That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

How to Paint With Words: 6 Descriptive Works of SFF

Mervyn Peake, famously the author of the unfinished Gormenghast series, was also a well-respected illustrator—the British Library referred to him as “arguably the finest children’s illustrator of the mid-20th century.” His style was frequently expressive and gestural, dark and grotesque; he produced portraits of his own characters that were intimately suggestive of their foibles and eccentricities.

I am not a visual artist, nor do I have a background in art history. Nevertheless, while reading Titus Groan, I was struck by the intensely visual quality of Peake’s prose.

“Steerpike, when he had reached the spine of the roof, sat astride it and regained his breath for a second time. He was surrounded by lakes of fading daylight… The sun was beginning to set in a violet haze and the stone field, save for the tiny figure of Steerpike, spread out emptily, the cold slabs catching the prevailing tint of the sky. Between the slabs there was dark moss and the long coarse necks of seeding grasses.”

I remember thinking that there was something particularly wonderful about the phrase: “lakes of fading daylight.” It might have been the sense of scale that particular scene conveys in context; the feeling that Gormenghast castle is infinite, haunted, and unknowable. Within it, the characters seem especially vulnerable; both in their smallness—the “tiny figure” of Steerpike surrounded by lakes of space spreading out “emptily”—and in their exposure, with the encroaching cold of the evening emphasized by repeated references to cooler colours and shades: “violet haze,” “prevailing tiny of the sky,” and “dark moss.”

To me, there was a painterly quality to the words. I found it compelling to unpack how Peake was achieving this effect on a technical level, and to explore other writers in the genre who evoked scenic and descriptive mastery in their own ways.

China Miéville is the author I most closely associated with Peake, so it was a pleasant (and for the purposes of this article, incredibly convenient) surprise to discover that Miéville specifically referenced Peake’s influence in the acknowledgements of Perdido Street Station. The two authors share a kind of baroque grandiosity in their worldbuilding and prose styles, a similar sort of granular specificity in their descriptions. For example, the first view of the city of New Crobuzon, as seen by the maimed garuda, Yagharek:

“It looms suddenly, massive, stamped on the landscape. Its light wells up around the surrounds, the rock hills, like bruise-blood. Its dirty towers glow. I am debased. I am compelled to worship this extraordinary presence that has silted into existence at the conjunction of two rivers. It is a vast pollutant, a stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirt into the sky even now in the deep night. It is not the current which pulls us but the city itself, its weight sucks us in. Faint shouts, here and there the calls of beasts, the obscene clash and pounding from the factories as huge machines rut. Railways trace urban anatomy like protruding veins. Red brick and dark walls, squat churches like troglodytic things, ragged awnings flickering, cobbled mazes in the old town, culs-de-sac, sewers riddling the earth like secular sepulchres, a new landscape of wasteground, crushed stone, libraries fat with forgotten volumes, old hospitals, towerblocks, ships and metal claws that lift cargoes from the water. How could we not see this approaching? What trick of topography is this, that lets the sprawling monster hide behind corners to leap out at the traveller? It is too late to flee.”

It’s a description full of implied violence and sexual allusions—“bruise-blood,” “protruding veins,” chimneys that “retch,” factory machines that pound and “rut.” It’s the idea of the city as a kind of vast, corrupted, predatory animal; to witness it is to be polluted, debased—and compelled to worship.

I would argue that part of what makes the picture effective is precisely that juxtaposition. The city is a monster to be feared, yes, but it is also an “extraordinary” wonder, a polluted light in an otherwise dark environment. One that might, in fact, attract some truly unpleasant moths.

This ‘miracle-monster’ dichotomy functions in a similar way to a high contrast image. In the visual arts, ‘values’ refer to the range of tones in an image from light to dark: a high contrast artwork has fewer tonal values, meaning that the bright parts are very bright while the shadows are solidly dark, with few intermediary tones between those extremes. Miéville has deployed his descriptive values in the same way. The city’s monstrousness is vivid, but it is brought into sharper relief by the references to divinity—the quasi-religious allusions highlight New Crobuzon’s corruption by providing the opposite semantic values.

In a similar vein, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is also in the business of animating the inanimate, in this case turning a house into a human face.

“No Human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice… This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope.” (Jackson, 73)

What I find intriguing here is the tension between the chaotic and the intentional. On the one hand, Hill House’s appearance is the product of “unhappy coincidence” and “chance meeting,” but on the other, it is an elaborately constructed building, which is to say: purposefully designed. The pull of order associated with “lines,” “angles,” and “pattern” strains against the enigmatic disorder of the house’s malign intelligence, and the contradiction generates a sense of discomfort in itself.

In contrast to Peake and Miéville, Jackson’s description here is far less granular—in these paragraphs, she does very little to describe the specific appearance of the house in front of protagonist Eleanor. A little further into the scene, Eleanor is even stated to be unable to tell “its color, or its style, or its size, except that it was enormous and dark, looking down over her.” For now, the reader is left to envision Hill House as they see fit—the mood and atmosphere of the building is more important than its physical characteristics.

While Jackson’s prose is meticulous and controlled, I would argue that her descriptive power in this section is actually fairly impressionistic. She is not telling the reader precisely what to see, but what the atmosphere feels like. Her literary brushstrokes suggest the way the light falls on the scene. By leaving it to the reader to fill in the missing visual detail, she invites ambiguity into the shadows of her work. The effect is unsettling.

Which brings us to another gothic icon of the twentieth century: Angela Carter.

“And I began to shudder, like a racehorse before a race, yet also with a kind of fear, for I felt both a strange, impersonal arousal at the thought of love and at the same time a repugnance I could not stifle for his white, heavy flesh that had too much in common with the armfuls of arum lilies that filled my bedroom in great glass jars, those undertakers’ lilies with the heavy pollen that powders your fingers as if you had dipped them in turmeric. The lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you.”

The above extract is taken from the short story, “The Bloody Chamber,” from the collection of the same name. I feel that Carter’s work has an uncanny richness, as if there will always be further shades of meaning to uncover on closer examination. I would describe her prose style as more transparent and direct than any of the other authors discussed so far, but by no means simple.

One of the most striking elements of “The Bloody Chamber” is the intensity of colour that pervades the story. In the paragraph above, the protagonist’s husband is painted in white and turmeric yellow. There is a waxy quality to the arum lily, something that is skin- or flesh-like to its texture. When combined with allusions to heaviness, powder, whiteness, and undertakers, the image that is invoked is one of a corpse. It’s a terrible but very effective picture in the context of the protagonist’s ambivalent lust; there’s more than a hint of necrophilia at play.

Carter is also making use of rhythm in powerful ways. The first sentence is a long, driving rush of stacking clauses interspersed by commas, while the second is shorter and sharper, pivoting on a semicolon to a three word punch—a structure which is then echoed in the three word sentence that follows. It seems effortless, but Carter is foregrounding exactly what she means to foreground on the finest levels of punctuation and grammatical structure, and in doing so drawing the reader’s eye to her chosen focal points.

In my opinion, an author whose work shares Angela Carter’s prosaic clarity is Sofia Samatar. I had a second pleasant surprise when I discovered that Samatar had listed The Bloody Chamber as ‘Recommended Reading’ on her website. Research serendipity!

With Samatar, I found it difficult to isolate a particular piece of writing to examine, because there is a lot to choose from, and she is such a versatile prose stylist that it’s hard to select any one extract that feels representative. Ultimately, I settled on the last paragraph of the short story, “Tender.”

“Before I was a tender, I loved snow. I loved rainy windows that made my neighborhood look like a European city. I used to cut pictures of supermodels out of magazines and paste them in notebooks, arranged according to color. There were blue scenes that made me think of overnight journeys by train and yellow scenes that made me think of medieval bridges. Often I’d buy thrift store clothes and put them on without washing them, so that I could both feel and smell like someone else.”

Samatar evokes very specific but disparate images here, and these interact with the final line to generate a nuanced mood. We have snow, rainy windows, overnight train journeys, medieval bridges… it’s all rather cosy, even quaint. There’s something nostalgic about the notion of pasting magazine pictures into notebooks, a quality of childlike or teenage whimsy.

However, most of these activities suggest some subtle dissatisfaction: watching the rain through the window and imagining that the place outside is not home, but Europe. Going elsewhere on an imagined train ride. Dreaming up bridges that might be crossed. These sentiments speak to a feeling of environmental confinement, but it is only when we reach the last sentence that the entrapment shifts inward and becomes overt—the protagonist is ultimately mired in what she perceives as her own toxicity, and wishes to escape from herself.

Part of what makes this so effective is Samatar’s ability to repeat, parallel, and recontextualise images or sentiments—in effect, to make narrative patterns. With each linked or mirrored motif, she adds new shades of meaning and colour, until the final image forms a cohesive whole out of what should be discrete parts.

Finally, we have the conclusion of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi.

“I came out of the park. The city streets rose up around me. There was a hotel with a courtyard with metal tables and chairs for people to sit in more clement weather. Today they were snow-strewn and forlorn. A lattice of wire was strung across the courtyard. Paper lanterns were hanging from the wires, spheres of vivid orange that blew and trembled in the snow and the thin wind; the sea-grey clouds raced across the sky and the orange lanterns shivered against them.

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

The prose here is understated; for the most part the sentences are unornamented and very short, although they loosen up with the introduction of the lanterns. The sparse, lean phrasing of the narrative voice feels distant, even cold; the scene is laid out with an unambiguous and scientific clarity. For all its directness and transparency, it’s also strikingly lovely.

The imagery is so effective because of how it is presented. The final sentence of the novel provides a frame through which to interpret the preceding paragraph of visual description—it shows us how the protagonist experiences what he witnesses, i.e. that the world, even though outwardly cold and forlorn, is possessed with immeasurable beauty and infinite kindness. It’s a moment of character, thematic, and worldbuilding resolution, and the layered sense of catharsis is powerfully uplifting in context.

Clarke is playing with colour and temperature to achieve her ends. The coldness of the hotel courtyard—its “forlorn” metal tables and chairs—is set against the fragility of the paper lanterns as they shiver and tremble in the wind. In a scene characterised by shades of grey and white, the “vivid orange” lanterns are strikingly warm, perhaps even defiantly so.

The fact that the clouds are described as being ‘sea-grey’ is also significant, harkening back to the waters of the House that the protagonist is homesick for. The House—a vast, ruined, partly sunken labyrinth of hallways and passages set inside a parallel dimension—formerly served as a kind of hermitage for him; it was a place that he understood and to which he felt deeply connected. Stripped of that haven, the protagonist struggles to reconcile himself with ordinary reality. However, with the final sentences of the novel, Clarke demonstrates how he is coming to terms with his loss: how the House is everywhere, as is beauty, as is kindness.

Kerstin Hall’s short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons and Fireside, and she is the author of the novella The Border Keeper. She lives in Cape Town, South Africa. You can find her on her website and on Twitter.


Back to the top of the page


This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.