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How does setting and atmosphere contribute to suspense in “The Black Cat” and “The Red Room”

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It is especially important in short stories to create suspense very quickly. In both “The Red Room” and “The Black Cat” the authors build up an atmosphere almost immediately. Both stories are similar in that they are both told in the first person. This makes the stories seem more personal and the reader feels involved as they experience similar emotions. If anything is described to sound foreboding or eerie then this is a description of the protagonist’s feelings. For example in “The Red Room” the reader is told one of the old men has a “withered arm” about six times in the opening of the narrative.

As the narrative is being told by the protagonist, this shows he finds this disturbing, showing the reader that his apparent confidence is phoney. The beginning of each story has a different tone. It is a sinister tone that starts “The Black Cat” where the persona has resigned to death- “But tomorrow I die,” This automatically builds up suspense because the reader immediately wonders why the persona will die, how does he know? This contrasts with the opening of “The Red Room” where the tone is confident and pompous.

The first line for example is “I can assure you” said I, “that it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me. ” Such confidence and self-assurance to start the narrative builds suspense because it seems false and superficial. The reader therefore expects evil and fear to inevitably follow such bravado. H. G. Wells creates suspense in “The Red Room” by his detailed description of the setting. He makes the protagonist seem arrogant and over-confident through his actions and dialogue.

“If,” I said “you show me this haunted room of yours I will make myself comfortable there. This shows complete arrogance because he assumes he will be at ease in the room they all fear. Equally the description “And I stood up before the fire with my glass in my hand” shows complete confidence because he is standing around drinking which in itself seems a very relaxed action when he should be nervous. Also the fact that he is drinking supports the impression he is unconcerned he is going to a haunted room because if he was he would want to be alert and not be affected by alcohol.

His idle dismissal of the elders’ warnings indicate he is not intimidated by the prospect of spending the night in “The Red Room”- “It’s your own choosing” said the man with the withered arm when the coughing had ceased for a while. “It’s my own choosing” I answered. The man with the withered arm has stated this phrase several times and this makes the red room seem even more foreboding. It seems the old man is trying to justify letting him go into the red room alone. In other words he expects something bad to happen and does not want to feel guilt.

This repeated warning is ignored every time by the protagonist showing arrogance but by this point in the narrative he is obviously getting annoyed by the repetition and wants him to stop. This suggests that the phrase is unsettling him and the reader has the first signs that his appearance of total confidence is not how he really feels. The old people are described with suspicion and made to sound evil and creepy. However, after the protagonist has suffered his ordeal in the red room the old people are not described in a bad light but simply referred to either by pronouns or as “the old man” or “the old lady”.

This is a major change from the beginning where the protagonist says, “There is to my mind something inhuman in senility, something crouching and atavistic; the human qualities seem to drop from old people insensibly day by day. ” This is a very jaded opinion formulated from his expectation of the worse and is scared. However, the protagonist describes the old man talking to him at the end “no longer as one who greets an intruder, but as one who grieves for a broken friend. ” This obvious human quality is a complete contrast to the beginning.

After his suffering he is no longer scared but glad to be in company because wants to feel safe. Therefore the negative remarks about the old people are replaced by the positive. Edgar Allen Poe uses the psychological complexity of the protagonist to create tension and entice the reader to read on in “The Black Cat”. The narrative explores the evils of alcohol and the speed at which humans can be infected; in fact Poe calls it a “disease”. Poe speaks from personal experience about the evils of alcohol.

Another theme is perverseness and its place as one of the evils in human nature. Poe makes the reader feel shame for the terrible flaws of humanity. As the narrative is written in the first person it seems to take the form of a confession. The protagonist begins writing as if it is to someone because he says “I neither expect nor solicit belief”. He is implying that he does not care if the reader believes he needs to clear his conscience. The protagonist in “The Black Cat” has a lot more depth than the protagonist in “The Red Room”.

In “The Black Cat” he describes vividly how he feels because he is recalling a past event and includes his feelings at each stage. The protagonist in “The Red Room” however is telling the story in the present so is primarily concerned with describing events. The last thing the protagonist sees before he enters the red room is a statue of Ganymede. Ganymede is a character from Greek mythology who was carried off by Zeus in the form of an eagle. This is significant because Ganymede was unsuspectingly carried away and was not in control.

This is a bad omen as he enters the red room because he does not want to lose control in an attack from a supernatural being he cannot overcome. Wells creates suspense using personification when it appears there is a ghost in the room. The protagonist describes the candles extinguishing as if nipped by “a finger and thumb” and an “invisible hand” swept over the candles. This personifies the ghost and makes it seem more frightening. Another way atmosphere is created is by the effective use of dynamic verbs.

The verbs are used to describe the protagonist’s movement at moments of suspense which make it seem more realistic and rushed. Verbs used include: “dashed”, “fought”, “leaped”, “snatched”, “stumbled” and “darted”. This, combined with effective syntax, makes these moments of tension fast paced and panic stricken. “With a cry of terror, I dashed at the alcove, then into the corner, and then into the window, relighting three, as two more vanished by the fireplace; then, perceiving a better way, I dropped the matches on the iron-bound deed box in the corner, and caught up the bedroom candlestick.

This is a very long sentence. The use of dynamic verbs and commas means the sentence is read quickly. This has two affects on the reader; reading it fast simulates running frantically but it will also leave the reader breathless so they can relate to the situation. This sentence is followed by another equally long one but then there are three short sentences when he realises he could use the fire instead. These slow the pace down because realising that he could use the fire brings relief from the panic. The language in “The Black Cat” is complex and Poe employs Latinate language frequently.

However, at points of high tension and climax the style of language becomes less elaborate. This is a quotation that uses a Latinate style: “From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition” However at a climatic point when the protagonist cuts out one of the cat’s eyes the lexis is simpler- “I took from my waistcoat pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut out one of its eyes from the socket! ” This simple language at key points means the action is not obscured by complex vocabulary.

However, when the emotions felt are more important than the action, the language is more complex to encourage the reader to empathise with the protagonist. Both short stories are successful in that they effectively create suspense and engage the reader. “The Black Cat” can be interpreted on many levels. It can be read as a story about an unlucky sequence of events but it is also contains superstition, perverseness and the evils of alcohol. Poe creates a very complex character which fascinates the reader. He discusses a variety of philosophical and sociological issues.

The suspense comes from the dilemma of the character but there is also shame because Poe suggests his actions are something all humans are capable of doing. “The Red Room” on the other hand is a frightening but nonetheless enjoyable read because of the detailed description of the setting. The description of the protagonist when in the red room is well written and the reader feels his fear. Suspense is created from his earlier over confidence and we wait for something bad to happen. I prefer “The Black Cat” because the description is so thorough; the story is dramatic and demonstrates a complex range of emotions.

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