How do the authors maintain suspense and tension in The Red Room and The Signalman which story do you consider does this most effectively?
In The Red Room by H.G Wells, written in 1885 and The Signalman by Charles Dickens, written in 1894 are both excellent examples of stories concerning the supernatural. Ghost stories and thrillers were very popular in the Victorian Era. These types of stories are found under the genre ‘Gothic’. H.G. Wells and Charles Dickens are both renowned authors and are very good at using particular techniques throughout their writing to maintain suspense and tension.
The Signalman is set in an age where the train was a brand new technology which was not completely perfected; this made it a perfect place to set a mysterious ghost story. Charles Dickens was influenced to write The Signalman in 1865 when he was in a railway accident in which the train derailed at high speed. Ten people were killed and many injured. By using his experience to write this story it gave the setting a very contemporary edge, which played on societies fear for the latest technology.
The Signalman was a man who worked by signalling to drivers to slow down. He lived in a cutting, which was a very dark deep place like a coffin with no quick escape if anything happened. A large red light flicked on and a bell rang whenever a train was approaching. A lot of colours used are associated with mystery and death such as ‘red light…black tunnel…saturnine face’. Charles Dickens also uses personification quite regularly. ‘Angry sunset…the wind and the wires took up the story with a long lamenting wail’. Some quotes such as ‘angry sunset’ suggest that nature itself is angry.
The personification can also make the reader feel that perhaps there is something or someone else present in the darkness. All of the colours are quite dark. Red can easily be related with death through blood. His use of light is very obvious too, for example ‘gloomier entrance…dark room…foreshortened, shadowed’. The shadows and midst scares the reader by making them think that perhaps there is something lurking in the shadows. The description used in the story make it very gothic as well, for example ‘earthly deadly smell… high stone walls… damp air’. The gothic genre is well known for danger, so when the reader realises that the story is gothic they can tell that something mysterious or dangerous is going to happen.
The speed of the narrative changes during the course of the story therefore building tension and suspense. I was sitting here, when I heard…the sleeve away when it was gone,’ the speed of the story going up can build tension because the reader immediately believes that the story is leading up to something. When the narrative is fast it makes the reader think faster coming up with lots of questions such as what going to happen.
The personality of the characters can build tension for instance ‘His attitude was one of such expectation and watchfulness that I stopped’. When you first meet the signalman his nervousness leaves the reader wondering what the reason for this behaviour is. Occasionally throughout the story Charles Dickens repeats certain phrases such as ‘Don’t call back… Halloa, below there’. The repetition of these phrases can make the reader think about the reasons, such as why he cannot call back.
The Red Room is set lot earlier than it was written giving it a very timeless quality. Everything in the setting is very old fashioned and follows a very standard structure with a foreboding castle, hidden rooms and ghosts. He was purposely gave no indication as to its particular time or location.
Just like Charles Dickens he uses the light to give the setting a more sinister atmosphere, ‘dark against the firelight… the candles went out’. The darkness and shadows darken the room so that the reader cannot visualise the parts of the room making the reader think and imagine what could be lurking in the shadows.
The author has very detailed descriptions of certain objects and people, ‘Her pale eyes opened…more bent, wrinkled… aged’ These very detailed descriptions describe some features for example characters very closely so that the scene is very contrasted from very detailed to the invisible. This suggests that perhaps there are thing in the castle that cannot be seen or describes because they are from the supernatural.
H.G. Wells repeats certain phrases during the story, ‘It’s your own choosing…This night of all nights’. Its your own choosing suggests that the man doesn’t want to be in anyway responsible for anything that might happen to him in The Red Room. This night of all nights implies that this night is a particularly dangerous night for the narrator to be going to The Red Room.
The narrator is very arrogant, and considers that his opinion that the room is not haunted to be unquestionable,’ eight and twenty years I have lived and never a ghost have I seen yet. This builds tension because the reader can tell that something out of place is going to happen.
The characters are described in a very spooky way for instance, ‘the man with the withered arm when his coughing had ceased for a while…wrinkled, aged’. This builds up tension by using gothic description.
The speed of the narrative is very varied. ‘As I entered the door closed behind me at once… turned the key I found in the lock’. Short, fast sentences build up tension because each sentence builds up and up to a summit leaving the reader with a sense of danger.
H.G. Wells uses personification regularly. ‘My candle flared and made the shadows cower and quiver the shadows as stepped toward me.’ This makes the seen more dramatic and a lot for the reader to concentrate on and also gives the impression that there is somebody else present.
Many of the techniques used in The Red Room are very similar to the techniques used in The Signalman. However The Red Room can build up more tension than The Signalman because it contains more gothic features. The danger involved in the red room it’s much more obvious than the danger involved in The Signalman, perhaps because of its timeless quality. Because of the timeless quality we know exactly what kind of dangers await him as soon as the scene is set. The narrator is referred to in the first person in one story which gives the reader a stronger sense of being present in the story and makes it seem more realistic. I think that the most effective means of building tension in a story would be the use of light and description creating contrast between the known and the unknown.