The Darkness Out There by Penelope Lively and The Signalman by Charles Dickens

The two stories share the build up of suspense as the conclusion draws closer throughout, another similarity is that both books have unexpected endings. They are also similar in that the books are written on incidents involving death. Though the styles of the authors are different, Dickens builds up tension with themes of mystery, while Lively builds tension with themes more concentrated on people’s conduct. Dickens was a 19th century novelist who is still today very popular and well known; two of his most popular works are ‘David Copperfield’ and ‘Great Expectations’.

Dickens began writing short stories and publishing them chapter by chapter in a national newspaper. This is the reason why Dickens style of writing used to leave the story hanging at the end of each chapter, to encourage people to buy the newspaper again to read the next chapter. Dickens wrote novels to suite his Victorian audiences who were compelled towards ghostly and mysterious stories. This can be related to as a gothic age in fiction, as stories were dark and aimed to scare. Lively moved to Britain from Egypt after the second world war and this seems to have had an influence on the topics in her stories, which do usually involve war.

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Lively’s work is known to investigate how peoples conduct is effected by their past. The opening of ‘The Darkness Out There’ describes a girl called Sandra. She is walking through a field alone in the summer. The scene describes a few things including the Good Neighbours’ Club, Packer’s End, and an old lady (Mrs Rutter). Sandra is on her way to give this old lady some assistance with the help of someone else. She is doing this because she belongs to the Good Neighbours’ club. This club is designed to help elderly people who are needy of help at home. An adult referred to as Pat runs it and its members are young teenagers wanting to help out.

Sandra describes a local area called Packer’s End. She remembers that when she was younger it was a scary area because there were apparently witches and wolves there. Now slightly older there was a rumour that a German plane had landed there during the war and some people claimed to have heard German voices. Sandra states that she always avoids this area whether alone or in a group. The main character has described a feared area. However the audience do not yet share her fear because they do not know the area’s relevance to the story. A boy called Kerry Stevens meets Sandra.

It is evident that she does not regard highly of him. She describes him, “Kerry Stevens that none of her lot reckoned much on… ” Sandra is disappointed to find she will be visiting Mrs Rutter with him because she was hoping to do it with one of her friends as she would find it more enjoyable. The pair entered Mrs Rutter’s house. Mrs Rutter talks very forwardly to Sandra in an almost inappropriate way, “Mind your pretty skirt, pull it up a bit, there’s only me to see if you’re showing a bit of bum. ” Mrs Rutter also acts peculiarly to Kerry. She is very judgmental of him.

Conversing of his plans to work in a garage she says, “Well, I expect that’s good steady money if you’d nothing special in mind. ” Further on in the book Mrs Rutter tells Sandra that her husband was killed in the war. Mrs Rutter offers the two young people some chocolate. Sandra gives some to Kerry, who is now in the Garden. He comments on Mrs Rutter, “I don’t go much on her. ” Sandra fails to see anything amiss. The two finish their jobs and sit down at the table with the old lady for another cup of tea. At the table Kerry asks Mrs Rutter a few questions about the German plane landing in the area.

This is the same plane, which Sandra associates with Packer’s End at the start of the story. Kerry is surprised to find out that the plane landed close to the house and Mrs Rutter lived there at the time. Mrs Rutter then tells the story of the plane crashing. This is the point where tension arrives in the story. The tension increases from then on as Mrs Rutter tells more of the plane crash. Tension increases when the children find out that one of the German soldiers was still alive in the plane. As the story is retold the pair realise that Mrs Rutter isn’t as innocent as first thought.

For example she describes that her sister and her went to look at the wreckage and cheer to find out it is one of the German planes. Also the sisters leave an injured but not dead German to die in the wreckage. This shocks Kerry, who abruptly leaves the elderly woman’s house. Sandra follows in a less dramatic style. Once outside he refers to Mrs Rutter as an old bitch. Sandra then realises that people are not always as they seem. Mrs Rutter was not kind like a stereotypical old person and Kerry Stevens was not horrible at all like a stereotype of a teenager.

In ‘The Signalman’ its opening chapter itself is rather mysterious. This is good as it attracts the reader’s attention from the very beginning and also makes the audience aware of the style of the book. The very first speech is, “Halloa! Below there! ” This in itself seems normal (as a Victorian greeting) but already there is a strange reaction to these words. The narrator of the book is standing at the top of a steep bank shouting these words down to a signalman near a railway track. The signalman reacts by looking down the line towards a tunnel rather than turning to face where the words had so clearly come from.

He refrains from communicating in speech to the question, ‘Is there any path by which I can come down and speak to you? ‘ Instead he simply points to the direction of the path. The narrator makes his way down a path this deep canyon where a railway line runs through. As the two men come closer the narrator describes the signalman, ‘… a dark sallow man, with a dark beard and rather heavy eyebrows’. In this paragraph the area is described in much more detail as ‘this great dungeon’, ‘gloomy’ and ‘there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air’.

This is a good paragraph to continue with the opening themes as it confirms the reader’s beliefs about the signalman’s appearance. It also confirms the setting of the story. Soon the narrator comments on how the Signalman somehow intimidated him, which had the effect of confirming the readers vision of the mysterious Signalman character. Dickens is aware that the reader is now likely to read the whole story so he is able to decrease the mystery and the suspense that something strange is likely to happen for a few paragraphs and delve into the communication between the two strangers.

The narrator describes what he has observed and some of the conversing between them. The narrator describes the Signalman as bright and efficient at his job. To set the story off again the narrator describes the occurrences when the signalman strangely cuts off the conversation and stares at a bell, which does not ring. Also just after this the signalmen speaks of the fact that he is troubled. Dickens then finishes off the conversation in a strange way. The signalman requests the narrator that when he reaches the path and then the bank the next day he should not call out.

The signalman then asks why his new companion called out ‘Halloa! Below there! ‘ To both the audience and the narrator this is a normal greeting. However this speech seems to have troubled the signalman. In the next meeting of the pair the signalman is distant but more communicative towards the narrator. The signalman describes an experience from a year ago. He believes he saw a figure calling from the tunnel with his arm over his face calling the very words that the narrator had used on first meeting the signalman. The figure then seems to disappear.

The narrator is almost scared by this experience but he holds on to his thinking. He tells the signalman that he may have a medical problem, which allows him to see things that do not exist. The signalman tells the narrator that six hours later an accident occurred on railway line and people were left dead. However the narrator once again denies any supernatural at work by saying that it was just a coincidence. The signalman then tells of the second accident. Again he imagines a figure that then disappears. Soon after another train accident occurs and a young lady dies.

At this stage in the story the tension is very high. It then becomes higher still when the signalman says he has seen the figure, which haunted him twice, only a week ago. The narrator now understands that the signalman is troubled because after seeing the figure an accident is likely to occur. Dickens has achieved tension because the audience is awaiting an accident to happen. The narrator is aware of danger however he decides that the best course of action is to steady the signalman. The next morning the narrator goes for a walk before he visits the signalman.

On his way past, walking along the bank looking down at the railway line he views a group of men. He spots one man with his arm over his face waving with his other arm. The narrator recognises this as what the mysterious figure had done the first time the signalman saw it. The narrator makes his way to the bottom of the bank and joins the men only to be informed that an engine hit the signalman. The narrator asks how this happened to which a man replies with a detailed explanation.

The man who drove the engine said he called out to the signalman, who stood on the line, Below there! Look out! Look out! For God’s sake, clear the way! ” The man repeats his actions, which the narrator had watched him perform from the top of the bank. The narrator goes on to conclude how this coincidence must’ve caused the Signalman to want to discover what had kept ‘haunting’ him, and in doing so was killed by the approaching engine. ‘The Signalman’ has a theme of mystery, darkness, and supernatural happenings. It is set in Victorian England. ‘The Darkness Out There’ is set in post war times in the countryside of England.

Different to ‘The Signalman’ it is a realistic story based on a real life situation. The first story builds up tension gradually as it progresses. This is different to the second, which has little tension until at least half way through. Another difference is that in ‘The Signalman’ there’s a stronger sense of what sort of relationship the main characters hold. In ‘The Darkness Out There’ Lively writes about the relationships and this prevents the reader making their own mind up and this also leaves the sense of the relationship between the characters weaker.

This is probably to do with the writer’s styles and the writing styles at the time. Lively’s stories concentrate on characters and their reactions rather than incidents so she tends to describe the relationships more. Dickens’ stories concentrate more on supernatural incidents and by doing this and leaving the reader to make their own judgement about the characters relationships. The two stories are similar in that they both have unexpected endings and are intended to somewhat scare the reader. The stories are similar in that the characters change throughout.

The signalman begins as a scary figure however becomes more like a normal person as the book goes on. Mrs Rutter begins as a kind old lady but turns out to be quite capable of unkindness first towards Kerry and later on a much more horrific scale towards the injured German soldier. Another similarity of the two books is that the characters are quite conceivable and well described. ‘The Signalman’ narrator is a professional man who finds interest in finding out about another intellectuals like him who have entered into a completely different career.

The signalman is a normal person that has over time begun to behave in a strange manner because of his secluded, lonely job and also because of his experiences. These two characters are well described and the audience becomes more aware of what they are like as the story goes on. In the second story Sandra is an innocent normal young girl. Kerry, of the same age, is a boy who knows what direction he wishes to take in life. Mrs Rutter is an old lady who, like the signalman, acts in a strange way because she is lonely and also because of her experiences with her husband dying and the German plane crash.

To conclude I think that ‘The Signalman’ by Charles Dickens is the better of the two stories. Dickens creates suspense throughout the story making it more exciting, even though it is written in Victorian English and takes a bit more intellect to decipher some parts of it. Penelope Lively’s ‘The Darkness Out There’ does not make the reader feel enough suspense or excitement. I think that this author’s ending is much too hurried and also too unexpected, although she presumably intended to have an unexpected ending.

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