13 spooky poems to get you in the mood for Halloween

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Art by Jan Davidsz. de Heem (c. 1630)

It’s early evening, the sky is dark, and you’ve just made yourself comfortable in an old rocking chair, with a blanket over your lap and a cup of pumpkin spice around your elbow. Or, you’re lying awake with marbled eyes at 2 a.m., fully determined to scare yourself beyond sleep. Or, it’s nightfall and you’re huddled around a campfire in the hissing darkness, knee to knee with your friends, talking with wild gestures and stage whispers… Whoever you are, wherever you are, you read these words for a reason: you want to have your ghost.

But you read Poe. In fact, you’ve probably read dozen of works of dead white Victorian men. It’s time to turn things around, so make yourself comfortable: without further ado, here are thirteen haunting and fascinating poems written by women to get you in the perfect mood for Halloween.

“The song of the terrible”Hilda Morley

the smoke cleared, my head and eyes cleared
with her, my heart clears,
& I saw the dark red color
dark leaf of wine that I had chosen …

To set the scene, a subtly dark atmospheric poem saturated with autumn reds and oranges of fire and blood… Morley’s writing weaves a flickering and vacillating story, half in the shadows, so your mind can conjure up his own dark answers to the questions his words raise.

“The spider and the fly: a fable”Marie howitt

“Would you like to come into my living room?” Said the spider to the fly,

“This is the prettiest little salon you’ve ever spied on;
The path in my living room is up a spiral staircase,
And I have a lot of curious things to show when you’re around.
“Oh no, no,” said little Fly, “asking me is in vain,
Because whoever goes up your winding staircase can never come down again.

There is almost a goosebumps in this poem by Mary Howitt, which tells the horror genre’s favorite story: The Story of Predator and Prey. With each verse, the sense of peril rises. It’s the perfect poem for a dramatic Halloween read.

“Omens” Cecilia Llompart

The dead bird, the color of a bruise,
and smaller than an eye
closed swollen,
is king among omens.

Who can blame the ants for feasting?

In this subtly dark poem, Llompart connects a series of beautiful and disturbing moments that, in the microcosmic nature of dollhouse dioramas, tell a larger story. What is this story? It’s up to you to interpret.

“Finding the big dream of hell”Linda addison

The underworld is singing
of the earth that will be
don’t kiss me anymore,
abandoned by gravity
exhaling nothing
I still remember the soft tissue.

Addison is the first African American to win the Bram Stoker Prize (which she has won four times to date) – and this poem, which deals heavily with themes of helplessness and natural cosmic horror, is a testament to her talent. . There is a creeping, swirling terror in the narrator’s descent into what could be literal hell or personal hell.

“Marie half hanged”Marguerite Atwood

I go upside down like a godsend,
a blackened apple glued to the tree …

Our fifth poem is long, but worth reading. In fierce and beautiful verses, Atwood takes us on the tantalizing journey of a real woman, Mary Webster, who in 1680s Massachusetts was accused of witchcraft. The sentence pronounced: hanging. Except, much to everyone’s shock, Mary survived.

“The witch told you a story”Ava Leavell Haymon

You are the food.
You are there for me
to eat. Get bigger,
and I will love you better.

A sinister and sumptuous poem, that of Haymon The witch told you a story revisits the much-loved and feared story of Hansel and Gretel, weaving terrible implications under layers of succulent descriptions.

“Before the mirror”Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard

But weaving with a firm hand
These shadows, whether they are true or false,
I dismiss a doubt that asks
“Among these ghosts, what are you?

An underrated poet of the 19e century, Stoddard used images from mythology and Tennyson’s earlier works to paint his Gothic scene. Prepare to be quietly frightened and disturbed by its unique blend of darkness and tranquility.

“Phantom Q&A”Anne Carson

Q is it crowded

Are you kidding

Q are there ghosts in this room

Most of the objects here are ghosts …

There’s a disturbing pace at Carson’s Phantom questions and answers. On the surface, it reads like a session. However, the strange tangents of the dialogue, coupled with a strange lack of punctuation, add a strange monotony to the comings and goings of the narrators. There is helplessness there; confusion, and, running underneath, an insistent need to be understood. One of the most gently disturbing ghost portrayals I’ve ever come across, it’s worth reading from start to finish.

“Halloween”Dorothy Tanning

Be perfect, do it differently.
Yesterday is torn to shreds.
The thousand sulphurous eyes of lightning
Tear open the breathing beds …

With its tight rhyme scheme and evocative Gothic imagery, this poem is another excellent candidate for a fireside read. Tanning’s clever use of the feminine and the monstrous creates a vivid portrayal of the horror that is trapped in everyday domestic life.

“The witch” Mary elizabeth coleridge

I’m just a little girl again
My little white feet are painful.
Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in through the door!

This melodious Victorian poem tells the story of a witch who, like the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, wishes to enter an unsuspecting house. Despite her implicit bad intentions, it’s oddly easy to take root for her.

“Not just because of the stranger who lay in wait for them [But the rocking chair]” – Jenny Boully

I will put the cans in a box; I’ll put the canned goods so that fall comes, fall comes when I hang up the shovel, you’ll have that little piece of apricot to remember. Me by. I don’t really think I believe it this more, and in addition, this tooth here has fallen out …

This prose poem is deeply autumnal, with images that will have you looking for a blanket and a hot drink. However, if you squint, there’s a layer of confusion – of frenzy – woven through the fantasy. There are hundreds of possible stories tucked away in these words; stories to consider on a cold morning as the days get shorter and shorter.

“Obedience, or the lying tale” – Jennifer Chang

I will suffocate the gnawing mouse
the roots of an apple tree and keep its skin
for a glove. To the wolf, I will be
pretty and kind and reverent
its crossing of my path …

Filled with dark descriptions and fairy tales and eerie details, it’s a poem with a sharp edge. Lose yourself in the narrator’s journey down the forest path as she obeys – or doesn’t obey – her mother.

“The Warning” – Adelaide Crapsey

Just now,
out of the strange
still the twilight … so strange, so still …
a white butterfly flew. Why am i growing up
so cold?

To complete the list, here is a weird short poem by Adelaide Crapsey, a Victorian poet who, after years of studying rhythm and metrics, created her own variation on the fifty. This poem serves as a reminder that the smallest and most fleeting details still have the power to terrify.

Bonus poem: “Remordimiento por cualquier muerte” – Cynthia Pelayo

… whispered names crawled through the cracked stone and silence finds its home
You see, we are ghouls but they were baptized by the stars and released …

This bonus poem that I included not because it is sinister, exactly, but because he broaches the subject of death in a way that I found strikingly beautiful. There’s the dark, gothic vibe of a lot of ghost stories, but the effect here isn’t scary but heartwarming. If you’re scared of sleeping at night, have too many nerves fueled by horror movies, and too much sugar, this might be what you need to reassure yourself that ghosts can be benevolent.

Originally published in October 2020.

Holly Kybett Smith is a queer writer and student based in the south of England, specializing in all things dark, whimsical and weird. His work was featured in issue 2 of the New Gothic Review. Find her on twitter: @h_kybettsmith.



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