It is not unknown for horror writers to write poetry, but I’ve yet to read any that have written a poem that transmits the dread and spine tingling fear of their prose work. There is one poem though that certainly does take the reader into the realm of cosmic horror and that is Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Like the original Frankenstein, Wilde’s poem has suffered much mistreatment over the years. It has been broken into sections, had difficult stanzas removed and suffered public readings in which the more intense and tangled images have simply been read through in a la de da way.
When I was asked to perform the poem for the Oscar Wilde festival in Galway, I decided to use the work in its entirety, only treating it as a verse play rather than a poen. I approached it as a work in which a narrator struggles to articulate the twin horror of being imprisoned (Wilde’s was jailed for being gay) and of waiting for the execution of a fellow prisoner.
In the best of horror fiction everyday objects can be suffused with a dire potentiality. However the everyday objects of a prison – walls, bars, three plank beds - are already suffused with generations of dread and suffering. What amplifies the tension and menace in The Ballad of Reading Goal is that every day the prisoners are confronted with the reality of the impending hanging. There is no escaping from it, even when they walk in the yard they have to pass the hole that has been dug for the condemned man’s body: “With yawning mouth the yellow hole / Gaped for a living thing; / The very mud cried out for blood / to the thirsty asphalte ring”.
This constant exposure to an impending act of ritual killing, coupled with the daily cruelty of the prison regime, pushes the narrator beyond the limits of mental endurance. He is visited at night by awful nightmares, in which phantoms dance and sneer and mock the world and all who suffer in it. In my performance, I introduced moment of silence to allow the phrases and images room to expand and sink into the darkness around me – to allow the terror to seep like blood into every corner and crack of the theatre.
The Two Rivers Press edition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol is my favourite. It not only give the words the space they need but accompanies them with powerful illustrations by Peter Hay.
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Next blog I'll be writing about two other Irish writers of dark tales, Lafcadio Hearn and Sheridan Le Fanu. Stay tuned.
For more on my work as a writer and storyteller see rabfultonstories
My new workshops on writing dark tales of Horror, Sci-fi and Fantasy begin January 2016. For details see: Writing Dark Tales - creative writing workshops.
Fans of dark tales, may want to check out my online blog novel Marcus Marcus & the Hurting Heart which was commissioned by the Múscailt Arts Festival.