Wind in a dark night. Moonlight on an empty path. These small miscellanies are what make up a horror piece. Fiction structures almost no boundaries — descriptions go on and on and on only restrained by the paper’s white edges. But poetry is less forgiving. There are so few words and so little time. How then, should one create poetry with horror as muse? In The Highwayman by Alfred Noyles, the chilling atmosphere of the gallops leading up and away from the old inn, of watching your lover by the moonlight, of glass windows shattering from gunshots in the middle of the night are all attributed to the development of one thing -- setting.
casting the conventional eerie
The first way Noyles did this was by taking stereotypical elements of horror, such as dark skies and windy nights, and expanding their connotations using small, uncommon details. In the first stanza, the poem is staged in a time and place where --
“The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,”
If one were to break it down, it’s quite simple. Take the first line: wind is blowing in the trees; the moon lit up the road. But that’s not how the omniscient speaker had described it. Instead, the part about the wind emphasizes on how the wind would make one feel like darkness, scary for its color as well as its mysterious nature, is approaching, while simultaneously illustrating the large scale of the wind with the word “torrent.” The idea of darkness and gusty trees not only help the readers visualize the scene, but by selecting those few details to paint, the speaker has also indicated that, one, there is nothing but darkness, and two, it is silent but for the rusting trees.
Similarly, by stating the moon and its light in two consecutive lines, the speaker pushes the idea that it is the only source of light. In this moment, before the inn is mentioned, the reader would not logically picture any other illuminations, making the setting quite spooky. But perhaps the best example of taking something archetypical and making it strange would be the “purple moor.” This out of place color indicates that because the moor is not green or brown like a normal landscape is, something earth-shattering is bound to happen here, soon. While it is ambiguous what purple really symbolizes, the vagueness in itself might be a clue the setting is neither completely sad like blue, nor is it completely mad like red. It is a mixture, a disturbance, a dark, dark chaos.
Here’s another example.
“Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard.
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.”
into the character’s whirlwind
Sometimes, a background itself is not enough. Having the setting and the characters reinforce each other helps both of which become vivid and multi-dimensional. Take a look at this excerpt --
“He rose upright in the stirrups. He scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair in the casement. His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,”
Alone, the action of a person leaving, and their lover untying her hair in his departure is not a horror thing. But if the reader had been informed what was happening — the man was after a prize that night, uncertain to which if he would return, and this could well be his last goodbye to his clandestine lover, the landlord’s daughter — the elegant gestures gain a lot of weight.
Suddenly two fictional characters and their Romeo-Juliet arc are not just a couple parting ways, but a man about to risk his life wanting his last conscious moments to be with a girl even though those moments would never be enough. The reader sees the two of them stretched apart in front of the old inn on a dark, haunted night, him reaching out to her and her loosening her hair in response; the reader sees the gleam of her black hair against the night sky and that being the last thread tying the couple together; the reader sees how a tough, cunning man feels his face burnt from her perfume, and how the kiss he planted to her hair could be the last interaction between them. Frightening sights become intertwined with dark romance, putting more at stake, adding to the tension of what could be looming in the feared.
Here’s another example.
“For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s refrain.”
permanence is a haunted myth
And at last, nothing gold can stay. Perhaps the most significance a setting could convey is through its change. This doesn’t necessarily mean a polarizing contrast, from day to night, from rain to clear, but a progression that corresponds to the theme in some ways. In this —
“With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high.
Blood red were his spurs in the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat;
When they shot him down on the highway,”
It’s clear that the scene had changed quite a lot from the beginning, where everything was dark and quiet. Before any of the details are looked at, it is worth noting that change itself is almost inherently scary, as change implies uncertainty, and uncertainty means that anything could happen in the next heartbeat. From the “white roading smoking behind him,” the sense of abrupt urgency drives the fear of uncertainty even further — the man is mad, he has gone insane, he could turn around and do anything right now, knowing that nothing would bring his lover back. The cloudy seas have morphed into a “golden noon” with the passing of time, signaling that the mysterious gloom is over, and now each character — the man with the dead lover, and King George’s men — would have to face the aftermath of the woman’s death. But the most drastic change is the death of the highwayman. His death on the highway alters the entire meaning of the scene. In the early night, the road served as an aid for the chilling atmosphere that tore apart the couple, and later on, he was riding on that very road during her death, the setting serving as an emotional factor that went from ambiguous to despair. Now he is shot in the same vicinity. Because the speak is omniscient, the poem continues, but to either of the couple, there is no road, nor inn, nor the sound of the man leading to the inn to see his lover one last time. The setting ceases to exist, but only for selected characters. In reality, days go on, with the changes in the setting mirroring their death, the couple becomes a myth that would be forever.
Here’s another example.
“And out of the tawny sunset, before the rise of the moon,
When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,”
With that being said, there is never a go-to formula to worldbuilding, especially for something as emotionally-based as horror, but analyzing how it’s done in famous works can definitely give some input to how one could do so in their original ways. After all, everything is a combination of everything else.
Bonus. Here are some songs that go well with this poem: Getaway Car by Taylor Swift from the man’s perspective, and Crashing by Illenium from the woman’s.
The 2am writer that lives in the mind of sixteen-year-old Yun-Fei Wang has been taking over her sanity for a few years now, tearing her lifeline down, yet building up an escapism in the same breath. Find her in the evanescence of black-inked words, or at @rainofelsewhere on Instagram.