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In Mark Twain's tale, entitled, "The Californian's," the author's use of suspense creeps up on the reader almost without notice.
Twain spends the first part of the story describing the land and the houses that are forlorn and abandoned in this melancholy expanse of openness—with one exception. The Gold Rush has passed through, and those who struck it rich or failed have moved on, but those who remain have lost their wealth, and their humiliation at doing so has made them stay. The sense of the forlorn and abandonment applies to most of the occupants of this little town which barely exists.
The speaker comes upon a little house, so unlike the others, where flowers grow and the yard and home are lovingly tended. This does not necessarily create suspense, but throws the reader off a little by presenting a little oasis in the midst of the decimated landscape: this perfect little home.
We listen to the man of the house, Henry, and we learn of his dear wife who he so loves, who will be returning soon. He shows the speaker all the things Henry attributes to her talents, and it's almost possible to miss that he speaks of all she has done, using the past tense, which sounds only slightly awkward in that he refers also to her returning in the near future.
In the midst of this part of the story, Henry's desire to keep things in perfect order and his anticipation for his wife's return begin to wear on the reader, though at first we cannot be sure why. The suspense, I believe, is subtly introduced with Henry's almost obsessive attention to every detail and the fervent way he implores the reader to stay to meet her.
All the while, neighbors, the "living dead men," as Twain describes them, stop by, almost in a rehearsed fashion, to ask about the wife's return and to read the letter the husband carries in his wallet. One man, Tom, starts to get tears in his eyes, a sure instance of foreshadowing, but he explains it away so reasonably (because he is old and learning that he has to wait longer to see her makes him sad), that one cannot be sure it's important.
As the time for the wife's return approaches, the speaker looks at his watch. Henry's doubt and worry start to rapidly, unnaturally, escalate, as he worries—without seeming good reason—that something may have happened to his wife. While this annoys the speaker, Henry's friends arrive and calm Henry's fears. The insidious suspicion that something may be wrong subtly presents itself in the intensity of Henry's near-hysteria. Perhaps the beautiful little house, so out of place in this ghost town, rankles with the reader. And it is not until the narrator is told not to take the drink he first reaches for that we are alerted that something is definitely off.
From this point on, the climax and resolution move smoothly together as we learn that Henry's wife has been dead for nineteen years.
In a way, this tale has all the telltale marks of a ghost story. Twain's ability to string us along with the beauty of love, surrounded by the desolation of lost hopes and dreams, allows us to be blindsided because the suspense exists beneath the surface, only to be seen by the most observant reader. The story is "smoke and mirrors," as the details are there for us to see, but only if we are particularly attentive. He provides beauty and hope that are out of place, and a sudden fearfulness to captivate us, so we are almost completely unprepared for news of Henry's wife.
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