Poetic Prose in Horror

Image of poetry book.

It’s National Poetry Month, so let’s take a look-see at some poetic prose. Recently, in two horror novel reviews on Amazon, I claimed both books were full of poetic prose. Did the authors really write with lyricism, or was I just blowing smoke? Let’s examine a couple of text excerpts to find out.

This is a passage from The Unsuitable, a Gothic horror novel by Molly Pohlig. When we break apart the passage so it looks like a poem, it does indeed sound like a poem. Iseult, the protagonist, is waiting on her detestable father to come down for dinner:

The black collar, starched with iron ore,
stretched her neck to unnatural lengths;
the shoes that pinched
but made her an appreciable inch taller;
the stifling air;
the furniture arranged [so] no one
sat in that room with ease;
the seconds ticked off by a clock
that had a grudge against time.
The waiting.
He always made her [wait].

Pohlig’s poetic writing has a rhythm and a tension that fits the passage to a T. Here is the passage untouched:

The black collar that she suspected had been starched with iron ore, considering how it stretched her neck to unnatural lengths; the shoes that pinched but made her an appreciable inch taller; the stifling air; the furniture arranged in a way that signified that no one ever sat in that room with ease; the seconds ticked off by a clock that had a grudge against time. The waiting. He always made her . . . .

(Noooo, I’m not saying every book is better with lyrical prose. Dean Koontz’s Intensity, one of the best and scariest books ever, would be silly if written in a poetic style.)

Moving on, from The Boatman’s Daughter, a Southern Gothic horror novel by Andy Davidson, we have Miranda, the protagonist, in a johnboat at the mouth of a bayou. I deleted the stage-direction sentences, and we’re left with what Miranda sees:

Spiders in the trees, their webs gleaming silver.
A cottonmouth churning in the shallows.
In a stump field, a preternatural silence
descended over frog and cricket and owl.
To the west, purple lightning
rolled thunderless in the cage of the sky.
In the water were the twisted, eerie shapes
of deadfalls. They broke the surface
like coffins bobbing in flooded graves.
“What is this place?” Miranda asked.
No one answered.

Isn’t Davidson’s prose poetry eerie and beautiful? Here’s the passage untouched:

Spiders in the trees, their webs gleaming silver. A cottonmouth churning in the shallows. Miranda held up arms to guard her ears and cheeks from the branches, thinking of Alice down the rabbit hole, one small door opening upon another, and another, each door smaller than the last.
“Push through!” the old witch cried.
Branches screeching over metal, they did, the boatman breaking off fistfuls of dead cypress limbs until the boat slipped free onto the wide stage of a lake. Here, Hiram cut the motor and they drifted in a stump field, a preternatural silence descending over frog and cricket and owl, as if the little boat had somehow passed into the inner, sacred temple of the night itself.
To the west, purple lightning rolled thunderless in the cage of the sky.
In the water were the twisted, eerie shapes of deadfalls. They broke the surface like coffins bobbing in flooded graves.
“What is this place?” Miranda asked, angling her light all around.
No one answered.

A poem a day.

I am writing a poem a day in April and learning how words sound when placed next to each other, so it’s proving to be a good exercise. The fabulous R.K. Russell, NFL player and poet extraordinaire, is going to publish one of my poems on his Weekly Featured Poem series (Mondays), soon I hope, woohoo, exciting!

Free book!

And in other news, my blogging buddy Jonny Pongratz will have his YA novella, Reaper, free on Amazon this Sunday (April 19, 2020). With the sequel coming out soon, now’s a good time for YA horror enthusiasts to grab the first book. I’ve read it. It’s a fun story about young Gregory who, unfortunately, has a very creepy monster in the basement!

Be well.

Feature image by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash.

The Unsuitable by Molly Pohlig on Amazon.

The Boatman’s Daughter by Andy Davidson on Amazon.

51 thoughts on “Poetic Prose in Horror

  1. Priscilla, I am very impressed with how well you articulated and demonstrated your idea about poetic prose in horror. I would rate this an A+ effort. Well done. I hope you will share your horror poem with us after if is published. You are really studying and analyzing your genre. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I love it when people pay attention to how words sound (as well as their meanings.) It is part of what makes them subconsciously beautiful. You have schooled us in how that works. Thank You!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Excellent analysis! It was really interesting and fascinating to read, and definitely not a concept I have thought before. Who knew there was so much poetic prose in horror novels? That is astounding in a way, changing my perspective. Really enjoyed reading this. Your thoughts are well articulated.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this post so much. Yes, and Yes, poetic elements of sound, metaphor, and imagery can really enhance prose. They seem particularly effective for the horror genre. And Congratulations on publication of your poem! Send the link when it goes live.

    💖

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Amazing. If you hadn’t mentioned these were excerpts from horror novels, I absolutely would have believed they were poems. I have no talent whatsoever for poetry, so I admire anyone who does. Congrats on getting yours featured! I read Jonny’s Reaper, and I’m so excited for a sequel.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Horror is all about timing. It’s not the act that frightens so much as the anticipation, the knowing dread of what might happen. So it makes sense to me that you’re right (never thought about lyrical prose in horror before). There’s a sense of rhythm, of passing time, that the technique gives. When the release finally comes, you’ve spent the effort to take it there.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That’s so interesting, how the prose lends itself to poetry. I think there is an inherent rhythm to good prose. It might be hard to “hear” unless it’s read out loud, but I think it’s why sentences sound better arranged a certain way. The sounds of letters also matter, hard sounds or soft sounds depending on the mood of the scene. In fact, choosing words with hard sounds vs soft sounds, “clink” vs “snick”, makes a difference as well in setting the tone of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points, Julie. I don’t know how any author can judge what he or she has written without hearing it read aloud . . . unless you just develop an internal “ear” over time. Thanks for commenting!

      Like

  8. Thank you for sharing these with us.
    I love Black Rook in Rainy Weather by Sylvia Plath. There’s an air to the verse that gives you a sense of dread. I think it more about her choice of words. We all know that rooks are black, yet Sylvia chose to tell us that it’s a black rook. By using the word Black we’re feeling a sense of doom. The opening verse ‘ On the stiff twig up there, Hunches a wet black rook, Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain. I do not expect a miracle or an accident.’
    It’s wonderful how a few chosen words can set a scene so perfectly.

    Liked by 1 person

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