Indescribable Horror!


 The raptor is currently reading Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulu, and has come up with an interesting question. Many of the horrific monsters therein are described in terms such as (and I’m paraphrasing the raptor paraphrasing Lovecraft) ‘half sloth, half cow, half badger, and worse than all of them’. Dodgy mathematics aside, this has led to the cry of “Why not describe the details?”

There’s a couple of points contained in that. The first, and simplest, is that we have to remember that something had to come first. The ground-breaking works of decades ago might seem hackneyed to modern eyes, but they were the giants that everything built on to such an extent that it became clichéd. They deserve to be read in that light, rather than judged solely on modern styles and expectations.

The second is a question of horror and suspense. When is it better to go into terrifying detail, and when is it better to leave things unspoken? The latter means the reader’s imagination can fill in the gaps with images from their own psyche, ones which are more personal and therefore more effective for them. The former leaves them in no doubt just how awful the monster is. There’s a time for both – it depends on what particular sub-brand of horror you’re trying to create at any given moment. I have to admit that ‘half sloth, half badger, but worse’ doesn’t really do either, for me at least, but I guess that’s where point one comes in.

The third is the use of the word ‘indescribably’. We’re writers. Words are our raison d’être, if you want to get slightly pretentious about it. That being said, is it ever acceptable to use ‘indescribably’ as a descriptor? It feels kinda lazy. If something genuinely isn’t describable then it isn’t imaginable either, and an excuse for your reader to tag out. Either make the monster (or whatever) something the reader can understand – which takes description – or use words to create an atmosphere rather than details. Don’t fall back on ‘indescribable’ – it weakens your authority as a storyteller. The exception is if it is being used in conversation by a character, but even then tread carefully.

As a parting disclaimer, this is in NO WAY a criticism of Lovecraft’s work. I can’t do that for two reasons: 1) I haven’t read enough of it, and 2) at least one person I hold in high regard would string me from the rafters and use my dangling carcass as a pinata. Which would be sad.


5 responses »

  1. You know, I’m not so sure… Yes, using any one descriptive word too often is not good, however I think the description ‘indescribable’ is valid. In Lovecraft especially the narrative is from the perspective of the person seeing said horror, and actually I think in that context it captures something of how horrified the person was. The fact that they are trying to tell the read how horrible this thing was but words just fail them possibly speaks more of its horror than a detailed description could? I think it does create atmosphere when used in the right context.

  2. I think what I’m trying to say is that describing something as ‘indescribable’ does not make it unimaginable. You might not be able to imagine exactly the creature itself, but you can imagine the horror the person seeing it felt, which is possibly more important?

    • But really that’s about creating atmosphere, which I think can be done a lot more effectively. If the character then says to his mate that what he saw was indescribable then fine, but in the text that covers the event (rather than dialogue), I just don’t think that word cuts it.

      • If the text is covering the event in the form of the narrator describing what he sawt to the reader, then is not pretty much the same as him describing it to his mate?

      • No, I don’t think so. The narrator has very different responsibilities to the character, and the reader has different expectations to the character’s mate. Apart from anything else, the mate can go look for himself if he’s so inclined. The reader has to rely on words to create images/feelings.

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