This essay describes how many horror writers make their novels effective by means of an intense atmosphere instead of simply putting in a lot of scary moments.
The ability to create a tension filled atmosphere in a horror novel is paramount to the overall quality of the work. Many of the best writers in horror fiction would appear to make their books scary judging by the way they are promoted, but more often than not it is a suspenseful atmosphere that carries them even more than the chills. Stephen King and Peter Straub are two examples of authors that write horror novels that may appear to be incredibly frightening on the outside, but have a greater focus on dense atmosphere on the inside. Some of my other favorite suspense novelists have a different manner of creating atmosphere, whether through the excitement that Dean Koontz creates or the magical aura that Robert McCammon imbibes in his novels. I believe that creating a gripping situation is more important than a scary one.
Stephen King is the greatest example of a master of building atmosphere in his novels. The most frightening of his books is probably It, but it’s more gripping by means of the nefarious acts the main creature performs. One becomes tense anticipating how the characters will die in the novel. Salem’s Lot has an evil atmosphere permeate its pages without actually even resorting to a lot of killing throughout the length of the novel. Misery has a tension created between two characters alone, a captor and a prisoner, and their interactions create an aura of friction that is masterful. Perhaps the greatest atmosphere that King creates is in his excellent The Stand, which features a world that is falling apart and people that search for survival from a plague in any manner possible. The apocalyptic atmosphere is mirrored and perhaps eve bettered by Robert McCammon in his book Swan Song as well. However, McCammon’s books feature mystery and magic in equal terms to create a mood that is different than that of King.
Peter Straub has successfully used a creepy atmosphere in his novel Ghost Story. It’s actually the subtle presence of the ghosts that gives the tense feeling in this book more than the murders the ghosts perform, however. The idea of something being haunted can work its way into the reader’s mind in a manner that is psychologically terrifying in a less overt manner. Straub uses other methods of creating suspense in other stories instead of ghosts as well. In contrast to the idea of supernatural presences, many of the books of Dean Koontz often rely on the tension that is created between a serial killer and a person being pursued. There are often chase scenes that traverse a number of environments and display the interaction between many interesting characters. This style is best shown in the book Intensity, which demonstrates the hunt of a serial killer throughout its length. The book Misery by Stephen King is very close to the kind of exciting atmosphere that Koontz goes for. As one can see, there are different methods of creating suspense without necessarily resorting to horrifying means.
In conclusion, a horror writer can create a tense atmosphere by a number of means such as chases, apocalyptic visions, imposing creatures and magical elements without resorting to extreme scares. Of course the examples of King, McCammon, Koontz and Straub are only a few of many I could have taken as there are other authors like Clive Barker that push the horror genre in increasingly different directions as well. The common theme is that all of them are able to create a feeling in the reader that makes them gripped and constantly wanting to read the next page of the novel. This feeling that often leads to excitement overall is the reason I love horror novels.