All Hallows’ Evening : Supernatural Tanka

Edited and with an Introduction by M. Kei
Halloween, the commercial excuse for American children to beg candy from strangers and for adults to wear outfits they would never be caught dead in on any other day, was originally All Hallows’ Eve, the evening before All Hallows’ Day (All Saints’ Day) in many Western countries. The three days encompassing the observances frequently feature the sharing of food and drink with both living and non-living family members, and the placing of gifts, such as food and flowers, on graves or at memorial sites. On All Hallows’ Eve, which opens the triduum, the veil between worlds is especially thin. Participants wear masks or other disguises to keep themselves from being recognized by hostile spirits or to impersonate spirits to frighten others. The secular and religious aspects of All Hallows’ Eve and Day have drawn apart in most places.

The belief that the dead return on particular dates is widespread. The ancient Celts observed Samhain, the Japanese observe Obon. In Mexico, the Día de los Muertos has grown in importance as the country suffers the ravages of the drug war. Drug dealers—and their victims—pray to La Muerte, the personification of death. In the United States, anxieties about the state of the world are channeled in the fear of the zombie apocalypse. By impersonating and playing with our fears, we gain control over them.

Death has been an essential part of tanka literature from the earliest days. The Japanese of the Nara period established the trope of the dead man in which the poet discovered, or purported to discover, the body of a dead man and used it as a mono no aware (‘thing of pity’) to spur meditations about mortality and transience. The ancient Japanese loved ghost stories and collected folk tales and other purportedly true stories. Sometimes these tales were intended for the edification of the public, such as tales of karmic retribution, but others were collected just because the ancient Japanese liked a weird tale as much as anybody. Yuki-onna, the demon snow woman, does not require a particular day to appear, only a good snowstorm. She joins ghosts, witches, headless horsemen, zombies, wendigos, and aliens in our little anthology.

Not all our contributions are horrific; we have a skewed view of the Nativity story, as well as a crossdresser in sequins, Lady Liberty, Batman, and other tales in which our poets find ways to be true to themselves. The costumes of the holiday allow us to remove our masks and be who we really are one day a year. The gruesome fate of Anna Pappenheimer warns us what happens to those who do not conform to societal expectations during the rest of the year.

Horror tales are morality tales. The seeker is tested, and if found impure, devoured by the monster, which is why teenage lovers are chewed up by horror movie monsters. Those that pass the test, such as walking through a cemetery at midnight, have proved their courage and their fitness to be members of society. The most successful seekers are those who find humanity in the monsters that were intended to frighten them.

Tanka, with its focus on image and emotion, is an imminently suitable vehicle for supernatural tales with their vivid and bizarre imagery. A Hollywood movie requires special effects to sustain attention and provide the spectacle the audience seeks, leaving very little room for story. Tanka, with its efficient use of language, is able to present the emotional heart of such stories. The skillfully chosen detail says more than a Hollywood budget’s worth of special effects. The best horror movies know that—a slowly opening door is more terrifying than buckets of gore. This understated kind of horror is perfectly suited to tanka. The tanka below offer a plethora of weird tales, humor, frights, and even a little existential angst from around the world.

1) Amada Burgard

owls cry
the wisdom of the
crows sing
the beauty of death

2) Autumn Noelle Hall

heart on her sleeve
and rags of flesh sagging
off her cheek
she limps beside her lover
Annual Zombie Crawl

3) Carole Johnston

the house
looms like a druid
hooded over
the shivering sidewalk
praying to the moon

4) Debbie Strange

in shadowland
where mist wraiths nestle
between hollows
a phantom owl spills my name
into the broken glass of night

5) Elizabeth Howard

the red planet at perigee
close enough perhaps
for its beings
to intercept my e-mails
to collect my phone calls

6) Ernesto P. Santiago

Day of the Dead
the scent of jasmine
in open air
the lost angel asks,
is that you, mommy?

7) Geoffrey Winch

as sleepy dusk
induces us
to close our eyes
souls with candleflame eyes
keep watch

8) Gerry Jacobson

don’t shine your torch
don’t wake them up
that come after
don’t want to be seen

9) Grunge

John Hurt
alien bursting
from his chest
so sad i missed
the baby shower

10) Joanne Morcom

how do you kill yourself
when you’re already dead
as in zombiefied
working day and night
chopping Satan’s cotton?

11) Joy McCall

can there be
in this dead silence,
any breath?
a slight shifting of the earth
moves above the settling death

12) Kath Abela Wilson

you think its an eerie
made up story it’s true
I had a virgin birth
and he was born
on Christmas

13) Lauren Mayhew

red light . . .
a flash of sequins
and gold
as he crosses the street
in platform pumps

14) LeRoy Gorman

backcountry skiers
from an avalanche
the wendigo calls it

15) Margaret Van Every

día de los muertos—
mariachis, feasts, and flowers,
marzipan skulls—
death already sweet
in mouths of the innocent

16) Matsukaze

All-Hallows’ Eve—
rounds us kids up
taking us to church
for ‘Hallelujah’ night instead

17) Neal Whitman

there, maybe
in the snow squall
a white kimono
wind whipping through the aspens
or Yuki-onna’s icy breath

18) Nu Quang

Halloween party . . .
wrapped in a green sheet, a foam crown
with a paper torch
I strut like Lady Liberty
who comes from Saigon

19) Patricia Prime

I’m walking the dog
when a child wearing a mask
accosts me
like a bird in full flight
his Batman cape airborne

20) Peggy Heinrich

night of the dead
we walk in the cemetery
past toppled gravestones
testing our nerves
testing our selves

21) Ram Krishna Singh

slung-jawed awake
two grinning skeletons sit
bolt upright in bed
hear the shrieks next door but
too scared to call the police

22) Susan Burch

before she was burned
her breasts were cut off
and stuffed in her mouth
a confession
of witchcraft

Based on the true story of Anna Pappenheimer.

23) Sylvia Forges-Ryan

my new neighbor
can hear her crying
now and then—
my friend who lived there
before she took her own life

24) Terra Martin

by a headless horseman
I surrender
as he rides off
with all the cookies

25) Vasile Moldovan

on the chessboard
I am only a black pawn . . .
poor me,
people say that the Lord
plays only the white pieces

© 2013 by Keibooks. All rights reserved. See Educational Use Notice for policy governing use in an educational context. Copyright for the individual poems and prose remains with the contributors.