THE WASTE LAND
By T.S. Eliot
Background: This poem may not be considered horror, but I’m going to point out all the horrific aspects of it to you. It’s a modernist poem, published in 1922. Eliot was suffering a nervous breakdown during the time he was composing this poem, which is fraught with existential despair.
What it’s about: There are five sections; the first is called “The Burial of the Dead” and starts, “April is the crullest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land.” There are plenty more lines alluding to death, such as, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” We even get a conversation that says, “’That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / ‘Has it begun to sprout?” Creepy.
The fourth part, “Death by Water,” describes Phlebas the Phoenician, who is a drowned sailor: “A current under sea / Picked his bones in whispers.” There are a lot of corpses in this poem, creating dark and unsettling imagery.
The final part, “What the Thunder Said,” returns us to this wasteland from the first part—a dry land in need of water. There are “bats with baby faces,” and “In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing / Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel.” Sure sounds like the beginning of a Poe story, doesn’t it?
Why it will keep you up at night: I recognize that this seems like a strange choice for a horror Pick, but the desolate, creepy atmosphere of the poem, which reeks of death and decay, urged me to recommend it—especially since we recently studied this dense and challenging poem in my poetry class. Eliot asks us where meaning can possibly lie in our broken, sterile modern world, and it is these disturbing existential questions that will keep you thinking about the poem long after you’ve finished reading it.