It’s early evening, the sky is dusky and you’ve just gotten cosy on an old rocking chair, with a blanket on your knees and a mug of pumpkin spice at your elbow. Or, you’re lying awake blotchy-eyed at 2 am, fully intent on scaring yourself beyond sleep. Or, it’s nightfall and you’re huddled around a campfire in the whistling dark, knee-to-knee with your friends, speaking in wild gestures and stage-whispers… Whoever you are, wherever you are, you’re reading these words for a reason: you want to get your spook on.
But you’ve read Poe. In fact, you’ve probably perused dozens of works by dead white Victorian men. Time to change things up, so make yourself comfortable: Without further ado, here are thirteen haunting, fascinating poems by women to get you in the perfect mood for Halloween.
the smoke cleared, my head & eyes clearing
with it, my heart lightened,
& I saw the dark-red colored
wine-dark leaf I’d chosen…
To set the scene, a subtly dark, atmospheric poem saturated with the autumn-reds and oranges of fire and blood… Morley’s writing weaves a flickering, wavering story, half-in shadow, so that your mind might conjure up its own dark answers to the questions her words raise.
“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
“‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things to shew when you are there.”
“Oh no, no,” said the little Fly, “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”
There is an almost nursery-rhyme creepiness to this poem by Mary Howitt, which spins the favoured tale of the horror genre: the tale of predator and prey. With each verse, the sense of peril mounts. It is the perfect poem for a dramatic Halloween reading.
The dead bird, color of a bruise,
and smaller than an eye
is king among omens.
Who can blame the ants for feasting?
In this subtly dark poem, Llompart strings together a series of beautiful, disquieting moments, which—in the microcosmic nature of doll-house dioramas—tell a larger story. What is that story? It’s yours to interpret.
The Underworld sings
from earth that will
no longer embrace me,
abandoned by gravity
I still remember soft tissue.
Addison is the first African American winner of the Bram Stoker award (which she has now won four times, to date)—and this poem, which deals heavily in themes of helplessness and cosmic, natural horror, is a testament to her skill. There is a creeping, whirling dread to the narrator’s descent into what could either be a literal Hell or a personal one.
Up I go like a windfall in reverse,
a blackened apple stuck back onto the tree…
Our fifth poem is a long one, but well worth the read. In fierce, beautiful verse, Atwood takes us on the tantalising journey of a real woman—Mary Webster—who, in 1680s Massachusetts, was accused of witchcraft. The sentence handed down: hanging. Except, to everyone’s great shock, Mary survived.
You are food.
You are here for me
to eat. Fatten up,
and I will like you better.
A sinister, sumptuous poem, Haymon’s The Witch Has Told You a Story revisits the much-loved and feared tale of Hansel and Gretel, weaving terrible implications beneath layers of luscious description.
But weaving with a steady hand
These shadows, whether false or true,
I put aside a doubt which asks
‘Among these phantoms what are you?’
An underappreciated poet from the 19th century, Stoddard calls upon images from mythology and the earlier works of Tennyson to paint her Gothic scene. Prepare to be quietly spooked and unsettled by her unique blend of darkness and tranquility.
Q is it crowded
A are you joking
Q are there ghosts in this room
A most of the objects here are ghosts…
There is a disquieting rhythm to Carson’s Ghost Q&A. On the surface, it reads like a séance. However, the odd tangents in the dialogue—paired with an eerie lack of punctuation—add a strange monotone to the narrators’ back-and-forth. There is helplessness there; confusion, and, running underneath it, an insistent need to be understood. One of the most gently unsettling portrayals of ghosts I’ve ever encountered, it is well worth reading from beginning to end.
Be perfect, make it otherwise.
Yesterday is torn in shreds.
Lightning’s thousand sulfur eyes
Rip apart 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 wielding of the feminine and the monstrous creates a vivid portrayal of the horror that is entrapment within everyday domestic life.
I am but a little maiden still,
My little white feet are sore.
Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!
This melodious Victorian poem tells the tale of a witch, who—like the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing—wishes to gain entry to an unsuspecting home. Despite her implied ill-intentions, it is oddly easy to root for her.
I will can the preserves; I will can the preserves so that come autumn, come autumn when I have hung up the dustpan, you will have this small bit of apricot to remember. Me by. I don’t think I quite believe in that anymore, and besides, this here tooth has fallen out…
This prose poem is deeply autumnal, with imagery that will have you reaching for a blanket and a hot drink. However, if you squint, there is a layer of confusion—of franticness—woven through the whimsy. There are hundreds of possible stories nestled inside these words; stories to consider on a chill morning as the days grow ever shorter.
I will choke the mouse that gnaws
an apple tree’s roots and keep its skin
for a glove. To the wolf, I will be
pretty and kind and curtsy
his crossing of my path…
Filled with dark, fairytale description and ominous detail, this is 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.
out of the strange
still dusk… as strange, as still…
a white moth flew. Why am I grown
To round off the list, here is a short, eerie poem by Adelaide Crapsey, a Victorian poet who, after years studying rhythm and metre, created her own variation on the cinquain. This poem serves to remind that the littlest, most fleeting details still have the power to terrify.
…whispered names cringed through cracked stone and silence finds its home
You see we are ghouls but they have been baptized by the stars and liberated…
This bonus poem I have included not because it is spooky, exactly, but because it addresses the topic of death in a way I found strikingly beautiful. There is the dark, Gothic atmosphere of many a ghost story, yet the effect here is not frightening but comforting. If you find yourself afraid to sleep at night—hopped-up on horror movie-fueled nerves and too much sugar—this might be just the thing to reassure you that ghosts can be benevolent.
Originally published October 2020.
Holly Kybett Smith is a queer writer and student based in the south of England, who specialises in all things dark, whimsical and weird. Her work has been featured in Issue #2 of the New Gothic Review. Find her on twitter: @h_kybettsmith.