Monday, August 13, 2007

The Nightmare Lake

There is a lake in distant Zan,
Beyond the wonted haunts of man,
Where broods alone in hideous state
A spirit dead and desolate.
A spirit ancient and unholy,
Heavy with fearsome melancholy,
Which from the waters dull and dense
Draws vapors cursed with pestilence.
Around the banks a mire of clay,
Crawl things offensive in decay,
And curious birds that reach the shore
Are seen by mortals nevermore.
Here shines by day the searing sun
On glassy wastes beheld by none,
And here by night pale moon beams flow
Into the deeps that yawn below.
In nightmares only it is told
What scenes beneath those beams unfold;
What scenes, too old for human sight,
Lie sunken there in endless night;
For in those depths there only pace
The shadows of a voiceless race.
One midnight, redolent of ill,
I saw that lake, asleep and still;
While in the lurid sky there rode
A gibbous moon that glow'd and glow'd.
I saw the stretching marshy shore
And the foul things those marshes bore:
Lizards and snakes convuls'd and dying;
Ravens and vampires putrefying;
All these and hov'ring o'er the dead,
Narcophagi that on them fed.
And as the dreadful moon climbed high,
Fright'ning the stars from out the sky,
I saw the lake's dull waters glow
Till sunken things appeared below.
There shown unnumbered fathoms down,
The towers of a forgotten town;
The tarnished domes and mossy walls;
Weed tangles spires and empty halls;
Deserted fanes and vaults of dread,
And streets of gold uncoveted.
These I beheld and saw beside
A horde of shapeless shadows glide;
A noxious horde which to my glance
Seem'd moving in a hideous dance
Round slimy sepulchres that lay
Beside a never travelled way.
Straight from the tombs a heaving rose
That vex'd the waters' dull repose,
While lethal shades of upper space
Howl'd at the moon's sardonic face.
Then sank the lake within its bed,
Sucked down to caverns of the dead,
Till from the reeking new-stript earth
Curl'd fetid fumes of noisome birth.
About the city, nigh uncover'd,
The monstrous dancing shadows hover'd,
When lo! There oped with sudden stir
The portal of each sepulchre!
No ear may learn; no tongue may tell
What nameless horror then befell.
I see that lake - that moon agrin -
That city and the things within -
Waking, I pray that on that shore
The nightmare lake may sink no more!


—H.P. Lovecraft

11 Comments:

Blogger RHE said...

Do you suppose there are any good horror poems, or is "good horror" an oxymoron? This one is just awful--of course. However much one likes putrefying vampires, being fed upon by hovering narcophagi, however insatiable one's appetite for grand guignol adjectives, however enlightened one feels to be told that the sun shines by day and that midnight smells like ill, the poem lies somewhere on the axis between silly and dopey.

Since we're in a Browning State of Mind, "Childe Roland" probably is a better exemplar.

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2:12 am  
Blogger Caratacus said...

I knew you wouldn't let this one pass, Richard, but I had to put it in because it's H.P. Lovecraft who is very B-grade at everything, but still (perhaps thereby) iconic. Is good horror oxymoronic? I don't think it has to be: and therein lies the challenge. I think Nigel Holt for example has written well on such themes. Yes, 'Childe Roland'. How about 'My Last Duchess?' Anyway, can you think of any examples of decent horror poetry?

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6:26 am  
Blogger RHE said...

"can you think of any examples of decent horror poetry?"

No. Whatever "My Last Duchess" is--other than simply a good poem--it isn't "horror poetry"; and I can't bring myself to give Poe--"The Conqueror Worm," for example--a pass.
I think the problem is that such poetry is by definition a suspect kind of genre; it has too many motives; rather than being good of its kind, it wants to work on us; in Keats's phrase, it has designs upon us; and that moves it more into the realm of propaganda than poetry.

I think it was George Steiner who said that the trouble with pornography was that its purpose was to move us to action, so that it never was an end in itself. Horror poetry, like patriotic poetry, suffers from the same inherent defect.

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7:46 am  
Blogger Caratacus said...

'Whatever "My Last Duchess" is--other than simply a good poem--it isn't "horror poetry"'

Don't forget, Richard, that we're giving the widest possible interpretation of 'horror' for this exercise. I would think it fairly horrific to order the death of your wife because you want total control and because she flaunts that by having a generous spirit and smiles too much. To me that qualifies the poem, no matter what else it may be, as relating to the theme of horror.'Poems that deal with subjects reasonably described as horror' would be a better categorisation than 'horror poetry' I think, which was a term that I used rather lazily.

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8:08 am  
Blogger Caratacus said...

I think that 'Little Elijah Dance' has some elements that could be described as pertaining to horror. Richard, why don't you consider writing a polemical/critical prose piece on the topic of Horror Poetry for SCR #5? You're practically there.

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8:15 am  
Blogger Caratacus said...

And thanks to Duncan Gillies MacLaurin for suggesting this one.

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9:50 pm  
Blogger NJH said...

As someone whose oeuvre broadly encompasses every area that I could consider as horror, I have to disagree with you, Richard.

At the risk of sounding ego-bloated, some of my poems, I would say are good horror - I write for different reasons - the classical horror stuff, I would say is aimed more squarely at children, because it IS, I agree, more hackneyed than psychological horror, and so has a more limited impact on adult readers unless they are genre fiction fans. I have two recently published in this area at the Harrow (online)

I agree with what you say about the common problems with Horror and Patriotic poetry.That said, there is always room for a fresh perspective in any cliche for it to be inverted. There is always subversive potential in any mass medium - despite what Herbert Marcuse might say about the matter! There is something very one-dimensional about one dimensionality - it basically isn't true. There is always room. It all depends on the skill of the writer - the best poets always transcend the difficulties of cliche.

The problem with much horror poem - like Smith and Lovecraft is that it is written in an archaic arch style. I tried to take Lovecraft's short stories and write them as narrative verse in a more modern diction while trying to keep the period and gothic feel to them. As none have been taken - even by the genre mags (length - I think, more than anything) I have much still to prove, perhaps on this score.

Cheers,

Nigel

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9:47 pm  
Blogger RHE said...

I hate to resort to quibbles like, "It all depends on what you call `horror poems,' " but it all depends on what you call "horror poems." The passage from Hamlet is good writing, to be sure, and we all like "The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner," which has been advocated over at Erato; and Larkin is one of my favorite poets. But if you expand the definition to include anything which touches on the unpleasantnesses of humanity, so that Owen's "Dulce et Decorum" qualifies as a horror poem, the category loses all significance, expanded beyond coherence. It's like calling Auden's "August 1968" a fairy-tale because it mentions an ogre.

War is horrible. That doesn't make graphic war poems "horror poetry." I wouldn't care to encounter a fretful porpentine in a dark alley, but that doesn't mean that procupine poems are Poeish or Lovecraftian.

For which we should be profoundly grateful.

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9:46 pm  
Blogger Caratacus said...

But surely 'War Poetry' is too large a category in the same way that you suggest our wider understanding of Horror Poetry is. Surely there are different types or subcategories of war poetry. 'Dulce et Decorum est' is very different from Brooke's 'The Soldier', as is 'The Battle of Maldon' from 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. They emphasise different elements or aspects of war, and where those elements relate to what we normally think of as 'Horror' then it seems fair to think of those particular poems as to some extent poems dealing with Horror. Genres and sub-genres overlap: there often isn't an absolute border between them. And this exercise is to look at, as we said from the start, the broadest possible interpretation of the concept. I'm not saying that 'Dulce et Decorum' isn't primarily a poem about war; I am saying that it is a poem about the horror of war: by those lights it is not exclusively a war poem, and it is fair to consider it in some ways to be a poem that deals with the notion of horror. What I'm trying to do here is to see how poets in the past have explored horror to a greater or lesser degree in poetry, and to encourage poets now to explore the concept further in poems they might submit to SCR #5.

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10:21 pm  
Blogger RHE said...

I think you're playing with words here, or we're talking at cross purposes. When you discuss Owen's poem, you talk about "the horror of war." But that, surely, is not what people mean when they talk about "horror poetry." They mean Gothic stuff--bats and vampires and the worms crawl in/the worms crawl out and I wants to make your flesh creep. They mean Vincent Price and Lovecraft and Bad Poe and maybe slasher flicks. The Enormous Room is not a "horror novel," though it contains some horrible things The Monk is a horror novel. And perhaps The Castle of Otranto. (They're also perfectly dreadful, but that's a different matter--"awful" in the popular sense.)

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11:34 pm  
Blogger Caratacus said...

Richard, I kicked off this Horrorfest with these words:

'The Shit Creek Review #5 seeks poetry, prose and art on Horror—whatever that means to you.'

http://theshitcreekreview.blogspot.com/2007/08/submit-to-horror_08.html

At Erato I wrote:

"I'm looking for examples of verse relating to the theme of Horror so that I can put a few up on the SCR blog (copyright permitting) or at least mention them there. Wiki defines horror films as being 'designed to elicit fright, fear, terror, disgust or horror from viewers', so from that starting point poems which fit the bill might be Browning's 'My Last Duchess', 'Porphyria's Lover' and so on; some of Wilfred Owen's and Siegfried Sassoon's; Poe; Coleridge's 'Christabel' and maybe 'The Ancient Mariner'; some Plath; bits from Webster and Shakespeare..."

And those are the wide terms under which I have approached the poems and discussion. I have made it plain from the outset that we are interested in poems that relate to horror in the broadest sense. I deliberately did not want to restrict the discussion to a narrow definition, and chose examples that seemed to widen the parameters as much as reasonable; not merely to address what 'most people' might construe as horror, but to see how far poetry in general might be seen to deal with horrific themes. I chose this path because I think it interesting and profitable, and because I think it more likely to generate an wide range of submissions. I want people to know that we're not just after vampire and axe-murder poems, but looking for poems that treat horror in all sorts of different ways.

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9:08 am  

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