I. Edgar Allan Poe, "The Raven"
Hands down the most famous Gothic poem in the English language, and one of the most famous poems, period. It made Poe a literary celebrity, although it made him only $14 in cash. After its publication little kids began approaching him on the street, flapping their arms.
You can probably quote the poem as well as we can. But did you know that after the fact, Poe wrote an essay claiming that "The Raven" was the product of a step-by-step attempt to engineer a universally beloved poem according to logical principles? We're not sure we could write something as bizarre as "The Raven" no matter how many principles we applied, but you've got to admit the poem is amazingly catchy: it begs to be read aloud.
Our favorite recitation is by a man who rivals Poe as a great American weirdo: Christopher Walken.
II. Emily di*kinson, "I died for Beauty - but was scarce"
Any number of di*kinson poems could work on this list: the one about Death pulling up in a carriage, the one about the fly buzzing as the speaker dies, the one about the sultry vampire terrorizing Amherst...at least two of those are real. We picked this one because it's among the eeriest cemetery poems ever written. Two dead strangers are bantering underground, apparently through coffin walls. They're proud of how they died and start comparing notes, but death itself quickly starts to take over the conversation...
As usual, di*kinson prefers subtle chills over flashy horrors, and leaves you with "Zero at the Bone."
III. Anne Carson, "Ghost Q&A"
Where another Anne, Rice, once imagined an Interview With a Vampire, poetry's reigning Queen of Deadpan imagines an interview with a ghost as dryly funny and enigmatic as she is. For our money, Carson comes a lot closer to capturing the way the afterlife—if it exists—might really feel. "The edges are freezing," the ghost informs us. And that's one of its most straightforward descriptions.
If you're more into mythical red monsters than ghosts, you may prefer Carson's book-length poem Autobiography of Red—or its new sequel, Red Doc>.
IV. William Shakespeare, Witches' Song, Macbeth I.i
V. William Shakespeare, Witches' Song, Macbeth IV.i
Quote it with us: "Double, double, toil and trouble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble." Shakespeare's Three Weird Sisters are THE literary witches—no offense to L. Frank Baum (the Oz guy) or Madeleine L'Engle (whose Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which are proud Macbeth fans). From their first appearance on the Scottish heath to their famous dance around the cauldron, they embody witchhood in all its glory. At least until their bodies disappear.
The Witches are actually the campiest part of the play. All the real chills in Macbeth come from the tormented brain of Macbeth himself (and/or his wife). See, for example, Act 2, Scene 1: the "dagger of the mind" scene.
VI. T. S. Eliot, "Whispers of Immortality"
VII. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.
T. S. Eliot might not be the first author you think of as a master of horror, but a surprising amount of his poetry flows from a Victorian Gothic sensibility. Or maybe a nervously virginal, "Goth" sensibility. "Whispers of Immortality" is a defiant tribute to the macabre: the poet suggests he'd rather contemplate skeletons rotting underground than warm, sexy bodies here on earth.
All right, but why The Waste Land? Eliot's modernist epic is full of disturbing hallucinations, but we're including it mostly on the basis of this one great Dracula-esque passage:
A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.
VIII. Robert Hayden, "[American Journal]"
Aliens are relatively new to the Halloween pantheon that includes witches, ghosts, and Spooky Scary Skeletons, but they've earned an honored place as the only "unearthly" creatures that still haunt even the rational imagination. One of the best extraterrestrial poems out there is Robert Hayden's "[American Journal]," which uses the old aliens-reporting-to-superiors conceit to describe the "charming savages—enlightened primitives" populating the modern-day U.S.A. It's a fresh poetic take on a familiar sci-fi premise: "The aliens are us!"
IX. Elizabeth Bishop, "The Man-Moth"
As H. P. Lovecraft knew, the most unsettling monsters are the hardest to define. Elizabeth Bishop's "Man-Moth" is too harmless to be scary himself, but his journey through a dream city of "battered moonlight" is as harrowing as a plunge into the subconscious. He lives life perpetually clinging to the sides of buildings or riding underground alongside the treacherous third rail. Bishop's friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell put it best: "In Elizabeth Bishop’s 'Man-Moth' a whole new world is gotten out and you don’t know what will come after any one line. It’s exploring. And it’s as original as Kafka."
X. John Keats, "This Living Hand"
The Great Zombie Epic has yet to be written, but when it is, it's hard to imagine it being more disturbing than this little John Keats squib. One of the last things Keats wrote before dying of tuberculosis at age 25, "This Living Hand" drops every trace of poise—one of Keats's specialties—in favor of furious, life-or-death immediacy. As he wastes away, the poet reaches out his hand to the reader and effectively says, "See? I'm alive now, but once I'm dead, I will haunt you without mercy." Other poets have envisioned the literary afterlife as a quiet rest on a library shelf somewhere, or a kind of reincarnation in the heaven of artists. Keats portrays it as an angry zombiehood in which communication becomes hideously impossible. Sweet dreams!