You know it when you feel it. When you read something and it just floors you. Something about it sticks under the skin, twirls around for a bit and won’t leave you alone. Horror seems especially suited for iconic imagery, the kind of thing that will haunt the reader long after the book is closed and you sit down and try to think about anything else. And yet, your mind returns to that imagery, those scenes.
What’s interesting is that really good, iconic, scenes outlast the plot, the story, and the characters. Even though they need these things to create maximum impact, they also become divorced from these things and stand alone. Think about Kubrick’s concept of narrative, using 6-8 “non submersible units”, and the idea that you can create a narrative structure out of these units alone. That it creates a kind of ur-narrative, a greater narrative just based on theme. These elements have to be unforgettable, shocking to the mind.
These are the axes for the frozen sea inside of us, to butcher Kafka.
But how do these work? How do you know if something is powerful in this sense? I think you’ll know it right away, as a reader or as a writer. These ideas feel like lightning bolts. Take for example all of the memorable scenes in the Shining film. These scenes are not in the book at all. And yet, when you mention the Shining, people will think elevator of blood, or two sisters in the hallway. They are memorable, they stick with you, long after the actual plot is forgotten.
In fact, this concept can be leveraged most completely in the ghost story. Of course, a ghost story doesn’t really need to have a ghost per se. It just needs those strange things unwinding. It doesn’t even need a narrative about the ghost’s motivations, or how to set the ghost free, any of that. It just needs the experience, the sense of dread, and those iconic images that cling to you.
I try and do these in my own writing. Really, the best ones are ones I don’t plan and just come to me in the middle of a scene. The house wanting to have sex with Dana in Glass House- unplanned! I just started writing about the bones of the house, then how it’s flesh responded to her, and then…well. It took on a life of it’s own. The same with the dad burying the daughter. I knew there was a rift in the family…I just didn’t know what. And then when it happened…
Damn, I knew I had something that was iconic. That stuck with you.
Skinless Man Counts to Five is also full of these images and iconic scenes. In fact, one could say that that short story is made up entirely of strange iconic images that hint towards a greater narrative that is never revealed. There are a few scenes like that in my upcoming novel, Cancer Eats the Heart. A seance that will get under your skin and will be unlike anything you’ve ever read before. A scene that’s terrifying because it’s brutal, and real, and has nothing supernatural going on.
At times I try and brainstorm these ideas, but those never quite work as well. For me, they have to come out of the moment, while writing. They have to boil out of the characters and the plot until they transcend and become something surreal and haunting. Something that sticks with you. Something that won’t leave you be.
And when you close the book, and continue on with your life…
Even if you forget the characters, and the plot?
Those moments still haunt you, in ways you can’t explain.