The centuries before the Victorian period, citizens of the UK lead a life mainly dominated by Christianity. Yet a huge advancement in scientific and astronomical knowledge, including Darwinism, as well as industrialisation lead to a more “enlightened education”, meaning people in society began to reject the notion of God. From this, those of the Victorian era believed there was nothing that could not be explained in a logical way. The fictional character of Sherlock Homes was born from this time and embodied the thought that seemingly impossible situations can be solved by applying logic and reason. However, this shift in the perception of the world did not mean that generation old superstitions were no longer relevant. No electricity meant homes were lit by candle during the night, distorting the shape of ordinary items into more sinister forms. Confusion brought about from this undermined the rational views, playing on people’s fear of the unknown, ere irrational fears developed from what couldn’t be seen rather than what could.
The tell tale heart by Edgar Allen Poe, The monkey’s Paw by W.W Jacobs and The red room by H.G wells are three examples of the gothic ghost story genre, that adhere to certain conventions to create the atmosphere and tension in the story.
The most prominent of these conventions is atmosphere and weather, where the stereotypical parts of the story such as being set in a castle, with an inexplicable event occurring are found.
In the Red Room the story begins with a description of the use of candles in the room to see, and the presence of a burning fire. Both of these suggest the story is set at night, giving the atmosphere a degree of uncertainty as night is the time of day when the most scary and eerie events take place. The fire also suggests that the characters are safe by this one fire as it acts as a shelter, but out of the reach of its warmth and light is the fearfulness of the unknown. The fact that 3 of the characters are huddled close together by this fire when the narrator enters the room also hints that they have been frightened by some unknown entity, and alerts the reader that something is not correct within the home. The narrator writes “the three of them made me uncomfortable”, suggesting a tense and awkward atmosphere between the characters, as the narrator isn’t certain of what he should expect from those before him. When walking through the passageways to the Red room, the writer comments that his “candle flared and made the shadows cower and quiver”, and that the shadows falling on white panelling gave “th impression of someone crouching to waylay” him. Both of these quotes suggests the writer is not alone in the passage and that somebody else is present. This creates a tense atmosphere as the reader does not know for sure whether another person is present, and that f they are, whether they intent to do the writer harm.
The monkey’s paw also uses the atmosphere and weather well to create the eerie mood. Pathetic fallacy, where the weather is personified to hint at later events in the story, is used as “the night was wet and cold”, indicating bad and dismal weather, so as a reflection something bad will occur later on in the story. A turning point in the story is where the “gate banged” and “heavy footsteps” could be heard. From this the reader knows something is approaching, and the story is about to change, as heavy footsteps and loud noises do not complement a warm and quiet family atmosphere. The sergeant major says one of his lines “offhandedly”, making him seem uncomfortable about talking about the paw, so the reader wonders what bad things could possible be associated with just an ordinary little paw.
During the Tell tale heart, the room is said to be “as black as pitch with the thick darkness” and that only “a single thin ray” of light “fell upon the vulture eye”. The darkness plays on the fear of the unknown, as in the dark your senses are limits as you can’t see what lies directly ahead of you. The light shining down on that one specific point in the room highlights the hideousness of the eye, which is a terrifying image.
Another main convention of the gothic genre is the style in which it is written. The style can convey deliberate traits about a character you would not otherwise pick up on, as well as drum into your mind specific haunting phrases that create a darker image in your mind.
“It increased my fury as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage” is a powerful simile that stands out it the Tell Tale heart. It creates tension by suggesting the character is about to burst out in a fit of rage and violence, as a soldier does when called into battle. The narrator is adamant that “there was nothing to wash out – no stain of any kind – no blood spot whatsoever”. This uses the power of three to help maintain the unusual image in the reader’s mind, as after a killing you expect a lot of blood. He goes on to say that he “had been too wary for that”, suggesting he is highly intelligent and calculated, yet also mad as he seems to have acquired an obsession over not being caught out, portraying the stereotypical and frightening type of character who goes crazy with power and knowledge. His delicate frame of mind is also shown in his language used. “This I thought and this I think” is a strange way of phrasing the sentence, again indicating the man is infact mad, no matter how many times he denies it.
In the Red Room, particular words including “Red”, “blood”, “darkness” and “shadow” are heavily repeated throughout the story to create tension, as darkness and shadows cause confusion so are therefore scary, and all but the latter are associated with death. The narrator frequently asks himself questions such as “Did I do that myself in a flash of absent-mindedness” and “what’s up” which both make him appear to be worried and strange as he seems to be incoherent and not totally aware of his surroundings. Furthermore, from this the reader will question if he does not know himself what is happening or who did these things, who or what did, creating more tension as the reader anticipates the answer. While making his way towards the red room he “was about to advance and stopped abruptly”. The punctuation together with the word abruptly makes you pause along with the story, making you question what will happen next.
When the sergeant in the monkey’s paw is asked whether he has had his free wishes he replied “I have…quietly and his blotchy face whitened”, making the reader wonder what his wishes were and what bad things the monkey’s paw did to him to make him appear scared with a pale face rather than smile when he thinks about the consequences. The sergeant also says that “the first man had his three wishes….the third was for death” builds more tension as the reader wonders how his first two wishes, which were likely to be simple wishes for personal gain such as more money for example, could ultimately lead to a situation so bad that the best option left is to wish for your own life to be taken, because wishes are magical things that normally give happiness to those granted them.
The final convention placed into these gothic stories is that of supernatural elements. These add the most mystery and fear as they are hard, if not impossible to explain logically.
In the monkey’s paw, the paw is often referred to as a “talisman”, which suggests the use of magic. It is also mysterious, and the reader is confused as to why it is not simply called the monkey’s paw. “Pulsating shadows” are mentioned which creates the image of the shadows being alive and moving independently, rather than the object that created them being moved, which is impossible. The house itself is “steeped in shadow and silence”, typifying the stereotypical haunted graveyard, where ghosts are believed to roam, suggesting the presence of many supernatural creatures in and around the house. At the end of the story, Mr White says “For God’s sake, don’t let it in”. Referring to the thing outside the reader believes to be the couple’s dead son as an “it” rather than “he” is frightening as it suggests he s so deformed that he is no longer recognisable as human, and deformed creatures are often associated with violence and danger, as they are unknown, instilling fear into the reader’s minds for the couple.
The red room mentions “an invisible hand”. The narrator is speaking of something that cannot be seen, and also something that is impossible as a hand can be seen, adding to the fear and tension of the Victorian reader because they would have been easily frightened by unexplainable and mysterious objects such as invisible hands. One man tells the narrator that “if you go to the red room tonight, you go alone”. The woman cuts in ion the middle saying “this night of all nights”. This gives the impression that something terrifying has previously occurred in the room, and all three have witnessed it explaining their determination to stay as far away from the room as possible. Also, this implies it is not safe to proceed to the room, so tension is create as it suggests the narrator may come to harm by going there, especially on that day, as the woman repeats “this night of all nights” hinting that the narrators visit will generate far worse consequences than normal.
All three of these gothic stories adhere to the conventions of the period such as atmosphere and weather, style and the inclusion of supernatural entities to create tension, suspense, mystery and fear to create an interesting and gripping story.