“Poetry,” as St. Augustine once said, “is the devil’s wine.” In other words, it’s so damned tempting that after your first sip you’ll inevitably want just one more glass — even at your own peril.
That’s how I felt after savoring the various vintages of The Devil’s Wine — a fine trade hardcover poetry collection from Cemetery Dance edited by Tom Piccirilli and illustrated copiously by the notoriously talented artist, Caniglia. Once I opened the cover, I couldn’t stop sipping from its pages. This is a book to be treasured and the attention to production quality that CD Publications put into this hardcover is well worth collecting and showing off to friends. In sum, this book treats dark poetry with the respect it deserves, exhibiting the musing (and occasionally softer and playful) side of bestselling and award-winning horror novelists, including such luminaries as Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Peter Straub, Jack Ketchum, Tamara Thorne, Edward Lee, and thirteen others. It’s a substantial collection, featuring anywhere from 6 to 10 poems by each contributor, introduced by Piccirilli (the Bram Stoker Award winner in Poetry who also contributes). Each author-poet’s contribution is framed by excellent charcoal drawings and chatty introductory remarks, giving the book the feel of about twenty poetry chapbooks in one. For the price — listed around forty dollars — this rarity is a steal and it certainly belongs on the bookshelf of any serious horror enthusiast reading today.
Reading the collection, one can’t help but sense that this is an important and influential volume. While the poetry itself is something of a mixed bag, the sheer novelty of the collection — and it’s respectful treatment of each poet — makes you feel like you are holding something very special, to be treasured, because you’re getting to see a more personal side of the writers you respect. And in many ways, the book is also a reminder of just how talented these writers really are when it comes to manipulating the English language. The contributions by King alone — many culled from the days before he was a known author — are well worth the price of the book, revealing his innate ability to terrify. His lead poem, “The Dark Man,” depicts the sheer saturation of evil in everything around us, with hard-hitting supernatural foreboding: “i have…heard the suck of shadows/where a gutted columned house/leeched with vines/speaks to an overhung mushroom sky…i am a dark man.” This poem launches the book in a very powerful way because I suspect most readers who haven’t read King’s poetry before (you can find snippets of it in most of his short fiction collections) will have an eye-opening revelation about this self-professed “balogna fiction” writer’s literary side. I see this as a metaphorical response to all critics who might say that horror is artless gutter literature. Throughout the collection, we get to see the genre’s most successful wordsmiths reminding us how good they really are, freed from the bindings of conventional narrative to work their literary muscle on poetry, which is perhaps the most difficult craft of writing to master.
The Devil’s Wine holds many more revelations than simply disclosing unique facets of the talent of a King or a Straub. Chief among the surprises in this book — in my view — are the softer poems penned by horror’s most hardcore writers. Edward Lee — one of the genre’s most notoriously disturbing writers who is never afraid to go into the gorezone bearing a machete — contributes several strong poems exhibiting a range of talent, leaping from what might be called “love poems” to thought experiments on par with what you’d find in today’s most profoundly difficult literary journals. Along with some rock solid poems that probe unflinchingly into tough philosophical territories, Brian Hodge contributes lyrics from songs he’s put together, revealing the complexity of his musical side. Elizabeth Massie even offers a little comedic verse and a few poems with a YA flair that make you grin devilishly. I was thrilled to study these poems by authors whom I’ve read and admired for a long time, and there is a LOT to chew on with over 350 pages of poetry between this book’s covers.
I suspect most who pick up The Devil’s Wine will jump right to the Stephen King section and swallow it whole, before paging to have a little Jack Ketchum as an after-dinner mint. I recommend savoring them all. If you aren’t touched by the contributions of Steve Rasnic and Melanie Tem or Charles DeLint, you’re just not human. The contributions by Peter Crowther and Graham Masterson confirmed my respect for these great writers of dark supernatural fiction. Piccirilli’s own poetry in the back of the book attests to why he won the Bram Stoker Award for it in 2000 and why he deserves to edit this massive collection. (And with titles like “Nunzio, Sixty Years Dead, Lying at my Side, Staring” or “How to Perform Heart Surgery with Someone Else’s Gaze” you know he’s giving us a treat). Nearly all of the poems in the book are satisfying. But I think the greatest thrill I had when reading The Devil’s Wine was discovering dark suspense writer Jay Bonansinga’s talent for poetry. I’ve read his short stories and novels (like Oblivion and Sick) before and always thought he was a decent novelist, but Bonansinga’s contributions to The Devil’s Wine are knockout poems that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the greatest poets working the dark trenches today. Who knew! I credit Piccirilli with making something of a discovery here — and I want more, because this author is not only a very capable fiction writer, but someone who deserves his own poetry collection right away.
If you’ve already read this book and this is your first taste of The Devil’s Wine, I hope you’ll develop a drinking problem, and cultivate a lifelong weakness for the poetic grape and the more artful side of horror’s creative personalities. Not just in poetry, but other artforms. Look for Peter Straub’s early poetry collections. Or Brian Hodge’s music. Or Elizabeth Massie’s art. Celebrate the art of the darkness — for there is far more than just six-dollar paperback novels out there in the field, if you know where to look. The joy of reading this book isn’t just peering into the hidden personalities of the famous writers, it lies in exploring the dark side without relying on the familiar maps of popular fiction or the safety nets handed to us by the mass media marketplace. Poems are always thought experiments that don’t follow the predictable rules of prose writing, and that only adds to the scariness they can produce.
If there’s a flaw to this book, it’s that the selections privilege mass market writers to the exclusion of other well-established poets and experimental writers who have been working on the fringes for decades. This collection doesn’t bother to toss a few grapes from various countrysides that are out there harvesting the dark provinces already. These, perhaps, are a more rarefied vintage, but worthy of a taste nonetheless. The collection pretends at diversity but doesn’t quite provide it. While The Devil’s Wine contains well-established science fiction/fantasy poets like Joe Haldeman and Michael Bishop, it almost entirely neglects professional poets who have been writing this stuff successfully for decades. While contributors like Steve Rasnic Tem and Jack Cady in the book represent the more “literary” side of horror writing, the book could have only benefited, I think, from including a few underground, “outlaw,” or simply lesser-known poetry writers whose craft is all the more mature and sharpened with practice than some of those who are in this book. Bram Stoker Award-winners in poetry — like the amazingly deft and well-schooled Bruce Boston or the important African American female voice of Linda Addison — probably should have been included in the stomping barrel. Where are the graphic surrealist shockers by a Charlee Jacob or the psychological creepers of a John Grey? They’re speciously absent and anyone who is already an aficionado of horror poetry will simply have to wonder why. (Would the power of their experienced poetry writing outshine those of these brand names? Would the inclusion of small press writers somehow ostensibly lower the clout of the book? To what degree did commerce and art compete in the editorial decisions at play here?)
The book manages to enormously succeed despite this weakness in variety, and overall, it’s okay, I think, that The Devil’s Wine pretends to be nothing more than a respectful and charming novelty that gives us a glimpse into the more lyrical side of today’s best novelists. I do think this collection could have sacrificed some of its more silly contributions by name writers (there are definitely a few self-indulgent clunkers in here — mostly bad inside jokes or pun poems that fail miserably) for the sake of giving some very deserving wine-makers a little more attention. An opportunity was also missed here, to help educate the book’s audience about the relatively unknown contemporary horror poetry genre and its long history, one that reaches all the way back to Poe, if not even as far back as Beowulf. Even a bibliography of related works or a brief essay about the history of horror poetry would have been a minor step in the right the direction.
Nevertheless, this shouldn’t stop anyone from buying this book right away. I hope readers everywhere will not only chug deeply from this generous jug of darkness, but will also be inspired to grab another bottle elsewhere (and another collection of Tom Piccirilli’s own poetry would be a great place to start). I also hope that this book — which is a MUST READ for anyone with a taste for terror — is such a success that it produces a sequel that will offer more variety to today’s most discriminating connoisseurs of the devil’s wine.
A full contents listing and ordering information for The Devil’s Wine is available at Cemetery Dance Publications. If you’re hunting for more rarefied vintages, a similar title worth considering is Cemetery Poets, which is offered at a discount this month to Goreletter e-mail subscribers only.