The Importance of Atmosphere in Horror

I recently wrapped slush-reading on what will be my ninth anthology: Lost Contact. It is the final volume in what I’ve considered to be my “Lost” trilogy; the first two volumes being Lost Signals and Lost Films. I am quite proud of these three books. In fact, out of anything with my name on the cover, these three books are what I consider to be the best, including my own novels.

For this book specifically—Lost Contact—we received an incredible 862 submissions. Something every editor eventually learns, if they spend enough time digging through enough slush, is most of the time it’s not necessary to read every story in its entirety to judge whether it’s going to be a good fit for your project. I once let that slip to a writer not involved in publishing or editing and the way their face looked after, it was like a little piece of them died inside. But it’s true! I mean, c’mon, think about it. There simply isn’t any reasonable way I could have devoted my complete attention to every word included in those 862 stories.

When I read slush, I utilize the One Page Test, which is something I imagine other editors do, as well. I also admit, realistically, sometimes the One Page Test is actually the One Paragraph Test. It’s a simple test. After reading one page—or one paragraph—do I feel compelled to read the next page or paragraph? If the answer is no, then I reject. Does that sound cruel and heartless? I mean...maybe? But when you’re trying to get through hundreds of stories, sometimes you have to be cruel and heartless. There simply isn’t enough time in a day. There isn’t enough energy in a person. And, besides, usually this test is very accurate. Think about it like this. If I don’t like a story enough to continue reading after the first page, what are the odds that I’m somehow going to enjoy the rest of the story? First paragraphs are a little trickier, but sometimes you just know. One of the greatest skills an editor learns is how to trust their intuition. Sadly, there is no secret trick for this other than to build up a lot of experience reading stories of significantly different qualities.

But what about those stories that, upon first reading, appear to have nothing wrong with them? I’m talking about the stories that are, technically, not bad at all. The stories that contain fun characters, a compelling plot, and sentences that aren’t constructed by a five-year-old. Yet, for some reason, they still end up receiving a rejection. Why?

The best way for me to explain this is to focus on Lost Contact, since I just finished choosing its final table of contents and the slush-reading experience is still fresh in my mind. It was also while working on this anthology that something clicked in my head, which inspired this LitReactor article in the first place, and that is the importance of tone in horror fiction.

With the previous two installments of the “Lost” trilogy, I managed to develop this particular atmosphere simply by what stories I decided to publish, the order they were compiled, and the type of artwork I commissioned. It’s an atmosphere I strived to maintain in Lost Contact, which is why I urged potential writers to check out the first two volumes before brainstorming their own story ideas.

The tone, the mood, the atmosphere of a story is something that’s essential for any genre of writing, but it is perhaps most important in the horror genre. The three terms are not exactly interchangeable, but they’re definitely all in the same family. Tone can be described as a “writer's attitude toward or feelings about the subject matter and audience.” Mood, on the other hand, is the vibe evoked as the reader goes through the story. And atmosphere is basically the result of both tone and mood—the overall feeling.

Atmosphere will make or break a good horror story. Think about it like this. You could have the scariest horror plot, but depending on the way it’s written, it might not even end up falling under the horror genre. Side-stepping away, just for a moment, into film territory, but consider Raiders of the Lost Ark—especially that spectacular opening ten-minute scene. What do we have? We have a man in an unfamiliar land. We have mysterious strangers tracking him, somewhere deep in the woods, watching...waiting. We have a spooky cave. We have scary monster faces carved into stone. We have motherfucking spiders and skeletons. Everything I’m describing right now would not be strange to find in a horror story, but Raiders of the Lost Ark clearly isn’t horror, despite the fact that it ends with several people literally melting in a sequence so gnarly that it’d probably make David Cronenberg blush. Raiders of the Lost Ark is, instead, an adventure story. Yes, it has horror elements, but the atmosphere maintained throughout the runtime isn’t horror—it’s adventure.

This is something I see quite often in the slush pile—my anthology, Lost Contact, being a perfect example. For this book, I was after unsettling horror. Yet, several hundred submissions weren’t exactly horror stories. They were adventure (or name any other genre) stories with horror elements. The stories contained characters interacting with tropes typically found in the horror genre, but that’s where it stopped, because the atmosphere failed to deliver.

So the question becomes, then, how does somebody create a horror atmosphere? Because, at this point in the article, I hope I’ve already established that merely referencing spooky things is not enough. It’s not unimportant, but you need more. You need to carefully examine the story word by word. Paragraph and sentence structure are essential. So is the rhythm. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Let’s look at the opening of Kathe Koja’s The Cipher:

Nakota, who saw it first: long spider legs drawn up beneath her ugly skirt, wise mouth pursed into nothing like a smile. Sitting in my dreary third-floor flat, on a dreary thrift-shop chair, the window light behind her dull and gray as dirty fur and she alive, giving off her dark continuous sparks. Around us the remains of this day’s argument, squashed beer cans, stolen bar ashtray sloped full. “You know it,” she said, “the black-hole thing, right? In space? Big dark butthole,” and she laughed, showing those tiny teeth, fox teeth, not white and not ivory yellow either like most people’s, almost bluish as if with some undreamed-of decay beneath them. Nakota would rot differently from other people; she would be the first to admit it.

We immediately start with an abnormal structure you won’t find in most literature. The way Koja’s sentences flow, they’re disjointed, difficult for the brain to fully grasp without deep concentration. When you read The Cipher, from the very first page—from the very first sentence—nothing about it feels safe, and that dangerous feeling (or, atmosphere) begins with the sentence structure, and continues into how the characters behave, how the story progresses, how ordinary actions are described, and so on.

You should also be studying the opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House:

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 so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met nearly, 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.

Anything you’ve ever wanted to learn about atmosphere can be found in this book, especially the above opening paragraph. Here we are being told that those who do not sleep eventually go insane, while also learning about a house that is apparently “not sane”—implying what? That it never sleeps, yet perhaps has the ability to? And inside, it only holds darkness? What the fuck! Shirley Jackson, you rascal, now that’s how you create a goddamn atmosphere! I would be shocked to learn someone read that opening paragraph and didn’t immediately understand what kind of story they were getting themselves into.

The more fiction I read and write, the more I’m convinced that atmosphere is everything. How something makes me feel is far more valuable than a clever plot, than memorable characters, than anything. Yes, all of that stuff is good and helps, but you need more. You need that vibe. And it’s so easy to overdo it, too. Horror is at its best when it is subtle, and I can think of no better example than one of my favorite short stories of all time: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates.

First, if you haven’t read this, please go fix that immediately.

Essentially, this story is about a fifteen-year-old girl named Connie, who’s living a typical teenage life, going out with friends, lying to parents—a common coming-of-age story, until her life is interrupted by a mysterious older boy (or, possibly, man) who has decided he wants her. This guy, Arnold Friend, he shows up at her house when everybody else is gone with one simple request: to come for a ride with him.

But there’s a problem with that, of course. Connie’s never met this guy before in her life, despite what he claims. Plus, he seems to know an awful lot about not just her, but everybody in town. Omnipresent knowledge is one of the biggest trademarks of cosmic horror, and that’s exactly how I tend to view “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

The way it’s presented is all very subtle, to a point where Arnold Friend’s emphasis on politeness becomes more menacing and dreadful than any stereotypical antagonist would sound placed in a similar situation. We are also viewing this character from Connie’s perspective, which allows Oates to really expand on the atmosphere. One of my favorite sections from the story, included between Arnold Friend’s “I’m a nice guy” dialogue, is the following:

He grinned to reassure her and lines appeared at the corners of his mouth. His teeth were big and white. He grinned so broadly his eyes became slits and she saw how thick the lashes were, thick and black as if painted with a black tarlike material.

You know what else has teeth that are big and white? Wolves.

Found in the same paragraph is a wonderful description of the quiet man riding shotgun in Arnold’s car:

His sunglasses told nothing about what he was thinking.

I love that sentence. It provides a great visual, yes, but also a perfect atmosphere. Do not trust these people, Connie, you want to scream at the book. Turn back now and go inside. You don’t want to know what he’s thinking behind those sunglasses.

This story works so well almost entirely because of the atmosphere. The character of Arnold Friend is unsettling as fuck. The way he moves. The way he talks. The way he’s presented in the story. So much of his dialogue, if you copy/pasted it in a regular romance story, would still feel natural. But because of the established atmosphere, it’s the opposite of romantic. It’s terrifying.

When I read slush for our magazines and anthologies, this is what I’m looking for most. Not great plots, but great atmosphere. Everything about horror that I love boils down to how it makes me feel. And when someone pulls it off? Holy crap. There is no better high in the universe.

Stay tuned for Lost Contact later this summer. In the meantime, Lost Signals and Lost Films are available now.

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