Column: Writing the Mythos: The Unnameable or The Monster as Euphemism

By G.W. Thomas

H. P. Lovecraft pokes fun at a Monster Writer’s Dilemma in his short horror tale, “The Unnameable”. He begins it this way:

We were sitting on a dilapidated seventeenth-century tomb in the late afternoon of an autumn day at the old burying ground in Arkham, and speculating about the unnamable…when my friend chided me for such nonsense and told me that since no interments had occurred there for over a century, nothing could possibly exist to nourish the tree in other than an ordinary manner. Besides, he added, my constant talk about “unnamable” and “unmentionable” things was a very puerile device, quite in keeping with my lowly standing as an author. I was too fond of ending my stories with sights or sounds which paralyzed my heroes’ faculties and left them without courage, words, or associations to tell what they had experienced. We know things, he said, only through our five senses or our intuitions; wherefore it is quite impossible to refer to any object or spectacle which cannot be clearly depicted by the solid definitions of fact or the correct doctrines of….

As he points out, writers define experiences, monsters, most things in terms of the previous experience of our four senses. If so, how do you create a monster that is entirely and completely beyond your previous experience? As Spock and McCoy discuss death in Star Trek IV, Spock says, It would be impossible to discuss the subject without a common frame-of-reference.”

Monster writers before HPL, in particular those in the Pulps, used a piecemeal approach to creating an unearthly monstrosity. Here is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ description of the first creature Carson Napier meets in Pirates of Venus (1932):

In the dim half-light of the Venusan night I saw confronting me a creature that might be conjured only in the half-delirium of some horrid nightmare. It was about as large as a fullgrown puma, and stood upon four handlike feet that suggested that it might be almost wholly arboreal. The front legs were much longer than the hind, suggesting, in this respect, the hyena; but here the similarity ceased, for the creature’s furry pelt was striped longitudinally with alternate bands of red and yellow, and its hideous head bore no resemblance to any earthly animal. No external ears were visible, and in the low forehead was a single large, round eye at the end of a thick antenna about four inches long. The jaws were powerful and armed with long, sharp fangs, while from either side of the neck projected a powerful chela. Never have I seen a creature so fearsomely armed for offense as was this nameless beast of another world. With those powerful crablike pincers it could easily have held an opponent far stronger than a man and dragged it to those terrible jaws.

Burroughs wants to create an alien that is startling and unnerving (as well as a guaranteed cover painting), but a little common sense will tell you that evolution (even on Venus) is not going to create such a chimera. Why should a cat-like creature develop aquatic appendages and only one eye? This is bad science.

But bad science is not uncommon in horror fiction, which has, as its ultimate goal, thrilling you, not satisfying your logical mind. A classic example is Dracula, the vampire who does not appear in a mirror. One explanation for this is that Drac doesn’t show up because he does not possess a soul. Cool, says the horror fan. But follow the logic. Does a dresser have a soul? A chair? So, by that explanation, the only thing that should appear in the mirror is Mina Harker. The trick is done for effect, giving the vampire a weakness, adding to his unearthly state, perhaps just satisfying old legends, but not out of scientific reasoning, just like Burroughs’ Amtorian monstrosity.

Does horror fiction have to be scientific? Often, it is not, but you run the danger of falling into laughable fantasy if you breach commonplace scientific facts without some structure to explain away the occurrence. For instance, if Dracula can turn into a mist, why don’t vampire hunters carry vacuum cleaners to suck them up and trap them? Because it’s silly. It might do for a children’s cartoon like Scooby Doo, but it won’t help you to create that nail-biting frisson of horror you are after.

Lovecraft is not entirely free of this kind of animal-composition monster-making either. His Deep Ones are “fish-frogs”, his Mi-Go resemble squids and insects, and even great Cthulhu has a bear body with octopoid head. HPL strove to break the chains of similarity in his collaboration, “Through the Gate of the Silver Key” with E. Hoffman Price. He describes the Great Old One Yog-Sothoth thus:

Then, in the midst of these devastating reflections, Carter’s beyond-the-gate fragment was hurled from what had seemed the nadir of horror to black, clutching pits of a horror still more profound. This time it was largely external – a force of personality which at once confronted and surrounded and pervaded him, and which in addition to its local presence, seemed also to be a part of himself, and likewise to be co-existent with all time and conterminous with all space. There was no visual image, yet the sense of entity and the awful concept of combined localism and identity and infinity lent a paralyzing terror beyond anything which any Carter-fragment had hitherto deemed capable of existing.

In the face of that awful wonder, the quasi-Carter forgot the horror of destroyed individuality. It was an All-in-One and One-in-All of limitless being and self – not merely a thing of one space-time continuum, but allied to the ultimate animating essence of existence’s whole unbounded sweep – the last, utter sweep which has no confines and which outreaches fancy and mathematics alike. It was perhaps that which certain secret cults of Earth had whispered of as Yog-Sothoth, and which has been a deity under other names; that which the crustaceans of Yuggoth worship as the Beyond-One, and which the vaporous brains of the spiral nebulae know by an untranslatable sign – yet in a flash the Carter-facet realized how slight and fractional all these conceptions are.

A monster that is non-existent but still scary. A nice try, but does it work?

So, how does the monster writer avoid the “It-looks-like-a-bear!” syndrome, then? The answer, I believe, is best shown by the master of monsters, H.G. Wells. Wells created so many classic monsters, really creepy ones, who have survived the test of time. For example, the Morlocks. I would love to give you a quote from Wells to demonstrate how he describes them, but that is the first secret – he never does. Don’t openly describe them. Or, at least, not all in a full-blown paragraph. Wells feeds us small hints about the Morlocks slowly, building up an idea of what they look like. If he had simply said, “There was a Morlock, a short greyish ape, etc., etc.,” The effect would have been ruined. Instead, he teases us with snatches of their physical, as well as mental, attributes.

In The War or the Worlds, he compares the size of a Martian to a bear, but it is not bear-like. He compares it to wet leather. He never openly calls them squid-like or any other earth creature. He describes their tentacles and other features, and lets you put it altogether. In this case, he is more direct than with the Morlocks but still not taking the easy out: “Oh, it’s a space squid.” Instead, he chooses carefully which attributes to describe, making them repulsive to our senses. He is interested in affecting us with a “yeck” not with a “Oh, it’s a squid!”

Perhaps the best example of this describing-but-not-describing is Wells’ Invisible Man. Since we can’t see the monster (a human lunatic), we can only observe its effects. Describing what the monster does, how it thinks or reacts but not what it looks like, can also pay dividends. Actions speak louder than words. This is so true here. One monster that creeps me out is the Horses of Diomedes in the Hercules myth. If you described them as horses with fangs, it would not be particularly frightening. It is only as Herc approaches them, expecting perfectly ordinary steeds, that the thing comes off. The horses open their mouths and attack like a school of sharks.

It is this action that betrays their evil and makes the story chilling. This is what Wells does with his Invisible Man. A man, even an insane anarchist, is only a little scary. You make him able to pass undetected through invisibility and now he is ready to terrorise the world. It is this idea that is scary. He is undetectable, unstoppable. A bland description of how you can’t see him is dull beyond dull. We’ve seen it in bad movies and TV shows. No concept, just the fun of trying to see the wires moving the plates, etc.

I guess, in the end, what I’m saying is simply that old adage: Show, don’t tell. Your monsters will be better for it.