Strange and frightening things are happening in our society that makes it appear less tolerant and accepting, more violent and divisive. It feels to me as if horror writers have become canaries in the coalmine; all the scary stories I have read recently – The Fireman by Joe Hill, Nod by Adrian Barnes and Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt – have demonstrated that there is a darkness dwelling at the heart of people. The situations are supernatural – a strange and deadly virus, inexplicable mass insomnia, a witch – but the response to those phenomena all show that humans are the real monsters. This is something I examined in my own poem, Pictish Beast and I think it’s the reason that why Hallowe’en continues to have a place in the cultural calendar.
Poetry embraces the darkness – from the eerie Hallowe’en tales such as Poe’s The Raven or The Listeners by Walter de la Mare to the psychological terror and incipient madness of Hughes Mearns’ influential poem Antigonish. There is something about the way poems are constructed, something about how they are set apart from normal life that makes them the ideal vehicle to chill the reader.
I’m currently working on a sequence of poems about witches; something about them feels perfect for poetry. Anne Sexton’s poem Her Kind finds kinship in those figures who are “not a woman, quite” and there is such vivid freedom in the lines even as the witch is tortured – “A woman like that is not afraid to die.” From a cultural perspective, the figure of a woman who refuses to be cowed belongs in a dark world of black magic, must be reduced to a hideous crone or a seductive temptress to somehow lessen her power, break her on the wheel of the mob. Similarly, Plath’s Lady Lazarus revels in being an unnatural monstrosity. The lady in the poem describes herself as “A sort of walking miracle, my skin / Bright as a Nazi lampshade,” and is at once magical and terrible to behold. I love the way these poems revel in what is considered unnatural and refuse to apologise, and applaud the threatening end to Plath’s poem – “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” Next time I go to a Hallowe’en party, I must remember to dress as Lady Lazarus.
Horror, in fiction and in poetry, is a way to make sense of the world and place an order on the chaos. It is perhaps for this reason that one poem that always sends a shiver down my spine is The Unreturning by Wilfred Owen. In this poem, the dead do not – cannot – return and while we might enjoy the vicarious thrill of a ghost story and tales of things that go bump in the night, the most frightening thing of all is that these are all just stories we tell ourselves. This poem is haunted by a lack of ghosts, it generates a silence that we are compelled to fill with signs and mythology in order to illuminate our own darkness.