Let’s start with an often used (because it’s so great) example from the best known practitioner of “too weird to describe,” H.P. Lovecraft. Here’s his first person description of the shoggoths from his classic At the Mountains of Madness:
“South Station Under—Washington Under—Park Street Under—Kendall—Central—Harvard…” The poor fellow was chanting the familiar stations of the Boston-Cambridge tunnel that burrowed through our peaceful native soil thousands of miles away in New England, yet to me the ritual had neither irrelevance nor home-feeling. It had only horror, because I knew unerringly the monstrous, nefandous* analogy that had suggested it. We had expected, upon looking back, to see a terrible and incredibly moving entity if the mists were thin enough; but of that entity we had formed a clear idea. What we did see—for the mists were indeed all too malignly thinned—was something altogether different, and immeasurably more hideous and detestable. It was the utter, objective embodiment of the fantastic novelist’s ‘thing that should not be’; and its nearest comprehensible analogue is a vast, onrushing subway train as one sees it from a station platform—the great black front looming colossally out of infinite subterraneous distance, constellated with strangely coloured lights and filling the prodigious burrow as a piston fills a cylinder.
But we were not on a station platform. We were on the track ahead as the nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence oozed tightly onward through its fifteen-foot sinus; gathering unholy speed and driving before it a spiral, re-thickening cloud of the pallid abyss-vapour. It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter. Still came that eldritch, mocking cry—“Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” And at last we remembered that the daemoniac shoggoths—given life, thought, and plastic organ patterns solely by the Old Ones, and having no language save that which the dot-groups expressed—had likewise no voice save the imitated accents of their bygone masters.
Interestingly, here Lovecraft tells us the thing is indescribable in the process of describing it. But what he’s doing so very right is keeping the whole thing deeply rooted in the firsthand experience of his protagonist, who makes various desperate efforts to try to describe something unlike anything he’s ever even heard of, let alone seen. So he thinks about it in terms of a subway train rather than as some other sort of recognizable animal, and focusses on small details that can be described using common language like “pustules” and “eyes.”
The idea of a character confronted by the indescribable is, according to Eugene Thacker in Tentacles Longer Than Night, the moment where:
Language can only continue by way of an apophatic use of negative terms (“nameless,” “formless,” “lifeless”), which themselves are doomed to failure.
Here one notices two strategies that are regularly used, often in concert with each other. There is a strategy of minimalism, in which language is stripped of all its attributes, leaving only skeletal phrases such as “the nameless thing,” “the shapeless thing,” or “the unnamable,” which is also the title of a Lovecraft story. There is also a strategy of hyperbole, in which the unknowability of the unhuman is expressed through a litany of baroque descriptors, all of which ultimately fail to inscribe the unhuman within human thought and language.
John Linwood Grant calls this “The Lurking Adjectives of Doom”:
There are two sound reasons for this. The first is that the author genuinely wants to convey something which has an impact beyond normal sensory perception, or is beyond rational description. The very best authors use subtlety, nuance and the effect on the characters to give you what you need.
I can’t agree enough with the idea of showing “the effect on the characters” in terms of every part of a work of fiction. Describing a room can be done effectively by a journalist or technical writer, but placing characters in that room requires the “soft sciences” of emotions and memories triggered by the space, the lighting, the smell or smells, the temperature of the air—some combination of elements that make your characters come alive in that space—what we mean when we use the word “atmosphere.”
And sometimes it is best not to describe. Graphic portrayal can be a risk. It reminds me of the two versions of the film Cat People. In the original 1942 version (unless my memory is shot), the menace came from shadows and suggestion. It was unsettling. The 1982 version showed what was happening quite openly and lost out in the process.
Also quite true! Often our readers’ imaginations are our greatest tools as authors of fiction. Keep them in mind as best you can while you’re writing. Granted, it can be so difficult as to seem impossible to find the line between “just enough” and “too much” description—but here’s where I have to fall back, yet again, on: Nobody said this was going to be easy! But reading is, in itself, a creative act. If you’ve gone right up to it—whatever it is (the description of a monster, a place, a person, etc.)—they can and will take it the rest of the way.
This also helps you avoid over-describing, especially being too specific: the creature weighed 1341.3 pounds (608.403 kg) and was 12 feet, 4 inches (3.758184 m) long with a Pantone 4022 C hide as rough as FEPA P80 sandpaper covered in irregular Pantone 3595 C spots.
I’m exaggerating, but you know what I mean. You do not have to describe a monster to your readers as if you’re talking to a police sketch artist—even if you are talking to an artist who might be creating a cover image for you. Let the artist in on the creation process. You’re likely to find that the collaboration makes for a better, more visually appealing (or shocking, repulsive…) monster in the end.
And then there are authors who decide that the best way to go is no visual description of anything at all, as in this example from “The Red Room” by H.G. Wells:
I turned to where the flames were still dancing between the glowing coals and splashing red reflections upon the furniture; made two steps toward the grate, and incontinently the flames dwindled and vanished, the glow vanished, the reflections rushed together and disappeared, and as I thrust the candle between the bars darkness closed upon me like the shutting of an eye, wrapped about me in a stifling embrace, sealed my vision, and crushed the last vestiges of self-possession from my brain. And it was not only palpable darkness, but intolerable terror. The candle fell from my hands. I flung out my arms in a vain effort to thrust that ponderous blackness away from me, and lifting up my voice, screamed with all my might, once, twice, thrice. Then I think I must have staggered to my feet. I know I thought suddenly of the moonlit corridor, and with my head bowed and my arms over my face, made a stumbling run for the door.
In this case fear is brought on by an absence of visual input. As Franklin Roosevelt would say, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.”
* My dictionary app had no entry for nefandous. Nor does it appear in my unabridged Oxford American Dictionary, so…? I wonder if this is just an oft-repeated scanning error and should read: nefarious.
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Lots more about making things go bump in the night can be found in…
In Writing Monsters, best-selling author Philip Athans uses classic examples from books, films, and the world around us to explore what makes monsters memorable—and terrifying.