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The Signal Man, The Monkey’s Paw, The Red Room and The Dream Woman

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The rise in popularity of magazines in Victorian times and the era’s fascination in the unknown and supernatural led to immense interest in the short story genre. The key to the success of short stories is holding the reader’s attention by the use of interesting and meaningful subject matter, by using a condensed style of writing in order to maintain suspense and intrigue. The Victorian era saw great development in science which led to conflicts in belief between faith and science, and rationalism and the supernatural. Many of the 19th century short stories concerned the supernatural.

This essay will consider four of this type of story, by short story writers of the period; Dickens’ ‘The Signal Man’, ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by W W Jacobs, H G Wells’ ‘The Red Room’ and ‘The Dream Woman’ by Wilkie Collins. These authors create mystery and suspense in a variety of ways; in the location of the story, the technique of narrative blurring where the readers’ imagination is allowed to conjure up its worst fears, inconclusive endings leaving some vital questions unanswered, unseen terror, mysterious characters and the type of language used.

I will explore all of these aspects of their writing. The location of all these short stories plays a very important role in setting the scene. They were written at the beginning of the Romantic Period which gave rise to a taste for settings removed from the everyday, as a backdrop to out of the ordinary events. Wells’ gothic setting of ‘The Red Room’ within a small castle is typical. A further technique was to contrast a mundane or particularly modern setting with extraordinary and supernatural events.

Collins sets ‘The Dream Woman’ in a village, whereas Dickens’ location for ‘The Signal Man’ is an, at the time, noticeably technologically advanced area, due to the railway track. With industrialisation, most people were living in large cities, so remote rural areas had become romanticised and Jacob’s ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ is such a locale. Mystery and suspense is created by drawing on elements of the location and using pathetic fallacy, the use of the weather to describe the atmosphere, as in Jacob’s ‘The Monkey’s Paw’.

When describing the surroundings Jacobs writes, ‘Without, the night was cold and wet’. This use of pathetic fallacy evokes a feeling of impending danger and creates a classic horror atmosphere suggesting darkness and evil. One more quote from ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ is ‘That’s the worst of living so far out’, informing the reader that the location of the story is away from civilisation and isolated. Using a deserted and out of the way setting is a typical way of creating suspense.

The location of the signalman’s hut in ‘Dickens’ ‘The Signalman’ was secluded and unwelcoming, Dickens writes ‘his post was in a solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw’. This arouses feelings of loneliness, and isolation which helps to create a tense atmosphere, we could also assume by the use of the word ‘dismal’ that the location of the signalman’s hut was one steeped in gloom and depression. Another quote from ‘The Signalman’ is ‘and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing and foreboding air’.

This quote arouses a sense of forthcoming catastrophe, by the use of the words ‘barbarous’ and ‘foreboding’ it almost as if the narrator is being warned away from this terrifying place. The setting of H. G Wells’ ‘The Red Room’ is very important in creating mystery and suspense in the story, in fact, almost the entire story happens within the ‘Red Room’. A quote describing this infamous room where so many unfortunate incidents have taken place is ‘… that large sombre room, with its shadowy window bays, its recesses and alcoves, one could well understand the legends that had sprouted in its dark corners, its germinating darkness.

This suggests the fear that is aroused by the room as well as its unearthly atmosphere and Wells goes on to write ‘the shadow in the alcove at the end in particular had that indefinable quality of a presence, that odd suggestion of a lurking, living thing, that comes so easily in silence and solitude’. The short stories usually introduce a mysterious character who is used to invoke responses and reactions from the other characters. It is often the case that by the end of the story the ominous identity of the character has only been hinted at and the reader is still not totally enlightened, thus maintaining the air of mystery.

For example, in Dickens’s ‘The Signalman’ it says ‘I don’t know. I never saw the face. The left arm is across the face, and the right arm is waved – violently waved’. This is when the signalman is describing the mystery character. The spectre is forever bringing catastrophe and death to the signalman so suspense is raised when he is mentioned. In ‘The Red Room’ mystery characters are used to create a supernatural atmosphere.

A quote portraying this is ‘… the oddness of these three old pensioners… hey seemed to belong to another age, an older age, an age when things spiritual were different from this of ours… an age when omens and witches were credible, and ghosts beyond denying. Their very existence was spectral’. The reader does not learn much about these characters but they are powerful in setting the scene and provoking the asking of questions. They also outline the difference in belief and attitude between the young and the old. Collins’ ‘The Dream Woman’ has a mystery character appearing throughout the entire story.

She is introduced by the author whilst the main character, Isaac, talks during his sleep and a quote from when he first encounters her is ‘between the foot of his bed and the closed door there stood a woman with a knife in her hand, looking at him’ and later in the story ‘his eyes opened toward the left hand side of his bed, and there stood – the dream woman again? No! His wife; the living reality, with the dream spectre’s face’. This mysterious woman makes the reader ask questions as to why she is trying to kill Isaac and she increases the intrigue of the story.

Specific techniques of language further obscure the clarity of the story so that tension is created by not revealing who or what is being referred to, this literary effect is called narrative blurring. In ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ a man refers to the main characters’ son as ‘badly hurt… he was caught in machinery’. Here the writer chooses not to describe what happened to their son, but lets the audience concoct an image of their own, which is far more effective than his own writing as the reader can imagine what they would find the worst.

This is the same for the line ‘I could only recognize him by his clothing. Here the writer hints that their boy is dismembered, however he doesn’t describe what he looks like, he lets the reader imagine it. And at the end of the story you never see what the thing behind the door is which lets your mind ponder on what it could be and what it looked like. In ‘The Signal man’ narrative blurring is also used when Dickens writes ‘When you have found it, don’t call out! And when you are at the top, don’t call out! ‘ This makes the reader wonder why the narrator has been given these instructions, which creates a sense of uncertainty.

We find another example of this style of writing in ‘The Dream Woman’ when Isaac is describing a woman during a bout of sleep talking ‘and a droop in the left eyelid; flaxen hair, with a gold-yellow streak in it… little lady’s hand, with a reddish look under the fingernails. The knife – always the cursed knife’. This makes the reader wonder who he is describing and why. In this quote there are subtle suggestions and references to blood and the devil by the use of the words ‘reddish look under the fingernails’, femininity ‘little lady’s hand’ and death and murder when the knife is mentioned.

Narrative blurring is used in ‘The Red Room’ when the narrator spends a night in the haunted room. A quote from this is ‘an invisible hand seemed to sweep out the two candles on the table. With a cry of terror, I dashed at the alcove, then into the corner, and then into the window, relighting three. ‘ This is when the narrator is frantically trying to relight the candles that are being extinguished by an unknown being. This evokes the reader to wonder why the candles are going out and become engrossed in the story. The unknown was of a great interest to the early Victorians with sciences and exotic spiritual beliefs, being immensely popular amongst the educated classes.

The writers capitalise on this. Scientific rationalism was being questioned as were the conventional tenets of the Christian faith leading to a great deal of uncertainty. These stories work by virtue of what they don’t say, working on the readers response to the unexplained and the sense of apprehension brought about by a lack of certainty surrounding the main features. Suspense is created not only through uncertainty regarding the main character but also through unseen terrors which are hinted at but are yet to be made clear.

Excitement is maintained right through to the end by the writers’ refusal to fully explain what has happened. Such inconclusive endings leave much to the imagination of the reader, making the tales not only evocative but haunting. We never learn who the ‘spectre’ is in ‘The Signalman’, or why he is giving his warnings. Neither why ‘The Dream Woman’ is trying to kill Isaac and if he will, in fact, survive. In ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ tension is particularly strong as we never learn what is outside the door. These mysteries leave the readers more frightened than any detailed description of an unknown terror would.

For example, what exactly is the ‘Red Room’ haunted by? The lack of detail keeps the reader wondering and eager to discover more. Leaving key elements of the story to the readers imagination and interpretation provides an infinite number of scenarios. In these short stories there is often a battle between logic and the supernatural. This can be seen in ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ when, at the beginning, they see the paw as a joke and do not believe in its power. This is shown by the quote ‘Don’t you think you might wish for four pairs of hands for me? Here Mrs White is using sarcasm to show she does not believe in its supernatural powers.

Towards the end of the story, a quote from Mrs White is ‘We had the first wish granted’, showing she has now changed her mind and, in fact, has started to believe in its unworldly powers. In ‘The Red Room’ the narrator also starts out believing in logic and goes into the room to prove himself right. He says ‘eight – and – twenty years … and never a ghost have I seen yet’. Here, he is clearly saying that he does not believe in ghosts, but after his night in the ‘Red Room’ he quotes ‘Yes, the room is haunted.

Here he has given into the fact that there are, within the room, supernatural powers. This battle between logic and the supernatural may well have been one of the reasons for the popularity of this story. In all of the stories mystery is created by the use of an unseen terror. In the ‘Monkey’s Paw’ it is obvious to the reader that something will go wrong due to the Colonel’s fear of the monkey’s paw. In ‘The Dream Woman’ the premonition reveals the unseen terror to the audience, which creates suspense throughout the story, especially towards the end, when Isaac meets his wife.

Dickens’s ‘The Signalman’ has an unseen terror in the form of his fear of the spectre. This creates a mysterious atmosphere for the reader. Overall it would appear that mystery and suspense is created in a variety of ways using a range of different techniques which were popular in the Victorian era. These stories became very popular as they came around at a time of change, and looked at the possibilities of the supernatural which were unheard of before this time. There are many methods of creating mystery and suspense; the effective use of language and writing styles to create characters of intrigue and mystery.

Using locations to create a feeling of loneliness, isolation and despair add to the suspense of a short story. Additionally, short stories often include characters of mystery that the reader never has the opportunity to learn more about, thus maintaining the feeling of suspense. In my opinion one of the most effective ways 19th century writers created mystery and suspense in their short story writing was by quickening the pace and rhythm of the text by using short, snappy sentences and chapters which cannot help to engage the reader and quicken their pulse.

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