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19th Century Short Stories Essay

Introduction

Over the past five weeks, I have been studying four 19th century horror stories, and in this essay I am going to compare three of them and discuss the link between them. I will also be giving my opinions of the stories.

The 19th century was the period of popularity with horror stories and all the stories include elements of horror in different ways. People enjoyed being frightened at this time, and the popularity has carried on to the present time. Today, horror stories and rollercoasters are as popular as ever. I will be discussing my three chosen stories – “The Signalman” by Charles Dickens, “The Monkeys Paw” by WW Jacobs and “The Red Room” by HG Wells – and say whether I think they would be more successful for a Victorian or modern audience.

Main Body

The first story we studied was “The Signalman” by Charles Dickens. Your attention is automatically drawn to what is going to happen, by the title of the story. You already know that the story is going to relate to the signalman somehow but we are unsure as to how. Also, the title ‘signal’ indicates to me warnings and danger, so we could assume that something bad is going to happen.

The story tries to grab your attention by creating a lot of mystery and suspense throughout the story. The narrator gives clues that something strange has happened or is going to happen, by the way the signalman acts towards him. We know that the narrator suspects something weird is going on, when he calls the signalman, but instead of looking at him, he looked down the line as though he was expecting someone. “But instead of looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly over his head, he turned himself about, and looked down the line”. The signalman is also very reluctant to let him down, making the reader curious of what might be down there.

“The Signalman” is written in first person, with one of the main characters narrating. I think this has a brilliant effect to the story, because you can actually feel the tension and the fear of the narrator. Also, we only discover at the same time as the narrator does, so the story is as much of a mystery to us as it is to him.

In the first paragraph, the signalman is described as quite a strange character. “There was something remarkable in his manner of doing so, though I could not have said for my life what”. This shows that narrator knows there is something peculiar about him, but unsure of what it is. “In an attitude as if waiting for me to appear”. The narrator has never met the signalman before in his life, and yet the signalman appears to be waiting for him. This shows there is something very strange about him, which then starts to create suspense. Also, the signalman is described as “over educated for his class”. In the Victorian times, people where not meant to educate over your working class but it appears that the signalman is perhaps educated above that station. If this is true, and the signalman is educated above it, then looking for trains everyday and changing a sign must cause him extreme boredom, which could then lead to him being mentally unstable.

The writer tries to keep the reader wanting to read more by making them anxious about what is going to happen. The signalman appears to be doing a lot of strange things leaving the reader wanting to know why he is doing them and how they participate to the plot of the story. “Not even then removing his eyes from mine, he stepped back one step”. When the narrator has come down, the signalman stares at him and when he gets close, he steps back as if he is nervous towards him. This leaves the readers wondering what it is about him that unsettles the signalman.

The story is set in a railway cutting where the valley around is very steep, as well as being isolated. This leads to an eerie, unsettling atmosphere. The cutting is described in the beginning paragraph. The place is described as ‘clammy’, ‘jagged’, ‘crooked’, ‘dungeon’, ‘gloomy’, ‘depressing’, ‘forbidding’ ‘deadly’ and ‘with little sunlight’. ‘Clammy’, ‘jagged’, ‘crooked’ and ‘dungeon’ all give a description of a place you would expect to find in a horror story. It makes the place seem very old and very spooky, and the thought of the place being surrounded by all these valleys and rocks makes it sound as if you’re trapped. The words ‘gloomy’ and ‘with little sunlight’ also makes the place seem very dead and deserted, which is a place very few people would feel comfortable working in. Also, ‘depressing’ and ‘deadly’ create a foreboding mood. Most of these words are describing the mouth of the tunnel, and when you try to picture it in your head, you can almost see the mouth to hell.

Dickens uses the language to try and keep the reader interested throughout the story. The language creates tone and feeling that something strange is going to happen. “The Signalman” straight away, at the start of the story, builds up the tension by the strange behavior of the signalman. The tension then subsides when the signalman and the narrator are talking in the box. The atmosphere is a lot more relaxed and settled and the mood is slightly uplifting. The reader’s attention is kept again when the signalman keeps hearing the bell ringing, slowly building the tension up. Overall, the tension climaxes and lulls throughout the story. The three different incidents in the story build up to the most tension because you are unsure of what is going on.

The most frightening part of the story, I think, is when the signalman is talking to the narrator about his ghostly secret. The ending is also quite scary, but I thought it was quite predictable, whereas, when the signalman reveals what had been wrong with him the whole time, there were no clues that there was a ghost involved, making it quite a shock to the reader. The writer did a great job with this part of the story, as you can almost feel the fear of the characters when he is talking. “A disagreeable shudder crept over me, but I did my best against it”. When the signalman is telling his story, the narrator gets a cold shudder, but he tries to stop it. This shows the fear that the narrator is also feeling, but shows he either doesn’t want to believe it, or that he doesn’t want to show his fear to the signalman.

The ending of the story is reasonably neat and tidy and doesn’t really leave the reader wondering what’s happened and wanting to ask questions. I think the writer has done this because he wants to keep the story completely self contained.

Charles Dickens was acclaimed for his rich storytelling and his memorable characters. He could have written this story for a number of reasons. It could have been a memory from his childhood added to his vivid imagination, or he could have just written the story, from imagination completely. I don’t really think there is a moral to the story, other than the fact that the signalman’s incidents that he saw led to his death, showing him the future.

The next short story we read was “The Monkeys Paw” by WW Jacobs. The title, alone, suggests a lot to me. The word ‘monkey’ is usually associated with mischief and trouble (up to monkey’s tricks) which could signify a lot of trouble in the story. The fact that it is just the paw of a monkey is quite creepy, however, it could be kept as some sort of good luck charm, like a rabbit’s foot is. This tells us that the story could be magical or supernatural of some kind.

The start of the story grabs your attention straight away by the weather. It is a very cold and wet night, but inside the house is nice and warm. This could either mean that there is a lovely, cozy atmosphere in the house, compared to outside, or it could mean the opposite. Also, at the beginning of the story, the old man mentions the monkey’s paw to the sergeant-major, but he doesn’t want to talk about it. This grabs our attention because we want to know what is so bad about it, that the sergeant-major doesn’t want to tell the old man about it. “I don’t know what the first two were, but the third was death”. When the sergeant-major finally tells everyone about the monkeys paw he creates a threatening atmosphere when telling them, but also makes the reader want to read on.

“The Monkeys Paw” is written in third person. The effect of this is that you know exactly what’s going on as well as feeling everyone’s emotions. It gives you a greater insight into the characters and it creates more of an atmosphere because you know exactly how everyone is feeling. There are a lot of characters in the story, and it would be difficult to feel everyone’s emotions and fear if it was just one person telling the story.

You get to know what the characters are like in the first couple of paragraphs. Mr. White is described as quite a sociable man to his guest but can also seem quite angry and intolerant at times. “That’s the worst of living so far out, bawled Mr. White, with sudden and un-looked violence”. This gives the impression that he can become quite violent and aggressive for no reason, but we have no proof of that yet. Mr. White’s wife, however, seems like a very calm and friendly character, although this does change towards the end. “Never mind, dear, said his wife soothingly; perhaps you’ll win the next one”.

This shows that she tries to keep her husband nice and calm, and the word ‘soothingly’ shows that she doesn’t overreact and takes things in her stride. Mr. and Mrs. White also seem very close to their son, as the old man is playing a game with him in the first paragraph. The fact that they are just a family makes you feel quite sorry for them when all the bad things start happening to them. The sergeant-major is described as “rubicund of visage” which shoes he is very healthy looking and takes care of himself. This also suggests that, even though there is nothing wrong with him at the time, something could happen to him later in the story. As well as this, we also know that he is quite superstitious to believe what he has heard about the monkey’s paw.

The writer makes us want to read on by causing a lot of suspense throughout the story. At the beginning, we are told about the monkey’s paw and we know that it is going to have something to do with the plot already, from the title, but we don’t know how. Also, when the sergeant-major tries to throw it in the fire, Mr. White snatches it off him, suggesting that he might make the three wishes himself. This makes the reader want to read on as we were already told the last person who used it died, and we want to know if the same thing will happen to the old man.

“The Monkeys Paw” is set inside Mr. and Mrs. White’s house. The writer uses pathetic fallacy in the story, as the atmosphere is very pleasant and uplifting in the house, contrasting to the weather. The weather is cold and wet which starts to create an unpleasant and eerie atmosphere. “Hark at the wind”. By this we get a very spooky feeling, which could suggest something bad is going to happen. However, inside the house is very warm and cozy, in comparison to outside.

The writer keeps the reader interested throughout the story by the strange things happening to the monkey’s paw. The monkey’s paw twisted in the old man’s hand when he made his wish, showing that something could be about to happen. There are a lot of twists and turns in the story too which keeps us interested because we never know what is going to happen. Also, when Mr. White jokes about how bad it is, we start to think something bad is going to happen. The next morning, the weather has changed completely, from being wet and windy to very bright and sunny. This shows that the tension has dropped, and this is when they have forgotten about their worries from the previous night. The tension is then built up dramatically when Herbert is killed because of the wish they made. You then start to realise the paw is supernatural somehow and the reader wants to know what other occurrences are going to happen. The tension is at its highest near the end of the story where the old woman wishes for her son back. The atmosphere is gradually built and moves quite quickly, and everything happens at once, building the tension.

I think the most frightening part of the story is the ending when Herbert appears to have come back from the dead. The old woman seems to have gone mad, and she is the complete opposite to what she was like at the beginning. The woman’s actions make you feel quite uneasy, due to her unpredictability. The atmosphere is very tense and unsettled and everything is very silent. “Neither spoke, but lay silently”. When the door knocks, the woman frantically runs to the door, but her husband is uneasy and tries to protect her by pulling her back, making the reader wonder why he is pulling her back. The two characters seem to have swapped personalities towards the end, giving the story a massive turnaround. The vocabulary used does a lot to the story as it gives it more of a frightening atmosphere. “His voice shook”, “caught his breath” and “his brow cold with sweat” all illustrates the fear and tension that the old man is feeling, which then creates fear with the reader. Also, “screamed”, “struggling” and “mumbling” create quite an aggressive and scary atmosphere as well as telling us something bad is happening.

The ending of the story seems to be unfinished, leaving you wondering what could have happened. The ending is slightly untidy and because there is so much going on, leaves you a little confused of what’s just happened. I think the writer could have done this to keep the reader in suspense. It leaves the reader making up their own ending and answering their own questions.

“The Monkey’s Paw” doesn’t really have an obvious moral or message to it but it could be telling you that greed could have its consequences and to be careful what you wish for. They didn’t believe the sergeant-major when he told them it wasn’t a good idea to keep the monkey’s paw. Instead, they thought they knew best and that left them with serious consequences.

The last story we read was “The Red Room” by HG Wells. The title “Red Room” automatically associates the story with danger. The colour red is commonly used as a danger warning as well as being associated with blood and death.

The first line the story says “I can assure you,’ said I, ‘that it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me!”. This automatically grabs the reader’s attention as it is telling us what the story is going to be about. We know from the first line of the story that it is going to be about a ghost. The description of the characters also grabs your attention. “Eyes covered with a shade and his lower lip, half covered, hung pale and pink from his decaying yellow teeth”. The description makes the characters seem very strange and almost ghost like, and we know that the narrator is suspicious of them and slightly wary.

The writer makes the reader want to read on by showing us that something bad is going to happen. The old woman keeps interrupting their conversation and keeps saying “this night of all nights”, giving the impression something bad is going to happen on this particular night. The writer is highlighting this to the reader, telling us there is some kind of mystery by repeating it over again.

The story is set in a castle which is usually associated with supernatural things. “Deep red, old fashioned furniture” means it’s very dark and old-fashioned, meaning it’s been there for a long time. “The long draughty passage was chilly and dusty” sets a very eerie atmosphere, and because it’s underground its makes it seem as though you are trapped. “Chilly, echoing passage” also lets us know it’s very empty but you can still hear noises when it’s silent. The castle is described as very complicated, “along the passage…, come to a door…, a spiral staircase”, which shows that it is out of the way, so no one can help him and he is all alone.”The moonlight picked at everything in vivid, black shadows or silvery illumination” shows it’s nighttime and moonlight signifies dark, scary and spooky, creating a tense atmosphere.

The tension is gradually built up as you go through the story. We know when something is wrong because of the narrator’s emotions. At the beginning of the story, the tension starts to build up quite dramatically as the narrator is talking to the old people about the ghosts. This straight away starts to create an unsettled atmosphere. “It’s your own choosing” and “swayed from side to side” gives the impression that the old woman is quite indecisive as to whether she wants him to go ahead with the idea. Also, “withered arm” and “bent”, almost makes the man seem quite deformed, which then makes him appear quite scary. The description of three grotesque and disturbed old people is very weird with a sense of decay or death around them. We also know that the narrator feels uncomfortable around them, unsettling the reader.

I think the scariest part of this is when the narrator is in the room, as there is the most tension involved. “Cover and quiver”, “listening to a rustling that I thought I heard although there is complete silence”. The writer uses personification to make it seem like the shadows are alive and that they are actually scared. The narrator thinks he’s is beginning to hear things, and is starting to become paranoid, creating a lot of tension.

HG Wells could have written this story to tell people that the fear is not all they see but what they interpret. He could be trying to tell us that people’s imagination can take over sometimes, just like it did to the narrator.

Conclusion

Overall, all of the writers have created tension throughout the story, in many different ways. The main way this was done was by using pathetic fallacy. The weather creates mood and tension in the story and by the types of weather we can interpret what is about to happen. The writers also use their vocabulary to help frighten the reader. Some of the words used can help us picture what it is actually like, and creates tension, “dungeon”, “deadly”, “quiver”. I think all three stories would have been popular with a Victorian audience. All of the stories include the elements of horror that people enjoyed reading about in those days.

I also think “The Monkey’s Paw” would have been good, as it includes supernatural happenings, and a lot of people, then, were in fact quite superstitious. However, I don’t think “The Red Room” would be very popular with a modern day audience. People would enjoy reading “The Signalman” and “The Monkey’s Paw” because it frightens the reader, which is exactly what they want from reading the story. And although”The Red Room” does frighten the reader, I personally think that the reader may be a little disappointed with the ending. I think, when someone, nowadays, reads or watches a horror story, they almost expect there to be ghostly or supernatural things happening. But when they realise that the whole time it was his imagination, I think they will lose interest in it quite quickly after.

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