Don't you ever laugh as the hearse goes by
For you may be the next to die
They wrap you up in a big white sheet
From your head down to your feet
They put you in a big black box
And cover you up with dirt and rocks
All goes well for about a week
Then your coffin begins to leak
The worms crawl in and the worms crawl out
The worms play pinochle on your snout
A big green worm with rolling eyes
Crawls in your stomach and out your eyes
You stomach turns a slimy green
And pus pours out like whipping cream
You spread it on a piece of bread
And that's what you eat when you are dead.
I think everyone has come across this poem at one time or another. It's from Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Read in the Dark, a book that probably anyone who grew up in the 90s (or even the 80s, if Wikipedia has its publishing dates right) is at least passingly familiar with.
|You may remember the books for their absolutely terrifying artwork.|
There's a few lines there that work pretty well, though. Take that couplet at the beginning, for example: "Don't you ever laugh as the hearse goes by/For you may be the next to die." It has an odd invocation quality to it, a quality that reappears in line 9 with it's repetitive structure. That's getting into the hard stuff, because it drifts out of the realm of the kitschy and into the realm of actual experience. It isn't saddled with the grossout adjectives in the rest of the poem, simply stating the bare facts as they stand. And, what's more, it has a bit of depth to it. Those lines can be read either as "Don't laugh--you could be next!" or, much more terrifyingly, as "Don't laugh--we might make sure you're next!" The implication there is that some external force may decide that you're being just a bit too cheeky, and deserve to be taken down a bit... six feet down, to be exact.2
But this just isn't scratching the horror itch. It seems like this medium maybe just isn't well suited to horror. I mean, look at Poe, the original master of horror--"The Raven" isn't particularly scary, really, it's just gloomy, gothic, and depressed. It's not all that far off from a Morrisey song. ("When you say it's gonna happen now/When exactly do you mean?/Quoth the Raven: 'Nevermore'.") Maybe poetry is just too singsongy or abstract to grasp at real terror, or spine-tingling suspense, or bonechilling horror.
Sort of like how you can't write a science fiction poem, right?
Let's take a look at Wallace Stephens and see what he has to say:
The Worms at Heaven's Gate
Out of the tomb, we bring Badroulbadour,
Within our bellies, we her chariot.
Here is an eye. And here are, one by one,
The lashes of that eye and its white lid.
Here is the cheek on which that lid declined,
And, finger after finger, here, the hand,
The genius of that cheek. Here are the lips,
The bundle of the body and the feet.
. . . . . . . . . .
Out of the tomb, we bring Badroulbadour.
So, what's different about this poem? For one thing, it's done away with the rhyme scheme that so many poets cling to for dear life. The result is that the poem seems less like a bit of doggerel and more like some ritualistic chant. What's more, it does away with adjectives almost completely. This isn't a poem trying to gross you out with detail--it's remaining in the realm of bare minimal facts. Which is rather odd, considering how utterly surreal the poem's actual contents are. There is something unnervingly clinical about the ritual presentation of this princess's body parts for review.
I think the greatest strength of this poem, however, comes from its use of fridge horror. Fridge horror is that sensation you get when you're up at night for a late snack, standing at the fridge, gazing upon the eggs and milk, and you suddenly become aware of the underlying implications of a work. It comes, as TV Tropes will tell you, in a number of other varieties, such as Fridge Logic and Fridge Brilliance, but what we're looking at here is the horror that comes from the title clicking with the contents of the poem. Think about it. What does it mean that these are the worms at the Gate of Heaven, conveying spirits to the pearly gates? What does that say about God?
Roll the implications of that around a little. They ain't pretty, especially if you know a bit about what Angels are actually supposed to look like. Let's just say that there's a very good reason that the first thing they tend to say when they show up in the Bible is "FEAR NOT!" The implications are not, I suppose, all that different from what the Hearse Song suggests, but whereas that poem makes its meaning overt, Stephens hides his implications in his title, letting it slowly seep into the reader's consciousness. It's the difference between a jump scare and the sensation you get when you suddenly realize that someone has been looking in the window for the whole scene and you've only just now noticed it.
Stephens does this again in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," as well. Check out the fourth way of looking:
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Again, we have a sense that something is being hidden from us, some deep, dreadful truth of the universe--the kind of truths that H.P. Lovecraft's hapless heroes tend to overhear, resulting in them going utterly mad from the horror of knowing. What's more, the structure of the poem reinforces the idea. We read the first introductory line, and then the short second line, and are aware of the cliche. Then we get to the next line: "A man and a woman and a blackbird," and we are surprised. This is an interloper in our cliche! And, what's more, a rather spooky one as that. Stephens uses this parallel structure to raise our apprehension, and then confirms our new fears with the final repetition: the three beings together are one. Something of the nature of the Blackbird seems to already have infiltrated this vision of harmony.
Do I know what exactly Stephens is driving at here?
But each time I read this passage I always shiver a bit. There's something barely seen here, lurking around the edges of understanding--some darkness that, perhaps, ultimately is the more horrible for how intrinsic it seems to be to our inner nature.
This is, I think, where poetry shines. Poetry is a medium of slant truths and hidden meanings. It is allusion and metaphor atop subtext and simile. It's a big juicy sandwich of fog and smoke and mirrors. This makes it perfectly suited to psychological horror, because it can describe everything as an entity seen only out of the corner of the eye. It is a horror that need not be understood or clearly spelled out--it draws upon the structure and nature of poetry as a medium to give it a visceral strength.
My favorite use of this is, of course, in the poems of T. S. Eliot. I am, it might be said, a bit of a slavering fanboi for that man's work. I already talked a bit yesterday about the horror that comes from transforming the familiar into the phantasmagoric. It's a technique you might recognize from German Expressionist film, German Expressionist artwork, some of the stuff Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman have done, and so on. Eliot is a master. Let's check out some passages from The Waste Land:
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: 'Stetson!
'You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
'That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
'Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
'Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
'O keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men,
'Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept ...
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
Or perhaps from "Rhapsody on a Windy Night":
The street-lamp said,
“Remark the cat which flattens itself in the gutter,
Slips out its tongue
And devours a morsel of rancid butter.”
So the hand of the child, automatic,
Slipped out and pocketed a toy that was running along the quay.
I could see nothing behind that child’s eye.
Or "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
These are weird images, ladies and gentlemen. And maybe I'm overstating my case to call them horror, but should we term them anything else? There is a sense of the macabre in each vision Eliot presents us, whether it be the unknown presence chuckling in the background in The Waste Land, or Prufrock's sky, drugged and splayed out, or the blank, sociopathic child lurking at the docks at two in the morning in "Rhapsody". Eliot's world is a haunted world, and it seems like something monsterous is lurking just beneath the surface, ready to emerge--fitting for a poet caught between the horror of the two World Wars.
Of course, these aren't the only poets with an understanding of different forms of horror. Stevie Smith manages to create some pretty unnerving images in her otherwise rather nursery-rhyme-esque poems, demonstrating that horror can come even in a singsong form. And Langston Hughes creates a very adult horror through his exploration of powerlessness and the violent suffering of his people in the American South. Emily Dickinson is always lurking in the upstairs window, as well, spinning out strange visions. And even the modern hip-hop artist and poet Saul Williams occasionally drifts into these dark waters:
It seems strange to me, then, that there aren't more poets that work specifically in the genre of horror. There is, after all, such a strong effect to be found in the lines, the steady march from line to line of each and every metric footfall, every rhythmic tap, that signals the inevitable march of something you would rather not know... it comes on, unstoppable, trudging or skittering through the fog. You don't know what it is, or what it wants, its significance or form, but you can be certain of one thing.
As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days. Oh, and I'm looking for guest entries this month, so if you have something interesting to say about things that generally fit the theme, send them my way.
1This is another Topic For Another Day. Basically, the main idea here is that the irregularity of the meter draws attention to itself without actually reinforcing any of the themes of the poem. It's a distraction rather than a boon, unlike, say, a Hughes poem where the irregular meter creates a sense of musical influence.
2. Eee hee hee hee! </Crypt KeeperofManyNames>