Poetry, like all art, is subjective. What resonates with me might not resonate with you. And if it does, it could be for a very different reason than my own. Which is why I hesitate to call this a best of 2020 horror poetry guide and more of a “I think you really should read these works because they are dark, strange, and wonderful” guide.
These poetry collections are wildly imaginative and unique. From a collection of poems written to murdered women or a curriculum to the underworld, a lot is happening between these pages, and the spaces their words make both without and within.
Underworld Lit, Srikanth Reddy
An underworld curriculum filled with quizzes, a roving talking staircase, and a bloody skeleton showing up in the middle of the day to ask questions that seem all too commonplace––that’s just some of what you’ll find in Reddy’s poetry collection, Underworld Lit. There are many different types of horror represented in this collection, from the horror that we do to each other and ourselves to the horror that takes place within each of us, the nightmares and the darkness—the sickness.
Into the Forest and All the Way Through, Cynthia Pelayo
The horror and darkness found in Pelayo’s poetry collection also infects our everyday lives: the collection of murdered women whose bodies stack up inside true crime novels, newspapers, and our hearts and memories. All of their sadness, grief, pain, and sorrow is captured and wrung out in Pelayo’s book, which is for and about these women. In the introduction, Pelayo warns readers that these ghosts have been invited into the collection. Part horror poetry collection and part true crime novel, Into the Forest and All the Way Through is not a book to be read lightly or taken for granted.
Satan’s Sweethearts, Marge Simon and Mary Turzillo
Poetry has the special ability to live in the nexus between real and unreal. Like jokes, there is always an element of truth, a glimpse or warning of something we can not grasp. Satan’s Sweethearts, a poetry collection inspired by evil and murderous women throughout history, is a text that clearly issues a warning: beware of the whispers that come from within that can lead you down a road of blood, murder, and absolute chaos. Simon and Turzillo blend their voices to deliver a whirlwind of murder babes who loved the work they did, the slaughter work. These poems are very, very dark. They feel, almost, as though they are in conversation with Pelayo’s collection. The two together are sides of a black coin without a face. Reading them alongside each other is an emotional act, a step into darkness that should be taken with caution.
The Impossible Weight of Life, Michael Bailey
This is a short story collection as well as a poetry collection and offers readers an introductory taste of Bailey’s style and voice. For those familiar with the Chiral Mad series, you will recognize his name as the editor behind several volumes. What first struck me about this collection was its layout and formatting, the use of poems woven throughout the short stories instead of neatly packaged in their own section, which sometimes makes the stories take on poetic aura. That, paired with the use of black and white contrasts for certain pieces, makes me want to sit with the text again as a whole and as separate parts to see how they work together to form The Impossible Weight of Life.
Altars and Oubliettes, Angela Yuriko Smith
What Smith does in this collection is something of horrific wonder. Altars and Oubliettes is both parts fiction and nonfiction, horrifying and horrible. The feelings of dread it instills are forced deeper into the reader by the underlaid images, pictures, and sometimes backwards or skewed text. It works as both a tomb that identifies and holds the darkness and as an invocation of the horrors around us. Marge Simon—Satan’s Sweethearts—provides a cautionary introduction that warns the reader: “When you reach the end of Altars & Oubliettes, it may take some time to recover. You’ve been held captive…” It is exactly that, a captivating collection of poems covering many different themes and stories, but all circling back to the heart of the horror that surrounds and tempts us.
Index of Haunted Houses, Adam O. Davis
This book and Hotel Almighty are both poetry collections from Sarabande Books, a new favorite of mine. Like Hotel Almighty, Index of Haunted Houses is held together by a beautiful concept. It is a collection of ghosts, of hauntings, and of the spaces we leave behind. What is really striking about Davis’s collection is that though it is based around a common horror trope, the poems here do not come off common or tropey. These ghosts and hauntings are unique in how they manifest to Davis.
Hotel Almighty, Sarah J. Sloat
Out of all the collections of poetry on this list, Hotel Almighty has my favorite concept. A book of erasure poetry based off of Stephen King’s Misery, Sloat creates a collection of poems that is wholly new and inventive. In fact, the imagery and layout of this collection reminded me more of The Shining than Misery. There are pictures accompanying the text that come across frightening and odd, but perfect for the poems that run alongside them. This is the poetry collection that felt most like a journey or a pathway through to something dark and deadly. Told out of order, Hotel Almighty is visually striking while at the same time revealing of character, place, and emotion.
A Collection of Dreamscapes, Christina Sng
Sng is a familiar name to many horror poetry readers because of her previous book of a similar name, A Collection of Nightmares, which won the 2018 Bram Stoker Award for Best Poetry Collection. A Collection of Dreamscapes takes the reader through different lands of fantasy—some dark, some fairytale, and some violent. All the Monsters in the World, a section within the poetry collection, reads like a poetic guide to living with monsters, inside and out. Some of the monsters, like vampires, are familiar, but others read as something new, a different kind of monster or terror that is special to the creases of this poetry collection.
The Withering: Poems of Supernatural Horror, Ashley Dioses
I love it when a poetry book is both visual and lyrical. Dioses is able to pull off both, making The Withering a sort of picture book of macabre verse. The artwork initially reminded me of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark—they are that creepy. Normally, rhyming poetry isn’t my thing, but the meter and rhyme of Dioses’ poems turns each one into a spell or devil-song that sticks in your head. These poems are great for the Halloween season and doing a read around of poems over webcam or with the people who reside with you.
Past the Glad and Sunlit Season: Poems for Halloween, K.A. Opperman
Both this poetry collection and Dioses’ collection come from Jackanapes Press, which releases stunning and gorgeous collections, classics, and chapbooks in the horror genre. Opperman’s book delivers poetic Halloween darkness alongside creepy-ass pictures that dial up the horror of the book. Past the Glad and Sunlit Season, like The Withering, is full poems perfect for autumn, but don’t let the fact that the season has already passed stop you from enjoying these collections. Carry the darkness of Halloween with you throughout these next few months and let Opperman’s words keep you chilled to the bone, so that you don’t mind the cold winter winds.
You should read every one of these poetry collections, not because I say so, but because the emotional and psychological effort that it takes to write a full collection of horror poetry is a feat that deserves to be celebrated. Yes, these poetry collections are phenomenal and bone- or soul-rattling, but they are also works of art that can’t just be read. They need to be held, not materialistically, but mentally and verbally. Tuck these poems under your tongue and develop a secret dark language of poetry.