Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins write their stories deliberately creating an air of mystery and suspense. ‘The Signalman’ written by Charles Dickens is about a signalman who works at a lonely station in an underground railway cutting who is haunted by a sceptre and other unknown supernatural forces that foretell of imminent doom. ‘The Ostler’ written by Wilkie Collins focuses on a person who looks after horses who seems at the beginning of the story to be disturbed by a nightmare vivid in his mind.
Right at the beginning of the story we can see that the signalman isn’t named he is referred to by pronoun only:
‘When he heard a voice thus calling to him, he was
standing at the door of his box.’
Dickens adds yet more mystery at the start of the story in two subtle ways. Firstly he explains how the signalman looks down the line instead of up to where the narrator shouts:
‘One would have thought,
considering the nature of the ground that he could not
have doubted from what quarter the came;’
After the signalman looks down the line the narrator remarks about how ‘There was something remarkable in his way of doing so’ but he cannot ‘for his life’ figure out what. This subtle creation of mystery and suspense is twofold in the sense that the narrator talks about how the signalman reacts strangely to his call but he cant ascertain the reason for his strange behaviour. Dickens then creates clear suspense when the narrator speaks about how there ‘came a vague vibration’ that quickly changes ‘ into a violent pulsation’ as a train passes through the railway cutting.
The narrator speaks of how the train has the force to pull him beneath which is unusual, as you don’t usually feel that a passing train has the power to pull you under.
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‘The Ostlers’ beginning is different in that there is nothing to indicate a supernatural presence at the beginning whereas with ‘the signalman’ we have a very unnerving beginning where the narrator talks about the train having the force to pull him beneath. We do have other similarities because both writers use subtle techniques to create mystery and suspense such as not revealing the narrators name or the Ostlers name although we do find out later on the identity of the Ostler. At the start of the story we find that it is, mid-day and the narrator finds and old man who is the ostler asleep which is ‘rather a strange time for an Ostler to devote to sleep.’ The narrator speaks of how the mans face is ‘prematurely wrinkled’ making us ask ourselves why? We then go on to find that the man is ‘talking in his sleep.’ Which indicates he might be disturbed by a nightmare. The old man then begins to recall past events in his dream describing in detail ‘light grey eyes’ and exclaiming ‘Yes! Yes! - flaxen hair.’ All this adds to the suspense but not in the sudden way that Dickens does when he writes about the ‘violent’ surge of the oncoming train.
The way Dickens describes the setting of the story he creates the image of an entrance to hell depicting the place as a ‘great dungeon’ and expressing how the little light that reaches the ‘solitary’ station terminates ‘in a gloomy red light’ Red being the colour most associated with hell. The narrator describes the smell as ‘earthy’ and ‘deadly’. The narrator also speaks of how the cold wind struck him with a chill. Dickens tops off this dark foreboding description by saying that he felt as if he ‘had left the natural world’ Writing about the station in this fashion sets the scene for un-natural or supernatural happenings.
``The setting of ‘The Ostler’ is different because the story takes place at different areas instead of sticking to the same place like ‘The Signalman’ but when Isaac does see the sceptre or ‘woman of the dream’ Wilkie Collins does set the scene writing:
‘The bleak autumn wind was still
blowing, and the solemn, monotonous, surging moan of it
in the wood was dreary and awful to hear through the night silence.’
So its night time, with a terrible howling wind in the background, which makes for a perfect setting for a supernatural event. Even today such settings are still used in horror movies. We see that ‘The Ostler’ and ‘The Signalmen have two very different settings one can be seen as an opening to hell the other a typical modern day horror movie setting.
The reader’s suspense is maintained by the way Dickens gradually reveals the signalman’s story. For example the reader has to wait until the second visit for the signalman’s full story to be revealed thus keeping us in a state of anticipation. The same is true of ‘The Ostler’ Isaacs ordinary background and his unluckiness is gradually revealed in a way that Wilkie Collins lulls us into a false sense of security before drifting into the supernatural with his autumn setting and eventually vision of the sceptre. Dickens makes sure that certain things we only find out as the story progresses so they hit us by surprise an instance of this is where ‘The Signalman’ asks if the words shouted by the narrator at the beginning of the story ‘Halloa! Below there!’ were ‘conveyed’ to him ‘in any supernatural way?’ The reader has no reason to believe the words were conveyed in any supernatural way. In this way Dickens creates mystery and suspense because the reader is then made to think about why the signalman asks such a question. Wilkie Collins maintains the suspense in a different way he prefers to lull the reader into a false sense of security before revealing a key part of the story and surprising us. The first time he does this is when he casual discusses Isaacs’s background before he has the vision of woman. The second time he does this is when he describes Isaacs’s change in fortune in becoming a well off man when Isaac has ‘comfortable annuity bequeathed to him’. Collins also writes about how Isaac eventually forgets the woman of the dream lulling the reader into yet more false security before revealing Isaacs meeting a woman who we can guess to be the woman of the dream.
The supernatural element is created by the illusion of the sceptre that warns of death. Also the signalman says that he has ‘never confused’ the sceptres ring with the mans and then explains that ‘the ghosts ring is a strange vibration in the bell’ He also explains that the sceptres ring doesn’t appear to vibrate to the eye:
‘I have not asserted that the bell
stirs to the eye.’
Finally he says that he is the only one could hear it ringing not the narrator.
Wilkie Collins focuses less on the supernatural side though there is the rather unsettling vision of the sceptre, which is described, in vivid detail ‘his brain grew confused ’and ‘his heart beat wildly’
In both stories the victims suffer in ‘The Signalman’ the signalman dies and before hand is very frustrated and unhappy that he isn’t in a position of more power so he could do something about the sceptres warning:
‘And I Lord help me! A
mere poor signalman on this solitary station! Why not go
to somebody with credit to be believed and power to act?’
In ‘The Ostler’ Isaac suffers from premature ageing and has to live with the thought that the woman might return.
Lastly the ending of the ‘The Signalman’ comes as a surprise to the reader because we come to find that the sceptre was foretelling of the signalmen’s own death. This is rather ironic as before the sceptre warned of the death of other people but this time it warned of the death of the signalman himself. Dickens also creates a threefold coincidence in that the rail driver uses the same words and hand movements before he hits the signalman which are the same as the narrators right at the beginning of the story:
‘that the warning of
the engine-driver included, not only the words which the
unfortunate signalman had repeated to me haunting
him, but also the words, which I myself – not he- had
attached, and that only in my own mind, to the gesticu-
lation he had imitated.’
The use of coincidence is less so in ‘The Ostler’ but the ending leaves us in perpetual suspense because we do not know if the woman will come back:
‘She may be looking for him. Who can
‘Who can tell!’said- I.”