Fresh Graves

[Originally published in the Horror Writer's Association Newsletter, February, 2002, along with poem "Broken, Entered"]

As a poetry editor, I receive a lot of horror poetry, and I'm sad to say that most of it doesn't even get a second read. Too many writers approach horror by well-traveled roads. I've received countless poems about beautiful women seducing and killing men (sometimes the women sprout fangs, sometimes they just produce knives from handbags), about vast cyclopean horrors rising from the sewers to wrap their tentacles around grimy industrial cities, about ruthless children with glowing red eyes, about witches cackling in fields of heather.

Been there. Read that.

Every so often I get poems that do it right, or at least approach the subject of horror poetry from the proper direction. Sometimes I buy those poems, but even if I don't, I remember the poets, and look for their work in the future.

So how do you do it right? First, forget the established props and stage dressings of horror. Even the images that began with real potency have been mostly bled dry by overuse. Writing poems about vampires, werewolves, full moons, and dusty crossroads is easy; the work's been done for you; it's filling your poems with used furniture. I'm much more interested in personal horrors.

Writing horror poetry should be something of an ordeal, not undertaken lightly. Plumb your depths. Sift your nightmares. Find the images that terrify you personally, and trust that, if you write with heart and clarity, you'll be able to convey that terror to your readers.

The power of poetry -- any poetry -- is in the particulars. As Blake said, "To generalise is to be an idiot!" Don't write poems about generic gloomy houses on standard-issue foggy moors, don't write about nameless mouldering corpses -- seek the details, and convey them. Look for the horror of everyday things, the subjective horrors. There's nothing inherently horrific about a child's bicycle, but placed in the right context (that bicycle, overturned in the middle of a busy intersection, its rear wheel turning slowly, no child in sight) it can be terrifying.

What frightened you as a child? I used to fear being poisoned, I used to think sunlight reflected in a mirror could strike me blind, I used to find small bones in the woods behind my house and wonder if they once belonged to children. Adult horrors are potent, too -- I fear poverty, I fear love betrayed, I fear strangers knocking on my door in the middle of the night, I fear the sound of helicopters overhead. There are urban fears, rural fears, family and interpersonal fears, and all of them are more powerful and relevant than another tired verse about bats, rats and yellowed incisors.

Don't be afraid to forsake logic in the study of fear. The novelist Jonathan Carroll is particularly good at finding wellsprings of horror in seemingly innocuous places, and his books are full of mechanical blackbirds, videotaped messages from the dead, and coat pockets filled with blood. I suggest that horror poets rifle their lives and imagination for such unusual, specific images, and forsake the easy use of clichés. Invoke the totems of your personal mythologies. Conjure dark gods from your own experiences. The best poems approach the universal by way of the personal. Trust yourself. If something unsettles you, and you convey that discomfort clearly and skillfully, it will unsettle your readers, too.

Dig deep. Writing poetry isn't always easy, and writing poetry concerned with the dark underbelly of life is one of the hardest tasks of all.

And when you write those strange, painful, personal poems -- send them to me. I'd love to read them... and give some of them, the ones that unsettle me, a good home.

Go to Tropism, my online journal.