The Signal-Man Questions and Answers
by Charles Dickens

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How do the authors effectively create suspense, fear, tension in the ghost stories "The Signal-Man" by Dickens and "The Red Room" by H. G. Wells?

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Dickens and  Wells use surprisingly similar literary techniques in writing "The Signal-Man" and "The Red Room," respectively. As any skilled author does, each begins in the opening paragraphs to build suspense, fear, and tension. To establish suspense, Dickens and Wells both open in medias res, a Latin term meaning "in the midst of things." Both stories are told from the point of view of a first person protagonist who is knee-deep, as they say, is some unusual situation that isn't explained to us at all: Why is Dickens' hero standing atop a sheer bluff and climbing down to a railroad track below? Why is Wells' hero in a strange, seemingly remote inn operated by even stranger people and asking them for occupancy of the Red Room? The narrator tells us precisely what is happening before him at any moment with no explanation of what may have led up to it or precipitated or provoked it. As a result, we begin the story with nothing but suspenseful questions.

Suspense is enhanced by the ominousness of having remarks, reactions, and behavior go unexplained as when Dickens writes there was one reaction of "such expectation and watchfulness that I stopped a moment, wondering at it," and as when Wells writes, "The three of them made me feel uncomfortable with their ... unfriendliness to me." Fear adds to this building suspense and is created by both authors through vocabulary and description. Dickens and Wells both uses words with negative overtones or unpleasant hints of danger along with gruesome or chilling descriptions. In terms of vocabulary, Dickens writes,

foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench,
steeped in the glow of an angry sunset,

The vocabulary to note consists of words like foreshortened, shadowed, deep trench, steeped, angry sunset. The vocabulary that Wells uses is represented by words like faint step, stick, shambling step, creaked in this quote:

I heard the faint sound of a stick and a shambling step on the flags in the passage outside. The door creaked on it's hinges ....

Descriptions that add to feelings of fear are ones such as Dickens uses to describe the setting down by the track,

crooked prolongation of this great dungeon

and such as Wells uses to describe one of the three people at the inn:

lower lip, half averted, hung pale and pink from his decaying yellow teeth

Each author builds tension through different techniques. One example is that Dickens uses disassociation--as in ghostly disassociation from the bodily realm--in statements like: "When he heard a voice thus calling to him." Writing “a voice” instead of “my voice’ disassociates the voice from anything human. In contrast, Wells uses ominous repetitions that force attention to suspenseful points of the story such as those repeated lines in the beginning of the story:

"This night of all nights!" whispered the old woman.
"It's your own choosing," said the man with the withered arm.

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