How effectively the writers create a sense of mystery using a selection of 19th century stories

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Mystery stories have been increasingly popular since the 19th century because they manage to intrigue readers and make them want to read more. This has happened because of what have become classic mystery and horror story ingredients that drag readers into a story and make them want to keep turning the pages. An often tense, surreal yet believable, waiting atmosphere is created by the writer. This was something new in the Victorian era, probably a reason that the genre of mystery writing drew so many readers.

Back then, there were no televisions or radio, and no real form of entertainment that we think of today. You had your friends, games, or reading books in a family. This became increasingly popular as more and more children began going to school and learning to read. Along with this, new laws were brought in to limit time in the workplace, so there was more time to read. Old superstitions of ghosts and strange happenings were suddenly being revived, and new science was being discovered, giving the fathers of science fiction more to write about.

After reading The Red Room, written by H. G. Wells in 1896, The Signalman, written by Charles Dickens in 1866, and Bram Stoker’s The Judge’s House from 1891 I am going to look at the atmosphere created by the stories, and how that creates a real sense of mystery that draws a reader in and captivates him or her. In The Red Room, the reader is led through the experiences of the narrator, a clerk who has come to investigate goings on at a secluded house inhabited by three strange old people.

This is a story more similar to The Signalman, in that there is a narrator who describes the events, and that he is more and more intrigued by the apparent goings on by a train track, and the experiences of the signalman. The Judge’s House is slightly different in that it is written in third-person perspective. But once again it follows a main character, who gets more and more engaged in odd goings on in a secluded location. Looking at this, there seems to be a common theme, which I will look at more closely throughout this piece.

The settings for all three stories seem, to me, to be typical settings for mystery stories. Despite them being typical settings, they help create the atmosphere of terror and mystery. The idea of an old, secluded place which is rarely visited is an obvious place for bizarre goings on. The quote of “no one can here you scream” comes to mind, because that is exactly why the idea must have been chosen. In both The Red Room and The Judge’s House the setting is in a very old building which is completely out of the way.

In The Red Room there is a considerable lack of adjectives and phrases used to describe the actual house, whereas in The Judge’s House, Stoker seems to delight in describing the house, and it gives a better effect to the reader. Reading about a “desolate” and “old, rambling heavy-built house of the Jacobean style” gives a much more striking impression of the house being a place that could house a ghost or something mysterious. However good a person’s imagination is, it is always better to have a description spelled out to you. The Signalman is slightly different in that it’s set in a cutting for a train, in between two tunnels.

The idea of it being a “dungeon”, with “barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air” gives another good sense of where the story is being set and the quite mysterious and eerie feeling about the setting. Although in this story there is some description of the area, there still isn’t enough for me. I feel that the story becomes scarier and more mysterious if a good sense of the setting of the story is given. Less imagination is needed to think about the place, and an instant visualisation can be produced in your head, and from there, a better understanding of how the story works.

It is hard to really pinpoint why certain settings make it scarier for humans. Maybe it is the isolation. The fact that you’re so far away from everybody else, means you have no one to help you, and no one to notice if you go insane. This might not apply to American’s from the Victorian era though, as America was an isolationist country, and its people enjoyed being away from anything else. Is it to do with the light? That I will mention later. It is almost as if we have a built in instinct in our brain to be scared of places that are old.

That could have been contaminated and infected with “nasties” or “bogies”, places that have been deserted for so long they render their inhabitants insane with loneliness. I don’t understand what it is about the human psyche that causes this, but mystery writers, including the three I write about here, exploit it well. The main characters in all three stories are very similar, all beginning quite intelligent, logical thinkers, completely disbelieving in any supernatural object with the inability to comprehend that their thoughts might just be erroneous.

The way all three writers portray their main characters, in a way which they refuse to believe any bizarre activities as something that could be spiritual or metaphysical, rather than physical and able to deal with using common sense, makes the reader think more and more that the activities are odd. This may seem a bit strange; shouldn’t it be the other way round? That we are more shocked when the final act comes, because we didn’t believe it to be real. It may seem like this, but maybe with the constant stream of scary movies being thrown at us nowadays that we are able to detect plots like this, and almost know what is going to happen.

Maybe a hundred years ago it would have shocked readers more, and the twists and turns of the story would have more likely misled their views on what really was happening, then they do today. The insanity of the main characters maybe has a connection with some of the writer’s thoughts about the changing times in which they lived. The simple observation would be there on the surface; the writers all feel that the industrial revolution will turn menial workers who have no stimulation insane. But deeper than that, there seems to be a lot of unrest about the changing times.

Are the people that get injured, or die (the signalman, Malcomson and the clerk), metaphors for a historical way of life, which is being trampled on by this new system. Or is it the other way round? The other way round being a much more hopeful idea that the new way will be beaten off and destroyed because people will reject it. Maybe, it isn’t that at all, but a comment on the changing beliefs of people in the country. Or in fact, just a general overview; that if people try to tamper with what is there, then that will not work.

The other characters in all three stories also follow a pattern. In The Red Room there are three other characters, all of whom are quite old, senile and slightly insane. The Signalman has the signalman as its other character, who believes he is going insane with his job. And The Judge’s House follows two old ladies both of which seem slightly unable to grasp the full concept of reality, and are led to believe local superstitions, as well as a rat, which is just generally quite different and disturbing in its nature.

It seems as if all three writers are purposely trying to create a sense of balance, or even of conflict. On one side you have the rational, level-headed character, and the other the super-natural, unexplainable character. The balance part of this is to do with a ying-yang philosophy in that there is a good side and an evil side, this can be adapted to an explainable and unexplainable side. But then in that same philosophy, there is the situation of conflict between the two sides. As there is here, and, in each case, the unexplainable side comes out with an almost win.

So is the unexplainable good, or evil? Or is it just the human mind playing with itself, confusing its owner with misplaced specks of fear? The lighting plays a big part in the creation of fear and tension in a story. In all three stories it is shown that dark is dangerous, and forbidding. Light, is good, and not intimidating. There are simple reasons for that; in the dark you can not see, you don’t know necessarily what is certainly there, and what isn’t, where as in light, you can see, and therefore know what is around you. Don’t you?

The way dark is portrayed as bad, and light as good, could be explored deeper, almost too deep in fact, to possibly racist ideals. Racism was common at the time of writing in the cases of all three stories, and is still common today, possibly more common. But this seems absurd; wouldn’t it make sense to have dark as being simply more terrifying? It is interesting to not in The Judge’s House that a large chunk of the time it is actually light, albeit from a fire which is flickering, and that is when the perplexing events happen. Maybe light isn’t totally safe? Only daylight, but it depends on how the lighting is described.

The way language is used to describe the lighting is very important to determine the impression given to the reader, as is the description for all different elements of terror. This is especially true with the idea of imagery. The idea of red is one of the most important themes in all three stories. Red is the colour of blood, and from that, death. In The Red Room the title suggests that something bloody and death-like happens in that room, simply because the room is red. It gives the sense of the walls dripping with blood; that many murders and deaths have occurred in that room.

Again, in The Signalman; the warning light shining red shows death. The fact that a ‘man’ is standing close to that same red warning light, waving his arms, seems to be a suggestion that the red is death. But it is also a symbol for danger, and that seems to be the base definition used in the story. Because the light is so deeply looked at, the colour of it must mean something. Red seems less important in The Judge’s House, because it is rarely mentioned, only that the rat’s eyes are red. This could mean something evil, devil-like, a possession. The style of the language that is used allows the writer to create this imagery.

What now seems an old fashioned, Victorian style of writing includes a huge number more adjectives and descriptive noun sentences, which put a better picture in the reader’s head. This style is less apparent in The Red Room, which seems to use a more modern tone of language, but still uses long, flowing descriptive sentences. The Red Room and The Signalman, which are both written in first person narrative, have used sentence structures to their advantage. Because the stories are written from one person’s inner thoughts, rhetorical questions, exclamations and tiny details can be put in.

The story can be written the way it would be told, with short sentences and breathless comma sections used to great effect. Tension is easily created with these sentence types. Onomatopoeic words such as “creak” and “bang” can be used in sentences to make descriptions so vivid they’re almost there, in your mind, and with those words, you can almost hear it as well. Symbolism is very important also. Take, in The Judge’s House, where Malcomson finally hits the rat with a book and it turns out to be the Bible. Could this not be a symbol of spiritualism winning over all the logical books he threw before?

That only using spiritual means and abandoning logical thoughts would he overcome this strange haunting. It later turns out he dies anyway. The Judge’s House ends with Malcom Malcomson being found hung by the old rope used for hanging criminals, apparently hung by the Judge. Could the Judge not be a metaphor for Malcomson going insane and committing suicide? Maybe, because Malcomson has been so forceful to push any spiritualism out of his mind, and concentrate on logic, his spiritual side challenges back, and he is forced to kill his schizophrenic self.

Again, in The Red Room, the clerk doesn’t die, but is seriously hurt by whatever is in the room. But yet he, at the end of the story, admits that there is no ghost, the only ‘ghost’ is fear itself; that because of the stories about the room, he is so paranoid in the room that he ends up hurting himself in his want to keep all the candles alight so he can see. Almost like a ‘Room 101’ situation, he faces his fear, but isn’t it also possible that he has taken too much of a logical approach to his predicament, and there really is something in there?

The Signalman is slightly different because it is not the main character who is most affected by the strange events. The signalman himself eventually dies by a train that hits him. Maybe it is that because the signalman is a man of such intelligence, that in such a menial and un-testing job such as a signalman, his mind wonders and possibly even to an extent that he sees his own future. Or maybe, that he was hallucinating, and seeing things, and in his haste to stop yet another accident, managed to kill himself. All three stories end with something happening because of a spiritual cause, and the possibility of madness.

Questions are always left at the end; maybe that is what frightens the readers so much, that they don’t have answers. I feel that Charles Dickens, with The Signalman has created the best mystery story because the suspense and mystery is kept at a high right until the end of the story. He does this, just slightly better than the other writers, perhaps through the marginal ideas of the stories; that they are all totally believable, and that could quite easily happen (or could, with the scientific knowledge of that time), but aren’t quite real; there is just something a little not right about the settings, characters, lighting and events.

Another positive aspect of the story is that it is a most unpredictable story. The reader really has no idea what is going to happen. Dickens seems to be able enlighten and fill the reader’s imagination with long descriptive sentences, and the atmosphere in the reader’s head, determines what they think is going to happen next, and how scared they are. Some of the meanings in this story can be traced back to Victorian issues of the time, like the worry about the new industrialisation and worries about poverty. But maybe, there are no issues and Dickens, and the other writers, and simply writing for the enjoyment of writing.

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