I must stress, these notes were typing up in real-time, while the panel was happening, so if I've misquoted someone,I'm terribly sorry. I'll come back at the end of next week and fix up all the typos and whatnot, but, in the meantime, please enjoy these carefully-recorded hour-shortened summaries. I've tried to maintain some of the personality of each of the panellists so, again, please forgive any idiosyncrasies, and if I've recorded any references to books, films, short stories, people or games incorrectly, that is entirely my fault, not the fault of the panellist I'm quoting.
So, first : Unthinkable! Indescribable!
Here's the description from the convention program:
"The writers of fantastical horror faces some very particular challenges. Our panellists discuss defying the prefixes. Shane Jiraya Cummings, China Mieville, Carrie Vaughn"
Another panellist, Terry Dowling, was also present.
Please note that I was unfortunately running 5 minutes late, then had to wait for my laptop to boot up, so this is essentially the conversation from 10 minutes into the panel.
CM: The thing that gets me about Lovecraft is the disingenuity of it. He spends half of his time saying that it’s ‘indescribable’, then the rest of the time saying “it was about yea high, shaped like a gorilla, etc…” It’s like the monster shot in a movie. We want to see it, knowing that it will ruin the movie, because the monster’s going to be rubbish. You’ve got to know what to leave out.
Terry: Words are the enemy of the writer. I have a final scene that is completely horrifying, but it needs to leave the reader with an impression and nothing more. I call this the ‘evocative evasion’. You need to hint at it, but not labour the point. When the reader goes back to read it, they should look through and say “It didn’t have that, it didn’t have that” but the overall feeling should be there.
Carrie: Structural linguistics: Language preceeds thought. If you don’t have the words, you can’t understand the concept. Can something that you don’t have a word to describe fit into your brain? Can it even work? It may have been something Lovecraft was reaching for, trying to create the words you don’t have yet, in order to conceptualise the things you don’t understand. People have to come up with some kind of language to even start talking about what they’re trying to talk about.
Shane: I came to horror through D&D, where everything is so described that the only thing that goes bump in the night is the rolling of the D20. Lovecraft got around this by having a lot of fainting, a lot of hands to brows, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do in modern horror, is not describe the creatures or the events, but the emotional events that follow those, whether it’s their immediate insanity or fleeing in terror. The best writers, I think, are the ones who can best match the reactions of their characters to the reactions of their readers.
CM: There seem to me to be two fundamentally different issues, different problems – one of the clichés you hear a lot is that the most frightening thing is when you don’t describe the gore. There is this notion that genuine literary subtlety hints at what’s happening, without actually saying it, as in we know that someone’s been disemboweled, but it’s kind of off screen, and the reader goes, “Oh, right, I know what happened, that’s disgusting.” The difference with the indescribable is that we’re trying to do something that language actually can’t do, Ambrose Bearce does this quite well, he says “This is a colour that cannot be described, there are no words for it”, and that’s what we’re trying to do. That kind of polite hinting, I have little time for. You cannot successfully achieve the description of the indescribable, but you also cannot fail, because all you have is a string of words, so there’s an interest in failing at it, and hopefully, with practice, you can fail better.
T: We’re destroying words constantly. Awesome no longer means awesome, we refer to the toilet as a toilet and not a bathroom. I think people forget to be patient with it. 7 well-chosen words are better than 34 badly-chosen ones.
Carrie: (Q: People say these monsters aren’t described because you don’t know what it looks like.) Well, yes, that’s true, these monsters haven’t been fully conceptualized, because if we had, we’d all be up here gibbering in terror, so it’s necessary that we’ve only partially glimpsed these horrors.
S: (Q: In Regency fiction, the words have different meanings, so is it a case of English simply having not evolved enough to have the words to describe what you’re talking about?) I think there are things that the human mind cannot grasp, and will not ever be able to grasp, but in some cases, and I may be being a bit harsh here, it may sometimes be a case of the writer not having a big enough vocabulary, in which case throw the book down and get another one.
CM: The way Lovecraft fails to describe is by a kind of terrified anguish of vomit of adjectives that endlessly defers the noun, because that’s a kind of philosophy of terrified adjectivism that circles the point and creates that sense of suspense. The opposite of this is the famous vivisection scene in (story?) where a Great Old One is described in vivid detail, in down-to-the-centimetre measurements, and you get all the information you need, but somehow there’s a surplus of information, yet you feel you’ve somehow missed the point of this creature.
Carrie: The technique of the unreliable narrator can give a perfectly good description, but then you can’t trust that description. It’s a great thing to play with, but that’s a whole ‘nother panel by itself.
CM: It’s useful excepts when you take it to the extreme. One of Lovecraft’s points is that all narrators are unreliable, which takes the ideals of the universe and turns them on their head, and suddenly everything is unreliable, and that’s part of the horror.
T: I wonder how many stories where Lovecraft wrote where he created an unreliable narrator, I think it’s something that you do instinctually, then people come back later and say “Oh, you’ve got an unreliable narrator” and you go “Oh, that’s good.” (e.g. my story, Clowns at Midnight). I wonder how much Lovecraft planned those things, if you did, because I think unless you’ve got a massive fantasy trilogy, you can’t plan these things (Jack Vance: If you have adjectives, you’ve got the wrong noun. If you’ve got adverbs, you’ve got the wrong verb)
Carrie: Part of the job of the writer is to put things on the page that doesn’t exist.
T: A writer called Fritz Lieber wrote a story called “A piece of the dark lord” and he put some Lovecraftian elements into it, in that he didn’t use sight as the main sense, he describes the scent of burnt linen, a copper taste in the mouth, and the feel of cobwebs against the face. I would like to remind the audience that we know more than we understand, and we understand more than we know. You are my co-collaborators, and as a writer you begin to come to know what your audience will bring to the table and add to your description. Writers have traditions of bringing wonders, of needing to describe, but I think these days we can be more subtle, and use the other senses.
Carrie: There’s a lot of studies being done now on the propensity of the human mind to create patterns where none exist, or to stitch in elements to memories when the whole picture doesn’t exist. As a writer that’s a wonderful thing, and as Terry said, we can trigger that, based on the fact that the reader will fill in the gaps, and we can say things in the text and it will depend on the reader’s collaboration with what we write. Your mind will develop those images on its own, and we’re just the triggers.
Carrie: My favourite example of a disappointing monster is the monster at the end of Cloverfield. I loved the first three quarters, because you didn’t know if it was a robot or a squid monster, and then you saw the monster and it all just fell apart.
S: The other day I heard the Blair Witch described as Lovecraftian, because you never see the witch, you only ever see their reactions to what’s happening, and the witch, and I think that’s one of the only visual media to get away with that.
T: (Q: Lovecraft’s ritualistic rhythm of writing to build to a frenzy at the end) That used to be a tradition, because those stories were read aloud, but now we need different rhythms, because we try to bring the reader closer, and they were very unworkable, even at the time, so we need something more immediate.
Carrie: I disagree, because something like the Island of Dr. Moreau, or H. G. Wells, when there was that ritual at the end, I was right there, I was in the ritual, and I could feel it. But readers are idiosyncratic, they bring their own opinions to it, and some people love Lovecraft, and some people hate him, because they just can’t relate to what’s happening.
CM: First of all, I know that these days adjectival prose tends not to be the done thing, and there’s a lot of brilliant, sparsely described stories, but there are things you can achieve with adjectives that can’t be done any other way, such as in Lovecraft in the Call of Cthulhu, when Cthulhu appears, if you used a minimalist style you might create something very interesting, but it wouldn’t be horrifying. In some ways what Lovecraft is, is a false Antiquarian, in that he thinks he’s writing like those stories of the 1800s, but his prose is modernist, and it creates exactly the same fracturing as you get in something like James Joyce, where you break the narrative with this false Antiquarianism and strings of adjective, and creates something you can’t do with more restrained prose. He’s really a pulp modernist.
CM: Everything is indescribable, I’ve reached the boundaries of language.
Carrie: I think if we had a final statement we would have failed.
S: Well, thank you all for coming to the panel that could not be named.