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Pre-1914 Prose: The Red Room Compared by H.G Wells compared to The Signalman by Charles Dickens

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Introduction

Pre-1914 Short Stories In class we have been studying several short stories from the Victorian era. At this time, stories about the supernatural were very popular, otherwise known as gothic fiction. They are often set in dark, gloomy settings and contain mysterious and sometimes chilling characters. The atmosphere is usually tense, dark and frightening. The two stories I will be writing about are 'The Red Room' by H.G.Wells and 'The Signalman' by Charles Dickens. 'The Red Room' is a story set in a haunted castle of which a young man has inherited. He comes to the castle to prove to the three old people who live there that ghosts do not exist, but he is given a fright when he reaches his room. Afterwards he concludes that it may not have been ghosts that haunt the room, but the person's fear. 'The Signalman' is about a man visiting a signalman who works on the railway only to learn that he has had several encounters with a ghosts or spirits who all seem to be warning him of something. Whenever he sees this thing, an accident occurs on the line. In the end, the signalman himself is killed in an accident after going to investigate what he sees. Both these stories use similar techniques to keep the readers interested, for example, chilling descriptions and mysterious events. ...read more.

Middle

The story climaxes when the man begins to panic as all his candles start going out and he is no longer in control of the room, the shadows and the lights play tricks on him until he makes a desperate attempt to leave the room, but is knocked out before he makes it. It uses short sentences for effect and when he falls it leaves the reader wanting to find out what has caused it. There is lots of use of personification that makes it seem like the room is alive and acting against him, so we want to know if there is some kind of force tormenting him. There is a more conventional ghost in The Signalman, but it is just as mysterious. The signalman tells the narrator of the figure he sees by the track which is always followed by death on the line. The story is revealed slowly so as to keep the tension high. The way the signalman is afraid makes the narrator more uneasy, for instance it says 'He pulled out his handkerchief, and wiped the drops from his heated forehead'. When he tells us that he has been seeing the figure all week, we suddenly are expecting another accident, but we don't know when. The signalman knows an accident is coming but there is nothing he can do about it, so his frustration increases the tension 'It was the mental torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance by an unintelligible responsibility involving life'. ...read more.

Conclusion

This leaves us with questions about the possibility of the room being cursed, and the power of human imagination. Similar questions about imagination are left with the ending of The Signalman, the final accident occurs and it is the signalman who was killed, but was the ghost real? We realise the ghost was warning him of his own death, but we don't know why. Both these stories invite the reader to make up their own explanations. All the features in these stories are archetypal of gothic fiction - the setting, characters, themes and suspense building. Tension is created in the beginning with long, evocative descriptions, is maintained with clues and the slow building of plot and is kept right until after the closing sentences with unanswered questions. The two stories are similar in style and much of the language is comparable. However, the mystery of the red room is witnessed first hand by the narrator, but in The Signalman all the mystery is revealed via another character and the ghost itself is never seen, which makes it all the more mystifying. In my opinion, the stories worked very well at setting the scene and pacing the tension, but I think both the endings were too vague. While the unanswered questions might invite the reader to consider the story further, I felt they should have given a little more explanation to get you thinking. ...read more.

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