The Unfortunate Lives of Horror Poets

From Plath to Poe to Baudelaire; channeling a lifetime of sadness into art.

Hello, friends and foes! Today we are examining the lives of several esteemed poets and the similarities that tie them together. I’ll preface this article by admitting that I am not a poet and have failed at writing poetry more times than I would care to admit (at least 15, maybe more). While I have enjoyed reading poetry as prose (think the Crank series by Ellen Hopkins), I have never been particularly drawn to poetry collections. I’ve put together this post in an attempt to learn more about the elusive art of poetry, and hopefully come to admire it more than I already do. At the end I’ve put together a small list of poetry I’ve recently read and enjoyed, and I hope you take a moment to check out some contemporary (and perhaps very sad) poets.

*Trigger Warning: the following post contains references to suicide and drug use*

Charles Baudelaire by Étienne Carjat, 1863

We begin our journey into poetry with Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), a man whose life could most certainly be hailed as a series of unfortunate events. Baudelaire was a French poet of a humble background. He experienced the death of his father at a young age and gained a sizable inheritance at 21 (sounds similar to a couple of other Baudelaires I know…). His first publication came in the year 1845 – the same year as his first suicide attempt.

Baudelaire was a gothic romanticist, writing poems and prose about vampirism, Satanism, and sex. The most notable of his poetry collections is Les Fleurs du mal (1857). Les Fleurs du mal, or in English, The Flowers of Evil, made Baudelaire a household name in France. He had a propensity to write about the Catholic sense of original sin, feminine beauty and the general sensuality of women.

He was deemed a legend, a cursed poet, a poète maudit (living on the fringes of society and relatively ignored by his contemporaries). He was eccentric and morbid and kept rather odd company. He had a fascination with the American poet Edgar Allen Poe and published several meticulous translations of Poe’s most famous works, thus bringing Poe’s work to a global audience. He experimented with drugs and alcohol and died in his mid-forties, presumably of syphilis. Baudelaire’s gothic legend lives on, however. Not only did Lemony Snicket write A Series of Unfortunate Events with a family bearing Baudelaire’s name (and several other Charles Baudelaire-themed Easter eggs throughout the series!), but The Cure adapted his poem Les Yeux des Pauvres (English: The Eyes of the Poor) into their 1987 song How Beautiful You Are. Both the song and the poem speak to the tragedy of love, and thinking you know the innermost thoughts of your partner when, sometimes, you do not.

1849 “Annie” daguerreotype of Poe

This brings us to our familiar friend Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) and his similarly unfortunate tale. Poe was born to traveling actors in Boston and was tragically orphaned a mere three years later. He was adopted by a wealthy merchant in Virginia, raised with expectations of becoming a businessman and promptly sent to college. Unfortunately, Poe was forced to drop out of college because his father, though wealthy, refused to pay for it. Poe was later ejected from West Point Military Academy. Subsequently, he returned to visit his college fiancee only to find that she had become betrothed to another!

Eventually Poe found wedded bliss with his fourteen year old cousin (too much to unpack right now, but let me know if you’d like a whole article about this in the future). When his wife passed away at just 27, Poe was left devastated and unable to write for months on end.

Poe shot to literary fame with his 1845 poem The Raven, a lyrical tale of a man’s descent into madness. Annabel Lee (1849 – published posthumously) explored one of Poe’s most prevalent tropes – the death of a beautiful young woman. He also wrote a myriad of short stories including 1843’s The Tell-Tale Heart, another descent into madness after a murder has taken place.

When Poe passed away he was alone, for he had mysteriously disappeared during an outing and was found unresponsive in a bar outside of town, then taken to a hospital where he soon died. Upon his death, a literary rival wrote a defamatory obituary claiming Poe was a drunk with no respect for women or anyone else. Instead of erasing Poe from the literary realm as this rival intended, the obituary caused Poe’s sales to skyrocket (albeit, posthumously). Poetic justice?

Plath in July 1961, at her Chalcot Square flat in London

Perhaps one of the most tragic figures in poetry is Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). Another heartbreaking tale that begins in Boston, Plath endured the death of her father at a young age (another recurring tragedy, it seems). She went on to excel in her studies in college but began to exhibit symptoms of depression and what is now believed to be bipolar disorder; an illness that was not understood nor medicated during Plath’s time. Plath attempted suicide at the age of 20, miraculously survived, and was subsequently institutionalized and subjected to electro-shock therapy. This horrific series of events inspired her now-classic novel The Bell Jar (1963). Later, Plath was abandoned by her unfaithful husband and left with two small children to raise alone. She took her own life at the age of 30.

Plath’s poetry described her mental turmoil in devastating detail. She was honest about her fascination with human emotion, the idea of death, and the allure (in her perception) of suicide. Some contemporaries deemed her to be ahead of her time, fascinating, and a prolific writer of the tragedies of the human experience. Others did not appreciate her morbidity nor her blatant honesty about the fragility of the human mind, emotion, and ego. A troubled life met with a tragic end, leaving behind traces of herself in her poems and prose.

Well, that was depressing. For such creatively brilliant minds to be plagued with misfortune and mental illness is indescribably sad, as is much of the work they left behind. Check it out if you don’t mind shedding a tear or two. In my research of poetry and poets, I found a small collection that I thought I would share with all of you. Take a moment to check them out if you like horror poetry, poetry that scares you, or poems that are just straight-up sad.

Poems from the Attic by Morgan Nikola-Wren (2019). The idea that this is a collection of overflow poems, the odd ones out, the poems too strange for other projects, is intriguing and endlessly appealing as I, myself, am strange and unusual. The companion images are full of gothic whimsy, including art-deco stylized moons and stills from silent movies. The poems range from the violence and passion of heartbreak to the pain of loneliness in heartbreak’s wake. They explore the pain of being ignored – except when writing poetry. The more haunting the poem, the more haunting the companion imagery. An odd collection for an odd soul that often feels out of place.

Adrift on a Sea of Shadows by Spyder Collins (2021). Collins is a Twitter personality known for his viciously dark poems and short stories- the gore of which are well-emulated in this collection. It is brought to us by the “quaint and curious” indie publishing house Quill & Crow. Collins’ poems are achingly sad and melancholic, pining for lost loves and singing odes to ravens, blood, bones, and murder (oh my!). Depressing laments mingle with rotten descriptions of death and decay and the delight that the narrator finds in such darkness. Heart-achingly sad, loneliness seeps off every blood-stained page.

I am Not Your Final Girl by Claire C. Holland (2018). Seeping with nostalgia for all our favorite horror flicks, this collection follows the fates of famous final girls, or as Holland dubs them “horror heroines”, from their point of view. The collection questions women’s role in these bloody tales. Why do we put women through such torture – both in fiction, and reality? It’s chilling to have such an intimate look into the minds of characters now so familiar in the horror genre. While they may have been slain in their respective films (or not – hence “final girl”), these badass women live on in these poems, giving voice to the horrors that come before and after the credits roll.

Bloodhound by Marie Casey (2020). A self-published poetry collection, Bloodhound recounts a bloody tale of the beauty and horrors of love and deception. Violence and gore are peppered amid what can only be described as love poems, creating a dichotomy true to the essence of love – it can hurt, and it can bleed. The pain of being betrayed, the ending of trust, and the depravity humans are capable of are explored through poems and lyrical prose. It is a noble cause, to write through trauma and the darkest of human experiences, and Casey has shown that it is possible, through darkness, to find light. That’s what art is all about, right? Giving medium to our fears and nightmares in the hopes that maybe they aren’t so scary, after all.

What do you think about poetry? Do you have a favorite poet? If you check out any of the above collections, please let me know. (Disclaimer: I’m not responsible for any nightmares resulting from the reading of Collins’ work).

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

SOURCES:

“Edgar Allen Poe.” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/edgar-allan-poe

“Sylvia Plath.” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/sylvia-plath

“Poe’s Biography.” The Poe Museum, http://www.poemuseum.org/poes-biography

Freeman, Nick. “Why French poet Charles Baudelaire was the godfather of Goths.” The Conversation, 30 Oct. 2019, https://theconversation.com/why-french-poet-charles-baudelaire-was-the-godfather-of-goths-118874

Boden, Rhiannon-Skye. “The Literary Brilliance of The Cure’s “How Beautiful You Are.” Two Story Melody, 15 Jun. 2018, https://twostorymelody.com/literary-brilliance-cures-beautiful/

COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.

All other images are certified public domain.

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Horror: Who Started It?

Hello, friends and foes! For my first-ever blog post I thought it would be fun to do a brief timeline of horror literature and try to figure out who might have planted the horror family tree. Without further ado, let’s dive in.

Horror: who started it? There are several obvious contenders; H.P. Lovecraft, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe. When I dove into this research rabbit hole I began as any self-respecting researcher would – I Googled it. The answer might shock you.

While this search result is hilarious, it’s not exactly what I was looking for when I set out on this quest for an answer. So I, living my armchair anthropologist dreams, decided to dig (read: Google) a little further.

The encyclopedia Brittanica defines a horror story as “a story in which the focus is on creating a feeling of fear”. This definition is important because, for the sake of keeping this a brief timeline of horror literature, I won’t be delving into the different branches of the family tree (i.e. gothic horror, paranormal horror, body horror, etc.). With this simple definition in mind, who do you picture of when you think of horror? Stephen King? Anne Rice?

Stephen King’s reign of terror began in 1974 with the publication of the now-classic Carrie. Since then he’s published over 80 books so, sure, I’d consider him as a contender for Father of Modern Horror. (For the record, R.L. Stine has published over 300 books. Just sayin’.)

Anne Rice rose to fame around the same time as King, as Interview With a Vampire was published in 1976, a whopping 26 years before Stephanie Meyer published the insanely popular vampire series Twilight. Since 1976, Rice has published over two dozen books, including both Christian and erotic literature. She even cites Stephen King as an inspiration for her work (Billboard interview, March 11, 2016). The 1970’s saw an upswing in horror literature that has led all the way to present day, but that’s not where the genre began.

Let’s talk about Shirley Jackson. You know The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix? Yeah, she wrote the book back in 1959. It’s often cited as one of the first haunted house novels in America. She also wrote We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Even before that, Jackson published her short story The Lottery in 1948. If you’re anything like me, you’ll remember this as being the single most traumatizing piece of assigned reading in your middle school English class.

Jackson was also a general badass, regarded as incredibly witty, confident, and successful in a field that did not grant easy access to women at that time. She also read tarot and allegedly practiced witchcraft. Spooky. I read her biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, and you should, too. While she didn’t cite a specific author of literary influence, Jackson seemed to be inspired by the darkness of every day – sometimes hidden, sometimes right under your very nose.

I’d say it’s typical for horror writers to be drawn to and inspired by the dark intricacies of life. Take a look at H.P. Lovecraft, for example. A fellow New Englander and anti-anthropocentrist (anthropocentric: regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or animals). Lovecraft’s claim to fame is widely regarded as his short story The Call of Cthulu from 1926 which eventually became the staggering Cthulu mythos that most horror (or in Lovecraft’s terms, “weird”) literature fans have come to know. Lovecraft’s first known writings began in 1897, a staggering 77 years before Stephen King’s Carrie. His legacy in the literature realm is abundantly clear, as his Cthulu mythos has been adapted into film, TV, board games and more. And, while 1897 seems like a really long time ago, I wanted to know who inspired Lovecraft. So I kept digging.

Lovecraft’s influence is another pretty obvious contender for starting the horror genre as we know it: Edgar Allen Poe. Another New Englander (I blame the gloom) that became an instant success with the publication of The Raven in 1845 but had published horror shorts since the early 1830’s. Poe was a student of cosmology, another influence of Lovecraft’s work (cosmology: the philosophical study of the origin and nature of the universe). Poe is widely regarded as a pioneer of “gothic” and “gothic horror” literature. An interesting anecdote about Poe’s history that I might do a whole post on in the future (would you be interested? Leave a comment below!) is the case of Lizzie Doten in the 1860’s. Doten was an imitator of Poe’s poetry after his death and claimed to hear Poe’s spirit dictating new poetry from beyond the grave.

Anyway, anyway, anyway. Let’s get on with it.

Poe was a popular (and ultimately very tragic) figure in horror literature, but not the first. Before him came another one of our obvious contenders: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her 1818 classic Frankenstein. Shelley ushered in the age of science-fiction and horror during what can certainly be called a “Golden Age” for spooky literature. The early 1800’s saw the Brothers Grimm collection of short stories for scaring your children and other classics, like Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

At this point in my research, I truly thought I was nearing the finish line. A big boom of horror literature in the early 1800’s meant someone had started the genre in the not-so-distant past, and I was determined to figure out who it was. I made it back in time to 1764 with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. FINALLY. Several sources claimed this to be the first gothic horror novel. And it was quite controversial at the time of its publication; it was initially published under the guise of being a romance story.

Finally, I had reached the end. Or… the beginning. I made it to the first ever horror story ever written!

Just kidding. Common sense tells us that horror has its roots in folklore, superstition, and myths from all over the world for as long as history has been recorded. Even real life events have been inspiring terrifying works of literature for hundreds of years. A serial killer inspired 1697’s Bluebeard, and noblewoman Elizabeth Bathory inspired 1729’s Tragica Historia and the character Madame Delphine LaLaurie in American Horror Story: Coven, portrayed by horror film icon Kathy Bates. And although we didn’t talk about Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic Dracula, it’s thought that his inspiration came from the Prince of Wallachia Vlad III who terrified all who knew him in the 15th century.

It wasn’t just vampires back then, either. Werewolf literature was popular as far back as the 12th Century, way before Leitch Ritchie wrote The Man-Wolf in 1831. If you want to get technical, there was a werewolf in The Epic of Gilgamesh and that dates back to 2100 BC. Werewolves were also prominent figures in ancient Greek and Roman horror stories.

Now, here’s the thing. Horror stories as we know them go back basically forever. I’m talking before the year 1000. Hell, maybe even before the year 100. Euripides wrote stories about ghosts and necromancy that inspired Mary Shelley. Pliny the Younger wrote about a haunted house in Athens over 1800 years before Shirley Jackson was even born.

I guess the conclusion is that there is no conclusion. At least, not one I could come up with on my armchair anthropology expedition into the roots of horror literature. Horror’s roots are ancient, tying back to the oldest superstitions, folklore and ghost stories from all over the world. You can give Walpole credit for the first gothic horror novel, and Shelley for the first sci-fi horror, and H.P. Lovecraft for being straight-up weird, but it’s impossible to find a single originator of horror. And, I think I like that answer better. Ghosts, witches, vampires and demons have haunted humans for as long as we’ve been able to tell stories about them. And reading a good ghost story never gets old.

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

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