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Death Poems (Book Review)

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Is it an oxymoron to state “Here’s gleeful news: an updated version of a poetry collection written by The Pied Piper of Morbidity”? This new edition of Thomas Ligotti’s Death Poems is indeed cause for horror fans to rejoice. But don’t get too elated; it would contradict Mr. Ligotti’s ethos. The morose subject matter that comprises the book is best taken in small doses. Reading the slim volume at one fell swoop is easy to do. To get the full impact of each poem, however, it’s recommended that the writings be absorbed at moderate intervals.

Ligotti doesn’t romanticize death in the least. And life certainly isn’t viewed with affection, either. Take, for example, this culled contemplation from “The Note”:

Everyone says that
life is worth having.
But you never thought that.
What you thought
was contained in a note
pinned to your hanged body.

The remembrance of the birthday of someone who has passed away is depicted as a hollow emotional gesture in “Birthday.” This stanza displays Ligotti’s penchant for dark ironic humor:

So just in case you’re
not around next year:
happy birthday.

Existential flippancy is exhibited in these verses from “Unthinkable,” which reflect upon the futility of reflection:

All of the trees, the traffic:
Those scenes from a play
for which you didn’t stay.
It makes much more sense
that when you are gone
the show won’t go on.

Cynicism is pervasive. This fragment from “Nostalgia” is a rumination on the perils of sentimentality:

Oh, what certain memories
can do to the nostalgic spirit.
They can really drive you crazy,
not to mention they may
even make you break down
and cry your eyes out for some
wretched, fleeting nonsense that
always has you by the throat,
choking you with its awful grasp.

Thomas Ligotti is the recipient of numerous genre awards, including the Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker, and the International Horror Guild Award. Bad Moon Books thankfully has reprinted Death Poems, and made it richer with the inclusion of a section titled “Closing Statements” and poems, such as “Nostalgia,” that weren’t part of the original publication. The poetry in this printing shows Ligotti’s unsparing, and spare, compositions to fine advantage. They also remind us how the writer so easily puts mordancy into the morbid. Death Poems is evidence of Ligotti’s great writing range. Primarily heralded for his prose, he also possesses the heart of a poet: not literally, but he’d probably like that image.

-By Sheila M. Merritt

About Sheila M. Merritt

Sheila Merritt wrote book reviews for Mystery Scene Magazine. Currently she writes essays for Scream Magazine. For several years, she had contributed reviews, articles and conducted interviews for the Hellnotes.com newsletter. She was friends with a British ghost hunter who happened to be the author of a biography of Boris Karloff. She’s had a brief and embarrassing conversation with Christopher Lee in a department store, but also had a much more relaxing exchange with director-writer Frank Darabont at a horror convention. She became enamored of horror films and dark fiction as a child. Mother didn't approve of them. The rest, as they say, is history.

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