During the 19th century, reading horror stories for most people was almost like an obsession. This is because during the Victorian period, the industrial revolution was in full flow, and gothic features in the horror genre were very popular amongst people. It was a cheap pastime, and available, with many short stories, such as Charles dickens ‘The signal man’ being published in newspapers or magazines.
The Victorian period was also a time of rapid development, where new ideas emerged -like the theory of evolution- which unsettled people. This caused a spread of uncertainty and a bit of helplessness, as they no longer knew what the world was heading for?- to think of a possible apocalypse wasn’t too farfetched at the time.
We will see how uncertainty is a typical convention that is widely used in horror stories, and how it plays a role in the stories that I will examine also I will be discussing the structure of the stories; the characterisation; the themes included in the stories; the setting and the writer’s techniques.
I am going to first discuss the different techniques and themes used in ‘The Judge’s House by Bram Stroker’.
This story is about a student who is reading Mathematics at university, ends up in an old eerie house which is supposedly haunted by the Judge who used to reside in it. Rumour has it that he was a merciless Judge who used to send innocent people to the gallows. A few people throughout the course of the story try to convince Malcolmson to leave the house, but he is adamant that he shouldn’t surrender to other people’s unjustified fears.
In his three day stay he witnesses unexplainable happenings and also meets with the Judge- as an apparition. At the end of the story we learn that some people come into the house and find Malcolmson hanging limp at the end of rope- the same one which the Judge used on the other witnesses.
The writer hints at the beginning of the story that the house has “some prejudice about it” and throughout the story different objects are described, such as the rope, that help to pursue a morbid curiosity. He also describes the different noises such as ” creaking doors” and different imagery, such as, “shaking like a man in palsy”, and example of a simile.
The setting is important because it sets the story, and it also reflects the different ways in which the atmosphere changes, for example, the ‘cosy ambiance’ that Malcomson feels at the start of the story to ‘anxiety’ and ‘panic’.
The antique house with a cloud of ‘mystery’ is a very important ingredient in the story, since it is a symbol of ‘horror’. Malcolmson seems to relish in the idea of dwell in as it fulfilled his desire of complete ‘silence’ and ‘isolation’, the perfect place to study for an exam.
At the beginging of the story, he takes the first train he can catch to an ‘unpretentious’ little town. The author described it, as being a normal/plain town, with nothing interesting. But then he contrasts this view, with ‘an old, rambling, heavy-built house/fortified house’, so this contrast in description of two different things, heightens the possibility of that something really bad will happen in that dwelling, and this is an example of how he sets his next scene, with all its moods-such as fear to what the will happen to the main character.
He then asserts this, by introducing several other characters who warn Malcolmson against it.
He first meets, Mrs Witham, who is an old working class lady, and panics upon hearing Malcolmsons intentions of staying in the house. She quickly bombards him with details, about how the house is held in great terror, and ‘there was a general feeling that there was “something”‘ in the house. Malcolmson ignores all these allegations, claiming that an intelligent man like him “A man who is reading for the mathematical tripos has too much to think of to be disturbed by any of these mysterious ‘somethings”
Later on another woman accompanies them to the house; her name is Mrs Dempster and has different views. She uses the term ‘bogies which is the colloquial term for spectres, and points out ” Bogies is all kinds and sorts of things” and clearly takes on a logical explanation by continuing to say ” Rats and mice and beetles and creaky doors, and loose slates, and broken panes, and stiff drawer handles/ Rats is bogies, I tell you, and bogies is rats, and don’t you think anything else”. That just goes on to show you, that even though some themes in the story are hackneyed ones, like the old quaint house being haunted, Stroker aimed to make his characters interesting and less predictable, who has alternating views about the house. In my opinion this was very intelligent to include Mrs dempster, because it shows that the house might of not been haunted after all, but Malcolmson might have been overcome by a great sense of fear and paranoia that he ended up hallucinated and committed suicide, and this is exactly what the readers need to decide at the end of the story.
We see how gender, age and class are important aspects in characters with different roles. Mrs Witham is the typical character that always gives a forewarning, which gives out a sense of impending danger. Mrs Dempster in this story is interestingly a women but who seems to think logically and confirms Malcolmsons views that the house is great in the sense of isolation and will allow him to get on with his work, while Malcolmson himself is the main character who is practical and logical. He is the high class figure in this story that isn’t superstitious and is prone to be the victim of horror. We see how Malcolmson thinks that simply because the former characters are women, who belong to another generation, has no regard for their opionions and fails to appreciate Mrs Dempsters ‘logical’ outlook and observation, and that just shows how being a man who belonged to an upper class family distinguished and always automatically made you right compared to an old women from a working class family. I think Stroker used these two extremes to make the story at the time to reflect 19th century attitudes, which is very effective and interesting, since this ‘logical’ man who has firm beliefs is tested to grave extents and this is another theme that most horror stories at the time made use of, which is some things are better left untouched and unquestioned and if people truly understand reality they may go crazy, as we come to learn at the end of the story where Malcolmson is thought of to have committed suicide.
The series of events take place over a three day period, like in most ghost stories, always on the third day the worst happens, and this story is no exception.
On the first day, Malcolmson mood towards the house was a pleasant one. He felt warm and excited. We can deduce this from his actions, for example he is described to make a cup of tea and renewed the fire, both actions which signify warmth and comfort. Then the mood changes, where he is disturbed by the noise the rats were making, “they races, gnawed and scratched”. But soon he gets accustomed to the perpetual sound they were making and quickly gained his concentration. I like the way the author describes Malcolmson situation, “isolation from his kind”, this has a possible underlying meaning. He is trying to make us acknowledge the fact that he is being ‘watched’ or possibly he is in the presence of some invisible being- for example an apparition.
At midnight, Malcolmson is overcome by a cold eerie feeling, and this was in the presence of the biggest rat with ‘baleful eyes’ which “shone in the lamplight with added vindictiveness”. The reader soon realizes that this is a quiet scene, since the rats scampering stops, and it becomes clear that this was an added technique by Stoker, to heighten our sense of fear. He used describing words such as ‘red’ to symbolize ‘murder’, ‘death’ and ‘evil’ and different verbs and adverbs to add a bit of action in his story, like ‘Instantly, steadily, angrily”.
During his second night, he experience more unpleasantness, but more to do with discovery. He again encounters the same large evil rat, and discovers that in its presence all the other rats are quiet indicating that he is no ordinary rat. An “odd sensation thrilled through him”, this odd sensation is ‘fear’, this shows that he still denies his intuitions that something is wrong and he is determined to address the whole matter and take control. So he wanted to know where the rat came from in order to set up a rat trap. He made sure the room was well lit- and this is evidence that people don’t like to be kept in the dark. This is another convention since everybody wants to know what lurks in the dark. He came across the rope which was the same rope that was used on his innocent victims who were condemned to a death sentence. “you could hang a man with it”, this was a giveaway by the author to what potentially could be the cause of his death, since “rope” is a symbol of death, because it is connected with “hanging”. Towards the end of his second night, he discovers that the only book that had frightened the rat, was the bible. This indicates that the rat has an evil nature and is possibly possessed by a malevolent source, because the bible is connected with holiness and is always thought to ward evil off. The rat also seems to have disappeared into a hole in one of the great pictures that was the third from the fireplace. This is the third time that the number ‘three’ is made reference to. Malcolmson was warned by three people (Mrs Witham, Mrs Demster, and the Doctor), Stayed in the house for three night, and now the rat seems to prefer the third picture on the wall from the fireplace. I believe Stroker keeps referring to the number ‘three’ because it is a typical symbol of bad luck where bad things always occur.
On his third night, he comes in contact with the Jude’s ghost. First there is a sudden stillness and again the whole room is plunged into a red glow that gives off a sinister vibe. While the house falls into loud silence, the outside world is engulfed in a storm. This is also another typical horror story ingredient since it helps to reach a climax quickly. The rope which he could use to call for assistance is cut off, and the mood of the story takes on a swift change, his calm rational self is lost, and he starts to panic, “pang of terror”.
Malcolmson for the first time is described to be “like a man in palsy”, which a great description of somebody is overwhelmed by sudden fear, one that he has been holding back for so long. That was an example of a simile, one of the figurative languages that he makes use of to make his story more dramatic.
In the end we learn that Malcolm becomes indifferent to everything and lets the Judge tie the rope around his neck and in effect kill him.
The next story I am going to discuss is, ‘The Red Room’ by H.G Wells. From the title itself we can make it out that the story is going to be about fear or danger, because like in ‘The Judge’s house’, where he mentions the ‘red glow’, red symbolizes those themes. ‘Red Room’ is an example of alliteration and helps emphasize the title.
The story is about a visitor at an old antique castle decides to stay in a ‘supposedly’ haunted room, which has a reputation for sinister behaviour, in order words a evil presence dwells in it.
The visitor has a brief conversation with the old housekeepers who themselves seemed to be a-typical beings who made him feel uncomfortable, with their “gaunt” silences and “evident unfriendless”.
The housekeepers in this story, did several times try to warn him, but he claims that “I have lived, and never a ghost have I seen as yet”. I think this dialogue could be a hint that he will be made to experience something of that sort. He describes these people, “There very existence was spectral/vanished men which still haunted rather than participated in the world of today”. The author chose his words wisely and carefully which were very effective in explaining the narrators feelings, for example he used words like “monstrous shadows”.
From the description of these old people, reflects the reactions of people towards people with deformities during Victorian times. They linked the crippled with mischief and bad behaviour, and also they regarded old people to be somewhat inhuman. When the visitor asked for the directions of the room, they warned him earnestly several times. From the passage we can make out that it is a very special night, so either it is Halloween or the anniversary of the haunted room, ” This night of all nights!”
The housekeepers directed the him to the room, since they all couldn’t work up any courage to subject themselves to the misfortune that would befall them if they should engage in any activity involving it. Several features of a typical ghost story are included in the narrative, for example, “Spiral staircase/chilly echoing passage, which set the scene and his mood. At this stage he is a bit apprehensive and scared, for example he mentions “my candle flared and made the shadows cower and quiver” this suggests that even the shadows which are inanimate were afraid in such a passage. “Shadows came sweeping after men/ one fled before me”, this shows that he is feels as if he is being watched and being pursued. In this brief give away to fear he begins to imagine noises, “listening to a rustling that I fancied/impression of someone crouching”. As he neared closer to the red room, everything was blurred with a moonlight haze, which gave him a twinge of apprehension.
Upon entering the room, he remembered what has become of his predecessor, who also had the same mission of ridding the room of absurd superstitions and prejudices. His fear is also made clear at this point by the author by describing his reaction, “rather hastily”. Wells also described the silence as being “pallid”, which translates that he didn’t experience any silence, but the sort where something seems to be wrong.
He then begins to try to conquer his rationale, and starts to examine the room ‘systematically’ a thing that an intelligent man does.
The room that is the actual setting where all the horror takes place, is described as being very big, where the darkness seemed to be “germinating”, that growing which made him uneasy. “a little tongue of flame in its vastness…failed to pierce the opposite end of darkness/left an ocean of mystery and suggestion beyond its island of light”. “Island of light” is an example of a metaphor, which clearly describes how the visitor felt completely excluded from the dark, and how it held something away from him, like harbouring a secret of some sort-maybe its mystery. We also realize that the visitor avoids any aspect of the room that would trigger his fear, and aims to make it warm and well lit.
This links us to the “The Judge’s house”, where Malcolmson experienced sang froid, this is because ghosts are believed to bring a chill to any place they are present in, and so the visitor wanted to relieve his conscience of any theories. He hated the “perfect stillness” of the room as it was “too stimulating for the imagination” so he started devising rhymes in his head to keep him busy. His mood also regains optimism, and he seems to be fairly confident as he makes some ironical remarks in the narrative such as “when the ghost came, I could warn him not to trip over them”, and he links the additional lightening that he put up to have added a “cheery” atmosphere, but he claims that even then he couldn’t ignore this “brooding expectation” , this suggests that he feels that at any moment he may be immediately overwhelmed by his building up fear and panic.
After a brief duration of time the candlelight’s start to go off at several different intervals of time, which induce a sense of panic and fear on him. When they start to go off, he starts to exclaim and questioning himself loudly, “Odd!”/”this won’t do!” it is as if he is speaking to somebody, or almost like begging whatever it is to stop it, queer high note getting into my voice”, this indicates fear and panic. He describes the shadows as if they are alive, and this technique is called personification, ” shadows seemed to take another step towards me”.
Then he tried to relight all the candles again, and again, but to no avail, as he described the shadows gaining up on him with a “remorseless advance”. He then realized a red light, which came from the fireplace; this gave him his last hope. So in this case the “red” symbolized help and or warning. But that didn’t work, and he described his hopeless attitude as if he was being “embraced” by the darkness, and all his reasoning was “crushed”.
Unlike the first story, this character becomes frantic, and does call for help. He tries to run away but falls and gets hit on the head by a piece of furniture. When people do come to find him, they find him unconscious and not dead.
When he wakes up and asked him to what had happened, he claims that the room is haunted, but haunted by “fear” itself.
‘Signalman’ by Charles dickens begins by a gloomy setting, with the Signalman situated in a ‘deep cutting’, his figure ‘foreshortened and shadowed’. Using description such as this, the reader understands the mood of the story – in this case, dark and depressing.
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’. This could also translate as being a hint that there is more than what he seems to see and experience. This is a theme that all three horror stories share, ” the world isn’t what it seems to be”
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.
Another that we will see in this story is that- if people truly understand reality, they may go crazy. A single supernatural event may burst our blissful normal lives, and we will see the horrible reality as it really is.
Another technique that Charles dickens employed was the frequent appearances of the spectres, which makes the reader wonder to what will happen next, building a 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.
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, in which there is a death, and a sudden ending to the story. This is also the case with the Judge’s house, where they find Malcomson dead at the end of the story, leaving it up to the audience to theorise whether he was hallucinating or was it true.
In conclusion, I think ‘The red room’ was very effective since, the message I think was very dramatic which leaves an impact on the reader. The end dialogues leave the reader pondering about fear. Fear is personified, and it is explained as if it was in itself a being which inflicts paranoia, and leads people to do mad things, leading to their death. These ghost stories show how most unexplained deaths are were thought to have occurred using supernatural phenomena, and the visitor who stayed in the red room was able to contradict that because he got out of his ‘supernatural’ experience alive, and this in my opinion shows a new idea emerging which directly reflects the era the story was written in.