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Horror and Suspense

Discuss how horror and suspense are created in two short stories.

In this essay I am going to look at how horror and suspense are created by the authors Charles Dickens and his gothic short story ‘The Signalman' and Thomas Hardy and his mysterious story ‘The Three Strangers'.

In Charles Dickens ‘The Signalman', Dickens creates and maintains a sense of horror and suspense throughout the story. There are numerous ways in which he composes this sense to infiltrate the readers mind into the atmosphere present throughout the story.

The presentation of the characters help to create this atmosphere throughout the story. The author creates a sense of mystery with the main character as he does not introduce or describe the appearance of the character, but yet sets the story through this characters first person perspective, acting as the narrator of the story. This allows the reader an insight into the thoughts and feelings of the main character. Dickens also introduces the signalman as dark and sinister. He describes his appearance in a gothic fashion, using repetition of the word ‘dark' when describing his features; “he was a dark sallow man with a dark beard”. Dickens also presents the signalman to be a disturbed man who “had run wild, misused his opportunities, gone down, and never risen again.”

The setting in which the story takes place also creates horror and suspense. Dickens gives a description of the railway cutting with intricate detail and encompasses it with a cloud of gloomy and a depressive mood. He associates places and objects with certain impressions which produce this large image of negative and horrifying vibes and feelings. When the narrating character has his first impression of the railway cutting, he compliments it as “extremely deep, and unusually precipitate”. When Dickens describes the signalman's box, Dickens bombards the reader with adjectives of a morphed and “depressing” atmosphere. He called it a “dungeon” which implies a sense of torture and a horrid nature. The description of the signalman's box creates a feeling of suffocation and being trapped. “On either side, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky; the perspective one only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon.” The emphasis on the gloominess and “forbidding” “deadly” environment conveys the relevance to death. The mouth of the tunnel is also described as having “a barbarous, depressing and forbidding air.” These details combined with the cold wind and loneliness of the place; add up to a feeling of dread and foreboding. This all adds to the horror of the story and creates uneasiness and suspense for the reader.

The language used in ‘The Signalman' creates an atmosphere of horror and suspense and also draws the attention of the reader. The language used is of a Victorian context as the story was written and set in a Victorian setting. This creates an element of being in the Victorian times. Dickens also uses long sentences to create an element of suspense. Dickens uses the language of the story to create the atmosphere of horror and suspense through many methods. For instance, “Halloa! Below there!” is a small expression that is used several times throughout the story and was repeated by several characters. This strikes the reader with alarm and fear as Dickens creates a paradox for the reader; is it a coincidence or is it involved with the idea of the supernatural?

The imagery used in ‘The Signalman' also creates horror and suspense in the story. Dickens describes the place as a repugnant and disturbing place to illustrate the unnatural and gothic vibe of the place. The narrator describes the place as a “dungeon” and analysis's the cutting as “…extremely deep, unusually precipitous. It was made through a clammy stone, that became oozier and wetter as I went down.” Dickens emphasizes the gloomy and unpleasant elements of the cutting to engulf the reader into this unnatural world so the reader can endow the “depressing” feelings which the narrator has; “For these reasons, I found the way long enough to give me time to recall a singular air of reluctance or compulsion…” Note the use of the words “reluctant” and “impulsive” which again adds to the suspense of the story.

The conclusion of the story also creates horror and suspense. Horror is created in the tragic death of the signalman. The narrator begins to see the specter in the ghostly tunnel, and begins to realize that the death of the signalman had occurred just as he had imagined; “that only in my mind, to the gesticulation he had imitated”. Suspense is created in this conclusion as it links with the idea of the supernatural and the story concludes with no resolved ending, leaving a mystery to what can happen next.

The story gives the impression that it is about the effect of technology and industrialization on the human soul. The signalman is driven “mad” by the monotony and, at the same time, the awful responsibility involved in his work. He is “alienated” from his environment; with little to occupy his mind and always knowing the smallest mistake will lead to terrible loss of life. The supernatural element reflects the Victorian fascination with the paranormal as a reaction against the advances in science and the technology during the 19th century that seemed to deny the existence of a spiritual dimension to life. The story is a true mystery; it can have no solution as it is about the impossibility of ever knowing what is real.

In Thomas Hardy's story ‘The Three Strangers', Hardy creates and maintains a sense of horror and suspense throughout the story. There are numerous ways in which he composes this atmosphere of horror and suspense.

Unlike the narrator in ‘The Signalman', the narrator in ‘The Three Strangers' does not have the roll of a character in the story. This allows the reader to see the story from a third person perspective which allows the readers to endure the atmosphere of the story.

The characters in ‘The Three Strangers' appear to have similarities to the characters of ‘The Signalman'. One similarity is that the characters present mystery as well in Hardy's story. Not much is revealed about the characters at the start of the story which creates a sense of suspense for the reader. The three strangers are the main object of the story and as the story proceeds, so does the reader's knowledge of the three strangers. This creates suspense as the reader's knowledge of the three strangers is the plot of the story, the strangers being the twist in the tale.

Although Hardy describes the other characters in the story with warmth and, the three strangers are the only people who present horror and suspense. Hardy describes the first stranger to be thin “a man of supple frame” and tall “He appeared tall”, and considers him to be a dark and mysterious character by saying “he naturally belonged to the black-coated tribes of men.” Hardy also makes the stranger seem mysterious through some of his reactions such as when “At the sound of the same the man in the chimney-corner took up the poker… as if doing it thoroughly were the one aim of his existence”. The second stranger also seems to present suspense as when he arrives, he causes the first stranger to do abnormal things, such as the example above. The third stranger also creates suspense as he alarms the people at the party into believing that he is the sheep stealer in which the authorities were after through his reactions of “his knees trembling, his hands shaking violently…”

Unlike the unnatural world created by Dickens in ‘The Signalman', Hardy sets a very natural scene in agricultural England, complimenting the place with “grassy and furzy downs…” Yet Hardy also uses this natural scene to build horror and suspense throughout the story. Hardy creates a balance of good and evil in the setting. He presents the party inside the cottage as a warm, comfortable, and cosy environment while on the outside of the cottage, he presents the weather as “boisterous”, with violent winds and heavy rain. This outside environment creates horror and suspense as it encloses the comfort and cosiness of the inside environment with its euphoric atmosphere.

As in' The Signalman' the language again adds to horror and suspense. Hardy's short story employs Victorian context as it too was written in Victorian times. This creates a Victorian atmosphere and engulfs the reader into the old culture of England. Hardy uses language to create an atmosphere of horror and suspense in various methods. For instance, the author maintains the mysterious identities of the strangers by referring to the strangers by their appearance or position, such as the first stranger being referred to as “the man in the chimney-corner” and the second stranger being “the stranger in cinder-grey”. This mystery about the stranger's identities creates suspense as the reader does not know how the strangers interact with the plot of the story or even who they are. Hardy also uses long sentences in contrast to Dickens to create an element of suspense.

The imagery used in Hardy's short story is the opposite of Dickens as his imagery is more natural than gloomy and gothic. In the story, Hardy uses imagery to create horror and suspense. Hardy gives an image of a natural countryside in the south of England describing its features as “grassy and furzy…” An image of a storm is created in the story which compliments the suspense of the story and creates an uneasy atmosphere for the reader.

Unlike the conclusion of ‘The Signalman', ‘The Three Strangers' concludes in a more vivid tone. The story ends with the reader knowing that the first stranger got away with his crime however, creates a vibe of suspense as nothing is known about the whereabouts of the first stranger. Although ‘The Three Strangers' concludes, it has a similarity to ‘The Signalman' as nothing is known about what can happen next. We know that the first stranger got away with his crime but we don't know where he had gone to, while in ‘The Signalman' we know that the death of the signalman may be partly the fault of the narrator, but we don't know what fate is in store for the narrator.

All in all, it is evident that horror and suspense are created in the two short stories; ‘The Signalman' and ‘The Three Strangers' both writers use character setting, language and plot as a means of creating the desired atmosphere, and both succeed in achieving their aim. However there are differences in which this creation of horror and suspense are orchestrated within these stories. In conclusion, both stories provide a horrifying and suspense experience through different methods and techniques.


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