Patty Hearst vs. the Fever Scrotum: Poems About Horror, or Horror Poetry? by Evan J. Peterson

Editor Staff, Poetry, June 28th, 2012


Intimate Monsters: Examining the Value of Horror in Poetry

Welcome back, monsters. Sorry for the delay; I’d been working on an ambitious column about the historical roots of horror poetry, dating back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The more I read, the more I had to say, and then nothing happened. Sorry.

Let’s continue. A large goal of Intimate Monsters is to identify, rather than outright define, horror poetry. This month, I offer you a contrast: poems about horror vs. horrifying poems.

In the former category, I’d like to discuss Daphne Gottlieb‘s Final Girl (Soft Skull Press). I’ve not read Gottlieb’s other books, and therefore I cannot place it fully into context. What I can say is this: Gottlieb is an award-winning San Francisco-based slam poet whose other books have titles like Kissing Dead Girls and Why Things Burn. She has written about serial killer Aileen Wuornos. She’s also queer-identified, which I believe provides additional perspective when tackling the topic of horror and monstrosity (see also: yours truly).


Lastly, Final Girl‘s title and concept is inspired by Dr. Carol J. Clover’s highly respected Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. A final girl is the surviving female at the end of the horror film, particularly the slasher film. She is usually a virgin or otherwise sexually unavailable, frequently tomboyish, and she plays an essential role in defeating the killer. The point, and I’ll delay it no further, is that Gottlieb’s book is about horror.

However, it contains very little horror poetry. In true slam fashion, it’s chock full of thoughtful commentary and social justice concerns, but it’s not often horrifying. Take for instance the poems “Slash” and “Bride of Reanimator,” list poems composed only of film titles and punctuation. Some of the works in Final Girl are about emotional violence, while others give new voices to such historical figures as Mary Rowlandson and Patricia Hearst. Is Hearst a final girl? Perhaps—but that makes these poems clever, not horrifying.

Occasionally, Gottlieb does cross into the territory of horror. “Female Trouble,” named for one of John Waters’ early gross-out films, has a title that understates the content, smacking the reader in the face. It goes beyond social justice poetry and gets into the terror-made-manifest that is the definition of horror. In this poem, Gottlieb weaves together news reports, one of a man whose wife bites him to death for denying her sex, another of the notorious beating death of transwoman Gwen Araujo.

“…clad in women’s clothing/ with blood all over her face/ wrapped in a blanket./ She still had other things/ hands and feet tied up/ in her teeth…”

By lacing these two stories together, Gottlieb disorients the reader not only with glimpses of horrifying images, but also with a disruption of linear structure. The form is certainly working with the content. Horror poetry is a genre in which disorienting forms are not merely impulsive, postmodern pyrotechnics; they work to unsettle the reader, deeply so.

“Cavity” follows the same path in a different way. It’s a delightfully nasty body horror poem in which oral care instructions for infants are jumbled with—I don’t know what—but it involves sex and blood.

Other than these, most of the poems on the topic of horror are more funny-campy than disquieting, and the rest of the poems aren’t really about horror at all. This is not to say that you shouldn’t check it out—it’s a clever riot grrl romp—but it’s not what I would call horror poetry.

This brings us to the other book, the horror book, the softly titled yet fascinatingly nauseating With Deer (Hos Rådjur) by Swedish poet Aase Berg, translated by Johannes Göransson (Black Ocean Press).

Reading this book is like getting noosed with an umlaut. Are you a fan of Scandinavian death metal? Then read this book right fucking now.

I call this book “nauseating” in an affectionate way. The poet herself calls her work “almost sickeningly kitschy” and “screamily exaggerated,” but I think that’s too modest. This book is relentless. It isn’t about slashers or vampires or Satan; it’s about the natural world, albeit from a perverse and surreal perspective.

The surrealism, like Gottlieb’s fragmentation, is appropriately unsettling:

The body clumps slopped against each other – behind them the dough sucked shut. Creatures without arms or legs had gathered along the muddy banks of the miscarriage river… For days we waited for the cell-bladder to burst. –”Seal Mutilation”

Bluargh! See what I mean? In “The Red Kiss,” Berg writes, “The sorrow-mussel’s pearls itch and bleed… Corals hide fat and skin.” Or how about this, from “The Hypotenuse”:

She writhed inside her horrible, backward body, she writhed so that her insides chafed against the shell, so that her muscles rubbed raw against the inside of her skin.

With Deer begins as an assault of images, but as the book progresses, certain characters, animals, and images come back, and back again, creating hypnotic effects. It’s not the exhausting snarl of heavy metal, despite my earlier comparison. It’s downright creepy. I’m lulled as what began with screams soon protracts them into echoes.

This is what Gottlieb is moving toward with her fragmented forms. The major difference that separates Final Girl‘s poetic commentary on horror from With Deer‘s abjectly horrifying verse is the super-conscious versus the subconscious. Gottlieb is brainy and critical, while Berg abandons rationale and plumbs the depths. This, any horror author can tell you, is where terror hibernates. There is nothing logical about panic.

Treat yourself; read both books.

You may notice that, in addition to these two women, my last column was also on a female poet of horror. As I look around for entire books of horror poetry rather than the odd poem here and there, most of what I find in the last sixty years is written by women, whereas previous horror poetry was the realm of men (Baudelaire, Poe, Lovecraft, Crowley, etc.).

Perhaps this is the momentum of feminist confessionalism and the backlash against the flowery stereotype of the gentle “woman writer” (see also: Mary Shelley). Let’s see where this leads. As Aase Berg assures us, “The fever scrotum is heavy.”

Until next time, dear reader.


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evan peterson poet poetry writing for nailed magazineEvan J. Peterson is the author of Skin Job, (2012 Minor Arcana Press). His zines include Secular Exorcisms, The Ecstatic Tarot, and Hello Kitty Chainsaw. A poet, fiction and nonfiction author, columnist, editor, performer, and teacher, Evan’s recent work can be found excerpted in the New York Times and in Weird Tales, Court Green, Assaracus, Aim For The Head: An Anthology Of Zombie Poetry. He is the newly appointed creative director/editor of Minor Arcana Press.



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