to hear more from me, maybe) whereas every now and then I’ll meet someone who’s been reading them closely for awhile and has a lot to say. I remember once reading an interview in Talisman with Gustav Sobin in which he said the ideal reader of his work was a 19-year old woman. That’s a funny answer in more ways than one (and a little, um, telling, although maybe you gotta admire his honesty if nothing else). But it helped remind me that I don’t have an image of my ideal reader, or even want one. In thinking about audiences and readers, there’s something crucial about the fact that writers never really know who’s reading their work, or what readers are going to do with what they’ve read. If I personally finally prefer a reader to an audience, that’s not simply because I can have a conversation only with a reader. It’s also because I may not know that reader yet. The concept of a reader includes not just the pleasure of conversation with those we know but also the important truth that the world and the people in it contain as yet unrealized possibilities for human contact.