English – Prose Study

The Red Room, Captain Murderer and The Black Cottage are all short stories that create a sense of tension and suspense. Examine the techniques that the writers use to create a feeling of suspense and consider how effective they are. Consider also how elements of the genre of Fairy Tale are used in any of the stories.
The three stories that I have been studying (The Red Room, Captain Murderer and The Black Cottage) are all Victorian; that is, they were all written between 1837 and 1901. Consequently, the three stories show signs of the influence of both Victorian morals and style, and also the influence of Gothic literature, or that of the Romantic Era. The settings and characters are an important factor of giving an eerie feeling of suspense to each of the three stories. In The Red Room and The Black Cottage in particular, the setting is especially exploited to create a feeling of unease. In The Red Room, H. G. Wells uses society’s perception (and Victorian Society’s perception in particular) of old castles and darkness being the ideal conditions for haunting to create a building feeling of tension throughout the story. Sometimes this works because it plays upon our natural fears, but occasionally Wells uses the setting for effect more directly – for example: ‘And looking around that shadowy room, with its shadowy window bays, its recesses and alcoves, one could well understand the legends that had sprouted in its black corners, its germinating darkness.’ By referring to the settings in this way (i.e. using ‘black’ and ‘darkness’ to suggest evil), Wells makes it clear that the setting is to be feared. Later on, when candles and a fire are lit by the main character, the fear of darkness doesn’t really leave because candle-light flickers and can cause us to think we can see things that aren’t really there, and initially the candles create more shadows. The sound of the fire is a detail that adds another sense to our mental picture of the room – this makes the reader become more absorbed in the story, and now that the reader knows so much around the room, it is easy to add the smell of the room and the fire with little imagination. Added to this is our empathy with the main character (created as a result of the first-person narrative) for being alone. Wells refers to this in the story: ‘My precise examination had done me good, but I still found the remoter darkness of the place, and its perfect stillness, too stimulating for the imagination. The echoing of the stir and crackling of the fire was no sort of comfort to me. The shadow in the alcove at the end in particular had that undefinable quality of a presence, that odd suggestion of a lurking, living thing, that comes so easily in the silence and solitude.’ This sort of setting – dark, tense, set in a castle – is typical of the Gothic literature that precedes this short story. In The Red Room, the reader’s opinion of the lead character is likely to change as the story progresses. The narrator comes across as headstrong and perhaps slightly arrogant – the story starts with the speech “I can assure you […] it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me.” It is somewhat difficult to empathise with an arrogant character, but later on when he starts to become scared and frantic, it is likely that the reader will ‘feel for’ him. At the end, when he delves into his speech about the state of the room (“The worst of all the things that haunt poor mortal man…”), he seems to have matured and become wise, making him a more likable character.

Candidate Number 02145

Dan Foy 1

Landau Forte College 23329

English – Prose Study
The other characters in The Red Room are somewhat mysterious. They do not play a big part in the story, but serve at the start to provide a mechanism for creating a feeling of unease. Their physical appearance aids this: the woman has wide, pale eyes; a man has a withered arm and keeps coughing, and another has a ‘monstrous shadow’ The narrator also expresses his distaste for them: ‘There is to my mind something inhuman in senility, something crouching and atavistic; the human qualities seem to drop from old people insensibly day by day.’ By describing these supporting characters in this manner (calling them inhuman, etc.), tension is created. The older characters are old and nervous, contrasting with the main character – this perhaps echoes the society of the time, as older people clung to Victorian morals and the new generation stepped bravely into the 20th century. The main character in The Black Cottage, Bessie, is also the narrator, but is presented in a style quite different to the narrator in The Red Room. Whilst The Red Room is presented as a traditional story, The Black Cottage is written as if the narrator were speaking directly to the reader. This is evident from the start of the story, where the main character addresses the reader directly: ‘To begin at the beginning, I must take you back to the time after my mothers death, when my only brother had gone to sea, when my sister was out at service, and when I lived alone with my father, in the midst of a moor in the West of England.’ The style in which the narrator addresses the reader makes her very easy to empathise with, and therefore makes the story (arguably) more engrossing and effective than The Red Room. The narrator includes many small details that makes the reader feel like they know her, and also gives the impression of the narrator being pure and honest and good – traits that were valued by the Victorians and were attributed to ideal females. Her being young (‘I was rather younger than 18 years old’), poor (‘our poverty was sufficient protection’), polite (‘I made my best curtsey’), and trustworthy (Mrs Knifton trusts Bessie with her husband’s pocket-book) adds to her appeal. This is relevant because the more a reader can emphasise with a likable and venerable character, the easier it is to create tension and suspense as the reader cares for the character. Because The Black Cottage makes it so easy for the reader to emphasise with the main character, we see the other characters as she sees them – this gives the characters a definite personality, decidedly either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The way she introduces Mrs Knifton is a good example of this: ‘It was part of the young lady’s kindness never to neglect and opportunity of coming to pay me a friendly visit;’ … ‘I made my best courtesy, therefore, with a great deal of pleasure’. The way Collins uses first person to describe the physical features and the narrator’s opinions of Shifty Dick and Jerry is also indicative of their personalities: ‘He was a tall, heavy man, with a lowering, scarred face, and huge hair hands – the last visitor in the whole world that I should have been glad to see under any circumstances.’ …’a quick, dapper, wicked looking man, who took off his cap to me in mock politeness, and showed, in doing so, a very bald head, with some very ugly looking knobs on it. I distrusted him worse than I did Shifty Dick’. Captain Murderer is a little different – the writing style is somewhat detached and therefore the reader is less likely to bond or empathise with any of the characters. The main character is described as someone dislikeable enough – in the first paragraph alone he is labelled ‘diabolical’, a ‘wretch’, and described as an intruder upon childhood and a cannibal by an unknown narrator. However this contrasts with society’s view of him:
Candidate Number 02145 Dan Foy 2 Landau Forte College 23329

English – Prose Study
‘His warning name would seem to have awakened no general prejudice against him, for he was admitted into the best society and possessed immense wealth.’ The above statement is necessary to inform the reader that the general view of the character is not the same view held by others. This makes the story a little more feasible. The reader now knows that the main character is to be distrusted, and this can create tension later on as the reader is able to predict events (such as the murder of each of the brides), whilst the other characters are not. The only other real characters in Captain Murderer are the brides. The brides are portrayed (at least to a point) as being naive and innocent, as they are unaware of their fate until the last moment. The reader does not have to emphasise with these characters, but it is important that they retains some sympathy for them, lest they side with Captain Murderer, which defeats the point of the story. Appealing to popular Victorian belief that a ‘pure’ bride is a ‘good’ bride is a good way to achieve this. The ‘dark twin’ character in Captain Murderer creates some interest. She is not as innocent and naïve as the others: her being called the ‘dark’ twin (‘dark’ being associated with evil in Victorian times), and her discovery of her twin’s fate and want for revenge are good indicators of this. Because Captain Murderer is portrayed as the villain by the narrator, the reader sides with the ‘dark twin’. Even though the language in the story is simplified, it feels natural to be on the ‘side’ of the dark twin because she is opposition to the villain character. The authors of The Red Room and The Black Cottage attempt to create an atmosphere in these stories, and thus stir up some tension in the reader. In The Red Room, the story itself starts on a tense note, and this builds as the story progresses. The story starts with the narrator stating that it “it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me.” Now that the reader knows that he or she is reading a ghost story, they almost expect to feel tense and scared. This fear of being scared is sometimes worse than the fear itself. This goes double for the story’s Victorian audience, who were very superstitious and generally took ghosts and the supernatural seriously. The tense atmosphere rises a little as the characters enigmatically exclaim “This night of all nights!” That the reader is ignorant of why this night in particular is an undesirable night to spend in the Red Room is important: whilst the reader continues, the reason behind why this is an unwise night to spend there is at the back of their mind, and they are permitted to imagine whatever they like. The repetition of this dialogue adds to the effect. After this, suspense continues to mount – but at a slow pace. Shadows and things lurking in the corner scare both the narrator and the reader, as shadows imply the unknown. After this, there is a lull in the atmosphere as the main character inspects the room. The tension does not drop too much, however, due to little atmosphere-provoking details such as ‘The sombre reds and blacks of the room troubled me;’ The lull serves to trick the reader into a false sense of security, before tension rises sharply as the candles in the room begin to extinguish themselves. During the candle-extinguishing section, which is the peak of both the tension and the storyline, tension and suspense is created and sustained very effectively by the author. Wells again uses readers’ natural fear of darkness and the unstoppable to keep the reader absorbed in the story. Instead of suspense trailing off at the end of the story (as is the case with many stories, such as The Black Cottage), suspense dips for a second, but then increases
Candidate Number 02145 Dan Foy 3 Landau Forte College 23329

English – Prose Study
a little as the reader discovers what really causes the haunting in the red room. The suspense here is created because the main character drags out his explanation over a few paragraphs, allowing the other characters to guess and then be told that they are wrong, instead of simply telling them. This is a great way to end a story, as it leaves the reader feeling charged and excited and feeling that they have had a good read. In contrast to The Red Room, The Black Cottage starts pleasantly enough, with little to no tension at all until perhaps a quarter of the way into the story. Although this initially makes the story less intense than The Red Room, it also allows the reader to find out some background information about the likable narrator, and establish facts that will later be needed to create tension. This background information includes the fact that the narrator and her father live alone in the Black Cottage, and that her father has gone away. It also includes details such as the Black Cottage being a mile and a half away from the nearest habitation, and ‘four or five times further that distance’ from any other neighbours, and that the narrator and her father’s main deterrent to thieves is their poverty. Living in a cottage and being poor is characteristic of fairy tales such as Snow White. The introduction to The Black Cottage, although not tense in itself, is very useful for creating tension later on. In addition to introducing the narrator and drawing the reader into the story, the background information that is learnt by the reader at the start means that it does not need to be introduced later on. This proves to be very effective – rather than having facts such as ‘the nearest habitation is a mile and a half away’ pushed upon us later on (perhaps as the narrator flees the cottage), the reader realizes how Bessie is cut off and alone during the entire story, and the significance of this makes the reader uneasy at several instances that may be unique to them. This method of storytelling is arguably more effective than that of The Red Room, where the author concentrates more on conveying the fear of the narrator, and less on allowing the reader to form their own ideas taking into account background information and the situation at hand. The way that Collins subtly suggests that something isn’t quite right is interesting and quite effective. When Jerry starts his speech beginning ‘”Wait a bit, my dear, and let me explain…”’, tension is quite high. This is because the reader has already observed the narrator’s sense of unease at the character (by calling him wicked, etc.), and this tension is allowed to build before coming to a peak. Although the atmosphere in much of the main body of The Black Cottage is tense, there are a few humorous phrases, such as ‘Mr. Jerry took his head out again much faster than he put it in’, which serve to add a little interest and allow strategic lulls in the action which control the tension levels to stop them becoming too saturated. This tactic allows tension to be sustained without the reader ‘switching off’. The end of The Black Cottage is somewhat of an anti-climax – tension drops to virtually zero and the story returns to the ‘storytelling’ style that is used at the beginning. Although neither tense nor suspenseful, it is quite pleasing as it ties up ends and gives a rounded-off feel to the story. Collin’s has included the detail that the narrator becomes married to someone of a higher status than herself – this is a characteristic of fairy tales such as Cinderella. Traits such as bravery, righteousness and standing up for oneself were valued more in the Victorian era – audiences of the period would find the idea that the main character had ‘won’ a husband because of her actions in defending someone else’s property more appealing than a modern audience. Both The Black Cottage and The Red Room create tension by describing the characters as having heightened emotional states. The principal emotion is both in fear, and the transfer of fear from the character to the engrossed reader creates
Candidate Number 02145 Dan Foy 4 Landau Forte College 23329

English – Prose Study
tension in an obvious way. An interested side effect caused by these heightened emotional state is that the characters behave erratically: in The Red Room, the main character exhibits an excess of fear to darkness (‘I flung out my arms in a vain effort to thrust that ponderous blackness away from me, and, lifting my voice, screamed with all my might’), whilst in The Black Cottage the narrator spends time that could be spent fortifying the house ensuring that her cat was comfortable and safe (‘I was so fond of the little creature that I took her up in my arms and carried her into my bedroom, and put her inside my bed’ […] ‘it seemed quite natural and proper at the time’). The effect that Captain Murderer has on the reader is quite different to that of the other two stories. Dickens concentrates less on creating a powerful tense atmosphere and more on writing a fairytale-style piece. Whilst the story is still entertaining and contains some rather gruesome imagery, disturbing ideas and descriptions are decidedly and purposefully unexplored, which leaves it with very little atmosphere. Captain Murderer is not a mysterious story, or one that entertains the reader with skilfully crafted definitions – it is blunt. The reader knows that he is a cannibal before the end of the first paragraph; the reader knows his entire ritual before the end of the second. The lack of descriptions and the matter-of-fact way that the story is told causes the action to take place much faster than in either The Black Cottage or The Red Room, but this has the side effect of discouraging the reader from thinking things through properly in his or her head. A cannibal who marries young women, then jokes about them being meat, has his teeth sharpened, forces them to roll out a pie crust and then proceeds to eat them could be terrifying; Dickens makes this seem almost trivial. The way repetition is used redeems the lack of tension slightly. After the first two brides have been killed, the reader knows what the likely fate of the third bride is to be, yet because of the fairytale style, they expect the dark twin to do something cunning an avoid being eaten. When it looks as if the dark bride is to be eaten, tension is at its peak. When it turns out that she too is eaten, rather than being disappointed (as might be expected), the reader is intrigued to how the author has seen fit to break fairytale conventions. The next paragraph starts with ‘but’, which stimulates the reader into reading ahead, where the reader discovers that in true fairytale style, good triumphs over evil – albeit with the slight twist of all the ‘good’ characters being dead. The language used in each of the three short stories creates interest and in many cases is used to aid in the creation of tension and suspense. Near the beginning of The Red Room, repetition is used to create a feeling of unease. The repeating of one eerie message emphasises it and causes it to stick in the reader’s mind. The semantic field of The Red Room is centred largely on ghosts and the supernatural for parts of the story. For instance, consider the following quote: ‘[…] an age when things spiritual were different from this of ours, less certain; an age when omens and witches were credible, and ghosts beyond denying. Their very existence was spectral; the cut of their clothing, fashions born in dead brains. The ornaments and conveniences of the room about them were ghostly – the thoughts of vanished men, which still haunted rather than participated in the world of to-day.’ The above excerpt contains spiritual, omens, witches, ghosts, spectral, dead, ghostly and haunted. These words all create the ‘feel’ of a ghost story, which is important to put the reader in the correct frame of mind for reading the story and thereby drawing them in.

Candidate Number 02145

Dan Foy 5

Landau Forte College 23329

English – Prose Study
Wells uses personification of the darkness in The Red Room to make it appear a tangible entity, as if it were a monster – for instance, ‘an invisible hand seemed to sweep out the two candles on the table’.

Candidate Number 02145

Dan Foy 6

Landau Forte College 23329

English – Prose Study

Bibliography
Literature
The Black Cottage by Wilkie Collins (1857) Captain Murderer by Charles Dickens – (1860) The Red Room by H.G. Wells – (1896)

Research
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_age http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romantic_era http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Age_of_Enlightenment http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_novel

Candidate Number 02145

Dan Foy 7

Landau Forte College 23329