Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Child's Book of Scary Poems

 When I was a small child I was absolutely terrified by an illustration in a story book someone had given me and my brother. I don't have it anymore, but I remember the drawing was of a squat creature with long arms and far too many teeth. It was one of the drawings that accompanied James Whitcomb Riley's 1885 poem Little Orphan Annie. (Not to be confused with the comic strip character. She came later.)
   The poem was apparently written to scare children into behaving. One verse goes:

Onc't they was a little boy wouldn't say his prayers,--
So when he went to bed at night, away up stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an' his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An' when they turn't the kivvers down, he wasn't there at all!
An' they seeked him in the rafter-room, an' cubby-hole, an' press,
An' seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an' ever'wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found was thist his pants an' roundabout--
An' the Gobble-uns'll git you ef you don't watch out!
   Now why would you read that to a kid? Yeesh. Anyway, I don't recall being particularly frightened by the poem, but the illustrations sure gave me the creeps. I was talking about it last night at dinner with friends and that put us on to the subject of creepy poems. A couple of favorites of mine are Robert Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, and John Keats La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
   Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came has become famous as the poem that inspired Stephen King's multi-volume epic The Dark Tower, but long before King made use of it, the poem was creeping people out. It follows a knight on a strange quest into a vast wasteland where he eventually encounters long dead comrades in arms at the titular Dark Tower.

What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
The round squat turret, blind as the fool's heart,
Built of brown stone, without a counter-part
In the whole world. The tempest's mocking elf
Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf
He strikes on, only when the timbers start.

I can see why King was so taken with it. Its very structure invites adaptation, and I considered writing a sword and sorcery yarn based on it. Might yet.
   Another unfortunate knight appears in Keats' La Belle Dame Sans Mercy (The beautiful lady without pity.) The narrator finds him lying on a hill side. The knight tells the narrator of a strange fey woman he met in the forest.

I met a lady in the meads,
    Full beautiful - a faery's child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
    And her eyes were wild.

   The lady leads the knight to a grotto where he sleeps and dreams horrible things.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
    Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried - 'La Belle Dame sans Merci
    Hath thee in thrall!'

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
    With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
    On the cold hill's side.

   This is a haunting and beautiful poem and one of my favorites. Definitely a high creep factor though. Anyway, those are some of my favorite scary poems. Something to read on a cold October night when the wind whistles in the eaves and the fire throws strange shadows on the walls.


Paul R. McNamee said...

I am reading horror shorts this month, but now I am inspired to mix in some creepy poetry.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Excellent, Paul. Let me know if you come across any good ones, please.