“I can’t even.”

H.P. Lovecraft, the pioneer of being unable to describe the indescribable.

Clive Thompson
The Message
Published in
8 min readJul 21, 2014


So, you’re online and you see something totally absurd, horrifying or idiotic. How can you tweet about it? What’s the best way to convey the absurdity, the horror, or the idiocy?

You can use the “I can’t even” meme—linking to the offending site or picture or quote, and appending nothing but that catchphrase, “I can’t even.” It neatly signals the complete breakdown of language in the face of a crazy world. The linguist Gretchen McCulloch calls this trick “stylized verbal incoherence mirroring emotional incoherence,” which is a rad way of putting it, and she’s assembled a list of the most common variants:

I cannot. I can’t even.

I cannot even.

I am unable to can. I am unable to even.

I have lost the ability to can. Things I can’t even.

I am all out of can.

These are all fun, but hey! This meme is getting a little old by now. It could use some freshening up. We need new ways to express the inexpressibility of our emotions—new rhetorical ploys that show how we’re all out of rhetoric.

The other day, while reading some old horror stories, I realized that we’re sitting on a gold mine of such linguistic gambits. One hundred years ago, an American fiction author embarked on a mission of exploring precisely this aesthetic territory—the collapse of language in the face of an emotionally unhinging reality.

That writer was H.P. Lovecraft.

One of my Lovecraft books, with a traditionally batwinged Cthulhu on the cover.

If you haven’t read any Lovecraft, you really should. It is a blast. (Though be warned: I’ve put a lot of spoilers in this essay.)

Lovecraft was famous for his gothic tales of creepitude, many of which flesh out aspects of his “Cthulhu” mythology—a fictional race of extraterrestrial nightmare beings that have lived, hidden, on Earth since ancient times. These beings occasionally reveal themselves to humanity, and whenever they do, the poor humans who behold them are driven irretrievably insane. Their minds can’t comprehend the sheerly alien weirdness on display. Even in Lovecraft’s stories that do not involve any Cthulhu-esque creatures (his tales also employ more conventional monsters, witchcraft, or supernaturality), his characters are almost always going mad, or nearly mad. They’re deranged by the appearance and aspect of the eldritch forces and ghouls they encounter, things so grotesque and foreign that the mind fairly shuts down.

Lovecraft was in this issue but did not actually write about an animate tree, near as I can tell.

Grotesque, foreign, alien, weird: I’m being kind of vague here, aren’t I? Yeah. But so is Lovecraft. Though his stories contain logorrheic descriptions of the emotions of his horrified human protagonists, Lovecraft is often coy about precisely what is so unsettling about his monsters and terrors. Sure, he’ll offer various physical descriptions, like star-shaped protrubances in a squidlike Cthulhuic “Old One”, or the peculiarly grating, buzzing whisper of the extraterrestrial “Mi-go” creatures. But just as frequently, his human characters admit they have no way of putting into words the ghastly stuff they behold.

They can’t even. They lose all ability to can.

For example, in The Music of Erich Zann, the protagonist befriends a violinist who lives the floor above him — but who plays violent, crazy arias, the sounds of which are deeply unsettling. Why so unsettling? Well, the narrator can’t quite say. The music is …

… a pandemonium which would lead me to doubt my own shaking sanity”, he notes. “It was not that the sounds were hideous, for they were not; but that they held vibrations suggesting nothing on this globe of earth, and that at certain intervals they assumed a symphonic quality which I could hardly conceive is produced by one player.”

As the story reaches its climax, he writes that “the frantic playing had become a blind, mechanical, unrecognizable orgy that no pen could ever suggest.” Magnificent: The pen cannot even suggest a description!

A 1980 short film based on “The Music of Erich Zann”.

Lovecraft pulls a similar ploy in Pickman’s Model, in which the protagonist befriends a painter who apparently specializes in creating ultra-creepy works. But when the narrator is finally ushered into the painter’s gallery to behold the stuff, language evaporates. “There’s no use in my trying to tell you what they were like,” he says, “because the awful, the blasphemous horror, and the unbelievable loathesomeness and moral foetor came from simple touches quite beyond the power of words to classify.”

Often, Lovecraft deals out these “I can’t even” moments with rather dry humor, as in The Color Out of Space—in which a farm and its surrounding countryside are being slowly deformed by an alien force. Neighborhood children catch a woodchuck, and “the proportions of his body seemed slightly altered in a queer way impossible to describe, while its face had taken on an expression which no one ever saw in a woodchuck before.” (Those inexplicable facial expressions of woodchucks.) Then plants begin to grow oddly: “Never were things of such size before, and they held strange colours that could not be put into any words.” And of the insects, yikes, what can be said? “Most of the creature seemed not quite usual in their aspects and motions, and their nocturnal habits contradicted all former experience.”

The issue that debuted Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West: Reanimator”.

Lovecraft’s tour-de-force of losing the ability to can is probably At the Mountain of Madness. It’s a sprawling novella in which a pair of Antarctic adventurers explore the ruins of a massive city created by the cosmos-born Old Ones. A huge chunk of the book is simply them parsing the architecture and bodies of a few dead Old Ones and piecing together the backstory of the race, but every few paragraphs the narrator confesses he just totally cannot describe the epic strangeness at hand. “Existing biology would have to be wholly revised, for this thing was no product of any cell-growth science knows about,” he notes as he conducts an autopsy on an Old One. Their evolution is “utterly beyond our powers of speculation”; the creatures “probably have more than five senses, so that its habits could not be predicted from any existing analogy.” As they go deeper into the city and the architecture gets even more disturbing, the explorers stop sending messages back to camp—and thus to newspapers back home—because “our sensations could not be conveyed in any words the press would understand”. As they discover the “insane graves” of the Old Ones and ponder their dread meaning, he and his partner “harbored wild guesses which sanity forbade him to formulate completely.”

In the final moments of the story, they’re chased by a Shoggoth, a sort of glutenous, protoplasmic monster used as a slave in ancient times by the Old Ones. The narrator is, for once, able to describe the beast fairly accurately:

“The nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence oozed tightly onward through its fifteen-foot sinus; gathering unholy speed and driving before it a spiral, re-thickening cloud of the pallid abyss-vapour. It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train — a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us …”

This was a sufficiently clear description that the artist for the cover of Astounding Stories, February 1936, drew a picture:

Not quite so terrifying when it’s turned into a watercolor, really.

But the emotional impact of beholding this beast? The internal deformations of one’s very soul? That remains beyond sanity, beyond language, beyond vowels and syllables! “I might as well be frank—even if I cannot bear to be quite direct—in stating what we saw; but with the time we felt that it was not to be admitted even to each other,” the narrator continues. “The words reaching the reader can never even suggest the awfulness of the sight itself. It crippled our consciousness so completely that I wonder we had the residual sense to dim our torches as planned, and to strike the right tunnel toward the dead city.” They ran like hell, and while the main narrator emerges from the experience traumatized but coherent, his companion is transformed permanently into a babbling, laughing lunatic.

It must be said: Lovecraft is not a great literary stylist. His prose is good, but not great.

The one exception? This linguistic subgenre—the craft of finding new ways to say that he can’t say something. When Lovecraft does describe a monster straightforwardly, he often stumbles, defaulting to pretty journeyman prose. But when he describes the way a monster can’t be described? He is endlessly inventive. I read and reread my collection of Lovecraft, slapping in a Post-It Note whenever I hit upon one of these I-can’t-even moments, and soon the book was crammed with stickies. I’m starting to believe these catchphrases may be his most enduring contribution to English letters.

A useful one, too! The next you see something so utterly daft that you are struck dumb, you are, essentially, in Lovecraft territory. So why not quote him?

Let’s say a corporation starts building some ugly new headquarters near where you work. In The Call of Cthulhu, a character encounters a horrid temple, the geometry of which is so creepy that it is “abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours … In this phantasy of prismatic distortion it moved anomalously in a diagonal way, so that all the rules of matter and perspective seemed upset.” Those would make good tweets:

Or maybe you’re appalled by the new Robin Thicke album? You could channel The Music of Erich Zann and call it …

I doubt you could improve upon that.

The fact that Lovecraft’s technique is so useful in our modern world is, of course, a potentially devastating indictment of today’s culture. He pioneered the art of expressing inexpressibility because he was trying to create a universe filled with mind-halting horror. A century later we’re trying to describe our experiences online … and we’ve stumbled across the same linguistic formula.

It’s Lovecraft’s world; we just live in it.



Clive Thompson
The Message

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net