The Signalman” by Charles Dickens and The Red Room by H G Wells are both tales of the supernatural

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After studying the texts of “The Signalman” by Charles Dickens and “The Red Room” by H.G. Wells, I am going to look at how the authors achieve a sense of tension and suspense in their stories. They both use the supernatural to give an overall sense of tension and suspense for the reader. But is this all they do to do this? What else do they use?

Narrative structure and style

The narrative structure and style in “The Signalman” helps achieve a sense of tension and suspense by gradually revealing the plot to the reader, although by having some area where the pace is quite fast also builds tension and suspense for the reader. As the reader you can relate to the narrator more as it is told from his point of view and is written in first person. The story itself is not written in chronological order and H.G Wells makes as much use as he can of flashbacks. These make you, as the reader, more intrigued to find out what the story is all about.

Dickens uses repetition in this story to constantly remind the reader of the basic plot and the gist of the story. The main phrase which he uses to do this in the story is “Halloa! Below there!” I think this phrase is used to show the significance of the flashbacks and the predictions of the signalman, himself. This in itself builds more tension and suspense for the reader, as they need to read the whole story in order to find out the significance and meaning of the story.

The narrative structure and style in “The Red Room” helps achieve a sense of tension and suspense by getting the reader straight into the story with no explanations or introductions to the story or tell us something about the story, but this is typical of stories in this genre. The pace of this story increase rapidly as the narrator enters the red room. However, the story is revealed slowly to build curiosity and suspense for you as the reader.

This is shown to us when the candles start to go out as we do not know why they are going out or how this is happening. There is also a sense of panic and madness throughout the story. “I moved my candle from side to side” and “I glanced over my shoulder … and opened the door of the red room rather hastily” are two examples which show us this. These extracts give us an idea of the thoughts and feelings of the narrator in the story and build the tension for the reader.

Wells uses the fact that we do not know who the narrator is or why he is there to intrigue us to try and find out who he is and to promote a sense of mystery to the reader. The reader may find him to be mysterious, uneasy and unaware of what has happened because the narrator leaves for the red room without answering the questions of the deformed characters. This could be because Wells does not want us to know about the narrator and his purpose in the story. This build tension and suspense in the story.


The characters in “The Signalman” build tension and suspense for the reader because when the two characters meet for the first time they both think that the other is a ghost or another supernatural being. This then makes the reader think about the story and what may happen in the story. This leads the reader to make a prediction of the story in their mind, as the reader continues to read through the story they find out what actually happens as they are left wondering about the story.

The signalman as a character is, on my opinion, quiet, strange, secretive, mysterious but experienced at his job on the railway line. The reason I think he is like this is that he does not reveal much about himself. The way he does this is showing the conversation that he has with the narrator when he says, “It is very difficult for me to impart, sir. It is very, very difficult for me to speak of. If ever you make me another visit, I will try to tell you.” This gives me the impression that he does want the narrator to know but he wants the narrator to prove he is trustworthy first. At the end of the story we find out that what the signalman saw were the predictions of his own death. This builds tension and suspense for the reader as it shows us the supernatural meaning to the story and explains the story to the reader.

The narrator of the story also does not give much information about himself to the signalman. We are not told who he is, what he does, any history about himself, a description about him or why he is there. We find out that he is eager to find out about the signalman. We know this because he is constantly asking the signalman questions about himself, and what he does, etc. Some examples of him doing this is “Did it cry out?”, “But nothing followed? Nothing came of this?” and “Into the tunnel?”. These tell us that he is a curious individual and that he is interested in what the signalman has to say of the spectres’ appearances, we also know that he intends to help the signalman. We know this because on his way to meet him on the final day, he thinks to himself that they “will find the wisest medical practitioner, … and take his opinion”. This shows us his concern and interest in the signalman as a friend. However, we are never told why he wants to help him or why he is interested in the signalman.

The characters in the Red Room build tension and suspense for the reader because Wells uses several characters with deformities and grotesque appearances to add to the strangeness and unfamiliarity of the setting for the narrator to build up tension for the reader. On his way to the Red Room the narrator talks to himself in his head to reassure himself because his fear of what might happen to him when he reaches the room. At one point he think to himself, “Here is the place where my predecessor was found”. This makes the narrator become unsettled and shaken .

I think this builds tension and suspense for the reader because you do not know what to expect next. Once he is in the room, the narrator is changed from being sensible to scared, unsettled and unknowing what haunts the red room. At the end of the story we find out what it is that haunts the red room, when he is talking to the other characters. He tells them, “… the worst of all things that can haunt poor mortal man, … Fear! Fear that will not have light nor sound, …” This shows us that it is not the supernatural haunting the room, but your fear of the supernatural is what builds the tension of the characters in this story.

The characters with the deformities are used to make us think of the sort of people that are warning the narrator, i.e. his conscience, not to go to the red room that night. I think that they are used as a decoy by Wells to get us thinking about what has happened and not of what is happening to the narrators fear and what is really happening to him.

The relationship between characters

In “The Signalman” the relationship between the two characters is not clear to the reader at first as they both think that the other is a ghost and are both unsure about what to do or say to each other. They start off as strangers, who have never met before, but as the story progresses and they start talking to each other they became as good as friends that they could in the time that they knew each other.

They try to find out as much about each other as they can and ask certain questions to each other to find out the specific information that they want to know about each other. For example when the signalman asks the narrator “Let me ask you a parting question. What made you cry ‘Halloa! Below there!’ tonight?” he is trying to find out if the narrator has any reasons for calling that those words to him as he had heard them many times before and was unsure as to whether or not they had meaning. They both try to play small mind games with each other but we are never told whether they have meaning or not.

In the story of “The Red Room”, I found that the relationship of the characters is based on the deformed characters concern of the narrators well being and life as they continuously warn him of the dangers that have occurred and may occur in the red room. The phrase they do to sow this is “It’s your own choosing.” I think that they use this to try and scare him a little and they succeed because when he wakes up at the end of the story h tells them that it was his fear that haunted him. However weak their relationship may be through the experience they have shared they have a ‘bond’, which is not explained to us in the story.

The setting and atmosphere

In “The Signalman”, Dickens uses words such as ‘dreary’, ‘dark’, ‘secluded’, ‘cold’, ‘deserted’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘lonesome’. These words are used to describe the whereabouts of the story in order for you as the reader to think and try to imagine that you are there and are seeing the place first hand. These words and others used by Dickens describe the place as a dungeon or a similar place where you feel trapped and away from the outside world.

The cutting the narrator has to follow to get down to the signalman is described as ‘deep and precipitous’ which makes us think of his long path down to the signalman, building tension and suspense for the reader as he slowly progresses downwards. The way the light and dark areas are decribed make you think of the hope and despair of the narrator. The stone that the cutting is made from, is described as ‘clammy, which became oozier and wetter’ as the narrator progressed down. The fact that it is a place where ‘so little sunshine found its way to’ gives us the sense of tension and suspense because it makes the reader realise that although hidden from the world there is life there as well.

When he reaches the area, which the signalman occupies, the narrator tells us that there is ‘an earthy, deadly smell’ and a rush of wind ‘struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world’. This makes us think that the area is secluded and how different from the world the narrator knows it must be. We are also told if the signalman’s office and the appearance of the spectre. The way we are told about these is not in as much detail as the area outside. However, they do build the tension and suspense for the reader as you are still able to imagine how it is set and what is happening from the words used.

In “The Red Room”, again Wells is very descriptive of the places the narrator passes through, which makes you as the reader feel as if you are really there as well and that you are experiencing the action taking place and not reading it in a book. The place in which the story is set is an old castle building. The hallway that the narrator has to walk through is described as a dark mysterious place, as the reader I thought it would not be the sort of place that someone would go to by themselves. We are told of the creaking door in the room where the narrator is talking to the deformed characters. This adds to the tension and suspense for the reader as it gives the idea of the age of the house or castle building. The description of the red room itself is interesting and has a slight gothic edge to it as it is part of the gothic literature or similar.

When the candles start to go out for no reason, the reader is then trying to think of the reason why this is happening while continuing to read on aboutthe narroators panic and ‘nervous tension’. Due to the fact that the narrator is now panicking the tension begins to build up for the reader and due to the fact that there seems to be no end to the candles going out. The fact that the candles are going out in the blink of an eye and some as parts of groups also adds to the tension for the reader because the narrator is panicking over which of the candles are going to go out next.

The use of language and imagery in creating tension and suspense

In “The Signalman”, Dickens uses the flashbacks as a way of building up the story together and making the reader think about what is going on in the story. The story is set of 3 days but is not always in chronological order as a jigsaw effect. This creates the tension and suspense for the reader because they find out what happened then they want to know what the narrators reaction is.

We are not told be the signalman that the bell has different tones which it rings in and we have to try and imagine what these sounds are like, and as the reader you become more intrigued and want to find out what the different tones represent.

In “The Red Room”, Wells uses the image of light and dark to portray the narrator’s feelings of hope and despair to the reader but also to give the reader an image of what is going through the narrators mind and what he is going through in the red room. Throughout the story, the descriptions of the red room and the characters are very detailed and Wells makes very good use of adjectives to do this. Some example of him doing this are when he uses words like ‘darkness’, ‘chilly’, ‘echoing’, ‘black’, ‘silver’, ‘light’, and ‘sudden/suddenly’.

Throughout the story the narrator calls the room the ‘red room’ but there is no specific reference or mention of the room actually being re. I feel that this builds tension and suspense for the reader, as they do not know what is red about the room, unless they call it that because the think it is the cause of a previous death. Wells also uses very good verbs to give the reader an idea of the fast pace that everything seems to be happening at and to heighten the idea of action for the reader.


I personally think that the story, which is most effective for the reader is “The Signalman” by Charles Dickens. This is because although the story is revealed to you slowly the fact that there is a huge climax and the pace increases at the end, when we find out the real gist of the story, is very intersting for the reader.

Overall “The Red Room” by H. G. Wells is a good story and is similar to “The Signalman” in my opinion. However, I did not like the fact that we did not get any introduction to the characters or the story andwe had to try think about them for ourselves whilst reading about why the narrator is there although there is no specific reason as to why he is there. I think that Dickens made more use of the supernatural side to his story than Wells and in y opinion this is more effective for the reader.

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