How to Write Scenes of Unspeakable Horror

Although not every novel calls for a scene of unspeakable horror, the right scene in the right place with the right buildup can greatly enhance a story.  When sick, twisted things happen to your characters, readers shiver and cringe… and keep turning the pages.

(SPOILER ALERT:  The Golden Compass and Unwind)

The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman is one of my favorite fantasy/sci fi/steampunk adventures, and it centers around a horrifying idea:  children are being kidnapped and severed from their daimons. However, without reading Golden Compass, the preceding sentence might sound like gibberish.  Sure, children being kidnapped is always a bummer, but kidnapping alone is not quite otherworldly horror, and daimons aren’t a familiar concept.

But Pullman is a master world builder.  In the course of the novel, he unveils detail after tantalizing detail, preparing us for that coming horrific moment .  Daimons are constant animal companions; they shape-change and talk and reflect human emotions.  Daimons are the closest thing to a human’s heart.  Daimons are souls.  In bringing the reader to this point, Pullman avoids info dumps and reveals key details at the precise moments, keeping the reader in constant suspense.  He shows us everything.  We see how children are kidnapped, we see a room of caged daimons, we see a severed child, and we watch the child die in agony.

By the time the main character, Lyra, finds herself in the ultimate pickle, we’re fully acclimated to the world and ready to be horrified.    Lyra and her daimon, Pantalaimon, end up in the midst of the soul-severing machine.  With the backstory firmly in place, Pullman shows us Lyra’s pain and violation, tapping into two very real emotions that most readers could empathize with, and delivering them through a no-longer alien concept, the severing of a daimon.  In the spirit of showing, below are Pullman’s words, right after Lyra is caught:

“And suddenly all the strength went out of her.

It was as if an alien hand had reached right inside where no hand had a right to be, and wrenched at something deep and precious.

She felt faint, dizzy, sick, disgusted, limp with shock.

One of the men was holding Pantalaimon.

He had seized Lyra’s daimon in his human hands, and poor Pan was shaking, nearly out of his mind with horror and disgust.  His wildcat shape, his fur now dull with weakness, now sparking glints of anbaric alarm… He curved toward his Lyra as sshe reached with both hands for him…

They fell still.  They were captured.

She felt those hands… It wasn’t allowed… Not supposed to touch… Wrong…”

I think many books succeed with very different climaxes/key scenes.  Some sci-fi books have scenes of fights, of guns, of plot twists, of a main character about to be murdered.  But, I think a scene like Pullman’s reaches another place, a place that sickens and squirms and seriously ups the stakes.  Lyra isn’t just in danger of dying, she’s in danger of dying by losing her soul.  It’s visceral, it’s sick, it’s disturbing.  And it makes for great reading.

Writers who know how to use this tool, and use it well, are able to worm their way into sacred places in our psyches, the equivalent of laying a hand on our souls and squeezing.  Other writers lay a hand on our hearts, set them racing in the manner of a straight thriller.  But I think that evoking that sense of twisted sickness brings it to another level—gets the heart racing and the gut lurching at the same time.  It’s what separates a good car chase from something that keeps you up at night, like gradually losing your memories in little glass marbles given to a witch, ala The Neverending Story 2.  (That movie haunted me for years).

Here’s why:

  1. Writing scenes of unspeakable horror takes powerful imagination, and imagination makes for good storytelling.
  2. Scenes of unspeakable horror kick our primal emotions into action and up our throats—violation, horror, revulsion.   We’re forced to consider the unthinkable.
  3. To do horrific scenes well, the world-building must be precise, must show not tell.  Typically, this means these scenes occur towards the end of the novel.
  4. Show don’t tell.  Show don’t tell.  That’ll make or break it.

Neal Shusterman’s Unwind is the ultimate example of show, don’t tell.  If someone is  unwound, they’ll be surgically divided into organs, and those organs will be distributed to any takers.  The government and parents say this isn’t actually death, it’s just a way to continue living in a new form.  But the kids chosen for unwinding call bullshit on them and take off.  Wouldn’t you?  The buildup to the key scene is masterful.  The main characters spend the majority of the novel on the run, trying to elude capture and the dreaded fate of being Unwound.

And yet, of course, someone had to get caught.  I won’t give away who, but a major character ends up being unwound.  As a reader, you think to yourself… they’re not going to describe the unwinding, right?  They’ll just have a scene when the character is escorted away, and then some nice white space, and then a scene where everyone else cries/gets angry revenge.  Right?  RIGHT?

But we follow the character as he/she’s wheeled into the operating room.  No mercy for the character; no mercy for the reader.  We listen to the kindly creepy nurse make conversation while the character’s ankles are snipped away.  Then his legs, then his internal organs.  Shusterman juxtaposes the nurses innocuous small-talk against the surgeons’ procedures.

Finally, the surgeons reach the brain, and the nurse leaves since talking won’t be physically possible, what with the character’s jaw already being harvested.  Thinking is possible though, and we readers hear the characters thoughts diminish as specific parts of the brain are lopped off.  Thalamus, parietal lobes, hypcampus, corpus calloseum, etc.  It’s gruesome, it’s creepy, it’s the ultimate show-don’t-tell, and it sticks with you.  It works.

“Left frontal lobe.

I…I…I don’t feel so good.

Left occipital lobe.

I…I…I odn’t remember where….

Left parietal lobe.

I…I…I can’t remember my name, but…but…

Right temporal.

…but I’m still here.

Right frontal.

I’m still here.

Right occipital.

I’m still…

Right parietal.

I’m…

Cerebellum.

I’m…

Thalamus.

I…

Hypothalamus.

I…

Hippocampus.

Medulla.

…”

Pretty jarring, right?  Not all books call for something so unsettling, but when it works, it sticks with you, keeps the story lingering for days in your mind.  I’ve never been a fan of straight-out horror for shock value only, but I do like when things jar me a bit, shake up my world view, make me really empathize with characters.  Unwind and The Golden Compass are great books to read, and great books to learn from as a writer.

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