An Effluvium of Hysteria

I love words.  I always have.  I caught the bug at a very early age.  I remember when I was eight years old, reading comic books, I would sometimes come across words I’d never heard of.  When I did, I would immediately put the comic down and open the dictionary I had, easily accessible, on a book shelf in my room.

words!

 

One of the first words I recall discovering this way was “sanctimonious.”  It occurred in Fantastic Four # 111, and it was Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) who uttered it.  Back then, reading issue after issue of my favorite comic book, I could always count on old Reed to introduce me to new and exciting words.

ff111

 

reed

 

In school essays, I would occasionally show off, and use some of the intimidating words I’d learned.  When I was nine or ten, teachers would comment favorably.  They were just happy I was reading and learning vocabulary.  But when I reached junior high, and especially high school, the response was different.

I remember on one essay, the teacher had circled the word “clandestine,” and wrote in the margin:  “Better to say ‘secret.'”  I took the paper to him after class and asked him why.

“If you want people to know what you’re writing about,” he said, “you have to speak to them with the language they know.  If you use words they’re not sure about, you’re going to lose them on the first page.”

simple

 

I thought about it that night, and though I understood what he meant, I didn’t fully agree.  Of course, I realized, if you pepper your manuscript with hundred-dollar words, you’ll come across as snobbish or out of touch, interested first and foremost with your own perceived brilliance.

beconcise

 

But on the other hand, if you oversimplify everything, and strip your prose down to a fourth-grade level, aren’t you losing something precious, too?

I turned to books on writing and style.  What did the experts have to say?  For the most part, they agreed with my teacher.

“Be concise.”  “Do not use needless words.”  “Avoid adverbs.”  “Too many adjectives will derail your prose.”  “If you need to look a word up in a thesaurus, don’t use it.  It’s not the right word.”  And so on.

elementsofstyle

 

And again, I didn’t disagree.  This struck me as good, sensible advice–most of the time.  But sometimes . . .

I have always been a fan of Ray Bradbury.  His enthusiasm, imagination, and rich, layered style have always served as an inspiration for me.  And while handbooks on the nuts and bolts of writing are useful tools every writer should own, I find the best teachers are not the grammarians and professors.  The best teachers are the authors.

When I was in high school, searching for my voice, learning to create fiction worth reading, I was much more likely to listen to Ray Bradbury than William Strunk.

And there is one Bradbury story in particular that I read for the first time when I was a senior in high school that clarified this entire issue for me more than any style book or teaching guide ever could.  In fact, just the first two paragraphs of the story did the trick.

smallassassin

 

“The Small Assassin,” first and foremost, is a terrifying short story.  Bradbury’s writing ability transcends genre.  He is often labeled a sci-fi author, but he has created tales in nearly ever genre, including horror.  “The Small Assassin” definitely falls within that category.  It gave me nightmares for a week.   It remains to this day perhaps the most frightening story I have ever read.

Much of the story is written in clear, concise fashion, not always the case with Bradbury.  Stories such as “The Sound of Summer Running,” for example, are really prose poems dressed up as short stories.

soundofsummer

 

Not so with “The Small Assassin.”  Here, while he maintains his writing flair, the prose, in general, is more streamlined, razor-sharp, honed to a cutting edge.  Nevertheless, he does not entirely avoid difficult words . . .

The first paragraph of “The Small Assassin” reads:

“Just when the idea occurred to her that she was being murdered she could not tell.  There had been little subtle signs, little suspicions for the past month; things as deep as sea tides in her, like looking at a perfectly calm stretch of tropic water, wanting to bathe in it and finding, just as the tide takes your body, that monsters dwell just under the surface, things unseen, bloated, many-armed, sharp-finned, malignant and inescapable.”

This paragraph has the customary Bradbury magic of syntax and style, imagery and metaphor, but, apart from the possible exception of “malignant,” there isn’t a fancy word to be found.

It’s the first sentence of the second paragraph that shifts the flow.  The second paragraph reads:

“A room floated around her in an effluvium of hysteria.  Sharp instruments hovered and there were voices, and people in sterile white masks.”

whitemask

 

When I first read “The Small Assassin,” in my eighteenth year, I had never before come across the word “effluvium.”  I had no idea what it meant!  And yet . . . it held me rapt, mesmerized.  I didn’t look it up until after I finished the story.  I couldn’t put it down.  Because even though I didn’t know the dictionary definition of “effluvium,” the word elicited a feeling, a rushing current of hidden meaning and subtext.

webster

 

Webster defines “effluvium” as “an invisible emanation; an offensive exhalation or smell.  A by-product, especially in the form of waste.”

So . . . what, then, is an effluvium of hysteria?  Perhaps Bradbury could have simply written, “A room floated around her.  She felt nervous and afraid.”  Or, perhaps.  “There was the offensive odor of hysteria.”  Either of these would have been concise, simple, matter-of-fact.  But it would not have been memorable.  It would not have stayed with me, years after I read it.  It would not have implanted itself in a crevice deep within the folds of my brain.  It would have been ordinary.

In the context of “The Small Assassin,” an “effluvium of hysteria” sounds like a car spinning out of control, careening downhill; a person falling from a great height; or, someone on the brink of madness, panic-stricken, gripped with a terror too powerful for words.  “Nervous,” “odor,” or “hysterical” just can’t compete with that.

spinning

 

This is not to say that the general accepted advice is “wrong.”  Ninety-nine percent of the time, clear and concise and simple trumps wordy and difficult.  But to eliminate that special 1% altogether?

Of course, much depends on context.  An instruction manual surely would not want to incorporate the word “effluvium”!  (Though it would make for an interesting manual.)  And in dialogue, certain characters, Marc Kuslanski included, will have a penchant for fancy words.  But in general, as is the case with so many writing “rules” and guidelines, the key is finding a happy medium.

balance

 

So the next time you’re writing and one of those “too-difficult” words pops into your head, go ahead and use it.

Because sometimes, every now and then, nothing but an “effluvium of hysteria” will do.

ideasend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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