When you think about it, reading fiction is a strange activity. It involves staring at symbols on a page or screen, ignoring all distractions, and yet it can take us to other worlds. We take this static information in through our eyes, and allow it to run through out minds, and yet it can open up whole realms of sensations. It involves nothing but words, but it can have such a deep effect on us. And sometimes that effect is physical.
I’ve heard it said that there are two genres that specifically go for this physical effect — horror and erotica (maybe that’s why James Herbert always managed to include a sex scene in his horror books). I can’t comment on the latter, but I have read quite a bit of horror, especially as a teenager. Stephen King, James Herbert, Peter Straub, Clive Barker — I’d get through loads of this stuff, and sometimes, when I put the book down, I wouldn’t want to walk around the house without the lights on. I’d get that tingle, that nagging ‘something’s waiting in the dark’ feeling.
So I got goose-bumps, and a shiver running down my spine. But
one book took me further. One book stands out — Iain Banks’ debut novel, The Wasp Factory.
At the time it affected me so memorably, I was re-reading it. I’d enjoyed it first time round (strange how the word ‘enjoy’ can be used for something dark and disturbing), but couldn’t recall much of it. I was working shifts at the time, and needed something to keep me occupied on my breaks — and so, obviously, I took a book in to work, alongside my sandwiches.
So there I was, eating while I read another chapter, sitting on cheap plastic chairs in an empty factory canteen. And I reached a particular part of the book, where it describes the main character’s brother working in a hospital, looking after young children.
The scene (which I won’t even attempt to describe) was shocking, and as I read I felt my stomach churning. My cheeks puffed out with the sensation that I was about to vomit.
I had to stop reading for a while. I put the book down and let my stomach settle.
I wondered if there was something up with my sandwich, but it was fine. It wasn’t food that had made me feel nauseous, but words.
I returned to the book. I re-read that scene. It still made me feel uneasy.
Yet Banks didn’t describe any of the horrors I pictured in my head. There was a build-up, when the character realizes something is wrong. And then there is a jump, to a nurse entering the room and seeing the aftermath.
How could words make me feel ill, especially when so little had been described? How did Banks do it? He built up the scene, but he didn’t tell us exactly what was wrong. Only in the aftermath do we get a glimpse of it, and the whole thing is described in a few sentences (maybe even one — it’s a while since I’ve read it again).
Everything else is left to the imagination.
I believe that’s the key. If Banks had described the scene in detail, the words would have got in the way. I’m sure he would have written it well, but I doubt it would have had the same impact. Describing something is never as intimate as imagining it.
This idea works well in films. Compare the claustrophobic dread of Alien, where any dark spot in the shadows could be the creature, to the reduced impact in later films when the aliens are seen in their entirety. Think of the way the shark in Jaws is never seen for the first hour of the film, yet we know this unseen terror is there, waiting for its moment to strike. Think of the ending of Seven, where we never see what is in the box (despite what some people still believe), but our imagination fills in the blanks.
It’s arguably far harder to do in books, but writers like Iain Banks shows that is is possible. By describing around a scene, our imaginations are let loose, and the horrors we can summon up are far more personal. By choosing just the right words, an author like Banks can guide our thoughts to darker places. By using suggestion and hints, a great author can give a scene such startling realism that we become physically part of the world they have created.
Sitting in that factory canteen in the middle of the night, I realized for the first time how words could trigger not only our minds but also our bodies.
And that book still impresses me. It has to. Other books have made me question things, or set my pulse racing. Other books have scared the hell out of me, or made me feel good about myself. But no other book has brought me so close to throwing up.
I should write a review for it, and limit myself to a couple of sentences. ‘This book almost made me lose my lunch. Five stars.’