Weird Writers Recommend: 5 Poetry Collections Under My Fingernails by Michael Wehunt

5 Poetry Collections Under My Fingernails
by Michael Wehunt

I write about strange things and bumps in the night and presences out at the periphery of the human experience. I have no choice. Though I intend more than horror in my stories, it is nonetheless the vehicle of most of my plots, the container for my thoughts. Creepiness—getting under the skin—is my love.

Another of my loves is poetry. I’ve never had much interest in writing actual poems, but the form is essential to me as a reader. And though it has influenced the way I write since before I wrote, though I try to tap into its veins in my way, I virtually never want to find the horrific or weird in a poem, and indeed can’t seem to ever connect with “dark poetry.” Why is this? I’m not sure, but it’s not for lack of trying as a reader.

But I do very much want poetry and fiction to impact me in the same way—I’m not looking for the same essence from the two modes, and yet I am. From Yeats’ center not holding to Oliver’s box of darkness, I find that the language of poetry itself—plain words used profoundly—can strangely and deeply limn the edges of normalcy in a way that the very best overtly weird fiction does, but when poetry pushes into the intent of horror as a genre, when it seeks the uncanny or supernatural above all else, it loses nearly all of that resonance. So poetry and horror/weird fiction remain symbiotic in my heart in one direction only.

However, the following five collections all contain the same power that I find, subtly or shockingly, in the best dark fiction. Some of them are “greatest hits” collections, but I’m presenting the books that were my personal gateways. Not a whole lot here will be surprising or obscure, but—and this is key—that isn’t the point.

Mary Oliver – Dream Work

American Primitive won the Pulitzer, but Oliver’s follow-up collection of poetry, Dream Work, is my choice for this list because of the famous “Wild Geese,” which I share with many lovers of her work as an introduction. It wasn’t even a favorite for long—soon I would read a dozen or more Oliver poems that gently pushed it further into the soil and away from the sun of my favor—but that’s just it—soil—earthiness—the reason I love her so. That one of the best-selling poets of recent decades, a bestseller in a mode of literature that so few read, can write so profoundly on the surface of things, in a way nearly anyone who listens can hear humming in them—that she can write so simply and unadornedly yet with fertile soil always under her fingernails continues to touch me like no one else can.

Lucille Clifton – Blessing the Boats

“The Death of Fred Clifton” was probably the last poem I felt in the marrow of my bones—I had never heard of Lucille Clifton until 2015 or so, and she quickly became a lifelong favorite. This collection of new and selected poems deservedly won the National Book Award and is filled with genius and powerful racial themes, but the fourteen simple lines of “The Death of Fred Clifton” are reason enough.

Sylvia Plath – Ariel

Like many teenagers, especially those who were a bit too emotional, I was a little obsessed with Plath’s poetry. It’s not so hard to see how her work could bury itself in the author soil of a semi-tortured boy who would go on to finally (finally) try writing fiction too many years later—and how those roots could bear a weird and scary fiction harvest. (Stephen King had already burrowed under there when I was eight years old, after all, and Plath infected him.) Nakedness and anguish and imagery I can still hardly grasp the power of—she colored my coming of age. I knew even when I was young that I would have connected much more powerfully with her work if I had not been a male. I remember half-wishing (probably foolishly) that I had been a girl so I could dig deeper into her poems (as well as her novel The Bell Jar). Still, though, I wore through a copy of Ariel and then a copy of her collected poems until they fell apart.

Anne Sexton – Selected Poems of Anne Sexton

Sexton’s work was haunted, confessional, and tragic in a way that often gets her lumped in with Plath—and, of course, they both committed suicide—but she lived a little longer and gave us a good deal more. Perhaps Plath matured more quickly; perhaps she never had time to give us that hindsight. But Sexton was able to have a string of powerful years at the height of her powers, including a strange, surreal period that lets us look back at her earlier work as “just getting started” or “self-conscious.” Either way, her poetry is amazing, and this book is a wonderful introduction. Try “Her Kind” and fall in love.

Rainer Maria Rilke – The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke

I’ve read many English-language translations of “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” but the one in this book, translated by Stephen Mitchell, was the second I encountered, and it, well, changed my life. It opened me. I first read it a long time ago, and I give it a lot of credit of why I’m a writer and what is in the things I write—which is another way of saying why I’m the human I am. I came to the fiction of Robert Aickman, MR James, Caitlín R. Kiernan, and Jorge Luis Borges after I started writing horror and weird fiction. I’d never even read Lovecraft until 2013, believe it or not. I used to be ashamed of this tardiness, but I’ve come to embrace it as a large part of my fabric. And along with Flannery O’Connor, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, and Sylvia Plath, I mark this single Rilke poem as my author origin story. This whole book is full of awe and beauty.

Michael Wehunt lives in the woods of Atlanta with his partner and dog. His stories have appeared in multiple best-of anthologies and other well-known spooky homes. His debut fiction collection, Greener Pastures, shortlisted for the Crawford Award, a Shirley Jackson Award finalist, and the winner of Spain’s Premio Amaltea for Foreign Translation, is available from Apex Publications. A limited-edition novella, Everything Is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here, is available from Nightscape Press and will donate one-third of all proceeds to the Southern Poverty Law Center when the print run is sold out. Visit Michael online at

Classic Review: The Night Land (Guest Review by John Linwood Grant)

There has never been a book like William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912), and there probably never will be again. And I really need to explain what I mean by that…

One of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written. -H P Lovecraft

William Hope Hodgson (1887-1918) was not one of the literati of his time, not a chap widely circulating in the stylish Edwardian writing circles. He was an ex-seaman, son of a minor British cleric, and later a physical fitness instructor. He experimented with styles, wasn’t above being influenced by trends, and always wanted to catch the popular markets. That he should come up with this masterwork of weird fiction is therefore more than a little surprising from the start.

Not only is The Night Land quite different in setting and imagery from the work of almost all his contemporaries, it is also peculiar in its own right – a substantial volume with very few proper names and virtually no dialogue, occasionally given to maudlin romanticism, and written in a faux-historical style. A much-abbreviated, authorised version, The Dream of X, was also published in 1912, whilst editor Lin Carter helpfully removed some of the ‘excess’ and presented it in two volumes for his 1972 Ballantine paperback edition (this is the most reader-friendly version). The late, lamented Sam Gafford, a WHH authority, argued that The Night Land was written before Hope Hodgson’s other novels, despite its later publication date, and that afterwards the author abandoned its slightly extravagant approach to write more accessible works.

However, its style – an imagined 17th Century ‘romantic’ approach – does relate to the plot, which is the tale (distanced by a dream) of a young man who seeks to rescue a far-off lover, one he has never met, who he knows only vaguely by telepathic means, and who may be doomed anyway. Quite whether the style enhances the rest of the material or not is hard to judge, although sometimes the juxtaposition of almost hopeless old-fashioned love and nightmarish, far-future horror works rather better than you’d expect.

…it impresses the reader as being the ultimate saga of a perishing cosmos, the last epic of a world beleaguered by eternal night and by the unvisageable spawn of darkness. -Clark Ashton Smith

It is indeed a stunning vision of an Earth millions of years hence. H G Wells’ 1895 Time Traveller briefly visited the last days of the planet, and H P Lovecraft and Olaf Stapledon wrote in terms of distant aeons during the 1930s, but they never quite delivered the claustrophobic intimacy of mere humans simply trying to survive as does The Night Land. Remember, Hope Hodgson was a minor Edwardian author with some poetic skill and no formal scientific training, not an established figure like, say, Wells. Perhaps because of that, the book is not one of the more typical exciting futuristic worlds, strange dystopias, or star-spanning yarns. It is a tale set close to humanity’s tragic and apparently inevitable end, with small personal triumphs but no sweet promise in wait for the species.

The Earth is alone, and monstrously changed; the Sun is effectively dead. This is not the wry, hedonistic world found in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth tales. Here, the planet is bereft of the Sun’s light, of its warmth, and all that are left to sustain life are the residual geothermal energies, the volcanic churnings from below.

I heard a far, dreadful sound, down in the lightless East; and, presently, again—a strange, dreadful laughter, deep as a low thunder among the mountains. And because this sound came odd whiles from the Unknown Lands beyond the Valley of The Hounds, we had named that far and never-seen Place “The Country Whence Comes The Great Laughter.” And though I had heard the sound, many and oft a time, yet did I never hear it without a most strange thrilling of my heart, and a sense of my littleness, and of the utter terror which had beset the last millions of the world.

What remains of humanity is reduced to a single enormous arcopolis – the pyramidal, eight mile high Last Redoubt, alone in this utterly hostile land. Any other such redoubts have fallen, long ago – even their true fate is unknown – and people cannot survive outside this final sanctuary, because those beings beyond its perimeter are unknowable, bestial, or directly hostile to human existence on every level.

To the North, there stood, very far away, the House of Silence, upon a low hill… and the House was monstrous and huge, and full of quiet lights; and it was truly as that there had been no Sound ever in that House through Eternity.

The Last Redoubt is an astonishing act of imagination in its own right, and it is hard to see where it springs from in a literary sense – it is more akin to far earlier writers’ descriptions of Hellish or Heavenly cities. The Redoubt contains one thousand, three hundred and twenty lesser cities, gets its water from twenty-mile deep pipes running to lost seas, and has hundreds of underground ‘hydroponic’ levels, even more vast than the city above, which are artificially lit and sustained. Knowledge of flight has been lost, yet certain obscure technologies remain.

As for horror and weirdness – rather than science fiction – those qualities are here in full force. More than flesh is in peril, and those who venture beyond the Last Redoubt carry suicide pills to spare themselves from what might happen if they meet the Night Land’s denizens. Well before Lovecraft and others, Hope Hodgson conceived of vast beings crouching in the darkness, beyond human understanding.

Yet did we know them to be mountains of living watchfulness and hideous and steadfast intelligence.

These are truly alien things, not in any extraplanetary, exobiological way, but by their very nature – it isn’t possible to be certain if some of these beings even notice mankind, or if they have any purpose except to exist. Others appear to recognise humanity’s presence, but to be either intensely malign or mostly indifferent except when disturbed. Morlocks, to reference Wells again, would be light relief.

A million years gone, as I have told, came it out from the blackness of the South, and grew steadily nearer through twenty thousand years; but so slow that in no one year could a man perceive that it had moved. Yet it had movement, and had come thus far upon its road to the Redoubt, when the Glowing Dome rose out of the ground before it—growing slowly. And this had stayed the way of the Monster; so that through an eternity it had looked towards the Pyramid across the pale glare of the Dome, and seeming to have no power to advance nearer.

Lesser creatures – including possibly mutated or warped remnants of other humans – wait in the darkness ready to physically rend any stragglers who dare to cross the protective ‘earth current’ used to shield the Last Redoubt, whilst there are physical locations outside which are inimical in ways which are inexplicable… and so on.

In short, Hope Hodgson writes of a world in which humanity hopes only to sustain what it has, and may arguably no longer have a place. And rather than some coherent threat, he provides a crushing vision akin to later cosmic horror. There is no rationale; these many monstrous entities seem neither related to each other – no pantheons, hierarchies or recognisable cultures – nor propelled by any logic the protagonist understands. The House of Silence mentioned above is more terrifying precisely because you cannot comprehend its threat to the core, the soul, of any human who is drawn within. There is no Grand Plan which can be countered.

With its Night Hounds, its Place Where The Silent Ones Kill, and its Watcher of the North-East, to name but a few, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land should be a core text for lovers of cosmic horror. And to be honest, once you get used to the style – and you can do so – it’s also a terrific read.

Verdict: A landmark book, with a genius beyond its stylistic flaws.

by John Linwood Grant

Weird Writers Recommend: Nathan Carson’s Five Scariest Albums

Not everyone finds music scary, so please feel free to insert “unsettling” if that’s who you are and how you respond to the universal language. How one experiences music is subjective to many factors, not least of which is whether you play it in the background on an iPhone speaker during the day, or crank your house stereo while lying corpse posed in total darkness. But if you’re intrepid, and searching for that delicious thrill of titillation via creepitude, here are five albums that will make you wish for a flashlight, a bonfire, silver bullets, and an electrified fence to keep out whatever lurks in the darkness.

Just kidding, it’s too late. The monsters are already inside you!

Univers Zero

1. Heresie by Univers Zero – This Belgian chamber-prog album from 1979 was long touted as “the darkest recording ever made.” Granted, a lot has happened in music over the last forty years, which makes the unnerving edge this album retains all the more impressive. Imagine a chamber quartet playing a midnight mass with a heavy metal drummer and a weird golem on vocals.

I had heard of this album by reputation, but one evening I finally found the CD in a record shop in Milwaukee. Halfway through my first listen, during a long night drive, I knew instantly that Heresie was one of my favorite albums ever. Start at the beginning with the 25-minute opening track, “La Faulx” to get the full effect, but make sure you don’t skip the 13-minute centerpiece “Jack The Ripper.”


2. Things Viral by Khanate – Guitarist Stephen O’Malley’s other group Sunn 0))) is much more a household name, but he first made his reputation in the ultimate art-doom-core group Burning Witch. When that Seattle unit folded, O’Malley migrated to NYC and formed Khanate from the ashes. His intent was to create bleak, post-metal music that lacked anything resembling hooks or even repetition of any sort.

Vocalist Alan Dubin (ex-Old Lady Driver) sounds like the nightmare offspring of Bon Scott and Grendel’s mother. Listen for his throat-wrenching cry of “red glory!” on album opener “Commuted.” But to these ears, it’s the 20-minute long agoraphobic sonic landscape of “Fields” where the real terror unfolds.

(not available on Spotify. Heroes!)


3. Litanies of Satan by Diamanda Galas – The eight-octave range of vocalist Diamanda Galas is impressive in its own right. But her penchant for dark subject matter such as the infamous “Plague Mass” (an anti-paean to the AIDS virus) has cemented her legacy.

My first encounter with her work was the 1982 two-song debut, The Litanies of Satan (lyrics by Baudelaire). My parents were exceptionally open minded, but when they heard me playing this barnyard of voices (all Galas) in our living room, they could only shake their heads as if I’d finally gone too far. The B-side, “Angry Women With Steak Knives” is a capella, and designed to drive all but the most stalwart listener mad.


4. Cacophony by Rudimentary Peni – This album is not so much a fearful listening experience as it is an ambitious, loving ode to the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft.

Rudimentary Peni were a Crass-affiliated cult UK punk outfit with lyrics devoted to Poe, opium, veganism, and vampires. Their debut album Death Church is arguably the greatest gothic punk album of all time. But it’s their second album Cacophony (1988) where the group graduated to postpunk godhead status. This tapestry of sound lives up to its title, using an array of vocal techniques, textual references, and urban legends about the Old Gentleman to weave an aural dream world in black and white. Song titles include “Nightgaunts,” “Brown Jenkin,” “Sonia,” and “Beyond the Tanarian Hills” just to name a few.

I’ve often referred to Cacophony as “the Troutmask Replica of punk,” but even if you’re not a Captain Beefheart fan, or into post-punk music, any Lovecraftophile would gain something by spending 42 minutes with this album through a good set of headphones.


5. Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath – By today’s standards, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft are not so terrifying. But for decades, they were the gold standard, responsible for many readers’ sleepless nights. Likewise for the literal inventors of heavy metal music, there was a time when the rain, church bells, and opening riff of “Black Sabbath”–the song on Black Sabbath–the album by Black Sabbath–the band inspired fear in nearly everyone who heard it. That genre-defining riff employed the devil’s chord structure (outlawed by the church for hundreds of years) and a bit of inspiration from Holst’s The Planets (specifically the doom-laden “Mars Bringer of War”) to out-heavy everyone who had come prior. The rest of the album includes a song about a wizard, a Lovecraft nod in “Behind the Wall of Sleep” and, depending on whether you get the US or UK edition, either “Wicked World” or “Evil Woman.”

This all time classic was released on Friday the 13th of 1970, and recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. If you haven’t sat through this barnburner, it’s high time to change that.

Nathan Carson is a writer, musician, and Moth StorySlam Champion from Portland, OR. He’s the co-founder and drummer of the international doom metal band Witch Mountain, and the host of the FM radio show Heavy Metal Sewïng Cïrcle on XRAY.FM. His fiction includes the novella Starr Creek, a graphic novel adaptation of Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows, and many short stories in various anthologies and magazines.

More information about his various activities can be found at

Classic Review: Incredible Adventures

It’s impossible to say anything about Algernon Blackwood’s Incredible Adventures without contending with S.T. Joshi’s claim that it is “the premiere weird collection of this or any other century.” If I wouldn’t hazard praise as bold as Joshi’s, I certainly sympathize with his enthusiasm. It’s one of those collections, like Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco, that compels devotion–if I’m ever asked to list my favorite weird fiction, Incredible Adventures is one of the first to come to mind.

I imagine Blackwood writing with an uncommonly steady hand. A serene orderliness pervades his work. Each piece unfolds unhurriedly, which is more than simply a testimony to Blackwood’s confidence in his abilities. The veil concealing his other-world is best drawn slowly, and what is seen in these tantalizing glimpses is enough to haunt the reader, much as it haunts each story’s protagonists (it is often implied) well past the confines of the tale itself. But the curtain is always thrown back into place at the last moment, and we’re wrenched, like Lord Ernie (“The Regeneration of Lord Ernie”), from certain dissolution into Dionysian forces that thrive beneath the natural order.

It’s true that, among the five tales collected here, two of Blackwood’s most celebrated pieces, “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” are absent. This should be no cause for worry, since Blackwood’s efforts here are similarly strong and thematically related. As always, “evil” is supernatural and never fully explained. It resides in the time-worn arenas of the Dark Romantics: in mountains, desolate landscapes, and ancient ruins. The Burkean sublime is always at hand, waiting to overpower the senses; in this way Blackwood is closely related to Lord Byron and Mary Shelley.

But Blackwood, like the best of folk horror authors, is a guardian of thresholds rather than a tourist of limit experiences. The work of Blackwood, like Arthur Machen, acknowledges the terrible lure of what I’ll call the “numinal”–there is the possibility of death, as we discover in “The Sacrifice,” but there is also great promise, as Lord Ernie finds in his brief but dazzling career following his close escape from the mountain fire worshippers. That the citizens of the town lower in the mountain in “The Regeneration of Lord Ernie” compare unfavorably to the fire worshippers above–they are dissolute, passionless, empty human husks–suggests something vital to life even in the elements the stories posit as the loci of horror. A faint glow limns the darkness beyond, but we must never imagine that we have the power to control it.

Blackwood’s cosmos is decidedly not an empty, mechanical thing set blindly on its steady decline. His characters, unlike Ligotti’s puppet-humans (but equally microcosmic reflections of the artist’s imaginal universe), are consequently flesh, blood, and full of mystery themselves, driven by desires they can’t begin to articulate even as these inner disturbances usurp the instinct of self-preservation. We can look in horror at Geroge Isely’s psychological deterioration (“A Descent into Egypt”), but we can’t deny the allure of Blackwood’s masterfully rendered Egypt.

Blackwood’s stories tend to be long, thorough, and, as I’ve stated already, magnificently unhurried. Don’t mistake these characteristics as warnings of a plodding read ahead–he never retreats from descriptions of strangeness. One comes to see that when Blackwood does retreat to the normal world, he does so out of a deep respect for the mysteries he’s suggested; there’s something utterly serious, almost reverent, in Incredible Adventures. This reverence is fitting for a writer who, perhaps more than anyone except Machen, has come to represent a unique strain of the weird predicated by Nathaniel Hawthorne (particularly his folk horror tales, such as “The Maypole of Merry Mount”). Also like Machen’s best work, nothing in Incredible Adventures feels derivative; Blackwood’s deeply reverent, imaginative, and otherworldly collection is bound to provide readers with chills for some time yet.

Verdict: Read it again!

by Justin A. Burnett

Classic Review: Teatro Grottesco

I admit to being totally smitten by the work of Thomas Ligotti before actually getting around to Teatro Grottesco. The Penguin edition of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe no less than changed my entire literary trajectory. Here it is, I thought, the collection I always knew was out there waiting for me.

Not that Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe is perfect–what collection could be? While some stories, such as “The Frolic” and “Dream of a Mannequin,” left me perfectly breathless, others, like “The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise,” remained little more than puzzling curiosities. This isn’t to say that the experience of reading Ligotti didn’t leave me with images and questions I still haven’t stopped thinking about–it did, and there certainly aren’t many pieces of fiction out there that have exerted a similar impact.

Still, even though I bought it directly after finishing Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (along with The Spectral Link, which I have read but there’s no space to get into it here), I delayed reading Teatro Grottesco for years. It was an experience I wanted to relish, to meditate deeply on, and I didn’t feel the time was quite right until recently.

Is it better than Songs…? I think so.

Not a single story falls flat here–things get heavy, complexities of perspective abound, unexpected shifts crouch in every darkened corner ready to shake off the unwary reader, and the dread of existence is so thick it’s often funny, but it’s never boring. Ligotti has successfully honed the obsessively monomaniacal curiosities that grip his characters to a fever pitch, and the path their discoveries take never leads to the light. There is something hollow in these characters, something puppetlike, even when Ligotti isn’t dealing explicitly, like in “The Clown Puppet,” with the puppet theater. I’m reminded of the poet Dennis Silk’s justification for the elimination of the human actor in “When the Dead Awaken,” his essay on the “thing” theater:

[T]he personal actor has lost the thing in himself […]. He’s squandered his strength in a hundred personal emotions which he then inflicts on his role. But the thing-actor has guarded its strength. It’s a form of locked-up energy waiting for the right outlet. (228)

Ligotti’s protagonists are more “thing-actor” than human, hollowed by the fantastic repetition of their mechanical lives (“Our Temporary Supervisor,” “The Bungalow House”) or held in thrall by the enduring (and often communal) curiosity that leads them to a sudden prespectival shifts which amount to traumatic confrontations with the wholly negative Other (“The Town Manager,” Gas Station Carnivals”). There is no hope here, only the magnetic draw to the emptiness that ripples through the environment, poisoning the landscape with a black hole’s radiation that causes a strange decay that isn’t quite the same as disintegration, a fermentation that only looks like decay on the surface, turning a useless town into an absurd carnival, or a ruined factory to a factory of nightmares.

It’s true that Ligotti’s characters here, rather than victims of the inexplicable evils of the cosmos (“The Frolic”), are part of the mechanical deterioration of reality themselves. They are drawn, like the library employer irresistibly attracted to a voice recording entitled The Bungalow House in the titular tale, by a “locked-up energy” back to their sources, only to undergo an ontological shift that radically externalizes their inner emptiness. True to this emptiness, there is plenty of room within for Ligotti to seamlessly manipulate metaphors that reflect on the experience of reading weird fiction (“The Red Tower”)–one cannot help but feel a certainty that Ligotti writes from a place of empathy. He achieves what he does precisely because he knows how it feels to be alone and utterly captivated by an impossible blackness the rest of the world is unable to see.

Ligotti achieves a truly vertiginous terror unlike any other I’ve yet to come across in weird fiction. For this reason Teatro Grottesco is best read slowly, with a cautious finger against the pulse of the reader’s mental well being. Ask any reader who has experienced a deep affinity with this collection if I’m exaggerating.

It’s truly impossible to successfully characterize Ligotti’s work in such a short space. I can only encourage you to read it if you haven’t. For me, it’s only a matter of time before the smoke gathers and I’m compelled, like a puppet on its strings, to read My Work is Not Yet Done. But it must be the right time. In a way, the act of reading Ligotti is sacred.

Verdict: Too good to be true!

by Justin A. Burnett