Weird Phrases That Work

Heyooooo! It’s Writing Wednesday!

I’ve just finished reading a book on the history of the horror genre (in literature) which made me want to read some more horror fiction right away, so I’ve started on the Penguin Classics edition of two of Thomas Ligotti’s short story collections combined: Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe.

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Awesome cover, right?

There’s one story called “Alice’s Last Adventure” about an elderly, ex-children’s author named Alice who starts experiencing “curiouser and curiouser” things. She has a tradition of reading to the local children from one of her famous books at the town library every year. Just before recounting the events of her latest reading, she says “Children have made me nervous ever since I stopped being one of them. Perhaps this is why I never had any of my own — adopted any, that is — for the doctors told me long ago that I’m about as fertile as the seas of the moon.” I had to go back and read it again. The phrase “as fertile as the seas of the moon” caught me completely off guard and I cracked up. It got me thinking about other odd turns of phrase that have stunned me while reading due to being gorgeous, profound, hilarious, eerie, or a combination of those things. Whenever I come across one of these gems, I turn my brain inside out trying to come up with something equally weird-but-perfect. Then I fail. THEN, I mess my brain up again trying to figure out how these writers even came up with something like that in the first place.

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One phrase that I constantly go back to is “trampled calmly” from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This phrase is used to describe what Richard Enfield (kin to our reader-proxy, Mr. Utterson) sees on his way home one morning at 3AM. Enfield witnesses a man (whom we come to learn is Mr. Hyde) encounter a young girl in the street. Enfield says the man “trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground.” For me, the word “trample” evokes images of animal stampedes and crazed people at Walmart on Black Friday. It’s a word I never associate with calm. The first time I read those words, I thought, “you can’t be calm and trample someone… can you?” But what we’re meant to take from the word trample isn’t the frantic aspect often associated with the word, but the brutality of the action. That, combined with the fact that it was done “calmly” — in other words, deliberately and without remorse — is meant to illustrate how evil this dude is.

Another beauty that blew me away when I first read it can be found in the story “The Outing” by James Baldwin in his magnificent collection Going to Meet the Man. (If you haven’t read this collection, do it IMMEDIATELY. Especially the title story.) The outing is a religious one on a boat full of church members. It’s part recreational, part spiritual, as they hold a service on the boat. The moment of beauty comes during the service.

And the Holy Ghost touched him and he cried again, bending nearly double, while his feet beat ageless, dreadful signals on the floor, while his arms moved in the air like wings and his face, distorted, no longer his own face nor the face of a young man, but timeless, anguished, grim with ecstasy, turned blindly towards heaven. Yes, Lord, they cried, yes!

Did you spot the golden phrase? If you answered “grim with ecstasy,” congratulations! You’ve won nothing, but thanks for playing.

“Grim” and “ecstasy” are another pair of words you probably wouldn’t put next to one another if given the choice. But in this context, it totally works! The phrase is almost Gothic, especially within the larger framework of the scene. The service taking place in the story is, I believe, a Pentecostal service. There tends to be a lot of energy and emotions flowing openly at these services. People holler, they cry, sometimes they writhe and their bodies contort because they’ve apparently become a vessel for the Holy Spirit. James Baldwin was the step-son of a Pentecostal preacher and therefore grew up attending such services (and even leading them during his brief period of conversion to the faith). Thus, he was able to recreate it, infusing it with that unique mixture of awe and peculiarity which familiarity and distance provide.

Why do “grim” and “ecstasy” work so well together here? The members of the church in this story are fervent believers. In the above passage, the Holy Ghost, the spirit of God Himself, touches one of them. This is a moment where I imagine emotions run so high, they become almost unbearable. In this case, we’re shown a euphoria so extreme, it’s almost painful. The word preceding  “grim with ecstasy” is “anguished”. Can you imagine that? Baldwin may have based that combination of words on memories of past church members, or he may simply have used them because of how striking they are together. Either way, I love it.

What’s the most surprising set of words you’ve ever read?

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Happy Wednesday!

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4 thoughts on “Weird Phrases That Work

  1. Ooooh do you find that the turn of phrase that captures your imagination may not be the same one as the person sitting next to you, or even the one the writer would pick out as being particularly interesting? If you have a page of writing that is practically universally accepted as being very good, sometimes everyone has different snippets that stand out to them.

    I suppose it comes down to personal taste and experience, but it never fails to amaze me when someone picks out a phrase in my writing that I just thought was a throwaway line, but it elicited the holy lols from their soul.

    Or, if we want to talk about proper writing, in Shakespeare, how did we as a society become enthralled with “to be or not to be, that is the question” when “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” is just a few lines down making me feel a little damp with excitement? I mean, I don’t know!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah! I think finding out what caught someone else’s eye (or ear) is one of the best things — they might turn you on to something you overlooked! And what you said about Shakespeare makes me wonder how certain phrases find a permanenet spot of reverence in the social consciousness. You’d think different things would become important to a society over time so maybe we’d cycle through different phrases depending on what’s happening in the world at the time, but no! Like you said, we hang on to that one phrase and agree en masse that it’s the one worth drooling over. Crazy!
      And for the record, most of what you write elicits the holy lols from my soul.

      Like

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