Favorite Descriptive Passages -- Not Only SF and Fantasy

Extollager

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A thread for sharing passages describing the appearances of things, sounds, textures, etc. Sources may be from works of fiction, nonfiction, drama, poetry.

Please do not select passages in which the emphasis is on what characters are doing or thinking (narration).

We're talking about the passages that impatient readers might skip as they hurry to find out what happened.

It is OK if your selection is several paragraphs long, though it should be an excerpt of a longer piece rather than a complete prose poem.

You may identify the source straightaway or invite readers to say where the passage is from.

"Low down and near the horizon hung a great, red sun....a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down upon that world. To the left of the sun, and higher up, there was one single star, big and bright. Those were the only two things to be seen in the dark sky...and on the earth, in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, there spread a vast city in which there was no living thing to be seen."
 
"Low down and near the horizon hung a great, red sun....a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down upon that world. To the left of the sun, and higher up, there was one single star, big and bright. Those were the only two things to be seen in the dark sky...and on the earth, in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, there spread a vast city in which there was no living thing to be seen."
I haven't read this for many years and I no longer have a copy of the book to check, but I would be very surprised if this weren't the description of the city of Charn from The Magician's Nephew by CS Lewis.
 
I’ve always loved the opening chapter of The Grapes Of Wrath

TO THE RED COUNTRY and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the cornquickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.
 
To my mind, Tolkien is the master of description. I've no idea how he's got the reputation with some readers of being over-descriptive, as most of his are very concise. Here are three of my favourites:

"Away eastward the sun was rising red out of the mists that lay thick on the world. Touched with gold and red the autumn leaves seemed to be sailing rootless in a shadowy sea. A little below him to the left the road ran down steeply into a hollow and disappeared."

That one struck me when I first read LOTR as a kid, and has done so every time since. I think it's the way he anchors the ethereal misty stuff with the switch to hard physical details of the road.

"The leaves of trees were glistening, and every twig was dripping; the grass was grey with cold dew. Everything was still, and far-away noises seemed near and clear: fowls chattering in a yard, someone closing the door of a distant house."

So evocative.

"Even to the Mere of Dead Faces some haggard phantom of green spring would come; but here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light."
 
I haven't read this for many years and I no longer have a copy of the book to check, but I would be very surprised if this weren't the description of the city of Charn from The Magician's Nephew by CS Lewis.
Yes, that's right.
 
Yes, that's right.
That made a big impression on me when I was young.

Re Tolkein. For all if his wonderful description with excellent selections above by @HareBrain, the one that sticks in my mind is the opening of the Hobbitt: In a hole in the ground…. It is a brilliant description of a comfortable cosy place, a bit fussy and provincial, in a nice sort of way. The sort of place where stuff happens somewhere else. And of course it is also a description of Bilbo Baggins at the same time.
 
The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunnelled the soil and moulted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.
 
Astro Pen, that's either Ray Bradbury ("All Summer in a Day") or something I haven't read.
 
There are so many from Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

He also loved the city itself. Coming to and leaving Cousin Joe’s, he would gorge himself on hot dogs and cafeteria pie, price cigarette lighters and snap-brim hats in store windows, follow the pushboys with their rustling racks of furs and trousers. There were sailors and prizefighters; there were bums, sad and menacing, and ladies in piped jackets with dogs in their handbags. Tommy would feel the sidewalks hum and shudder as the trains rolled past beneath him. He heard men swearing and singing opera. On a sunny day, his peripheral vision would be spangled with light winking off the chrome headlights of taxicabs, the buckles on ladies’ shoes, the badges of policemen, the handles of pushcart lunch-wagons, the bulldog ornaments on the hoods of irate moving vans. This was Gotham City, Empire City, Metropolis. Its skies and rooftops were alive with men in capes and costumes, on the lookout for wrongdoers, saboteurs, and Communists.
 
I think there's a good one that starts with "There once was a man from Nantucket," but for the life of me, I can't remember it :)

There's a lot of good ones in Mr Norrell & Jonathan Strange though.
 
All my life I have had an awareness of other times and places . I have been aware of other persons in me. - Oh, and trust me ,so have you, my reader that is to be. Read back into your childhood, and this sense of awareness I speak of will be remembered as an experience of your childhood, You were then not fixed, not crystalized . You were plastic , a soul in flux , a consciousness and an identity in the process of forming - ay, of forming and forgetting .

This is the opening of The Star Rover by Jack London
 
This:

Crossing the plain the next morning they came upon standing water in the bajadas and they watered the horses and drank rainwater from the rocks and they climbed steadily into the deepening cool of the mountains until in the evening of that day from the crest of the Cordilleras they saw below them the country of which they'd been told. The grasslands lay in a deep violet haze and to the west thin flights of waterfowl were moving north before the sunset in the deep red galleries under the cloudbanks like schoolfish in a burning sea and on the foreland plain they saw vaqueros driving cattle before them through a gauze of golden dust.

The first sentence describes character action, but the second is pure description, and when I first read it it stopped me dead in my tracks… it’s perfect.
 
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@Bick, I think that must be Cormac McCarthy, from both the style and setting. It might even be from All the Pretty Horses, which is the only one of his I've read, though quite a while ago. In fact I was looking through that the other day for a couple of passages to post here!
 
@Bick, I think that must be Cormac McCarthy, from both the style and setting. It might even be from All the Pretty Horses, which is the only one of his I've read, though quite a while ago. In fact I was looking through that the other day for a couple of passages to post here!
It is indeed from All the Pretty Horses, good call. What a writer.
 
What a writer.
Agreed. He uses techniques that won't be to everyone's taste, but I find the lack of punctuation in the passage you quoted gives it an almost trance-like intensity. It wants to be read aloud slowly.

The two sections I thought of from that book were the description of the train right at the start, and the time when (I think) the main character starts hobbling the horses. The way he describes the horses' fear and then resignation, and the way they become no longer a herd but a collection of split-off individuals struck by a "creeping plague" they don't comprehend, is astoundingly good.
 
The idiot lived in a black and grey world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear. His clothes were old and many windowed. Here peeped a shinbone, sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers of a fist. He was tall and flat. His eyes were calm and his face was dead.

-- Opening lines of More Than Human (1953) by Theodore Sturgeon

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

-- Opening lines of The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson
 
The idiot lived in a black and grey world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear. His clothes were old and many windowed. Here peeped a shinbone, sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers of a fist. He was tall and flat. His eyes were calm and his face was dead.

-- Opening lines of More Than Human (1953) by Theodore Sturgeon

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

-- Opening lines of The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson
How interesting - I find both of these difficult to read, and would go so far as to say the Jackson is not well written. I’ve never cared for Sturgeon’s prose to be honest and have given up on More than Human more than once. Prose appreciation is a very personal thing I guess.
 
Just been tearing the place apart in vain searching for my copy of Mary Gentle's "Rats and Gargoyles"....

To my mind, Tolkien is the master of description. I've no idea how he's got the reputation with some readers of being over-descriptive, as most of his are very concise.
...
It feels like many of Tolkien's successors want to write Big Thick Books like he did, but are very snooty about Tolkien's lush descriptive passages, blow-by-blow approach to travel writing, habit of breaking into poetry, and frequent fascinating digressions. So instead they pad the story out with extra plot: more fighting, more running, more scheming, more twists, all described in rather flat and telegraphic prose. The result is a page-turner, but a forgettable and unsatisfying one. I prefer Tolkien's approach.
 
For me, the height of descriptive skill comes from the Apostle John when he's bringing to life a deep complex theological insight in such simple language that even the illiterate can hear its profound truth when the words are read.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
 

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