A Study of the Characteristics of 19th Century Horror Stories
In this essay we will look at the Characteristics of 19th Century Horror Stories, commenting on: the structure of the story; the characterisation; the themes included in the story; the setting and the writer’s technique.
I will be looking into two texts in detail: “The Monkey’s Paw” by William Wymark Jacobs; and “The Signalman” by Charles Dickens, whilst making references to “Captain Rogers” – also by William Wymark Jacobs, and “The Engineer’s Thumb” by Sherlock Holmes.
During the Victorian period, the industrial revolution was in full flow, and the gothic styles of writing used in the stories of this period were extremely popular – featuring in many magazines of the time. Horror stories became almost an obsession for many people, who were drawn in by the unique styles of the writers such as Dickens, Poe, and Wilkie Collins. They were cheap, and widely available, with many of them being published in magazines. The availability of them meant that the obsession continued, as the people of that time were always able to obtain a new story.
One of the stories, “The Signalman” by Dickens, is a fine example of the horror stories of that day:
It begins by setting a gloomy scene, with the Signalman situated in a ‘deep cutting’, his figure ‘foreshortened and shadowed’. Using description such as this, the author can immediately let the reader understand the mood of the story – in this case, dark and depressing. This technique is also used in “Captain Rogers”, with the words ‘feeble’, ’painful’, and ‘forced’ being used in the first paragraph.
The ‘deep cutting’ in which the story is set, is later described as a ‘dungeon’, and at the end of the cutting was the entrance to a black tunnel, in which there was a ‘barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air’ – setting a negative semantic field around the piece.
The Signalman himself is described as a ‘dark sallow’ man, living in as ‘solitary and dismal a place’ that the narrator ever saw. Indeed, the narrator comments that it was ‘as if I had left the natural world’.
Indeed, the opening to the story gives the reader a glimpse of the signalman’s loneliness, and a sense of foreboding towards the trench in which he was posted. Loneliness and foreboding are two major characteristics of 19th Century horror.
Horror stories from this period often have a supernatural theme. In “The Signalman”, ghostly ‘spectres’ haunt the unfortunate rail-way worker – and shortly after they appear, a terrible accident occurs.
Accumulation is a major factor in horror stories, and “The Signalman” used this to great effect. The appearances of the spectres become more frequent, making the reader wonder what is going to take place at the climax.
The spectre returns, and the signalman describes to the narrator that: ‘what troubles me so dreadfully is the question: What does the spectre mean?’ This leaves the reader to ponder what may happen next in the story, even though they may have no idea. It leaves the reader feel to be scared by whatever their imagination may come up with, meaning the writer does not have to reveal the plot just yet – but can keep the reader guessing. This is a common feature in 19th Century horror, and is used in “Captain Rogers” and “The Engineer’s Thumb”
The narrator also describes how he could see the ‘mental torture’ and ‘pain of mind’ of the signalman, suggesting that the events with the spectre have left his state of mind in tatters. In 19th Century horror stories, characters were often driven mad by the events unfolding in the book
At the end of the book, the plot unravels, and all becomes clear. The narrator is shocked to hear of the death of the signalman, who is hit by a train. He then learns that the spectre which had been haunting the signalman was the driver, shouting at him to clear the way. The ending of the book is short, with just a little dialogue after we learn of the death of...
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