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The short story is an ideal form for writers who want to create a sense of terror or horror. Discuss how the following stories from the gothic tradition create suspense and which is the more successful?
The first gothic Novel was written by Horace Walpole and was called ‘The Castle of Otrando.’ It was written in 1764 and after this gothic literacy exploded and became very popular. The imaginative stories often lacked any real worth but were published world wide to satisfy the public. They were bought by a lot of young women. The excitement and fantasy of the stories added interest to the otherwise boring lives of these Victorian women.
The main features of Gothic stories are ruined buildings and graveyards, a foreign setting, a solitary character, a persecuted heroine, mysterious disappearances and supernatural occurrences, insanity, sexuality, pathetic fallacy, exaggerating language, multiple narrators and a use of horror or horror. Stories usually contain quite a few of these but not all of them. These ideas were wild and exotic to the Victorian people. Many had never travelled abroad and insanity was a major fear during these times.
Gothic short stories use horror or horror to frighten the audience and keep them reading. Horror and horror are both related to fright but they are different things. Horror is more a build up of fear and usually only hints at alarming things and lets you imagination do the rest until you are terrified of what is going to happen. Horror is about what you have seen and can relate to a past experience you have seen. Horror is more shocking and is what you can see at that moment. Both lead to a different effect in gothic short stories.
The first of the stories I am considering is ‘The Madman’s Manuscript,’ by Charles Dickens. The story is written in the form of an embedded narrative. The man, Mr Pickman, cannot sleep and he reads the tale of a madman in an asylum. The horror of the story already begins to build as the ‘strange handwriting,’ and ‘soiled and blotted,’ paper is described. This gives you a sense that there is something not right about this man. Mr Pickmans fear is obvious as the title ‘gave him a sudden start.’ During the Victorian ages, when this story was written, people had a fascination with insanity as there was no cure and it was dangerous and unpredictable. This story takes advantage of the fear.
The manuscript becomes hysterical and this plays on the idea of insanity making you lose control. The opening word,’ yes- a madman’s!’ builds the horror as you are aware of this mans condition. The words in the first paragraph, like ‘roused the horror,’ ‘blood hissing and tingling through my veins,’ ‘my knees knocked together with fright,’ and ‘the glare of a madman’s eye,’ emphasise the tone and describe the madman’s fear of insanity and increase the tension as you begin to feel his fright.
The tone of the story changes as in the second paragraph, as the man’s past is described. He is from a family of insanity and he fears throughout his lie that he shall also become insane. ‘I knew that madness was mixed up with my very blood, and the marrow of my bones.’ Words like ‘cowered, screamed and crouched,’ help you experience this mans visions and fears and increase the tension as you realize he is turning mad and it is only a matter of time.
As the dreaded madness finally comes upon our main character, the tone changes again as the madman is happy about his freedom from the fear, ‘at last it came upon me, and I wondered how I could ever have feared it.’ He describes how happy his life is as he hides his insanity and enjoys life. He fears his friends finding out his secret but finds it amusing ‘to think how pale he (his friend) would have turned, and how fast he would have run, if he had known that the dear friend… was a madman with all the power.’ The madman felt in control of his life at this point and ‘it was a merry life!’
He becomes rich and continues to hide his insanity from the world as he wishes to marry a beautiful young woman. He is not pleased with the fact that the girl, who he marries, does not love him and wishes to be with another man, she is typical of a gothic story as she is beautiful, helpless and persecuted but as we are not really given any ideas of her character or her name, it is hard to sympathise with her. When the madman discovers his wife’s true feelings his is driven to pity ‘the wretched life to which her cold and selfish relations had doomed her,’ and we begin to fear for the girl as he talks about her death. He fears her giving birth ‘to some ill-fated being, destined to hand down madness to its offspring.’ The final line of this paragraph shocks us as he ‘resolved to kill her.’
He talks about the many ways in which he wants to kill his wife and we fear for her safety and the viciousness of the madman as he discussed the many cruel ways of killing her like poison, drowning or fire.
The attempted killing of the girl is described in great detail as it builds the horror and tension of the scene. The man is also cunning as when she awakes and begins to scream he hides his insanity and instead lets the house believe it is she who is mad. The horror increases in the story as the mans insanity increases and he goes ‘into the open fields… and laughed till the air resounded with my shouts.’
The girl dies the next day and he pretends to mourn his loss even though he had killed her. The man becomes restless and he ‘felt that before long my secret must be known.’ The horror of what he will do next returns. This is increased as he describes his struggle as, ‘I ground my teeth, and struck my feet upon the floor, and drove my nails into my hands. I kept it down.’
When the man’s brother-in-law visits him and he kills him, his secret is found out and the man is locked up in an asylum. The description of the ‘grey cell where the sunlight seldom comes,’ adds to the horror of the story as the place is described as a prison and many people would fear turning mad like this man and ending up in this horrible place.
The note at the end speaks about how perhaps the man was driven mad by the fear of insanity, rather than it being inherited.
The sensationalist language throughout the piece adds to the horror as the situation is exaggerated and seems worse than it is.
The second story is ‘Strange Events in the Life of Schalken the Painter,’ by J.S. Le Fanu. This story focuses more on terror as we do not discover what happens to our heroine during her marriage. The foreign setting of Holland made the story more exciting to the Victorian readers as this was a strange, exotic place where they had never been.
The story is again set in the embedded narrative. The narrator heard the story of Schalken after he saw a painting by him in the house of Captain Vandal, a man he once visited. The story is told to the man by the Captain.
Schalken is a young man working for Gerard Douw. He worked hard for his master as he was in love with Douw’s niece, Rose Velderkaust. Schalken was ‘a poor man,’ and his love for Rose makes us feel sympathy for him. He works hard for her and we want him to be rewarded for his hard work with her hand in marriage.
The scene is set for the arrival of the mysterious stranger. The silence and darkness gives an eerie and sinister atmosphere. The ‘short, sudden laugh,’ breaks this atmosphere and the terror at what it could be builds. The dark description of the mysterious man and the fact that the man’s face is not seen makes the man peculiar and we wonder who he could be. As the man disappears and cannot be seen walking away from the building, it is suggested that this man could be supernatural.
When the man reappears the next day, his strange image is continued. He gives Schalken some jewellery to be valued and his wealth is shown. He asks Douw if he can have Rose’s hand in marriage and the painter accepts. The stranger keeps his face hidden and words like ‘mysterious,’ and ‘unexpected,’ build terror as we don’t know who this man is.
When we finally hear the description of the man, it is gruesome. His face is ‘coloured with the bluish leaden hue,’ and he has ‘two lone, discoloured fangs.’ This gives us the impression he is a vampire and there is something paranormal about him. Rose’s shock and fright at the man adds to the terror as the reader knows she must marry him.
Rose is forced to marry the cruel and ugly man. She then seems to disappear and although Gerard Douw tries to search for her and her husband, he cannot find them. The mystery of this adds to the terror of the story.
One night Rose rushes into the room and her typical gothic heroine image is gone. She is no longer beautiful and virginal but ‘wild and haggard.’ er The
The shock of Douw and Shalken is obvious and we are terrified at the state of the girl. She is described in a way that makes her seem almost insane, which would petrify the Victorian public. She demands not to be left alone and says ‘I am lost forever if you do!’ The almost supernatural occurrence if a shadowy figure adds to the terror as you are unsure why the girl is in a panic and what is happening.
When the clergyman arrives he is unsympathetic and you fear all hope is lost for the girl. As Douw leaves to get another candle the girl screams for him not to leave but it is too late. The door swings shut and they could not get it open again. The girl shrieks. This story is more terrifying than ‘The Madman’s Manuscript,’ as there is no description of the girl’s death and you are left to imagine what is happening to her. The shrieks stop and a ‘light step is heard crossing the floor, as if from the bed to the window,’ and we think perhaps Rose has escaped but ‘no trace of Rose was ever found.’ The mystery of her death leaves you wondering where she is and if she survived.
The final part of the story is set years ahead of the rest of the story and we are given the sense that Schalken never forgot Rose. Schalken has a vision about Rose and her husband and it again we feel there is something supernatural about the story. There are no explanations given for the disappearance or his vision and it lets you imagine what you think has happened.
Both stories create tension and suspense. ‘The Madman’s manuscript,’ creates horror and is more visual than ‘Strange events in the life of Schalken the Painter,’ but it is not successful in maintaining suspense. The story is very extravagant and it is difficult to sympathise with the characters. The suspense is built up in ‘Strange events in the life of Schalken the Painter,’ as it is mysterious with strange characters and Schalken, the hero with whom we can easily sympathise. The sense of something supernatural makes the story seem even more exotic and unrealistic and the use of terror makes the story more enjoyable, in my opinion, as you use your imagination to think about what has happened to the characters. For these reasons, I feel ‘Strange events in the life of Schalken the Painter,’ uses terror better than ‘The Madman’s manuscript.’