My 2014 collection Autumn Lauds: Poems for the Halloween Season consists of two sections gathering 31 selections each. The first, “Miscellaneous Praise,” features various Halloween-themed poems, while the second, “Angry Villager Anthology” is structured as a sequence (think of it as a long, 31-part poem). Here’s the brief introduction I wrote for the second section, along with a sampling of poems from throughout the anthology.
Nearly a century after its first publication, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915) remains the premier collection of American Gothic verse. This sequence of interconnecting and sometimes contradicting monologues (presented as epitaphs voiced by the deceased inhabitants of Spoon River’s cemetery) sheds life on the dark underbelly of everyday life, exposes the secrets and scandals of a small Midwestern town. Angry Villager Anthology forms my autumnal answer to Masters, an attempt to show that when it comes to dark-heartedness, Spoon River has nothing on the community of Grantwood.
C’mon Tom, Charlie, Emory, and Frank,
Rupert Daugherty’s caught our October bogy!
That semi-human Quasimodo won’t be tormenting us anymore.
Only fitting the thing’s been snared here on the eve of Halloween,
After it transformed Mischief Night into a month-long campaign.
C’mon Kate, Lizzie, Ellen, and Rebecca,
You’ve just as much right to punish the monster’s wrongs.
Sneaking in our yards, peeping in our windows,
Desecrating the cemetery, smashing Jeb Llewellyn’s pumpkins,
Preying on our animals, fraying our nerves with its elusiveness,
Scaring more than the bejesus outta Cyndi Anders earlier today.
It’s time that wretch met Grantwood’s Unwelcoming Committee.
C’mon Tyrus, Juan, Gunther, and Angelina,
We’re all coming together tonight to celebrate.
Capture puts an end at last to apprehension.
So let’s seize the moment, and march this nemesis through the streets,
The very thoroughfares it made us wary of traversing after dark.
C’mon everyone, come outside and join in.
Grab whatever’s available–knife, pitchfork, lead pipe, wooden bat.
When we get to the town square you can each take a turn.
We plan on lashing the bastard to the Founder’s statue
And then bashing it open like an animate piñata.
Huzzah! Our vengeance is going to be sweeter than all of
The candy handed out to the oddly costumed tomorrow night.
Every night for the first third of October
The monster snuck inna my patch and smashed open a pumpkin;
Come morning I’d find the pieces of partially-gnawed rind.
So I rigged a motion sensor, hoping to spotlight the late-night snacking–
Somehow he never set the dang thing off.
I brushed paint thinner on the most attractive-looking specimens–
He kept selecting an untainted gourd.
Rankled to no end, I set up traps all over my land–
And he never came back again.
But neither did my customers, fearing I might’ve forgotten
Where ‘xactly I hid all those toothy steel jaws.
I never saw who it was that snuck up behind me,
And nothing evermore after the bat struck my head.
But I always figured Len Saunders for the slugger,
For my alleged leering at his wife as she strutted to the bank
Each morning while I painted the mural on Kemp’s storefront.
Now as I sit on my front stoop, sketch pad in my lap,
I can hear Len’s voice in the beehive buzz of the passing crowd.
I imagine flaming torches and bobbing pitchforks,
Some local variation on a Universal horror movie.
I work my charcoal, trying to link mind’s eye and muscle memory.
Yet when I press my fingertip to the paper as if it were Brailled
I detect only smoothness, my creation doomed to vagueness.
Meantime the mob rumbles on, noxious with animosity.
I’m guessing that come morning, I won’t be the only one
Here in Grantwood wondering just what have I done.
Whether in self-defense or some beastly sense of territoriality
The monster snapped the neck of Virgil’s German shepherd Kendra
Way back when on the fourteenth of this month.
For two weeks straight the dog’d been bent all out of shape,
Barking seemingly non-stop throughout the night.
Virgil and me had been neighbors for nearly twenty years,
But he wouldn’t listen to me when I kept trying to tell him
He’d best bring the dog inside when it got dark out.
“She watches o’er,” he insisted, and look what happened:
One permanently silenced canine.
Now we’re herding the perpetrator toward the town square;
I happily jab it in the back with the steel fingers of my hoe.
Had the damned thing snuffed out the mutt a day sooner
It would’ve saved me the cost of strip steak and strychnine.
Heyward “Stacks” Calhoun
Here in the shadowy bowels of Grantwood’s Library
Lie the various volumes to scandalous for circulation,
Such as Ben Thompson’s incendiary slave diary,
And a highly unauthorized biography of Jeremiah Healey.
Not to mention a certain kid-skinned grimoire,
Whose curious lore served as a perfect lure for a lone bibliophile.
That perusal had been on the first night of October,
And so now I shiver as I overhear the shivaree outside.
I take no joy in the passing crowd’s raucousness,
Because I have to wonder if it was my own clumsy pronunciation that
Unwittingly summoned the town’s cthonian antagonist to begin with.
Abigail St. Clair
“Miss Abby? Whatcha doing over there?” Phil Wheatley calls from his car
When he spots me setting up shop in the middle of the town square:
Thin-legged card table, carafe of cider, plastic cups and cinnamon sticks,
Basketful of the pumpkin muffins I just happened to have been baking.
“Oh, just figured the people in the parade would appreciate some refreshments.”
“Parade?” he echoes, incredulous. Distance and darkness eclipse
Everything but the whites of his teeth, tiny floating ghosts.
“Ma’am, do you understand what’s going on here in town tonight?”
“Well,” I tell him, “I gather there’s going to be a public ceremony held.
So you best move that jalopy outta the way before everyone gets here.”
“Daffy old bat,” he proclaims before stomping the gas pedal.
But I pay him no mind, just settle into the lawn chair I’ve unfolded,
And sit here waiting, anticipating the start of the festivities.
God, it’s been ages since Grantwood hosted a good lynching.