Jane Lebak: “‘Scary’ and ‘terrifying’ are subtly different”

It’s easy to come up with the most horrifying passage I’ve ever read, but I had to think a bit before coming up with “terrifying.” I’m not easily scared, but scary and terrifying are subtly different in that the terror seems to be more prolonged and speak to something deeper in the human psyche.

Eventually I settled on a passage from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, about 250 pages into the novel. Early in the novel we’re introduced to Rachel, an infant only a few weeks old. When her father eventually tells her story, it begins with her as an archaeologist in her mid-twenties, so you know something horrible must have happened. It’s when he’s telling her story that we reach this passage, with Rachel sleeping inside one of the tremendous stone Sphinxes in order to study the effects of the time-tides:

Rachel was almost dozing herself when – at 0215 — her comlog chirped, the detectors screamed, and she jumped to her feet. According to the sensors, the Sphinx had suddenly grown a dozen new chambers, some larger than the total structure. Rachel keyed displays and the air misted with models that changed as she watched. Corridor schematics twisted back on themselves like rotating Mobius strips. The external sensors indicated the upper structure twisting and bending like polyflex in the wind—or like wings.

            Rachel knew it was some type of multiple malfunction, but even as she tried to recalibrate she called data and impressions into her comlog. Then several things happened at once.

            She heard the drag of feet in the corridor above her.

            All of the displays went dead simultaneously.

            Somewhere in the maze of corridors a time-tide alarm began to blare.

            All of the lights went off.

There follows a description of why the lights shouldn’t have gone off, the effect of which is to take our minds out of that primal terror-state and be analytical, something we’ve all done when we’re scared. But at the same time he’s doing this, Simmons is also subtly reinforcing that yes, she’s deep inside a structure created by tons of stone and with only narrow passages to get out again.

When it takes back up again, you hear her scared and fighting the fear. Note how she feels alone without ever saying she’s alone, and then that sense of the stone sliding around her. There’s only one place I’d call a misstep, which is her “sitting down in the darkness,” which momentarily makes her seem defeated, but that’s a minor nitpick. Overall, this is a terrifying situation:

            “Melio?” called Rachel into the blackness. “Tanya? Kurt?”

            The scraping sounded very close. Rachel backed away, knocking over an instrument and chair in the blackness. Something touched her hair and she gasped, raised her hand.

            The ceiling was lower. The solid block of stone, five meters square, slid lower even as she raised her other hand to touch it. The opening to the corridor was halfway up the wall. Rachel staggered toward it, swinging her hands in front of her like a blind person. She tripped over a folding chair, foun an instrument table, followed it to the far wall, felt the bottom of the corridor shaft disappearing as the ceiling came lower. She pulled back her fingers a second before they were sliced off.

            Rachel sat down in the darkness. An oscilloscope scraped against the ceiling until the table cracked and collapsed under it. Rachel moved her head in short, desperate arcs. There was a metallic rasp, almost a breathing sound, less than a meter from her. She began to back away, sloding across a floor suddenly filled with broken equipment. The breathing grew louder.

            Something sharp and infinitely cold grasped her wrist.

            Rachel screamed at last.

What I find most compelling here is how Simmons leverages so many human fears at the same time: the fear of being trapped, the fear of being alone, the fear of the dark, and the monster in the house. There’s the risk of dismemberment and the certitude of being crushed. And yet in the next scene, we find her physically whole, safe on a space station med center, and no one notices anything unusual about the readings on her devices. Did it happen at all? Which in and of itself adds to the horror of this scene. But yes, it did happen, and we come to find the permanent effect of this encounter over the next pages of the novel.

Another way Simmons is ingenious in this passage is where it takes place in the story. By the time we reach this point, we’ve already been exposed to the power of the Shrike and we know the Shrike is merciless. There is nothing the Shrike will not do. If it had occurred earlier in the story, we might not have believed Rachel was in as much danger as we do after being exposed to the true nature of the Shrike (and, I admit, excerpting it in this post is effectively undoing all that tension-building) but contrast that to the early introduction of Rachel as a weeks-old infant. Innocent. We have this being which feasts on pain set against someone we first met as innocent and later meet as naive and inexperienced. It’s not a fair fight, and we know it. We want to root for her, but she’s got nothing going on, and we know from the start of the encounter that she’s going to lose the battle.

The formula is nearly perfect, and I’ve remembered this scene for almost ten years.

Jane Lebak’s first novel The Guardian will be re-released as The Wrong Enemy this September by MuseItUp Publishing! She is also the author of Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). She is one of the bloggers at QueryTracker.net, a resource for writers trying to find an agent. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. 

Other posts in this series:

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
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3 Responses to Jane Lebak: “‘Scary’ and ‘terrifying’ are subtly different”

  1. Linda Yezak says:

    You make a great point about playing off of common human fears. Reading about someone who is facing our own terrors is enough to give us the shivers and keep us wide-eyed and alert.

    Terrific post. I’m just sorry I couldn’t fix it. Sometimes WordPress and I don’t get along, and I don’t understand why.


  2. This series has got me thinking… But I honestly don’t know *what* qualifies as the most terrifying scene I’ve ever read. Maybe a torture scene in a Star Wars novel? But, then, I was only probably fourteen when I read it, so who knows.


    • Linda Yezak says:

      When I started this, I was using Cormac McCarthy’s book for another post, and that’s what put me in mind of this “most terrifying passage” series. I don’t usually read books that have terrifying scenes in them. Most of the crime novel stuff is losing its shock value.


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