The other day I watched a clip of a daytime talk show in which the beloved host sent her producer through a spooky haunted house at Universal Studios so the audience could watch his reactions to each new little (or gigantic) horror that awaited around the next turn. Even though he knew it was all props and machines and makeup (and that the establishment’s insurance company would never let them actually stab people with their long bloody knives or bite them with their gleaming white fangs) and even though he knew a camera was ahead of him filming his every shrieking reaction, his body and mind couldn’t help but react in momentary terror to the frightening props and machines and makeup.
I’m glad I’m not a producer for a daytime talk show. I decided several years ago that for all the benefits there might be (Are there any? I don’t know.) to the sudden bursts of adrenaline and whatever other chemicals are released when we experience this momentary terror, it wasn’t worth it to me. I hate being frightened and having so little control over what might happen, even if I know the environment is perfectly safe and controlled by people who hate being sued as much as I hate being frightened. So you won’t find me putting down money for a haunted house, or a roller coaster ride, for that matter.
But give me a book with a story that’s a little bit dark, where I can turn the page when I feel like it or put it aside if I want. That’s something else. Or give me a spooky poem. It might send a little chill up my spine, but at worst, it’ll be a stanza or two and I can move on, not a scratch from the bloody knife on me. As the annual celebration of ghosts and goblins approaches, enjoy these great spooky poems for Halloween.
Theme in Yellow
I spot the hills
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o’-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.
Some one came knocking
At my wee, small door;
Some one came knocking,
I listened, I opened,
I looked to left and right,
But nought there was a-stirring
In the still dark night;
Only the busy beetle
Tap-tapping on the wall,
Only from the forest
The screech-owl’s call,
Only the cricket whistling
While the dewdrops fall,
So I know not who came knocking,
At all, at all, at all.
—Walter de la Mare
We’re having a Halloween party at school.
I’m dressed up like Dracula. Man, I look cool!
I dyed my hair black, and I cut off my bangs.
I’m wearing a cape and some fake plastic fangs.
I put on some makeup to paint my face white,
like creatures that only come out in the night.
My fingernails, too, are all pointed and red.
I look like I’m recently back from the dead.
My mom drops me off, and I run into school
and suddenly feel like the world’s biggest fool.
The other kids stare like I’m some kind of freak—
the Halloween party is not till next week.
— Kenn Nesbitt, author of When the Teacher Isn’t Looking
The Spider and the Ghost of the Fly
Once I loved a spider
When I was born a fly,
A velvet-footed spider
With a gown of rainbow-dye.
She ate my wings and gloated.
She bound me with a hair.
She drove me to her parlor
Above her winding stair.
To educate young spiders
She took me all apart.
My ghost came back to haunt her.
I saw her eat my heart.
I shall be Autumn
with leaf draped skirt,
and folds of
boysenberry velvet wine
flowing to the ground.
Brown stained face,
eyes rimmed in gold,
nails dripping sunset,
a crown of twigs
to cover my head.
You may gather from me
the spring of my youth,
my summer of maturity,
and hold onto with me,
the solace of these days
before the frost.
— Judith A. Lawrence, editor/publisher of River Poets Journal
Love was in the hopelessness of you,
each word a part of how you would be.
Imaginings have a way of forming themselves
from a wish for light, a wager to conceive a ghost.
This is how you were born from her, barely born herself.
You, created twice, a story and a story’s child.
A god less knowing watched her write each page,
the glory and the fear that was your life,
rising out of her desire, rising from a myth
before her eyes, piece by piece, from dream to fire.
— Richard Maxson, based on The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein
Fairy tales are full of impossible tasks:
Gather the chin hairs of a man-eating goat,
Or cross a sulphuric lake in a leaky boat,
Select the prince from a row of identical masks,
Tiptoe up to a dragon where it basks
And snatch its bone; count dust specks, mote by mote,
Or learn the phone directory by rote.
Always it’s impossible what someone asks—
You have to fight magic with magic. You have to believe
That you have something impossible up your sleeve,
The language of snakes, perhaps, an invisible cloak,
An army of ants at your beck, or a lethal joke,
The will to do whatever must be done:
Marry a monster. Hand over your firstborn son.
— A.E. Stallings, author of Olives
Continual Conversation with a Silent Man
The old brown hen and the old blue sky,
Between the two we live and die —
The broken cartwheel on the hill.
As if, in the presence of the sea,
We dried our nets and mended sail
And talked of never-ending things,
Of the never-ending storm of will,
One will and many wills, and the wind,
Of many meanings in the leaves,
Brought down to one below the eaves,
Link, of that tempest, to the farm,
The chain of the turquoise hen and sky
And the wheel that broke as the cart went by.
It is not a voice that is under the eaves.
It is not speech, the sound we hear
In this conversation, but the sound
Of things and their motion: the other man,
A turquoise monster moving round.
— Wallace Stevens
The Witch’s Song, from Macbeth
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
The clown is dead when last we found
a grave excuse to look around
and peer inside the shadowed door
upon the third and final floor
we listened but heard not a sound.
The house sits back upon the ground—
suspended, still, a merry-go-round
and no one goes there anymore
the clown is dead.
There’s nothing left to tell of now
except perhaps the tale of how
we found him there, when we explored
but then again, we’re pretty sure
that none would cry out, in the town—
the clown is dead.
— Sara Barkat, co-writer of Loki Goodness Campaign
And because Halloween’s not Halloween without a couple of unexpected extra spooks, here are two bonus spooky poems:
St. Mary’s Cemetery in Missoula
Believe you and I sing tiny/ and wise and could
if we had to eat stone and go on. “Glen Uig”
—Epitaph on Richard Hugo’s gravestone
Richard walks among the stones
his own ghost surely meets him there.
Some tilt or sag, others deeper sunk slink or
have slunk beneath the yew to hear its hiss.
He scrolls the names, wets his lips, begins
again reciting the dead and dying, giving each
a living sound. The tongue can honor bones
long after they are dust. The pool of an eye fills up,
the ear crackles with static exhaled from that strange
conversion back to stone and soil. From there,
mouth full of German women, he prays.
Among their conscious breath’s small ceasings
his lovers, students, compose their forms
for sleep, exhale a last and incoherent I am.
—Anne M. Doe Overstreet
Keeping Off the Dead
One child takes up a handful of grain soaked in brine
and begins like a baby animal, yipping small sounds that grow to yelps,
loping around the perimeter of the children. When she breaks back into the gathered
group and looses the howl of a wild girl nearly coyote, it is fur she
feels as she touches her own skin.
Wheeling, she throws the grain over her head
that will sprout stunted and scattered in the spring, shaded from sunlight
and far from the combine’s turn, and the others follow her, scooping
brackish handfuls from the basin and flinging them to the sky.
The children’s howls slip the net of leaves. Wild as a pack of dogs,
they pass the pecan leaf canopy, make off for the limestone ledges,
the creek banks jutting out from under themselves to deep water where snakes live.
Away flee the ghosts of the land from their rotted stumps filled with rainwater
and from their thorn trees and dim cedar copses. Gone are the night birds
from their nests in the chaff, and gone are the wild spirits that haunt unnamed places
and misremembered hollows.
The girl on her haunches in this small clearing hollowed out of darkness
incants without words the song Odysseus himself must have sung to his mariners
just freed from their animal selves. Gathered nearby,
the children croon their languageless lament, crying to the conjurers of the world
a noise unheard since the confusion of tongues. Why have you denied us,
they plead, The animal forms which are so rightfully ours?
Photo by Mike Locke, Creative Commons license via Flickr.
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