I struggle all through the wet heat of afternoon. Beneath another year of weeds and ferns the earth is dark and soft, and smells like childhood, but the roots are tough and tangled, and that same old shovel is rusty now, and blunt from all the work of all those summers past. As usual, the family have come to watch me work. Ma stands at the top window, arms folded across the front of her dress to hide the stain. Behind her, his loving hand on her shoulder, is Pa. The back of his skull is lost in the gloom, but always such disappointment in his eyes. Off to the side is dear little, sweet little, Rose, face so pale, eyes so dark and empty, her long hair still running wet from the lake. I straighten up for the sake of my back, turn to the house and wave, but unmoving, they dissolve into sunlight and shade. The others will come later, picking their silent way through the elongated fingers of sunset, each with their untold story of sadness and horror, and when I’m done for the day, and washed and changed, and sat by the stove, then they will gather at the windows, dead hands and dead faces pressed to the glass, sightless, searching for that thing they’ve lost, finding nothing. Today’s secrets were laid to rest in shallow graves, plastic-wrapped against the coyotes and wolves, but the heat and the moisture will see to their needs soon enough, and soon enough these new memories will pick themselves up from the dirt, find their way to the front porch, to the old wooden seat where they will wait for me each morning, the fear and confusion running in scarlet rivulets down pale flesh until it seeps away between their entwined fingers, until the late-morning sun chases them away, back into the shadows, back into the dark soil that smells of childhood, and keeps so many secrets. The house is getting crowded. I still come up each summer. Sometimes I bring guests.
This poem was published in the 2020 Hedgehog Poetry Press Halloween anthology, The House in the Forest, along with 19 other interesting and unnerving poems by 19 different authors. Obviously, I think mine was the best and you get it here for free, but if you like poetry that’s dark and thought-provoking, then I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest you go out and buy yourself a copy of the anthology as a little new year’s present to yourself.
Anyway, on with the discussion…
As is the case with quite a lot of my recent poetry, this was the result of a visual prompt. The challenge was to write a poem based on the picture of an old cottage, deep in the middle of a forest filled with awkward trees and a carpet of overgrown ferns. What’s going on in the house? Who lives there? What mysteries are hidden within? And as the anthology was scheduled for a Halloween release, obviously the scarier the better!
When I sat down to think about ideas, it was the middle of a gloriously bright and hot summer and I was doing most of my sitting down to think about ideas outside in the gloriously bright and hot sunshine. While this was perhaps not the best environment for generating dark and scary thoughts, it did help me to come up with a couple of interesting ideas – the main one being that things don’t always have to be dark in order to be scary. In fact, one of the very first images that came to me was of a family in the US somewhere, leaving the city during a heatwave to spend a few weeks up at their summer house, somewhere in the woods by the side of a lake. It would be so idyllic, right up to the point where things start to go wrong…
But before I began to put anything down on paper this idea changed slightly and I imagined a middle-aged man who returns to the summer house by the lake/house in the forest where he used to spend his childhood summers. Cleaning up the place would trigger memories, and we would slowly get the feeling that some of these memories were not all that pleasant – right up to the point where we realise he’s actually a mass-murderer who killed and buried his entire family one angry summer. There, that seemed suitably sinister!
The house, the dirt yard out back, the clearing, down through the trees. So many memories, locked away behind shuttered windows, loose boards, buried beneath a blanket of pine needles, years old, and years undisturbed. We used to drive up every summer, when the city began to melt and the pine-scented breeze would call down from the hills with the promise of air we could breathe and a month of secrets.
One thing I should say at this point was that the competition was not – as so many poetry ones are these days – limited to 40 lines and I had the idea that I would like to write something a bit longer than usual. So I didn’t mind (at least at this point) that the poem seemed to be taking a while to get going. But after looking at it for a while I felt that things were just a bit too slow, and the use of two-line stanzas wasn’t helping either, making it seem even longer than it already was. So I bunched everything up a bit and tried to get onto the main point of the poem a bit quicker by introducing the family a lot sooner.
We used to drive up every summer, when the city streets began to melt and the air turned thick and orange and burnt you throat. And the smell... But up at the house in the forest the breeze would blow in off the lake with the scent of pine and the whispered secrets of ancient trees. Ma would open up the house - chase away the ghosts, she said. pa would take up the old axe and go off in search of firewood. My job was to play grim reaper, scything down the year's growth of ferns
And that’s as far as I got with that one. As with the first try, I liked the idea of including a few supposedly harmless words which would come back later with very different meanings. In the first version it was things being locked away, loose floorboards, things buried, etc. And in this version it was the ghosts, and also the old axe… that would definitely be a Chekhov’s gun for Act Three.
But actually, at this point, I found myself going off on a bit of a tangent over the ghosts. I had the idea that the murderer would see the ghosts of his family in and around the house, watching him, or perhaps just going about their business and ignoring him. And they would still look like they did when he’d killed them, with their wounds visible. Hopefully, this would produce a nice contrast between the pleasant summer in the house by the lake, and the terrible past still hidden beneath the floorboards, or buried in the back yard.
That afternoon I worked out back, breaking up the hard ground, digging down beneath a burning sun that refused to sink down behind those tall, tall pines.
Not bad. Definitely on the right track. But try again.
That afternoon I worked out back. The shovel was old, rusty, blunt, the ground a mess of tangled roots that fought me all the way down, and the sun, the burning sun, that beat down on the bare flesh of my shoulders hour after hour, refusing to sink down behind those tall, tall pines. One time I caught them watching me from the upstairs window, Ma at the front, arms folded across the stain on her summer dress, Pa behind, the back of his skull lost to the shadows, his eyes still searching for an answer. And off to the side, dear little, sweet little Beth, pale, hollow, lost, still wet from the lake. I waved, but they were gone.
There was a lot I liked about this version. I imagined Ma slightly ashamed by the bloodstain on her dress and trying to hide it with folded arms. With Pa I deliberately described the back of his skull, rather than head, being in shadow as it’s more technical and gives more of an indication of how he died. And then with Beth (who became Rose, though I don’t remember why) I liked the idea that, having been drowned, she would now always be wet. And although I changed quite a bit between this version and the final one, these three ideas remained all the way through.
So at this point I did some tidying up. I decided slightly longer lines and three-line stanzas worked better, so I rewrote the odd little bit to fit with this new scheme and ended up with something that looks much like the finished version.
But this was all still back story really. The actual story was more about what the man is doing at this moment. I wanted the reader to assume he was just doing some maintenance work, clearing the weeds or turning the soil on a vegetable patch or something, but what he’s actually doing, of course, is digging a fresh grave. But whose grave? This created the need for a second part to the poem, moving the story away from the past and the ghosts and bring it up to date.
New victims. Hikers, perhaps, who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe the man brought someone with him from the city – already dead, or perhaps not. I didn’t want to actually show any of the killing, so I stuck with the idea of ghosts, imagining that as soon as the victims were murdered, they would leave behind their ghosts, even as the killer is busy digging their graves.
One image I particularly liked was of a young couple, still holding hands out of fear, with their blood trickling down between their interlocked fingers. Mostly what I have here is just notes –
My guests today sit nervous on the sofa, their story mapped out in crimson rivulets... ...between entwined fingers.
And another idea that came to me at this point was that as it’s so hot, and the ground so hard, and the shovel so old and blunt, (from all that work it was never designed for!) the man can’t be bothered to dig very deep so his latest victims will have to make do with shallow graves.
Before I tidied up this last section, I decided I also needed a connection to the past. He murdered his family, and he’s murdered these newcomers, so presumably he also murdered others along the way. Where are they? More ghosts, obviously, but I didn’t want to go into detail about each one, so I imaged them as being buried off somewhere in the forest and maybe gathering at sunset to stare at him from the shade of the trees. This didn’t seem very disturbing, however, so I changed it to having them stare in through the window – which struck me as being a better image and also bringing the focus back to the eponymous house.
The others will come later, picking their silent way through the elongated shadows of sunset, each with their story of sadness and horror, and when I'm done for the day, once I'm washed and changed and sat by the stove, then they'll gather at the windows, dead hands and dead faces pressed against the glass, sightless eyes searching for everything they've lost, finding nothing.
By now adding lines was quite easy. I was visualising them, and then writing them, in blocks of three already and I was able to stick to the general tone I’d created in the first section. One thing I particularly liked here was the use of a very short line to end the section, using the word nothing to make up for the rest of the missing length.
And then it was back to the final section, to turn it into something more than just a few notes. I don’t even have early copies of this bit, which means I was already composing on the computer rather than into a notebook, so I was fairly confident of what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. I introduced the idea of the man digging shallow graves, and of the ghosts leaving their bodies and going to sit on the front porch – presumably where the murders had taken place. And I put in the nice image of the blood running down between the interlocked fingers.
The final three lines I added as an afterthought. It seemed like a nice way of bringing the whole poem to a close, but at the same time giving the impression that this is not the end of anything, and that the killing is likely to continue. It’s just what the man does each summer. Very matter-of-fact – which is its own sort of horrific.
And for once I didn’t have to think of a title. Originally, I was simply going to call it The House in the Forest – that had been my working title, but that seemed too obvious. I wanted something that kicked off the sense of foreboding right from the start, and as soon as I came up with the idea of shallow graves, I knew that would make the perfect title. It does slightly give away the thing about not knowing what the man is digging and gradually realising he’s not the nice man you’d imagined, but actually I’d moved away from that idea early on anyway because I wanted to get on with the horror more quickly.
And interestingly, even though I was not limited to length and had planned to write something much longer than usual, the finished poem is just 42 lines. To me it reads like it’s a lot longer than this, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.