Novels such as TRR and TTTH were very popular during Victorian times, and some people think that this was partly a reaction to the development of science during the period that was known as The Enlightenment. The scientific age taught that there was a reason for everything, and that emotions like fear should be repressed. Horror stories like these led to many of the horror films that we watch in the cinema today, and people liked them for the same reasons; being scared is exciting, and lets the person watching or reading experience this in safety. Writers knew that people enjoyed the genre, and so they used a variety of ways to make sure that the interest of the reader was maintained, and they would want to read more. Both Edgar Allen Poe and H.G. Wells use the traditional Gothic conventions to explore human fear and the power of the imagination, particularly using tension and anti-climax to make an exciting rhythm.
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I have read the short stories TRR by HGW and TTTH by EAP, and in this essay I hope to show how each author developed and maintained tension and suspense. Many of the methods are used in both stories, and are based on standard Gothic conventions such as duality, the weather, the setting, fear of the unknown, the supernatural, mystery and dread; they also use metonyms for doom and gloom, such as doors slamming shut and gusts of wind blowing out lights.
In TTTH the tension starts with the first sentence, “TRUE! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous”. The writer uses capital letters and exclamation marks to cause surprise and fear, and follows this with a short, repetitive sentence. He then immediately draws the reader in by asking why they think he is mad, when clearly they had not had that thought themselves. The mood is approaching hysteria, which was a great fear in Victorian times. The author then mentions many things that are opposite to each other, such as heaven and hell, day and night and the fact that although he had nothing against the old man in his story, the fact that he had “the eye of a vulture” meant that he would have to kill him. Once the tension is in place, the author slows the pace by lengthening the sentences, but keeps the reader in a state of fear through his use of language. He continues to repeat words “cautiously – oh, so cautiously – cautiously”, making the narrator seem even more mad, even though he is trying to explain that he isn’t. He gives a very intense description of the darkness inside the old man’s room “black as pitch with the thick darkness”, making the reader aware that it is under the cover of this darkness that the evil deed will take place.
The suspense starts to grow again when the narrator says that he made a mistake with the lantern, and that small sound woke up the old man. Neither of them moved for over an hour, and it almost feels like you are holding your breath with the two people in the story. After a long time, the old man groans, and this gives rise to more hysterical thoughts by the narrator, the sentences slow again, and the language less staccato and very dramatic “Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him”, so the reader knows that something awful is bound to happen soon. The momentum builds further as the narrator opens the lantern, which “fell full upon the vulture eye”, and making it clear that the old man now also knows for certain that he is in danger. The narrator becomes furious, and believes that he can hear the beat of the old man’s heart. The rhythm of the work gets faster, choppy sentences and a lot of exclamation marks and more repetition increase the excitement with the beat of the “hellish tattoo”; then the crescendo, “The old man’s hour had come!” The actual murder is over in a moment, and this sudden drop away from extreme terror to the narrator saying that he “smiled gaily to find the deed so done” exaggerates the tension.
The next concern for the reader is whether or not the murder will be discovered, and the author increases this worry by describing the dismemberment of the body in quite graphic detail. The mood of the piece is changing again, with the description of “as dark as midnight” making way for “I went down to open it (the door) with a light heart” as the police arrive. The narrator takes the police on a very long journey through the house, asking them to “search – search well”, and this makes the reader become anxious about when or if they will find the evidence of the old man’s death. The language is calm and this adds to the impression of time passing slowly. As the characters sit and talk, the narrator starts to get more agitated; he can hear a strange noise getting closer. The pace picks up, the vocabulary starts to get more hysterical “I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations”, it grows more repetitive, and the punctuation is full of exclamation marks. It builds to another climax, when the narrator says “I felt that I must scream or die! and now – again ! – hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!”. The reader will be on the edge of their seat by now, wondering what on earth will happen next; and is immediately dropped from this state of expectancy as the narrator shrieks his admission of guilt to the police, and the story comes to a sudden and dramatic close.
TRR starts in a similar fashion, with the piece being written in the first person so that the reader can quickly identify with them, and feel what they are going through. The physical scene is set in more detail, with careful descriptions of the hideous features of the people involved in the story, and how the narrator felt about them. “The three of them made me feel uncomfortable with their gaunt silences, their bent carriage, their evident unfriendliness to me and to one another”. He had come to disprove a ghost story, and was not afraid, but these “grotesque custodians” were affecting him a lot; which helps to slowly start to wind up the tension in the story. The language of this early section involves words such as withered, inhuman, senility, night, darkness, dead, haunted and evil, all of which add to the suspense, and are standard ways of creating fear in this kind of novel.
As the narrator decides to move on to the Red Room, to discover more about the alleged haunting, the other characters seem to try to stop him, suggesting that this is not a good time for him to go there. “But if you go to the Red Room tonight – “, this sentence tails off, letting the reader imagine what the man might have been going to say. The old woman whispers “this night of all nights”, and as the narrator leaves to continue his ghost hunt, the man with the withered arm says “It’s your own choosing”. So there are plenty of warnings, and the state of tension in the readers mind is maintained as the narrator sets off “down the chilly, echoing passage”. This passage is further described as “long and shadowy, with a film of moisture glistening on the wall, (was) as gaunt and cold as a thing that is dead and rigid”, and this journey to the room makes use of many other words chosen to create as much fear as possible, talking about ghosts, omens, and witches. The author also uses shadows, flickering candles, darkness and cold to great effect, making certain that the reader is anxious before the Red Room is even reached.
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Arriving at the room itself, it is described as being in a “shadowy corner”, and then a detailed description of the room and its contents is given. Again, the language is very imaginative, and this increases tension as the narrator tells us that it looks very frightening, and that “one could well understand the legends that had sprouted in its black corners, its germinating darkness”. As he tells the reader about each item, the sense of waiting for something bad to happen is very strong. He mentions his “scientific attitude of mind”, which was very popular in Victorian times, but then destroys any confidence this might cause by saying that he caught sight of his own face in a mirror, and despite his rational approach, it was absolutely white. Now that he has admitted to being frightened, the narrator builds on this by describing how he tries to make himself safe in the room, by lighting candles, getting his gun ready, and making a barricade out of a table. He tells us that he is “in a state of considerable nervous tension”, and goes out to get more candles until the room is as brightly lit as possible; then the wait begins.
The candles start to go out, and it’s even more frightening that they do so one at a time; a note of hysteria creeps into his voice as he starts to try to relight the candles, and he becomes panic stricken. The fear is everywhere, and the pace is building, with the narrator crashing around the room desperate to stop the darkness from overwhelming him. When finally even the fire goes out, he says “it was not only palpable darkness, but intolerable terror”. At this moment the reader is certain that something appalling will happen, and the narrator screams with all his might “once, twice, thrice”. He runs for the door, knocks himself out, and “knows no more”. At this point he is completely vulnerable to whatever malevolent spirit might be present.
The opposite to darkness rescues the narrator, as he opens his eyes in the daylight, and the tension is broken for a moment. His rescuers take a more friendly approach to him, and in daylight he wonders why he previously disliked them. They ask if he now believes that the room is haunted, and he agrees that it is. This reinstates the feelings of fear and tension as the reader wonder what he is about to reveal. Two of the custodians have their own theories about who the ghost may be, but the narrator cuts them short, and tells them that it is not, building the tension further. The old people and the readers are now on the edge of their seats, as in The Tell Tale Heart, waiting for the climax of the story. The speed of the text increases, with choppy sentences and a lot of punctuation as he announces “Fear! Fear that will not have light nor sound, that will not bear with reason, that deafens and darken and overwhelms”. This is a great contrast against the scientific theories of the time, making the reader question rationality, and would increase fear.
The story ends with the last of the three custodians joining in the conversation, defining the haunting as “A Power of Darkness”, a curse upon the home. As the reader has already been asked to put aside rational scientific thoughts, this makes it even worse, by making them think that such a curse might be able to put on their own home. The tension continues right up to the last moment “Fear itself is in that room. Black Fear…..And there is will be…..so long as this house of sin endures”.
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