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The Setting and Characters in The Red Room and The Signalman

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An analysis of the setting and characters in mystery stories with
special reference to The Red Room and the Signalman

Stories have been around for a very long time, even before books.
People would sit around fires and tell stories to one another which
would then get passed down through the generations, altering slightly
every time they were retold. They would have been imaginative and may
have contained a sense of mystery but importantly they would have had
some sort of moral to them.

Once people were able to write they were written down and many are now
very famous. Shakespeare’s Macbeth has witches which prophesize the
future but it wasn’t really until the 19th century that mystery
writing really started. People were now able to read and many enjoyed
books as a means of escape from their busy lives. Two famous sisters
who wrote mystery stories were Charlotte and Emily Brontë. Emily’s
book, Wuthering Heights contains lots of romance in the form of
mystery. In Bleak House, one of Charles Dickens’s books, there is a
detective.

Mystery stories are often set in isolated places such as an old house,
moors or deserted alleyways and dark streets in the night. The fact
that the setting is in an isolated place gives it a strange feeling as
no one will be around to help. ‘The old nurses story’ is set in a big
mansion in the country, these quite places are often old and may have
creaking floor boards or parts which are out of bounds which adds to
the affect of mystery. Weather also plays a big part in the
ingredients of a mystery story, most are set when the weather is bad
and often a storm is brewing and the winds are howling like in the
film Identity. There could also be snow on the ground or a thick fog
making visibility very poor. The time of day is often quite
significant and most mysteries are set in the night and very often
midnight.

Mystery stories may contain an evil villain which may have
recognisable features such as the rat with ‘baleful eyes’ in the
Judge’s House by Bram Stoker. The evil villain may act alone or they
may have accomplices like in Harry Potter where Voldermort is helped
by his group of followers. There is also usually a victim, they may
live alone, or be alone when the incidents happen as then they will
have no support and are therefore helpless, they may believe they cant
get hurt but in fact they could be putting themselves in a lot of
danger. There maybe other characters in the story who try to warn the
victim of the danger but if they are like Malcolm in the ‘Judges
House’ by Bram Stoker, then they take no notice and go ahead anyway
oblivious to the dangers they have been warned about.

Behind the mystery there could be many different things. Ghosts are
popular as many people believe in them and they are usually associated
with being evil. Nightmares and dreams give a very mysterious feeling,
maybe because no one really understands them and anything is possible
in a dream so they are good places for the ‘impossible’ to happen.
Some sort of ‘presence’ can also be quite mysterious because, like
dreams and nightmares, not everyone understands them and because they
aren’t real in the story they can be made to do all sorts of horrific
things which can be very chilling. In ‘Macbeth’ fortune telling was
used at the beginning when the ‘weird sisters’ prophesised Macbeths
future, this can create a good atmosphere from the start and leaves
you wanting to know if it comes true or not.

Noises help to create the right atmosphere. By having an organ or
piano playing it gives the impression that someone or something is
present like in Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Poltergeist’. Other sounds
such as footsteps, the rustling of leaves and crying like in the ‘Secret
Garden’ all make the reader think and get their adrenaline going
making them feel as if they are really there. Water dripping or a
clock ticking gives the impression that time is going slowly and that
you’re just waiting for something to happen. Light has a big affect on
the atmosphere as well. Flickering candles and fires create dark
shadows, the poor light can also mean its hard to see things and makes
the victim more jumpy which transfers across to the reader. Light
could also be used as a signal or a warning that something bad is
going to happen. Mysteries stories are usually made up using many of
the ingredients I have mentioned to give it a really mysterious
feeling and keeping the reader on the edge of their set and making
them want to read on to find out what happens next.

The Red Room is set in an old house in which some old people live. The
fact that it is in an old house, gives the impression that it is
isolated and away from help should anything go wrong, and of course it
does. Old houses usually have a lot of history that goes with them so
they are often haunted. There is a ‘queer old mirror at the end of the
room’ and the furniture is ‘old fashioned’ .There is also a fire light
which would cast shadows about the room which enhances the spookiness
and gives a sense of evil.

The Signalman by Charles Dickens is set in an ‘extremely deep’ railway
cutting by the mouth of a ‘black tunnel’. The sides of the cutting are
steep, this gives the feeling of being trapped and isolated from the
world. On either side there are ‘jagged’ walls with water dripping
down them, these walls only allow one small strip of sky to be seen.
Due to the lack of sunlight a ‘deadly smell’ fills the air. Musty and
‘forbidding’ smells and darkness are often associated with bad things.
On the first day it is set under an ‘angry sunset’ and on the
following evenings it’s already dark.

Both stories are set in very different settings although both settings
are in isolated places. The Red Room, although it is in a house, you
get the impression that it is rarely visited so in this respect they
are similar because it is also set in the night and with the candles
flickering and creating dark shadows, it has the same spooky feel. The
setting in the ‘Red Room’ isn’t described in much detail and is left
more to the reader to imagine the details whereas the Signalman’s
setting was described in lots of detail to really set the
scene.

There are two people main people in the Signalman, and one other main
character which is super natural. The signalman is a ‘sallow’ man with
‘heavy eyebrows’ and a ‘dark beard’. The other is a visitor to the
railway cutting, which is some what of a rarity. The visitor, who is
the person telling the story, observes the signalman as having a
‘watchful’ attitude. The signalman spends ‘many long and lonely hours’
working in the ‘box’ by the tunnel where he works the lights and
changes the signals for the trains. The is another character who plays
a very important part, and that is a ghost which appears before
something bad happens and in the end shows the signalman how he is
going to die. By appearing when something bad is about to happen it is
then associated with evil and is portrayed as a bad character.

The inhabitants of the house are ‘old people’ with ‘an intent
expression on their ancient faces’. There is an old man with a
‘withered arm’ and an old lady who sat ‘staring in to fire, her pale
eyes wide open’. The lady’s staring into the fire gives a hypnotic,
creepy feel as if she has been hypnotised buy someone and that she no
longer controls herself. The main character claims it would take a
‘very tangible ghost’ to frighten him and says that he doesn’t believe
in ghosts because in the ‘eight-and-twenty years’ he has lived he has
never seen a ghost. He comes across as a tough character and that
little would scare him. When the ‘old people’ warn him, he chooses to
ignore it and asks to be shown ‘this haunted room of yours’.

In both stories there is the normal, average person who in the case of
the ‘Red Room’ becomes the victim. In the ‘Signalman’ there are in a
sense two normal people, the visitor and the signalman although it is
the signalman who is affected by the ghosts visits and therefore
becomes the victim. All the people are well described in both stories
and they are described in a way to portray them correctly for their
role in the story. Overall both of the stories have very similar
features like the isolated setting although in the cases of these
stories one was an old house and the other was a railway cutting, and
the victim. They also both put across good and evil and use
description to help. I think both the stories concluded very well and
are well written mystery stories which contain a lot of typical
characteristics of this particular genre.

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