The Coven’s Hornbook & Other Poems
PHANTASMAGORIA Magazine (Issue 11, Late Summer, Special 2019: pp. 241-246)
“A Literature Lover’s Scary Stories”
A Review by Carl R. Jennings
If you’re not one who reads introductions (you know who you are—you’re the kind of person who eats all of the milk chocolate Coconut Creams out of a shared variety box, or throws chewing gum on the ground for someone to step on) then please take my advice when I say you should read the one for this book.
Not only are Coffman’s voice and use of language a delightful read, it sets up the attitude with which this book and the poems within should be read. Each section has its own theme, and the works within are connected by it. Though almost all of them are of the supernatural or other macabre content.
Coffman goes farther than just trying to make something entertaining, though: he tries to teach the reader something about the vast number of forms of written poetic expression. In fact, Coffman often flexes his own chops and shares poems whose structures are of his own creation. That in itself makes this book extremely valuable to anyone who is a more serious student of literature. But Coffman explicitly expresses that this book isn’t meant solely for education, but primarily for enjoyment.
Regardless of style, each poem seems like it would be right at home in the library of some heretical, medieval scholar. Much effort has been made for immersion, in fact. It is aided by the language that Coffman uses, though, while delightfully archaic in plenty of places, it is more than accessible to those who have not taken a Renaissance English Literature class. This may be a minor detail— those are often quite important—but I find the section title font that has been chosen really helps put the reader in the mood for the tone that Coffman has gone for.
There is a point in the introduction where Coffman expresses his hopes that the reader will be frightened by the poems within. That, perhaps, is a bit of a stretch. In medieval times the pious, or the common, or the scholarly aristocrat would have found fright between the covers of this book. Undoubtedly there would have been a campaign to destroy as many copies of The Coven’s Hornbook and Other Poems as possible, handed straight down from the Archbishop of Canterbury (or the Pope were it to be found on continental soil.) This age, however, is one where cynicism and experience has eroded the capacity for casual fear. It’s unfortunate because Coffman writes with an earnestness, a deep hope that few can translate from mind, to ink, to another mind entirely. Though I am not exactly sure that was the point behind his plea.
Here we come back around to the set-up for the entire book. Because of these words, an entire narrative pops up in the reader’s mind. It puts the reader in the basement of the libraries at Oxford or Cambridge (probably illicitly), and finding this tome among the collection that those who secreted it away there would rather be forgotten. It all fits well with the theme of the book, and what it does actually achieve is a rebellious, macabre thrill. I do not have the word count to write about each piece, because I could write a book about Coffman’s book. Instead, I have picked a poem from most of the fifteen sections to write about. So since there’s no time, or space, to waste, let’s begin.
“Those Days in Salem Town”: As an American, I can say from experience that we are exposed to the story of the Salem witch trials at quite a young age. The poem brings across the puritanical fear fever that swept the town which, coupled with mass hysteria, caused the death of innocents. In this poem there were actual witches there, causing supernatural trouble. The only thing that the laughable effort of the townspeople of Salem achieved was to drive them away. To your town, in fact. They hide beneath the quilt of modern scepticism for magic. They hide, that is, until now.
“Beware this House”: Ah, the classic haunted house! No matter what anyone tells you, it never goes out of style. The human dwelling, something that should mark the point of safety, has become a fount of fear and foreboding. As is always the case, there is one who does not believe—a braggart and a fool. They venture inside, vowing to spend the night in an effort to prove their masculinity. They, of course, pay the ultimate price of those who ignore warnings and the cyclical nature of history.
“The Scroll of Thoth”: There are far greater and terrible things afoot than that which is mundanely perceived. And when something is messed with that shouldn’t be, there are dire consequences. That is a common theme found in the horror literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This brilliant piece brings that together along with elements of the stories of Prometheus, the Trials of Hercules, and Pandora’s Box, all sieved through the story of a young archaeologist finding a cursed ancient Egyptian scroll.
“Metamorphosis”: This poem is an intimate look into the transformation of a man into a werewolf. It’s tragic, really, as it is the depiction of the loss of a man’s humanity, and all the more impactful for the intimacy.
“Necronomicon”: My bread and butter! This is all about cosmic horror and the writings of H. P. Lovecraft. How fitting it is that there is a poem in this section in particular showing the residents of Providence celebrating Lovecraft and what he wrote.
“Sin-eating Jack”: This is a ballad, meaning a poem narrating a story in short stanzas. They are usually in oral tradition, and I can see Sin-eating Jack being a story passed down through someone telling it around a fire at night. Perhaps my favorite one out of the book: I have a love of all things Halloween, and this is as Halloween as it gets without actually being a Jack-o-Lantern. Although that is what this story is about: Jack-o-Lanterns. Or, rather, one in particular. Have you ever wondered why everyone carves that iconic face in it? As it turns out, that face with the jagged grin is a rune. If you ever see a Jack-o-Lantern with a green glow coming from within, then it has the spirit of Sin-eating Jack contained inside. Look into it and you will be cleansed of all of your sins, no matter how minor or severe. However, if the Jack-o-Lantern isn’t destroyed the morning after Halloween, then Sin-eating Jack will manifest and come kill you. So, you know, make sure you set a reminder on your phone.
“Transylvanian Legend”: The story of Dracula is infamous, but none more so around Dracula’s castle. The infamous creature himself may be gone, but the infamy leaves a stubborn stain. So much is still unknown, all those years later, but it just makes it worse. Legend, and more so rumor, has a terrible power to terrify.
“Rawhead/Bloody Bones”: The Ghoulies, Beasties, and Things That Go Bump in the Night is stuffed full of so many interesting pieces that I wish I could write about more than one. This ballad, like so many legends are, is a warning: do not go out on the moors at night. This one is particularly aimed at children. One shouldn’t go out at night simply because of the treacherous landscape, but also because of Rawhead (or Bloody Bones) who, with his sharpened teeth, will ensure that you never make it back home.
“Shadow Folk”: This will be familiar to those who read the creepypastas of today. Shadow Folk come when the new moon makes night most dark. They’re forms, darker than shadow, that once were living, breathing people. There is no mention that they will do anything to you but, with creatures so sinister, do you really want to chance that?
“Saucy Jack”: The tenth section is about the “Mundanely Gruesome”. Here no specter or ghoul takes the center stage. Instead, this is the horror that people can cause. And few can claim more infamy, no common person has caused more fear, than Jack the Ripper. Saucy Jack is one of two pieces in this section that are about the legendary killer. It’s the shorter, but the words it does have are plenty gruesome. Though there is no slaughter, it’s from the mind of Jack himself, waiting, anticipating the kill to come. And isn’t that—the tension, the suspense of waiting—just as gruesome as any gore?
“Lost Atlantis”: The style of the writing in this section is much like classic fantasy writing (high fantasy, if you use that terminology.) This one has a lamenting tone to it, as something was lost. The narrator describes basically the legend of Atlantis and its grandeur. With all of that, I want to go to Atlantis too, and feel sad that it’s somewhere I could never go.
“The Repetitious Client”: This is a sweet section that is Coffman’s tributes to other poets. Being an homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and with the nature of the title, this is about Dr. John Watson. It’s a comfortable sort of poem. The narrator, Watson himself, is taking stock of his and Holmes’ rooms at 221b, and the heartfelt warmth he feels for it.
“Why Time Travel Will Be a Long Way Off”: The section this one is in is defiantly the miscellaneous section of the book. And it is wonderful for it. So, you go back in time—far back in time. But you may not think of what could happen if you get the timing (hehe) off buy just a small amount. In the case of the poor subject of this poem, they are immediately grabbed and accused of witchcraft by the local peasants. After which, they are burned alive and their craft is destroyed. Talk about poor timing.
“The Poet’s Challenge”: In the final section, we find poetry about, well, poetry. It’s very fitting that this poem can be found there, as it speaks about not only the challenge of writing poetry, but also that making poetry is well worth the trials.
Review of The Coven’s Hornbook & Other Poems
“A Primer for Weird Poets”
by Bobby Dee
Frank Coffman may be retired from teaching English, Journalism, and Creative Writing, but he still has a great deal to teach today's poets and lovers of the weird. This collection of 266 examples of his work runs the gamut of formal styles, a master class on the form and technique of poetry. In a time when poetry is rarely taught to any great depth in most English and writing courses, it is an education in itself to encounter triversens, Rubiaiyat sonnets, ballads, sonnetku, megasonnets, microsonnets, acrostics, free verse, ae freslighe, Sapphics, rondines, and many more.
Even for those not particularly interested in the technical excellence of the forms, the imagery and content of the verses are well worth an evening's perusal. Poetry has always played an intrinsic part in weird and horror fiction, and Coffman's poems are devoted to necromancy, werewolves, horrors nameless and visceral, old houses and fresh curses, witches and warlocks, vampires, ghouls, Lovecraftian horrors, and rarer critters...
...and of course, there is an entire chapter devoted to All Hallow's Eve. It is, I think, a rare fan of the genre who would not appreciate cracking open their hornbook on a Hallowe'en night, as the darkness closes in and the trick-or-treaters wander home, perhaps a glass of wine or whiskey at hand, to read "It Is Halloween" or "The Offering."
There are homages too: poems dedicated to Weird Tales and Boris Karloff, Robert E. Howard and William Hope Hodgson,, Lovecraft and Poe, Donald Sidney-Fryer and Mary Shelley's famous monster.
Some of these poems have been published, in the pages of Spectral Realms and other journals, but this is the first time they have all been collected here...and I feel that this book could serve as a primer for poets of the weird, both to get an idea of what can be done with form, and how to do it.
from a Review of The Coven’s Hornbook & Other Poems
by Steven Withrow
.…Going in, I knew that Coffman, through his verse practice and scholarship, is one of the most accomplished writers striving to follow in the genre, themes, and modes of the early Weird Tales masters: Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Donald Wandrei, and a few others.
What I did not know, until I began my close reading, is that Coffman not only extends the weird poetry tradition but also revives its deeper roots in the history of verse.
How he extends the tradition is evident in almost every turn of phrase and of line. Many of the poems might have been written in the 1930s and published alongside stories by C.L. Moore or Edmond Hamilton. Do not go looking for the New Weird or the retro-confessional here.
At the same time, the sheer variety of received and invented verse forms—and the lengths to which Coffman goes to catalog and define them for the reader—makes the book seem, at times, much older and much newer than the Great Depression years. Present are both the pulse of the bardic and the grace of the neoromantic.
What his work revives is harder to describe. I’ll use a tree metaphor. For me, it’s a movement back down the twigs and branches of American prose poetry, down the stout limbs and solid trunk of the accentual-syllabic oak of English verse, to its roots in strong-stress Anglo-Saxon sagas. There are forms from other traditions, but these are side-trips.
Frank Coffman brings a professor’s breadth and a writer’s depth to The Coven’s Hornbook & Other Poems. He has much to teach, and I’m grateful to be learning from him.
Direct LINK to Goodreads review:
The Coven’s Hornbook & Other Poems
by Frank Coffman
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION & SPECIFICS ABOUT THE BOOK
Frank Coffman has compiled a substantial collection of 266 poems, herein. The verses cover the gamut of the genres of speculative poetry of the high imagination: Horror, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Adventure, and even Detection. The early sections of this tome explore the range of subjects in the Weird, Horrific, and Supernatural; later sections are excursions into the other speculative modes and subgenres. The final part of the book contains a section of ekphrastic poems — tributes to works in other art forms; a group of homages to admired fellow poets; and a section of "metapoetry" with poems on the subject of poetry itself and some thoughts on the writing of verse and the practice of poetic composition. The final grouping of poems are of a more "traditional" nature, including some examples of poetry written over a span of the past half century or more.
The reader will immediately note that Coffman is a traditional, formalist poet writing almost exclusively metered and rhymed verse. With the resurgence of both speculative and narrative poetry, this is not as unusual as some may think. The pendulum swing back to more formal poetry and away from the dominance of vers libre has been under way for some time. In fact, the poetics of tradition were never pushed completely aside with the advent of free verse. Also, the early poets of the speculative in the pulps were primarily traditional versifiers, and those inspirations have influenced many moderns.
He is, as he says, "primarily a sonneteer," being a great exponent of that most ubiquitous form of poetry in the Western world, the "little square of ink upon the page," the "perfect poetic paragraph." But the poems in this volume range far beyond the sonnet—although there are many sonnets contained herein, some in surprising "hybrid" forms and experimental modes. Ballads and other longer narratives are mixed in.
Coffman's other poetic love, beyond the charms of the "fourteener," is to revive and experiment with Medieval, Renaissance, and cross-cultural modes of verse. There are forms here from Welsh, Irish, French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Romanian, Greek, Russian, Persian, Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, and Vietnamese cultures.
In fact, so much "hybridization" and experimentation with form has been done, that the poet provides a "Glossary"after the poems to help clarify the many poetic types used. An index of poems by title and page number has also been included for easy reference. The tome offers a cornucopia of both speculative and traditional verse.