Best description of that-indescribable-horror
November 6, 2014 10:54 AM   Subscribe

What's the best description of that-which-can-not-be-described in horror literature you've encountered?

The classic example is Lovecraft, of course, and eldritch shapes, angles that don't add up correctly, and so on. I love it! What else? Or what's your favourite Lovecraft quote?

Question stems from reading Josh Malerman's Bird Box, which uses the idea of describing horrors as being infinity. I enjoyed the book, but wasn't sold on the indescribable horror (and at the same time, couldn't really do better myself, hah!).
posted by swrittenb to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
The man who had brought me now squirmed to a point directly beside the hideous flame, and made stiff ceremonial motions to the semicircle he faced. At certain stages of the ritual they did grovelling obeisance, especially when he held above his head that abhorrent Necronomicon he had taken with him; and I shared all the obeisances because I had been summoned to this festival by the writings of my forefathers. Then the old man made a signal to the half-seen flute-player in the darkness, which player thereupon changed its feeble drone to a scarce louder drone in another key; precipitating as it did so a horror unthinkable and unexpected. At this horror I sank nearly to the lichened earth, transfixed with a dread not of this nor any world, but only of the mad spaces between the stars.
posted by Nevin at 10:59 AM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Henry James short story, The Beast in the Jungle is all about someone trying to avoid an unspeakble horror (and failing, of course).

The wikipedia link above has a quote from the climax of the story that might qualify as what you're looking for.
posted by alms at 11:11 AM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

The new Jeff Vandermeer trilogy, especially the first one, Annihilation.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 11:15 AM on November 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh man and House of Leaves, of course!
posted by goodbyewaffles at 11:15 AM on November 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure if they really qualify as horror, per se, but Kafka and Borges both have an unsettling je ne sais quoi. The Penal Colony and The Lottery in Babylon are the first that come to mind.
posted by stinkfoot at 11:17 AM on November 6, 2014

"Slime" by Joseph Payne Brennan was a novelette with a "Blob"-like creature that pretty much defies description, although he evokes its physical nature effectively and rather poetically. Some people are driven insane at the sight of it, Lovecraft-style.
posted by Flexagon at 12:18 PM on November 6, 2014

Stephen King's The Jaunt hits on this, a bit:
The thing that had been his son bounced and writhed on its Jaunt couch, a twelve-yearold boy with a snow-white fall of hair and eyes which were incredibly ancient, the corneas gone a sickly yellow. Here was a creature older than time masquerading as a boy; and yet it bounced and writhed with a kind of horrid, obscene glee, and at its choked, lunatic cackles the Jaunt attendants drew back in terror. Some of them fled, although they had been trained to cope with just such an unthinkable eventuality. The old-young legs twitched and quivered. Claw hands beat and twisted and danced on the air; abruptly they descended and the thing that had been his son began to claw at its face. "Longer than you think, Dad!" it cackled. "Longer than you think! Held my breath when they gave me the gas! Wanted to see! I saw! I saw! Longer than you think!" Cackling and screeching, the thing on the Jaunt couch suddenly clawed its own eyes out. Blood gouted. The recovery room was an aviary of screaming voices now. "Longer than you think, Dad! I saw! I saw! Long Jaunt! Longer than you think-" It said other things before the Jaunt attendants were finally able to bear it away, rolling its couch swiftly away as it screamed and clawed at the eyes that had seen the unseeable forever and ever; it said other things, and then it began to scream, but Mark Oates didn't hear it because by then he was screaming himself.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 12:22 PM on November 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

There are a lot of parts of this in Peter Watts' novel Blindsight where they encounter an alien intelligence that they 1) don't understand 2) torture. It's not even horror literature but sci fi but the description (from a character who is basically lacking emotion) of how he figured out how to torture something that has a totally different emotional/physical makeup was completely chilling. I'll see if I can find it.
posted by jessamyn at 12:28 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan" is right up there. I don't usually go for Victorian-era "oh, 'twas UNSPEAKABLY frightening!"-style horror, but he absolutely knocks it out of the park vis a vis creepiness:

"I watched, and at last I saw nothing but a substance as jelly. Then the ladder was ascended again... [here the MS. is illegible]... for one instance I saw a Form, shaped in dimness before me, which I will not farther describe. But the symbol of this form may be seen in ancient sculptures, and in paintings which survived beneath the lava, too foul to be spoken of... as a horrible and unspeakable shape, neither man nor beast, was changed into human form, there came finally death."
posted by julthumbscrew at 1:08 PM on November 6, 2014

My favorite line is from Count Magnus by M. R. James:
People still remember last year at Belchamp St Paul how a strange gentleman came one evening in August years back; and how the next morning but one he was found dead, and there was an inquest; and the jury that viewed the body fainted, seven of 'em did, and none of 'em wouldn't speak to what they see, and the verdict was visitation of God;
posted by komara at 1:16 PM on November 6, 2014

Not exactly horror fiction, but Stanislaw Lem sometimes had some interesting vague circling around pretty-hard-to-describe things in various stories, like His Master's Voice for example.
posted by ovvl at 2:22 PM on November 6, 2014

The classic SF/horror short story "It's a Good Life," about a toddler with unlimited control over reality, is great at this. It tends to sidestep the most horrific visuals in a vague, euphemistic, 1950s way that your imagination can run wild with.
"McIntyre had been one of the ones who, at first, had wanted to try to get Anthony to make things the villagers needed, like clothes and canned goods and medical supplies and gasoline. Since then, he felt that what had happened to the whole Terrance family and Joe Kinney was his fault, and he worked hard trying to make it up to the rest of them. And since then, no one had tried to get Anthony to do anything."

"Although he had always obeyed [Aunt Amy] more than anyone else, which was hardly at all, this time he'd snapped at her. With his mind. And that had been the end of Amy Fremont's bright eyes, and the end of Amy Fremont as everyone had known her."

"Aunt Amy had always liked television a lot, so one time he had thought some for her, and a few other people had been there at the time, and Aunt Amy had felt disappointed when they wanted to leave. He'd done something to them for that--and now everybody came to television."

"Anthony liked television night. He had done only two or three awful things on television night in the whole past year."

"They just sat silently, and watched the twisting, writhing shapes on the screen, and listened to the sounds that came out of the speaker, and none of them had any idea of what it was all about. They never did. It was always the same."

"[T]he one time somebody had started to sing, Anthony had looked over from the top of the piano and done something that made everybody afraid of singing from then on."

"It did no good to wonder where they were ... no good at all. Peaksville was just someplace. Someplace away from the world. It was wherever it had been since that day three years ago when Anthony had crept from her womb and old Doc Bates--God rest him--had screamed and dropped him and tried to kill him, and Anthony had whined and done the thing. He had taken the village someplace. Or had destroyed the world and left only the village, nobody knew which."
Or my favorite:
"[Anthony] thought [him] into something like nothing anyone would have believed possible, and then he thought the thing into a grave deep, deep in the cornfield."
posted by Rhaomi at 2:27 PM on November 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Conrad Williams is great for this sort of thing. Check out One (my favourite) or The Unblemished.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:15 PM on November 6, 2014

The question I have waited all my life for!

Here is one of my favorite Lovecraft quotes (so hard to choose), from the short story "Nyarlathotep":

Screamingly sentient, dumbly delirious, only the gods that were can tell. A sickened, sensitive shadow writhing in hands that are not hands, and whirled blindly past ghastly midnights of rotting creation, corpses of dead worlds with sores that were cities, charnel winds that brush the pallid stars and make them flicker low. Beyond the worlds vague ghosts of monstrous things; half seen columns of unsanctified temples that rest on nameless rocks beneath space and reach up to dizzying vacua above the spheres of light and darkness. And through this revolting graveyard of the universe the muffled, maddening beating of drums, and thin monotonous whine of blasphemous flutes from inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond Time; the detestable pounding and piping whereunto dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic, tenebrous ultimate gods - the blind, voiceless, mindless gargoyles whose soul is Nyarlathotep

It would make a beautiful wedding reading :D

And of course, this gem from Lovecraft's "Out of the Aeons":

... I might be better off if I had told what I had half seen... Oozing and surging up out of that yawning trap door of the Cyclopean crypt I had glimpsed such an unbelievable behemothic monstrosity that I could not doubt the power of its original to kill with its mere sight. Even now I cannot begin to suggest it with any words at my command. I might call it gigantic - tentacled - proboscidian - octopus-eyed - semi-amorphous - plastic - partly squamous and partly rugose - ugh! But nothing I could say could even adumbrate the loathsome, unholy, non-human, extra-galactic horror and hatefulness and unutterable evil of that forbidden spawn of black chaos and illimitable light

My imaginary groom would include this in his wedding vows to me :D
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 3:28 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

The first thing that I thought of (other than Lovecraft) was Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Now that I have re-read it, I realise that it goes into rather a lot of description about the horrific things that are happening. Also, it is really really nasty. Much worse than I remembered it being, and in different ways than I remembered it being. Not a story to restore your faith in humanity.

Still, there is one bit which is describing nameless horror.
Something moving toward us in the darkness. Huge, shambling, hairy, moist, it came toward us. We couldn't even see it, but there was the ponderous impression of bulk, heaving itself toward us. Great weight was coming at us, out of the darkness, and it was more a sense of pressure, of air forcing itself into a limited space, expanding the invisible walls of a sphere. Benny began to whimper. Nimdok's lower lip trembled and he bit it hard, trying to stop it. Ellen slid across the metal floor to Gorrister and huddled into him. There was the smell of matted, wet fur in the cavern. There was the smell of charred wood. There was the smell of dusty velvet. There was the smell of rotting orchids. There was the smell of sour milk. There was the smell of sulphur, of rancid butter, of oil slick, of grease, of chalk dust, of human scalps. [...]

I heard myself shriek, and the hinges of my jaws ached. I scuttled across the floor, across the cold metal with its endless lines of rivets, on my hands and knees, the smell gagging me, filling my head with a thunderous pain that sent me away in horror. I fled like a cockroach, across the floor and out into the darkness, that something moving inexorably after me. The others were still back there, gathered around the firelight, laughing ... their hysterical choir of insane giggles rising up into the darkness like thick, many-colored wood smoke. I went away, quickly, and hid.
posted by Athanassiel at 4:31 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

"I won't describe my hallucinations. I am not sure I can. They have an extra-dimensional quality that defies language, as though the edges of the world were just so much putrid, rotting flesh, and there is something outside it chewing its way in."

- from this epic metafilter comment.
posted by moonmilk at 4:51 PM on November 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think I understand your question better now- Pynchon's descriptions of the land of Vheissu in V. have this sort of indescribable beauty/horror quality. It would take me all night to dig them up (sorry) but what stands out to me was the unreliability of physical bounds (size, shape, color, etc.), and the permanent detrimental effect experience of Vheissu had on those who experienced it.
posted by stinkfoot at 5:34 PM on November 6, 2014

From H.P. Lovecraft's "The Colour Out Of Space":

"West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the gentle slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges; but these are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs. The old folk have gone away, and foreigners do not like to live there. French-Canadians have tried it, Italians have tried it, and the Poles have come and departed. It is not because of anything that can be seen or heard or handled, but because of something that is imagined. The place is not good for imagination, and does not bring restful dreams at night."
posted by KingEdRa at 6:52 PM on November 6, 2014

Also, you might like Robert Chambers's The King in Yellow. There's not a particular passage exactly, but there's a growing, creeping sense of unease and horror which is pretty good. Apparently he inspired Lovecraft.
During my convalescence I had bought and read for the first time, The King in Yellow. I remember after finishing the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. I started up and flung the book into the fireplace; the volume struck the barred grate and fell open on the hearth in the firelight. If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up, my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing out of the coals and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet. This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men's thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear for ever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth—a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow. When the French Government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by Press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:37 PM on November 6, 2014

This is at one remove, but in the Jack Vance pseudo-Arthurian fantasy Lyonesse, at one point a character has to petition a fairy king for something. It is pointed out several times that the fairies are capricious and cruel, and the petitioner before setting out receives the parenthetical instruction: "Go to Thripsey Shee just as the first rays of sunlight sweep down across the meadow. Do not go by moonlight or you will suffer a death of weird invention."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:17 AM on November 7, 2014

Caitlin R. Kiernan is also remarkably good at this in various short stories and some of her novels. Especially The Red Tree. Her fiction often leaves you to fill in the gaps with the unspeakable, but with just tantalizing hints of what her protagonists see.
posted by Kitteh at 7:08 AM on November 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

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