Moxie, Mayhem, & Murder

Accomplished speculative poet, Jennifer Crow, muses on the poetic benefits of following your murder-loving monster-heart.

Jennifer Crow

I’ve been on a horror/murder mystery/scary poetry kick lately, probably because of current events. I mean, more so than the usual baseline of creepy stuff. Sometimes people ask me why I find myself drawn to those kinds of tales, and I’ve wondered that myself. I mean, my life doesn’t bear the weight of terrible traumas. Shouldn’t I write something happily-ever-after instead?

  I guess my first point is that writing always seems to work best when you follow whatever your heart wants, even if it’s bloody and horrible. I’ve tried to write “nice” stories and poems, which would make my parents a lot happier, but that’s just not me. I’d argue that they have no one to blame but themselves because my obsession with the macabre goes way, way, WAY back. Like, back to childhood. Back to the days when my dad used to come home with copies of the National Enquirer when he stopped at the store for a bottle of Moxie.

(Speaking of horror, if you’ve never been to northern New England, Moxie is a carbonated soft drink that literally started out as a patent medicine over a hundred years ago. A non-New Englander friend described it, not inaccurately, as “carbonated furniture polish.” It is, let us say, an acquired taste.)

My mom didn’t approve of the National Enquirer being in our home, but her childhood issues made it difficult for her to have confrontations with Dad. And so as a first and second grader, I was reading about ghosts, Hollywood scandals, and the mass deaths of Jim Jones’s followers in Guyana. That’s the one that really stuck with me. Those aerial photos of a field of bodies laid out, the accounts of the murder/suicides—I’d never seen anything like that before. And the stories behind the pictures proved to be both baffling and oddly moving. In recent years, I’ve read some in-depth book-length works about the tragedy that have helped give me some much-needed nuance. Those first accounts, though, the raw footage of tragedy . . . There’s no escaping that.

It’s weird, looking back, how widely I was allowed to read given how strict my parents were about pretty much everything else. I think most kids go through a phase where they’re obsessed with death, or crime, or the supernatural. And while I definitely got the feeling that my parents found my reading choices to be weird, and sometimes questioned them, they didn’t stop me. I still carry the creeping embarrassment caused by my love of the strange, but the awkwardness hasn’t yet stopped me.

As I’ve gotten older, however, I do try to understand my tastes better. Maybe that’s just a faux-intellectual attempt to justify the unjustifiable, but I can see patterns in operation, ways of comprehending the world in all its confusing majesty. Crime happens. Horror happens. Pain happens. Being a healthy adult means coming to terms with the darker side of life in some way, and art—its creation and appreciation—can give us a place to stand while we consider those difficult aspects.

Shame is so often used
as a way to control us…

I like mystery stories because there’s a reason for the bad things which happen, and the perpetrator gets caught or otherwise punished for their crimes. It’s a way of restoring order to the world. And from there, I discovered crime novels that aren’t so much about justice as about exploring the shadows that dwell in humanity. Going from Agatha Christie to Patricia Highsmith to Gillian Flynn is a trip, let me tell you. But if literature is a way of developing empathy, then touching those scarier parts of human nature can be a necessity. The worst crimes humanity has committed resulted from people seeing their enemies as other, inhuman, the monster. So I think crime fiction also has value in allowing us to see even the worst of humanity as human. Culpable, horrible, but still human in the end.

My love of horror goes way back, too. Thanks to an indulgent local librarian who let me have the run of the stacks, I took home armfuls of books of all kinds. I started with folklore, and though I blame that for my love of fantasy, it fed my craving for creepier stories as well. How often do those cautionary tales involve blood and mayhem, beheadings and betrayals? Folk and fairy tales feed something inherent in our natures, and while they may be seen now as tales for children, often their subject matter partakes of horror.

From there, I branched out to more overtly horrific stories (and as a consequence, spent most of my childhood afraid of the dark). Still, I avoided the horror books marketed to adults. Maybe I sensed there were lines I couldn’t cross with my mom watching. I remember babysitting for a family and poking through their bookshelves, where I found an exceedingly creepy-looking paperback. (If you remember the mass market horror paperbacks from the 80s, with their distinctively trashy covers and spiky fonts, you know what I’m talking about.) I so wanted to read it . . . but I knew I’d regret it as the hour grew later and the world outside got darker.

I didn’t give in to temptation—at least, not that time. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the things that call to me, including—maybe especially—the things I’ve been shamed for, or ashamed of, are the ones rooted in the deepest parts of my psyche. The poems and stories that grow out of those uncomfortable clashes with expectations are often the richest and most powerful. 

Shame is so often used as a way to control us. Make us ashamed of something or someone we love, and we don’t need a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. We’ll cut ourselves to fit in. If we want to create meaningful work, we have to dig past those old wounds and excavate the parts of our past and our passions that we’ve let ourselves neglect. 

What’s the thing which scares you most? Can you find it and put your arms around it, metaphorically speaking? Can you make peace with the monsters and mythical beasts, enough to put them to work for your greater good? Bravery isn’t always about risking your physical life. Sometimes it means sidling up to that shadow you’ve been avoiding and letting it know that it’s a part of your creative life, too.

Your words, your passions, all of it is important. Even—in particular—the parts you’ve turned away from in the past. And I can’t wait to see what you make of them.

Shy and nocturnal, Jennifer Crow has rarely been photographed in the wild, but it’s rumored that she lives near a waterfall in western New York. You can find her poetry in various print and electronic venues, including Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction, Uncanny Magazine, Abyss & Apex, and others. She’s always happy to connect with readers and poets on Twitter @writerjencrow and on her Facebook author page.

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