13 Literary Songs for the Halloween Season
Your Spooky Yet Bookish Soundtrack for October
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Whatever you think about Bob Dylan’s Nobel win, the genetic overlap between literature and music is manifold and wondrous. Victor Hugo said: “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” If we take the imperatives of literature as a complement, then an equivalent statement might read: literature expresses that which cannot exist beyond language and that which cannot go unheard. On the level of craft, even, it’s no coincidence that so many writers listen to music while writing and so many musicians are prolific readers. Or that, in many cases, musicians are authors and authors musicians. Jay Z wrote Decoded, Patti Smith M Train, John Darnielle Wolf in White Van.
The bonds between music and literature are something I’ve been pondering in the beginning stages of writing my own novel, a supernaturally- inflected murder mystery about a black metal band whose charismatic singer has been brutally murdered. Any one of them might be the killer, or next. The band must examine the frontman’s songwriting to unravel the truth of how he died, to investigate his music in the story of his life to see why he was made leave it.
And so, in further exploring the enigmatic links between literature and music in a way that’s also seasonally appropriate, I devised a (baleful, malign, blood-curdling!!!) list of 13 Literary Songs for the Halloween Season. Given the literary qualities of music and the musical qualities of literature, I’ve also taken a liberal definition of what constitutes “literary.” For some entries, it may refer to actual literary allusions in the song, for others the narrative trajectory of the song’s lyrics, for others still the strange and poetic unraveling of something more elusive which, as Victor Hugo defines it, “cannot remain silent,” hidden in the song itself. One constant, however, in all of these songs: they will haunt you
1. “The Carny” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (from Your Funeral, My Trial, 1986)
Real talk: any one of Nick Cave’s songs could’ve gone on this list. Cave is not only one of contemporary music’s most literary songwriters — a good many of his themed studio albums are practically short story collections in and of themselves — but also one of its spookiest, scoring his investigations into the gothic and depraved with a warlock’s brew of magisterial orchestral arrangements, sleazy rock standards, and Cave’s own trademark spare piano, like some sinuous, over-sexed Aussie Sinatra. It will come as no surprise that Cave himself is the author of two novels (1989’s And the Ass Saw the Angel and 2009’s The Death of Bunny Munro) as well as an epic poem scribbled onto the backs of airplane sick bags while on tour (2015’s The Sick Bag Song). “The Carny,” the second track on 1986’s underrated Your Funeral, My Trial, begins with a galumphing organ dirge with glockenspiel accompaniment you think is there to set the mood. The creepiest thing is it never lets up, carrying Cave’s ballad of an unnamed Carny who has abandoned his troupe all the way through to its disquieting final note. After the troupe buries the Carny’s old nag Sorrow in a “shallow, unmarked grave” “in the then parched meadow,” out of which it will emerge later in the song “to float upon the surface of the eaten soil,” Cave delivers a glorious, mock-Faulknerian description of the troupe wagoning up: “And the rain came hammering down/ Everybody running for their wagons/ Tying all the canvas flaps down/ The mangy cats growing in their cages/ The bird-girl flapping and squawking around/ The whole valley reeking of wet beast/ Wet beast and rotten, sodden hay/ Freak and brute creation all/ Packed up and on their way.”
2. “Pirate Jenny” by Nina Simone (from Nina Simone in Concert, 1964)
There’d be no Nick Cave, of course, without Nina Simone, as “Pirate Jenny” gamely shows. Originally from Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera and covered by a range of past performers — Marianne Faithfull, Marc Almond — “Pirate Jenny” tells the story of a woman pirate who implants herself as the barmaid in a small town where she patiently awaits the arrival of “The Black Freighter,” a “ghostly” ship “with a skull on its masthead” packed from bow to stern with ravening, genocidal pirates. No one, however, covered it quite like the High Priestess of Soul, who would’ve performed it more were it not for the fact that the wages of doing so, Simone reported, shaved years off her life. As with her besotted rendition of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” Simone more than makes “Pirate Jenny” her own, replacing the song’s plodding theatricality with menace in a minor key that channels at the chorus into a war-party of thundering bass-drums. Tellingly, Simone also resituates the song’s narrative arc in a “crummy Southern town” filled with leering patriarchal “gentlemen,” underscoring the social activist dimension of much of her music. When the denizens of “The Black Freighter” “swarm” the dock “chainin’ up people” and “bringin’ ’em to [Pirate Jenny],” who is tasked with deciding not the nature but the moment of their fates (“Kill ’em NOW, or LATER?”), it’s cathartic and chilling when Simone whispers: “Right… now.”
3. “Shanty for the Arethusa” by The Decembrists (from Her Majesty The Decembrists, 2003)
Although, IMO, The Decembrists can be so literary at times as to be almost unlistenable, the band struck atmospheric gold with its own nautical terror tale, “Shanty for the Arethusa,” off 2003’s Her Majesty The Decembrists, one of the strongest albums from the Portland-based indie rock quintet. The output of Decembrists lead-singer and principle songwriter Colin Meloy tends more toward expressionistic storytelling than verse-chorus-verse, and “Shanty for Arethusa” is no different. Weighing anchor with the sound of a creaking ship’s mast and a woman’s blood-curling scream, followed by a one-note proclamation of doom from Jenny Conlee’s Hammond Organ, the song’s opening verse evokes nothing so much as set-dressing for a piece of dark historical fiction: “We set to sail on a packet of spice, rum, and tea-leaves./ We’ve emptied out all the bars and the bowery hotels./ Tell your daughters do not walk the streets alone tonight.” With its intimations of 19th-century spiritualism and merchant imperialism gone awry, the tale that unfolds from there in fragments doesn’t augur any better for the company aboard the vessel itself (not to be confused, in case you’re wondering, with the HMS Arethusa from the British sea shanty of a slightly different name) when Meloy begins to warble: “But if you listen, quiet, you can hear the footsteps on the cross-trees./ The ghosts of sailors passed, their spectral bodies clinging to the shroud./ So goodnight, boys, goodnight…”
4. “Down by the Water” by PJ Harvey (from To Bring You My Love, 1995)
Probably the only song about filicide to make it into Billboard’s Top 10, British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey’s “Down by the Water” takes the thus far-aquatic theme of this playlist one step too far by embracing the imagined persona of a desperate and self-loathing murderess who has drowned her own daughter in a river. “Some critics have taken my writing so literally,” Harvey said, “to the point where they’ll listen to ‘Down by the Water’ and believe I have actually given birth to a child and drowned her.” Which speaks powerfully to the song’s status as a literary artifact much in the tradition of gangster rap, say, where the artist relating the lyric — like a first-person narrator in a short story — isn’t necessarily and, in most cases, necessarily isn’t the artist herself. As for the song, it eschews Harvey’s punk-inflected indie blues roots (she famously dated none other than Nick Cave throughout the early 90’s) in favor of a droning electronic arrangement, Harvey calling to the listener from some inflamed purgatory: “I lost my heart/ Under the bridge/ To that little girl/ So much to me…” Mid-verse, as the synth track begins to snarl, Harvey’s voice overlays Harvey’s voice in the mix: “That blue-eyed girl (that blue-eyed girl)/ She said ‘No more’ (she said no more)/ That blue-eyed girl (that blue-eyed girl)/ Became blue-eyed whore (became blue-eyed whore)…” If there’s a more subtly orchestrated instance of unreliable narration in modern pop music, I haven’t heard it. Yet “Down by the Water’s” Yellow Wallpaper, shaking-in-a-corner moment is just as understated finally when Harvey, not unlike Nina Simone at the end of “Pirate Jenny,” begins to whisper on a loop: “Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water/ Come back here, man, give me my daughter…”
5. “Possum Kingdom” by Toadies (from Rubberneck, 1994)
Another popular mid-90’s single that came out just one year before Harvey’s and received in America at least, where Toadies are from, almost as much radio-play, Dallas-based alterna-rockers Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom” is for lots of pre-Millennials that song you didn’t fully comprehend in the knit-hat-muffled, faintly baked days of your youth, only to hear it later as a functioning adult and think to yourself: hold on, WTF?! Packaging warped literary themes like obsession, murder and fanaticism in a choppy pop-rock ballad, “Possum Kingdom” is also a narrative song, if somewhat of an oblique one. On the surface, it sounds like a rape-and-murder ballad for the moth-eaten cardigan set until you dig a little deeper and find that singer-songwriter Vaden Todd Lewis intended it as an expansion of the narrative terrain covered in “I Burn” (another track off Rubberneck), steeped in the folklore of North Texas’ Possum Kingdom Lake and unfolding a tale of hieratic cult murder. In “I Burn,” the cult members torch themselves alive in order to reach a higher plane, while in “Possum Kingdom,” according to Todd Lewis, one of the immolated journeys posthumously to Possum Kingdom Lake and “tries to find somebody to join him.” Uh, okay? Esoteric world-building aside, Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom” is a super-creepy song. Its energetic time-signatures, rising in pitch until the always karaoke-worthy crescendo, belie the predatory threat of the lyrics: “I’m not gonna lie/ I’ll not be a gentleman/ Behind the boathouse/ I’ll show you my dark secret.” And just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, Todd Lewis starts in on some sick shit like this: “I can promise you/ You’ll stay as beautiful/ With dark hair/ And soft skin…forever/ Forever.” The mid-90’s equivalent of a recovered memory of trauma, when “Possum Kingdom” asks us, “Do you wanna die?” all we can say in response is: we do!
6. “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush (from The Kick Inside, 1978)
Awesome creepy weirdo Kate Bush supposedly wrote “Wuthering Heights” in one night under a full moon when she was just 18, having devised the idea for it years previous when she caught the last 10 minutes of a BBC adaptation of Emily Bronte’s gothic novel of class warfare, mental decay and psychosexual obsession. (Bush shares a birthday with Emily.) Little could Bush have guessed at the time, her song would go on to become the first chart-topper by a female recording artist in the UK, and would inspire other awesome creepy weirdos such as David Bowie and St. Vincent, who frequently cites “Wuthering Heights” as her go-to karaoke jam, to get on with their bad selves in the years to come. Needless to say, there’s more than a little of Bronte’s novel in the song itself, which focuses its allusive energies on Catherine Earnshaw’s ghost and its recapitulant efforts to get at Heathcliff, her erstwhile lover, through his window casement. In fact, Bush’s song unfurls from Catherine’s spectral POV: “Ooh, it gets dark! It gets lonely,/ On the other side from you./ I pine a lot. I find the lot/ Falls through without you./ I’m coming back, love./ Cruel Heathcliff, my one dream,/ My only master.” Bush’s eerie vocal stylings, like some falsetto ghost priestess luring you to your doom, are a fitting conductor for Catherine’s tale. Ditto the cascading piano, Tangerine Dreamy guitar solo and intermittent strings that sherpa her voice as it climbs towards new heights, all the while invoking Catherine, the love that can never be Heathcliff’s and hers: “Heathcliff, it’s me — Cathy./ Come home. I’m so cold!/ Let me in-a-your window.”
7. “Veil of the Forgotten” by Witch Mountain (from Cauldron of the Wild, 2012)
As I always tell my creative writing students, good literature is all about tension. Usually, this manifests as a contrast between the work’s form and its content, its content and its tone, etc. — some struggle in the narrative that throws the reader off her guard, rendering her vulnerable to emotional effect. If this principal can be applied broadly to music, then Portland-based Witch Mountain is the ultimate literary doom metal band. Having existed now for almost 20 years and rotated through almost as many members (drummer Nathan Carson and guitarist Rob Wrong are the dudes that abide), Witch Mountain have had a roomy laboratory in which to grow and perfect their terrible, beautiful signature style — equal parts mammoth riffage, tremolo female vocals not unlike Kate Bush’s in “Wuthering Heights,” and occult ambience. “Veil of the Forgotten,” the 4th track off Witch Mountain’s 3rd album, Cauldron of the Wild, and a crushing set-list darling when the band preforms live, embodies precisely the tension I’m always gabbing on about to my students. Here, it’s between the song’s droning fugue interludes and huge, drop-D grooves; Uta Plotkin’s (and now Kayla Dixon’s) Judas Priest power-warbling and the weight of Wrong’s riffs anchored by Carson’s drums; and within Plotkin’s voice itself, like some evil blood-dwarf living deep in her throat, the growl of the closet thing here to a chorus: “We will win with patience, cold in the stone/ Cold jade and blood, amethyst and bone.” Not that I could tell you what “Veil of the Forgotten” is about, strictly speaking, only that it scares me shitless; eldritch, elemental and barely contained. On that score, it’s probably worth mentioning, too, that drummer Nathan Carson is also an accomplished author of weird fiction whose first book, the novella Starr Creek, was just released on Lazy Fascist Press.
8. “Thuja Magus Imperium” by Wolves in the Throne Room (from Celestial Lineage, 2011)
Calling all hessians: the opening track from Olympia-based black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room’s 4th album, Celestial Lineage — which Pitchfork critic Brandon Stosuy called “American black metal’s idiosyncratic defining record of 2011” — ushers listeners into a similar realm of poetic resonance. Another riff-fueled offering from the Pacific Northwest, Wolves in the Throne Room have been mixing the best of Norwegian black metal (Emperor, Taake), ambient (Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins), dark folk (Death in June, Coil) and goth (Swans, Christian Death) since 2003 to create a sublime and annihilating musical experience all their own. Calling down the pastoral imagery of WITTR’s homeland, “Thuja Magus Imperium” begins with an ethereal trance of female vocals set against the backdrop of a mournful keyboard track: “Redness in the east beyond the mountain/ The Wheel begins to turn anew/ Turning ever towards the sun/ Garlands adorn a chariot, aflame/ Blood runs from the flank of a wounded stag…” Then, at the 2:20-mark, something shifts, a spaced-out, orchestral guitar-riff ascending, and by 3:09, at the first hint of drums and Nathan Weaver’s witchy vocals, there’s no going back for the circumspect listener. A towering black wave has crested, comes crashing. Black metal in any form has always been prone to literary pretentiousness, which is kind of what makes it so awesome at times. Wolves in the Throne Room’s “Thuja Magus Imperium,” the sonic equivalent of reciting John Keats’ “Lamia” in a moonlit glade, is probably the closest the genre has ever come to realizing those pretensions in a way that holds water. Wolves in the Throne Room’s mainstay members, the Brothers Weaver (Nathan and Aaron, who reportedly live on some kind of organic farming commune) are nothing if not modern-day purveyors of the Romantic Sublime, making metal so loud and dark-hearted it’s gorgeous, projecting their listeners outside of themselves where they watch from afar as the people they were windmill their hair and throw the goat.
9. “The Call of Ktulu” by Metallica (from Ride the Lightning, 1984)
Once upon a time, when Metallica was still a kick-ass thrash band as opposed to the constipated dumpster fire they are today (that’s a fucked metaphor, but Metallica earned it), they put out an album called Ride the Lightning, which took its name from a passage in Stephen King’s novel The Stand and contained not only some of the L.A.-based quartet’s greatest cuts, but also referenced literary works by everyone from Ernest Hemingway (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”) to H.P. Lovecraft. The song in question — purposefully misspelled from “The Call of Cthulhu” in Lovecraft’s story of the same name — is the closer on Lightning, and the first all-instrumental track on which Hetfield, Hammett, Burton and Ulrich all played together. It’s also a fitting way for an album that contains hell-for-leather ear-splitters like “Ride the Lightning” and “Creeping Death” to fade into the stygian abyss of time immemorial, or something. Slight variations on the same sinister, incantatory riff carry the song from start to finish, only weakening to let in a wild Hammett solo and a couple doom-strokes from Hetfield at the end. It’s a minimalism that pays handsomely: “The Call of Ktulu” is a parking lot anthem of rocking the fuck out in acid-washed jeans, awaiting “The Thing That Should Not Be” (look ahead to 1986’s Master of Puppets). But what sets “The Call of Ktulu” apart from the rest of the album isn’t just the conspicuous absence of Hetfield’s voice — which was honestly pretty badass in its day — but the building awareness that you’re witnessing something powerful and occult in real time; something that, if played backward on the right record player, with the right amount of burning sage and underneath the right full moon might summon the Great God Cthulhu himself. Herein lies one of the theories as to why Metallica purposefully misspelled the name of Lovecraft’s reigning Old One, a bat-winged cephalopod the size of a skyscraper: according to the story, if you mention his name or write it down, he’ll appear. So either that, or copyright.
10. “Mac 10 Handle” by Prodigy (from Return of the Mac, 2007)
A pulp horror sensibility and Lovecraftian unreliable narrator of sorts also abound in Prodigy’s 2007 mix-tape single, “Mac 10 Handle” (off Return of the Mac, which preceded the release of H.N.I.C. Part II). Prodigy, formerly of Queens-based duo Mobb Deep, knows better than anyone that gangsta rap is literary storytelling writ large and unhinged, and “Mac 10 Handle” displays that storytelling at its finest, with a catchy self-effacing hook and a tongue-in-cheek gallows humor. The narrator of the song, not necessarily but also not necessarily not Prodigy himself, allows for the chorus to capture the mood before we even get the verse: “I sit alone in my dirty ass room starin’ at candles/ high on drugs — all alone wit my hand on the Mac 10 Handle/ Schemin’ on you niggaz.” The narrator of “Mac 10 Handle” is a boastful and bloodthirsty psychopath in the vein of the dude from “The Tell-Tale Heart” or Wilbur Whateley from Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror,” shored up in his hovel of an apartment, journeying further and further from any recognizable form of moral reality on waves of skunk-weed, liquor and Chinese gangster movies, plotting by night the murders of his so-called enemies. “They got eyes in the sky,” Prodigy raps, “we under surveillance…Gotta watch what I say, they tappin’ my cell phone/ They wanna sneak and peek inside my home/ I’m paranoid and it’s not the weed/ In my rearview mirror each car they follow me…” Rap, especially gangsta rap, is no stranger to unreliable narrators, and Prodigy’s in “Mac 10 Handle” is paranoid, suggestible, drug-addled, deadly. Yet what sets him apart from the narrators, say, of Prodigy’s former outfit Mobb Deep, or those of someone like C-Murder, lies in how Prodigy subverts the tiger-owning, palatial estate-wandering archetype of the rags-to-riches criminal in favor of something earthier, infinitely more wretched and self-aware. When Prodigy raps in the second verse before the Outro: “I be alone in my hot ass room/ Smokin’ dope, loadin’ bullets in my clip for you…” you’ll get the chills, sure, but leave room for a cackle.
11. “Nowhere to Run To, Nowhere to Hide” by Gravediggaz (from 6 Feet Deep, 1994)
Rapper Mars offered up a pretty concise description of the subgenre of hip-hop known as “horror-core” or “death rap” when he said: “If you take Stephen King or Wes Craven and you throw them on a rap beat, that’s who I am.” Nothing more accurately embodies the New York City-quartet Gravediggaz, who supposedly premiered “horror-core” in its purest form with the release of their 1994 album, 6 Feet Deep (released overseas as Niggamortis). Consisting of The Undertaker (Prince Paul), The Gatekeeper (Frukwan), The Grym Repaer (Poetic) and The RZArector (RZA), Gravediggaz compounded as a unit what were already complex and literary rap styles individually, displaying a ghoul’s gallery of “alter egos” that battle for prominence, like ravenous creatures snapping at the listener out of the abyss, over the course of their densely orchestrated and lyrical songs. “Nowhere to Run to, Nowhere to Hide,” the second single off 6 Feet Deep, shudders into being with a sample from the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (that shrill ululation that follows the car), whipping it expertly into a spare, dirty mid-90’s concoction of drum and bass. If upon first listen the track sounds a lot like something off Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers, that’s no accident, as the RZA played a seminal role in both. And honestly, it’s the RZA who steals the show on “Nowhere to Run to…,” raving onto the track with a Paradise Lost-reference, followed by a flood of gothic imagery: “Lets’ get it on…and watch the spot get blown/ I be the sick lunatic with the devilish poem/ From the mists of the darkness I come with this/ Hittin’ straight, to the chest, like a Primatene mist/ RZArector, yah, the fantatical type/ I’m like a bat, in the night, when it’s time to take flight…” Poetic and Frukwan, too — especially Frukwan — put in their own dynamic work over the remainder of the song that amuses and terrifies in equal measure. Coming one after the next as they do, stepping on each other’s verses, “Nowhere to Run to…” has Gravediggaz sounding like a chorus of tormented souls speaking from out of the same purgatory, underscoring their signal and twisted motifs: madness, decay, resurrection, repeat.
12. “Pet Sematary” by Ramones (from Brain Drain, 1989)
There’s a legend ‘round here that goes something like this: some time in the late 80s’s just before the release of Mary Lambert’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary, The Ramones came to call at King’s house in Bangor, Maine. King, who is a gigantic Ramones-head, gave bassist Dee Dee Ramone a copy of his novel and Dee Dee reportedly vanished into King’s basement with it, emerging just an hour later with the lyrics to this song. According to critics, though, Dee Dee should’ve taken his time down there, as the track was roundly savaged upon its release in 1989, bopping over the credits to Lambert’s film. If you ask me, though, “Pet Sematary” is more than meets the ear at first. Much as in Gravediggaz’s “Nowhere to Run to…,” there’s something to be said for a song’s determination to revel in its subject matter, and Dee Dee’s King-anthem achieves this in spades, mashing up bubblegum Americana with supernatural ghoulishness. And once again, it’s got that tension, here between the sepulchral chiaroscuro of the lyrics set down against the verse-chorus-verse upbeat of the song: “Follow Victor to the sacred place,/ This ain’t a dream, I can’t escape,/ Molars and fangs, the clicking of bones,/ Spirits moaning among the tombstones,/ And the night, when the moon is bright,/ Something cries, something ain’t right.” But what really distinguishes “Pet Sematary” is that oddly plaintive and prescient chorus, its nasal delivery by Joey Ramone: “I don’t want to be buried in a Pet Sematary,/ I don’t want to live my life again…” When “the cold wind blows” and “the smell of death is all around,” it’s something we can all relate to, especially the weathered rock icons among us, and the prospect of riding the wheel one more time is more than anyone could bear.
13. “Lil’ Red Riding Hood” by Sam, The Sham and The Pharaohs (from Lil’ Red Riding Hood, 1966)
Believe it or not, Sam the Sham and the Pharaoh’s “Lil Red Riding Hood” is more than just a plot device in 1993’s Striking Distance or a sexy-getting-ready-song for when you’re putting on that mini-skirt caplet you bought for Halloween. Because intentional or not, it’s actually probably the creepiest song on this list. Sort of like Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom,” it strikes you that you probably listened to it for years in complete obliviousness to what it contained. Based on Charles Perrault’s fairy tale of the same name, and hinting at rape, victim-blaming and autoerotic shape-shifting from the POV of the “big bad wolf,” “Lil’ Red Riding Hood” has a whiff of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber about it, in spite of the fact that the latter was published in 1979, thirteen years after the song was recorded and achieved Gold status from the RIAA. (Maybe also without the Second Wave Feminism.) Goateed and turbaned Sam the Sham, aka Domingo “Sam” Samudio, and his quartet of decidedly non-Egyptian “Pharaohs” (also responsible for the song “Wooly Bully”) took an ambiguous approach to Perrault’s material, which only serves to heighten the careful listener’s discomfort when Sam sings lines like: “Little Red Riding Hood/ I don’t think little big girls should/ Go walking in these spooky old woods alone…” Or perhaps even more disturbing: “I’m gonna keep my sheep suit on/ Until I’m sure that you’ve been shown/ That I can be trusted walking with you alone/Owoooooo!” Allllll riiiiight, Sam, you keep your distance! By the end of the song, Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” begins to seem like a more fitting companion piece. Much as in The Ramones’ “Pet Sematary,” there is tension here, too, between form and content, especially when the tune morphs from sinister to soulful and the big bad wolf begins to sound almost nostalgic for the days when a woman’s coyness was commensurate with her virtue. “Even bad wolves can be good,” he insists, but we fear for the Red Riding Hood who believes him.