Comparison of four short horror stories

In this essay, the openings of the four short stories, “The Signalman” by Charles Dickens, “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Landlady” by Roald Dahl and “All But Empty” by Graham Greene will be considered and a decision made as to which one creates an atmosphere of mystery and unease most effectively. “The Signalman” tells the story of a man (the signalman), who spends all day, every day sat in his box down by a tunnel in a cutting that is situated in the middle of nowhere. He spends so long there, in fact, that he begins to lose his mind and witness tings that aren’t happening…

In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the story of a man is told. However, this man is out to get revenge on an evil eye. The eye, though, belongs to a man who must be killed. A mysterious tale is told in “The Landlady”, where a young man, Billy Weaver, goes to stay at a Bed and Breakfast style hotel, only to discover that his landlady, a weak, old lady has had only a few guests stay with her before and they are on the floor above. Stuffed. Graham Greene’s “All But Empty” tells of a man who visits a 1930’s cinema even though it is derelict and unused.

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He meets a strange visitor in there one cold, wet day… The Signalman” has several features in it’s opening which make it stand out. The fact that the cutting is situated in the countryside is significant as it adds the feeling of loneliness and also emphasises the point that if something bad was to happen, there would be no one around to help. When the writer states that to get down into the cutting the reader must go down a zigzag path, this is the stress how difficult it is to get down, therefore showing that hardly anyone will bother going down, making the reader realise how lonely it must feel to spend all of your time down there.

Dickens, to create a sense of mystery, describes the railway worker as ‘a sallow man’. The writer intentionally gives scarce information on the character, as he wants the reader to read on and gather a better understanding of him further on in the story, and, the writer most probably feels that such information would be irrelevant at this point in the story. The words ‘jagged stone’ are used to describe the walls of the inside of the cutting as they imply that the stone is like sharp teeth and therefore unwelcoming.

When describing the tunnel, the writer describes it as carrying a ‘deadly, earthy smell’, which portrays the idea that there is something fatal about to happen (i. e. something ‘deadly’). ‘Oozier and wetter’ are two terms used to give a better sense of atmosphere, and, whilst helping the reader picture the situation more clearly by doing this, Dickens is also utilising the effect of onomatopoeic language. This phrase also gives the impression of the cutting and tunnel being desolate and uncared for.

This in itself adds an extra bit of mystery to the setting because it implies that people hardly ever visit the place. The black train tunnel is described as having a barbarous, depressing and forbidding air’ as it makes it sound deadly and scary. The word ‘barbaric’ makes the tunnel sound uncivilized and primitive. This is a good piece of language to use as it shows that people never frequent the place. Whilst being very different to the opening of “The Signalman”, “The Tell-Tale Heart’s” opening is very effective. For example, the writer uses the phrase ‘Object there was none.

Passion there was none’ as it involves repetition. The use of this adds emphasis to the writer’s point that the killer didn’t really have a stable mind state; it was simply the eye that annoyed him. Also showing the effect that the use of repetition can create is the line ‘cautiously-oh, so cautiously-cautiously’ as it helps the reader understand just how sly and quiet the killer was being. Poe uses the word ‘sagacity’ in place of other words, as this is not a very widely recognised word, which helps add mystery to the phrase.

This fits in well as the writer presents the context in which the word is going to be used in the sentence before, namely, ‘I felt the extent of my own powers-my own sagacity’. I feel that if the writer had not set this context, then most readers would not have understood the word. In saying the room was ‘black as pitch’, Poe uses a simile and helps to establish a good picture in the reader’s mind of the atmosphere in the room. The phrase also shows that, if the reader was placed in that situation, they wouldn’t know who was where and what they were doing at the time.

In other words, if a room is absolutely ‘black as pitch’, you cannot see anything at all, there fore increasing your levels of paranoia, as you don’t know where everyone is, they could be right behind you…. Finally, the writer shows the murderers damaged mental state by indicating that the murder was well planned and prepared, and not just a spur of the moment murder. In writing the opening to “The Landlady”, Roald Dahl is careful to state the fact that the main character, Billy Weaver, has never visited Bath before and doesn’t know anyone there, as this gives the reader the impression that he is vulnerable and naive.

Dahl also adds that on the street on which Billy is travelling, there are no shops, but only tall houses on each side of the road. This makes the writer feel slightly claustrophobic and unsettled as the “tall” houses create a ‘closed in’ atmosphere. When the writer describes the paint on the doorframes as “peeling off”, he is trying to make the reader sense that the houses are becoming derelict and are therefore not very well cared for or sparsely frequented.

The Bed and Breakfast is described as containing pleasant furniture and being generally ‘cosy’, as this lulls the reader into a false sense of security over the situation. The phrase ‘Bed and Breakfast’ is repeated four times to add emphasis. The setting of the story of “The Signalman” is in a small cutting in the middle of the countryside. The cutting contains the opening of a railway tunnel and is not easily accessible to the public. This is to emphasise how lonely the railway worker must feel on a daily basis and how he has no contact with civilization, therefore causing him to hallucinate and start to lose his sanity slightly.

The fact that the cutting is in the middle of the countryside is very significant as it shows that if something terrible or fatal was to happen (which the story hints is going to happen), there would be no help easily available. Also, down in the middle of a cutting it is very dark, especially at night, so the signalman must get quite scared sometimes. The tunnel is “pitch black” so the reader cannot see what is happening in there, which also helps to create a tense atmosphere. Unlike “The Signalman”, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” does not have a setting that is made so clear.

As the writer is telling the story from a first-person point of view, the reader is thrust into the tense mood of the story straight from the opening sentence. The setting appears to be a shared house in which the killer occupies one room and the victim stays in another. This is a cleverly thought-of setting as Poe is trying to imply that you can never be sure of who are your enemies and who are your friends. This is made obvious by the fact that they are sharing a house, so therefore must be quite good friends.

The writer talks about how the room in which the murder takes place – the victim’s bedroom – is very dark, in fact, the writer uses the phrase ‘black as pitch’. This creates a sense of the killer sneaking around very slyly in the dark, making the reader feel very unsettled. In terms of settings, “The Landlady” is probably the most interesting of the four stories. The streets of Bath are described as being empty and dark, with towering houses on both sides of the road. This in itself makes the reader feel extremely uncomfortable and claustrophobic.

However, the setting suddenly changes as the reader is thrust into a false sense of security by the description of the Bed and Breakfast. ‘There was a bright fire burning on the hearth’ for instance, appeals strongly to the reader, as at this time the atmosphere is cold and dark in the empty streets of Bath. Dahl also uses such phrases as ‘There was a baby grand piano in the corner’ to make the reader suspect the Bed and Breakfast as a welcoming place. “All But Empty” is different from the other 3 stories in the way that it is set indoors.

The cinema is an old, derelict place, which no one ever frequents, apart from the main character in the story. It is very significant that the cinema is empty as it adds a sense of loneliness and naivety to the situation, the fact that the main character has no help if anything bad was to happen. The way that Graham Greene makes sure to say that the weather outside is bad is important as it means that the streets will be practically deserted as everyone stays inside, therefore leaving the character alone.

Overall, I feel that the setting in which the story of “The Landlady” is located is the most effective as it makes the reader feel lots of emotions in the space of a few paragraphs. For example, at the beginning of the opening, the reader is told about the dark, cold streets of Bath and how empty they are. Also, the tall houses each side of the road and the fact that there are no shops in sight create a great sense of loneliness and dullness. The next paragraph, however, makes a completely opposite atmosphere, describing the warm, cosy, light boarding house.

The reader is pulled into how nice and inviting this house sounds, and it makes the reader feel happier inside even though they know that something bad is bound to happen sooner or later. Compared to the setting of “The Signalman” which is straight forward and somewhat ‘one dimensional’ and the openings of “All But Empty” and “The Landlady”, which, although completely different in writing style, do not add an atmosphere as well as the opening to “The Landlady”, which has a setting which must make the reader feel most uncomfortable, though, intrigued at the same time.

In “The Signalman”, there are several questions raised, such as “Why does the signalman not look at the writer when he shouts ‘Halloa! Below there! ‘? This is interesting, as it seems that the signalman has a lot more important things on his mind, which also links to the questions, “Why does the signalman keep staring at the red warning light even thought it is not lit up? ” and “Why is the signalman so edgy? “.

Other questions that are raised include: – Why does the signalman ask the writer what made him call out? Why does the signalman not say what the problem is? The Tell-Tale Heart” also raises several questions in its opening, such as, “Why does the victim’s eye anger the writer so much? ” and “What is the relationship between the victim and the writer? “. These are important questions as they are ones which many people have made assumptions about the answers but no one actually knows the truth. Also raised in the opening of this story is “why does the killer take so long on preparations for the murder? “.

“The Landlady” raises questions such as, “Why does the Landlady open the door straight away? and “What factor pulls Billy Weaver’s attention towards the Bed and Breakfast? “. These are particularly important features in the story as they add to the sense of loneliness and vulnerability that Billy carries. The time of day is a major factor in each of the horror stories. For example, in the signalman, the time of day that the writer has chosen to set his story in is sunset. This is a good choice for a horror story as at sunset, the sky sometimes goes a red colour, which can make the reader feel uneasy as red is a passionate colour often associated with danger.

Also, the shadows of objects will be long at this time and so things such as trees may not seem to be so harmless at first glance. However, in “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the writer, Poe, has chosen to set his story in the dead of night. I think this is the kind of time that he was trying to create as he described the room as ‘black as pitch’ which signifies to me that it is the early hours of the morning. This is also a wise choice as the story is about a murder and this seems to be the most appropriate time to commit a murder – in the middle of the night when everything is pitch black and no one is around.

At this time, you can see absolutely nothing as it is so dark, so the effect that this has on the reader is that it makes them feel as if there could be anything happening around them and they wouldn’t know about it. “The Landlady” is set at around 9pm at night. I know this because the writer, Graham Greene, says ‘it was around nine o’clock in the evening’. As a result of the time being quite late, there would not be many cars on the road, therefore giving the impression that Bath is a sort of ‘ghost town’.

Also, there are sometimes shadows cast at this time and so it would make the buildings around Billy look very tall and Billy even smaller, increasing the sense of claustrophobia and inferiority. In each of the stories, the victim is a completely different type of person. This is because the writer wants you to have no prior judgements on the character, for instance, if you have read about a very similar character in another book. The writer wants you to become totally engrossed in the current character and not have any preconceptions of what may happen to him in the story.

For example, in the signalman, the victim is the railway worker who is quite vulnerable and seems mentally unstable. I feel this because of the way he acts, staring at things that don’t move and picking up on irrelevant things that happen. Also, in the way he seems very shy, it is as if he is scared of being taken advantage of. He is quite naivve and doesn’t seem to be interested in anything apart from his job. However, in the story of the tell-tale heart, the victim is an old man, who shares a house with the murderer.

He is totally unsuspecting, or so it seems by reading the story, of the fact that his housemate is planning to murder him. The old man does not seem naive in anyway, but in all honesty, as readers, we are not really introduced to the character so that is just an assumption. His age could be counted as vulnerability, because of his inefficiency to fight off potential attackers. In “The Landlady”, the victim was a young man called Billy Weaver. He was very, very naive as this was his first trip away from home.

He was only 17 years old and had no clue where he was going to stay the night. IN a way you could say that he was looking for a mother figure to put him up for the night, and so when the landlady appeared, looking like a kind old woman with a cosy, warm house, he was lulled into a false sense of security, therefore being wide open to attacks. “All But Empty” features two possible victims. On one hand there is the obvious victim, the main character, who goes to the derelict cinema alone, where there is no one to help him if he gets into trouble.

This therefore shows him to be quite vulnerable to the world and makes the reader wonder whether he has a full mental state or not, as it seems very odd that he would want to visit such a place. However, there is also the old man, who could be classed as another victim. At the end of the story, there is the cliffhanger where you don’t know whether the old man is a victim or a murderer, but this shows him to be quite vulnerable, as, if in fact he was the victim, he is an old man who would have trouble fighting off oncoming attackers.

The sounds used in the story were major factors as they indicated to the reader how certain events might turn out in the future. They also bring out several emotions, for example, in the signalman, there is silence, pure silence, until all of a sudden a train passes through the tunnel creating an extremely loud noise and shocking the reader. In the signalman, the writer talks about ‘a vibration in the air, which turns into a violent pulsation and then a train comes crashing by’.

This creates an atmosphere for the reader to imagine and then makes it easier for the reader to understand the sheer volume of the noise. The phrase builds up the noise as it gets closer and louder, until reaching a climax when the train actually passes by. The significance of this is to create tension and emphasise the sound that the train makes, creating a clearer picture in the readers’ mind. In “The Landlady”, Roald Dahl talks about how the streets of Bath are absolutely silent. This helps the reader to imagine how lonely and empty the streets are, as there is complete silence.

As no one would be there to help the character in case of an incident of some kind, this adds a sense of anxiety to the readers’ mind. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’s writer also tells of a silence in his story. This is vital however; as there is a murder taking place and anything other than silence would mean failure. The fact that there is absolute silence and absolute pitch black darkness can make the reader feel very unsure about the situation and it also emphasizes how delicately the killer had planned and was executing his attack.

The style of writing is an extremely valuable tool for creating a mood and atmosphere in a story. The signalman, written by Charles Dickens, uses the style of a 1st person perspective, as does The Tell-Tale Heart, written by Edgar Allen Poe. They have used this style, as it is the most formal of all the styles that have been used. It also sounds a little like a diary in some cases, such as in The Tell-Tale Heart”, where it has been used to great effect. This makes the writer sound as though he has been plotting his attack for an extremely long time and also adds to the tension and atmosphere off the story.

Poe has also used a lot of short words and sentences, adding exclamations for greater emphasis. The Landlady is written in a more informal way, using slang and dialect words to create a better atmosphere for the reader to understand. It tells the story of Billy Weaver in a way that makes the writer seem as if he has spoken to the character, not as if the writer has invented the character. This also helps engross the reader as it makes the story sound more believable. As a conclusion to this essay, I feel that the most effective opening belongs to “The Landlady” by Roald Dahl.

This is as a result of it always keeping the reader on the edge of their seats with changes in the mood, setting and atmosphere. I also feel that it describes the situation of the story better than the other three, helping the reader to get more involved. The introduction of the victim, Billy Weaver, early on, helps the reader to feel closer to the character as the story goes on and therefore the reader will inevitably feel more emotion at the end of the story as well.