Tag Archives: smell


art sufferingHumans survive by using our five senses. Sight. Sound. Smell. Taste. Feel. We’re so conditioned to evoking these senses in order to function in the world that we usually fail to consciously identify which source our brain is using to tell us what’s going on. Unless it’s an extreme event.

Take the overpowering smell of a rotting corpse, for instance. Trust me. That’s a nose-ride that you’ll never forget.

You’ll always remember the beautiful sight of your children being born.

How about the fantastic sound of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah? The exquisite taste of a most excellent Shiraz? Or the creepy-crawly feel of a boa constrictor encircling your neck?

A2Sight. Sound. Smell. Taste. Feel. SSSTF for short. These are what trigger our emotional experiences in daily life.

They also trigger emotional experiences when we read. As a writer, it’s your job to create sensual worlds by painting glorious pictures from twenty-six letters, pounding-out sounds with punctuation, brewing smells with paragraphs, cooking impeccable tastes in chapters, and touching your reader’s heart by prose, alliteration, metaphor, simile, and composition.


I keep a little, yellow sticky-note at the bottom of my screen with these five letters to remind me of always writing to the senses. When editing, I look at each scene to see how the SSSTF formula is applied.

garry-KindleHere’s some samples of using sensory amplification from my BestSeller No Witnesses To Nothing.


A14It’d been a large man. An older man. Not tall, but heavyset. The body was supine, lying on its back on the linoleum floor, just inside the trailer door. The face was barely recognizable; swollen and bearded in greyish-white. The exposed flesh had turned a green colour. Not a light green, nor a dark green, but an intense green like the green of the Incredible Hulk. The lips were black bulges. The left eye squeezed shut, but the right was mostly open. Flies buzzed about; eggs laid, though their maggots had not yet hatched. Prunty shuddered the heebie-jeebies. It was like the rotting Hulk was winking at you.


Ngoc Van Nguyen was the first to see it come down. He was a lookout on the Bottomline, one of four lookouts on the mule boats at the off-load site. 

A23A bright, white light switched-on low in the south-west sky. He squeezed his eyes and looked again. It was closing fast. Nguyen called in Vietnamese to the man on the Do Boy who also looked. They saw a second white light flash-on beside it, streaking straight at them.

“Gai Lum Bob! Gai Lum Bob!” the pair yelled. They had exactly 7.7 seconds to sound the alarm, causing everyone to look up as the lights screamed silently by, 580 feet overhead. The off-loaders had another 2.3 seconds to watch trails of fire arch upward before –


A15Two massive sonic booms blew out eardrums and shot blood from the noses of the exposed workers in the bay. Shattered glass, fiberglass shards, ripped fabric, and debris of all sorts blasted everywhere within the shock-stricken target. Half the off-loaders were unable to stand, let alone hear the mind-fucking roar of afterburners. The F-18 Hornets pulled six G’s going vertical from their Mach 1.2 run, climbing thirty seconds, wing-tip at wing-tip to 26,000 feet, banking sharply north, returning to base.


“Hello?” he called out, closing in on the door. “Hello! Anyone here?”

A16It sounds absurd, calling out, given the commotion, but the volunteer firefighter was an insurance man in his day job and insurance men are cautious. He stepped up. Tapped the door. Turned the lever and pulled. The whoosh of rushing air hosed him like the stream straight out of a skunk’s ass and he instantly heaved-up his guts.

“Hey! HEY!” he yelled, snotting and spitting. “There’s a fuckin’ dead guy in here!”


They set their instruments aside, forming a rough semi-circle. Billy handed the blue CD case which Smerchook zipped open, taking a wad of the dried, diced material, and began some short sniffs. Haslett watched, suspecting dope. “What’s that?”

A17“Rat-Root,” Smerchook replied. “A tradition in my culture. Sort of like chewing tobacco or snuff. Here. Wanna try?”

Haslett’s nose wrinkled, moving back.

“Don’t worry. There’s no hallucinogenics.”

Smerchook held out the case. Curiosity got the better of Haslett. He took a pinch, put it in his mouth, and bit down.

“Pttt…tttthewh. Ye-ucck!” He spat, wiping his mouth with his fingers. “Eeech! That is horrible!”

“Yeah, I know,” Smerchook replied, closing the case. “It tastes like horse shit. That’s why I only sniff it.”


A21Vancouver General’s morgue is like a chilled Costco for the dead. Stainless steel refrigeration crypts, stacked three high, in two rows of nine, have shelving for fifty-four. The freezer unit stores eight and isolation for the stinkers takes six, sealed aluminium caskets. These tanks are also used for homicide cases; locked to preserve evidence. A grindy, overhead hoist shifts cadavers from wheeled gurneys that squeak about the fluorescent-lit room, touring them to and from metal drawers. Some are in-hospital deaths, brought down from the wards covered in warm, wollen blankets. Some are delivered by cold, black panel-vans handling coroner cases.

Combination of SSSTF

Cool PicA waft of sage mixed with sweetgrass, smoldering in a baked-clay bowl, meshed with hollow, haunting tones of the flute played by Native American musician, Ronald Roybal, drifting from speakers secluded somewhere within the room’s delicious palettes – fiery reds, yellows, and burnt oranges of the sunrise, trapped in Navajo tapestries and draping both sides of a north-facing window – airy pinkish-purples of a sunset sky, woven into a topper above the bronzed glass – mulchy browns, cactus greens, and driftwood greys of the earth, patched into fabric furnishings – and watery blues with foamy whites, splashing off a rough stucco wall.

Absence of SSSTF

Tracy transcended.

A22She floated in awe – in divine bliss – marvelling in perfect clarity as the world all around her made sense. She felt at her physical carriage – reaching over – reaching under – her hands never moving. She saw without eyes. Heard without ears. Smelled fragrances without nostrils. Tasted sweets without buds.

For Tracy –

Time stopped –

She became the sight, the sound, the smell, the taste, and the feel.

Sight. Sound. Smell. Taste. Feel.





This great guest post is by Andy Brunning, a UK Chemistry Teacher who hosts the fascinating website Compound Interest at www.compoundchem.com .

Decomp1Decomposition is an incredibly complicated process, but we do know a little about the chemical culprits behind some of the terrible smells as the body breaks down.

Before we look at specific compounds, it’s worth taking a look at the decomposition process as a whole.

Decomposition, or ‘Decomp’ as it’s called in the death business, can be roughly divided into four stages: the fresh stage, the bloated stage, the active decay stage, and the advanced decay stage. Some overviews of the process also add in a final stage when all that is left of the corpse is dried remains. This can be skeletal, mummification, or fossilization.

The fresh stage of decay kicks off about four minutes after death.

Decomp2Once the heart has stopped beating, the cells in the body are deprived of oxygen. As carbon dioxide and waste products build up, the cells start to break down as a result of enzymatic processes – these are known as autolysis. Initial visual signs of decomposition are minimal, although as autolysis progresses blisters and sloughing of skin may occur.

The second stage of decay occurs as a result of the action of micro-organisms.

The actions of bacteria on the soft tissue of the body produces a variety of gases which cause the carcass to become bloated and swell in size. It’s claimed that the body can as much as double in size during this stage of decomposition. The sulfur-containing compounds that the bacteria release also cause discolouration of the skin, giving it a yellow-green hue.

Decomp3As a result of the bloating, the increased pressure causes bodily fluids to be forced out of natural orifices, as well as potentially causing ruptures in the skin. This can cause a formidable odour; at this stage, if insects are able to access the body, flies will lay eggs in exposed orifices, which will in turn hatch into maggots which then devour the flesh.

The third stage is that of active decay.

At this stage, the ongoing action of bacteria activity and decomposition leads to the liquefaction of tissues, and the persistence of the strong odour. It is during this stage that the cadaver loses the greatest mass.

The final stage, advanced decay, occurs once most of the cadaveric material has already decomposed.

A wide range of factors can affect the decomposition process, including whether the body is buried, and the ambient temperature.

Decomp4These factors also have an effect on the large number of compounds produced during the decomp process. Considering that, as a species, we’ve been dying and decomposing for thousands of years, we know surprisingly little about the specifics of the process and the chemicals involved.

What we do know is that there are several key compounds that contribute towards the characteristic odours of decay.

Two of these are pretty much named for this contribution: cadaverine and putrescine. The aroma of both is loosely described as ‘rotting flesh’, and they have relatively low odour thresholds – meaning that not a lot is required in order for them to make their presence felt by your nostrils. Oddly enough, their presence in your body isn’t limited until after you die, however. Both crop up in cases of oral halitosis (i.e. bad breath), as well as in urine and semen, contributing to their odours.

Two other key compounds are skatole and indole.

Decomp6Skatole, as you may have already guessed from the name, has a strong odour of faeces, whilst indole has a mustier, mothball-like smell. Both compounds are found in human and animal faeces, so it’s little surprise that they can contribute unpleasantness to the odour of a decomposing corpse. The strange thing about both is that, at low concentrations, they actually have quite pleasant, flowery aromas, leading to an array of unexpected uses. Indole is found in jasmine oil, which is used in many perfumes, whilst synthetic skatole is used in small amounts as a flavouring in ice creams, as well as also being found in perfumes.

A range of sulfur-containing compounds also contribute to the smell of decomposition.

Decomp7Produced by the action of bacteria, compounds such as hydrogen sulfide (which smells of rotten eggs), methanethiol (rotting cabbage), dimethyl disulfide (garlic-like) and dimethyl trisulfide (foul/garlic) all add to the unpleasant scent. A whole range of other compounds are also produced as the tissues of the body decompose – some studies have identified over 400 different compounds, although not all of these will be contributors to the odour.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about decomposition.

Decomp8Using human corpses in research on decomp is limited in many countries for ethical reasons, so in many studies pigs are used as models. In the USA, however, there are a number of ‘body farms’ – facilities set up in a several states to study decomposition of human remains. The bodies they study are those who have chosen to donate their remains; these are then allowed to decay in a range of conditions and studied as they do so. This can help researchers determine the appearance and chemical emissions of bodies at various stages of decay, which can then inform police investigations where bodies are discovered, helping to determine a more accurate time of death.

Our knowledge about decomposition will develop over the coming years as more studies are carried out.

A particular area of development is looking at producing a method of determining time of death from volatile compound emissions, as the different groups of organic compounds are emitted in varying levels at different stages of the decay process.

Chemistry-of-Decomposition (1)

Compound Interest is a blog by Andy Brunning, a chemistry teacher in the UK, creating graphics looking at the chemistry and chemical reactions we come across on a day-to-day basis.

Decomp10Check out Andy’s fascinating site at www.compoundchem.com