I feel like lots of writers confuse this with having a scary setting (which is also cool, but not something that will carry the book's creepy vibe in between all the straight-up Something Scary is Happening parts.) A proper atmosphere can make the reader feel like they're reading a horror novel even if nothing scary is happening. You utilize sight, touch, smell. Anything that adds to the piece, actually.
A lot about getting the scary atmosphere right is how you use your words, rather than what words you use. By definition, this paragraph SHOULD be creepy:
It was a dark, stormy night. Thunder boomed through Stephen King's house while he sat at his desk, writing a story about zombies. While he wrote, he got more and more nervous about a particular scratching sound that was coming from beneath his desk. Was there somebody- or some thing- down there, waiting to grab him and gobble him up like the zombies in his story? Stephen was too afraid to look. He continued writing until something brushed up against his leg. He screamed and fell backwards from his chair right as a bolt of lightning lit up the entire room. Staring at him intently from beneath the desk was his cat Fatty.
Okay, so....the classic 'fake out.' Lots of horror novels use scenes like this to build up a scary situation, to satisfy the reader until the REAL stuff hits the fan. You'd think it was good to go- scary setting, the mention of zombies, the possibility of something under his desk ready to grab him. But it's not scary. If an entire book was written in this vein, it would not only be cheesy but it would be boring. WAY boring. There are many ways you could make that same paragraph a lot creepier, even if Stephen had been writing about unicorns and not zombies.
Why, that sounds like a challenge! LET'S DO IIIT.
There was something under his desk, Stephen could sense it. Over and over again he tried to ignore the slow, hard scratching sound of claws against hardwood floor. It had to be his imagination, right? Of course. It was just his story getting him nervous. Nothing but the stupid cat, he told himself after another flash of lightning made him jump. The night made the rain look like black ink dripping down his windows. When the scratching sound stopped, Stephen breathed a sigh of relief. Back to his story.
The glittery, spiraled horn came to an agonizing point, and when it punctured through Amy's chest there came the sound of her heart popping like an over-filled water balloon. Crimson fluid gushed through the fresh cavity, filling the air with the smell of pennies. The unicorn raised his head to the moon and neighed a sadistic victory cry. Tonight, Team Sparkle had prevailed.
Stephen sat back in his chair, satisfied. And when the scratching sound started up again, louder this time, he refused to look. It was just the cat.
It had to be.
Okay, so the example is really silly, and maybe even a bit weak when it comes to how scary it is. But I do feel as though the second sample would hold its own much better in a horror novel for the following reasons:
-We cut out the phrase 'dark, stormy night.' (PLEASE NEVER USE THIS. EVER. EVER. EVER.)
-We went into more detail about the creepy sound, instead of having Stephen straight up wonder if there was something about to eat him. Always let the reader ask their own questions instead of trying to force your own on them.
-We never came right out and said it was the cat. You want to leave the reader feeling uneasy at any possible time, and even though it really WAS the cat in the second paragraph, spelling it out would have taken that unease away.
-We inserted something creepy that had nothing to do with what was actually taking place (the killer unicorn.) This was in the form of another piece of writing, but in the more-likely chance that your characters aren't writing a scary story, it might not seem as easy to do this. It actually is. You could tie in a particularly morbid description, or include a particularly not-so-happy thought/memory that the MC is having because of his surroundings.
-The first paragraph relied on the setting to provide all the oomph. It figured that since it included a storm, the dark, mention of zombies, and scary sounds, the actual writing itself could probably take a hit. Not the case. NEVER THE CASE! Always strive to keep the writing sharp, at all times, no matter what you are describing.
It's the little things like this that make a HUGE difference when writing horror. After all, in the case of a full length novel, you simply can not rely on unoriginal tactics and cheap scares to pull the weight in between the really scary stuff. It will come off as shticky, and nobody likes to roll their eyes at something that they wish was scaring them. Atmosphere is about so much more than what is physically around the MC- it's about how you choose to present it.
What say you? Are there any other atmospheric horror cliches that you just can't stand?