In this essay we will look at the Characteristics of 19th Century Horror Stories, commenting on: the structure of the story; the characterisation; the themes included in the story; the setting and the writer’s technique.
I will be looking into two texts in detail: “The Monkey’s Paw” by William Wymark Jacobs; and “The Signalman” by Charles Dickens, whilst making references to “Captain Rogers” – also by William Wymark Jacobs, and “The Engineer’s Thumb” by Sherlock Holmes.
During the Victorian period, the industrial revolution was in full flow, and the gothic styles of writing used in the stories of this period were extremely popular – featuring in many magazines of the time. Horror stories became almost an obsession for many people, who were drawn in by the unique styles of the writers such as Dickens, Poe, and Wilkie Collins. They were cheap, and widely available, with many of them being published in magazines. The availability of them meant that the obsession continued, as the people of that time were always able to obtain a new story.
One of the stories, “The Signalman” by Dickens, is a fine example of the horror stories of that day:
It begins by setting a gloomy scene, with the Signalman situated in a ‘deep cutting’, his figure ‘foreshortened and shadowed’. Using description such as this, the author can immediately let the reader understand the mood of the story – in this case, dark and depressing. This technique is also used in “Captain Rogers”, with the words ‘feeble’, ’painful’, and ‘forced’ being used in the first paragraph.
The ‘deep cutting’ in which the story is set, is later described as a ‘dungeon’, and at the end of the cutting was the entrance to a black tunnel, in which there was a ‘barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air’ – setting a negative semantic field around the piece.
The Signalman himself is described as a ‘dark sallow’ man, living in as ‘solitary and dismal a place’ that the narrator ever saw. Indeed, the narrator comments that it was ‘as if I had left the natural world’.
Indeed, the opening to the story gives the reader a glimpse of the signalman’s loneliness, and a sense of foreboding towards the trench in which he was posted. Loneliness and foreboding are two major characteristics of 19th Century horror.
Horror stories from this period often have a supernatural theme. In “The Signalman”, ghostly ‘spectres’ haunt the unfortunate rail-way worker – and shortly after they appear, a terrible accident occurs.
Accumulation is a major factor in horror stories, and “The Signalman” used this to great effect. The appearances of the spectres become more frequent, making the reader wonder what is going to take place at the climax.
The spectre returns, and the signalman describes to the narrator that: ‘what troubles me so dreadfully is the question: What does the spectre mean?’ This leaves the reader to ponder what may happen next in the story, even though they may have no idea. It leaves the reader feel to be scared by whatever their imagination may come up with, meaning the writer does not have to reveal the plot just yet – but can keep the reader guessing. This is a common feature in 19th Century horror, and is used in “Captain Rogers” and “The Engineer’s Thumb”
The narrator also describes how he could see the ‘mental torture’ and ‘pain of mind’ of the signalman, suggesting that the events with the spectre have left his state of mind in tatters. In 19th Century horror stories, characters were often driven mad by the events unfolding in the book
At the end of the book, the plot unravels, and all becomes clear. The narrator is shocked to hear of the death of the signalman, who is hit by a train. He then learns that the spectre which had been haunting the signalman was the driver, shouting at him to clear the way. The ending of the book is short, with just a little dialogue after we learn of the death of the signalman, which is common in horror stories of this era. This style of ending is similar to that in “Captain Rogers”, in which there is a death, and a sudden ending to the story. This is also the case in “The Engineer’s Thumb”, when Holmes realises that the printing press has been destroyed, and the criminals are many miles away.
Another famous tale from this period is “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W.Jacobs. It epitomises the horror genre of this time, with suspense, mystery, death, and a super-natural theme all included in the plot.
The story begins with a good use of contrast. ‘The night was cold and wet’, but inside Laburnam Villa, a ‘fire burned brightly’, as a father and son are playing a game of chess whilst an old lady sat by the fire, ‘knitting placidly’. Contrast is also used at the beginning of “Captain Rogers”, when ‘a bright fire afforded a pleasant change to the chill October air outside’.
Description of the setting is included in the father’s dialogue: ‘Of all the beastly, slushy, out-of-the-way places to live in, this is the worst’. At this point, a guest knocks on the door and is invited into the house. He tells the family a tales of ‘strange scenes’ and ‘doughty deeds’, a good use of repetition, and finally arrives on the subject of a monkey’s paw, which ‘had a spell put on it by an old fakir’. Again, another reference to super-natural subjects. The Paw will grant three separate men each three wishes, but when asked about this, the visitor’s face ‘whitened’ – a method commonly used in 19th Century horror to show fear.
Later, the family urge the visitor (a sergeant in the army) to let them have ownership of the paw. The sergeant is reluctant to hand it over, instead suggesting to ‘let it burn’ in the fire. This leaves the reader wondering what could be so bad about the paw, which the sergeant wants to let burn in the fire. As with “The Signalman”, “Captain Rogers”, and “The Engineer’s Thumb” , it is left to the readers’ imaginations what the plot may be surrounding the story, confirming that it is a common characteristic of 19th Century Horror.
A technique also used in this particular story, was the use of words such as ‘unusual’, ‘depressing’ and ‘horrible’ to set a negative and gloomy semantic field around it, which alerts the reader to the mood of the story. Nearly every 19th Century Horror story used this method of writing, including “The Signalman” and “Captain Rogers”.
These stories also use the technique of repetition to put across the meaning of a phrase or piece of dialogue more strongly. In “The Monkey’s Paw”, a character called Herbert is sitting alone by the fire, when he sees a face ‘so horrible and so simian that he gazed at it in amazement’, in the flames. The repetition of the word ‘so’ makes the adjective following it, much stronger.
In “The Monkey’s Paw”, and often in other horror novels, a short relief from the tension will be given. In “The Monkey’s Paw”, directly after the scene in which Herbert has seen the ‘vivid’ faces in the fire, there is a short scene portraying events at the breakfast table the following morning. The monkey’s paw, the object of all their wonder, fear, and excitement the night before, is ‘pitched on the sideboard with a carelessness which betokened no great belief in its virtues’. The family laugh the tale of the sergeant off, making a mockery of the ‘power’ of the paw.
Often, horror stories of this period will add scenes such as this to enable the use of features such as irony, which is used in abundance in this scene, for example when Mrs. White asks: ‘How could two hundred pounds hurt you?”. Immediately after, Herbert replies: ‘Might drop on his head from the sky.’ All this is ironic, as Herbert is eventually killed by some machinery at his workforce – and the family are given two hundred pounds in compensation, after Herbert used the paw to wish for ‘two hundred pounds’.
The reader thinks the story has reached its climax, when the family are informed of the death of Herbert. However – there is one last twist in the plot. Some 19th Century Horror Stories added a twist, and it proved very popular. A week after the death of Herbert, his mother and father eventually, after much arguing, decide to use the paw one last time – to bring Herbert back to life. A ‘loud knock resounded through the house’, and his mother rushes to the door to open it for Herbert. Just when the reader thinks the mutilated body is going to be let into the house, his father realises his mistake – and wishes his son away. The door is opened, but Herbert is gone. The eventual anti-climax to this twist is also used often in 19th Century Horror Stories.
A twist was also included in “Captain Rogers”, where Rogers murders his friend, Gunn.
To conclude, many different styles and techniques were used to create a Horror Story in this time, but they all had the same effect, which was to create a dark and negative semantic field– which makes the story more scary and thrilling for the reader. Writers such as Dickens, Poe, Collins, Jacobs, and Doyle included vivid descriptions of setting and character to aid their writing, and add to the semantic field.