Horror is one of the most popular genres for fiction stories and one that many people enjoy for many reasons. The supernatural and psychological aspects of the stories provoke a lot of thought in people and trigger such emotions as terror and fear while enthralling and chilling the reader and making them read on. Two stories I have read are ‘The Signalman’ by Charles Dickens and ‘The Smell’ by Patrick McGrath. Charles Dickens, born in the 19th Century is the most famous Victorian novelist and witnessed a fatal train crash just two years prior to writing ‘The Signalman’ which influenced him in the writing of it.
Patrick McGrath, however, is a living author, who specialises in ‘Gothic’ style short stories. The different time eras of these authors can be seen in their style of writing and story. Charles Dickens’ supernatural story is typical of the 19th century, and in particular the latter half when this type of story became very popular. The many religious ideas about life after death and ghosts etc were beginning to be challenged by science and in particular the theory of evolution (Charles Darwin, Early 19th Century).
This made the thought of ghosts and supernatural happenings scary because they seems unexplainable and irrational. Nowadays the idea of ghosts has got old and not as many people are interested. The expectations of modern Horror readers are more to do with the psychological. In the early 20th Century Sigmund Freud created psychoanalysis and the interest in mental illnesses and such things became greater. Horror stories involving psychological problems became more popular because we realise that the things that happen in them are possible in real life, unlike the ghost stories, and this makes them scarier.
Both the stories I read are similar in that they involve a death, which is a typical trait of a horror story and they both involve a character that foresees his own death. It is the signalman in Dickens’ story that does this. The narrator is not this man but another who pays him visits three days in a row, down in his railway cutting. The first day the narrator meets the signalman for the first time and discovers that something has been troubling him, so he comes back the next day so the signalman will tell him what it is.
He finds out that the signalman has been sighting a spectre standing near the warning light of the nearby railway tunnel and waving his arms and calling out warnings. The first time the signalman had seen him, there was a fatal train crash hours later and the second time he saw the spectre, some months after the first, there was a murder on a train passing the signalman’s box. The signalman then tells the narrator that he has been seeing the spectre appear again and he is scared something terrible is going to happen like the first two times.
The narrator decides to go home and come back the next day, but when he does he finds the signalman has been killed on the line by a train. It appears the spectre is a premonition of the signalman’s own death. In ‘The Smell’ it is the narrator himself that foresees his death but in this story he does so in a psychological way instead of supernaturally like in ‘The Signalman’. The story begins with the narrator telling the reader about his special room that he keeps locked to stop all but himself entering. His family then find a stray dog, which they wish to keep but the narrator tells of how he finds this outrageous and then punishes them.
After this he starts to smell a terrible smell but the other members of his family appear to not smell it. This makes the narrator think that the other members are playing a trick on him, which makes him angry. However even after his sister in law has cleaned the whole house, apart from his room, the narrator could still smell the odour so he calls his sister in law to his room to punish her, but finds that the smell was apparently coming from his room all the time. This makes the narrator extremely angry and one night he punishes one of his children by what appears to be killing him or her.
Before he can punish the next child however, he is drawn back to the origin of the smell, the fireplace and chimney of his room. He goes back and decides to climb up it to find what is making the smell, but he gets stuck and apparently dies there. It appears that the smell is actually the odour of his rotten death and in a way he foreseeing or ‘fore-smelling’ his death. It is possible that the man has clairvoyance and is able to perceive the future but this is not clear, as he also seems to be mentally ill as I point out later.
The settings used in both are similar in ways and both are used to add to the atmosphere of mystery and horror in the stories. The chimney in ‘The Smell’ is described as a “sooty blackness” with a “sweet and viscous liquid dripping into the fireplace” and in ‘The Signalman’ the narrator describes a “gloomier entrance to a black tunnel” and the cutting has on either side “a dripping wet wall” which is cut through ” clammy stone that became oozier and wetter. ” Both are dark, un-natural, dripping, confined spaces where the mysterious things in the stories (the smell and the spectre) appear to come from.
The descriptions used by both authors are very similar and create a mysterious feel because the reader knows that anything could be lurking in the darkness and so this creates some fear as well. The two authors both use detailed descriptions and strong words to convey the settings to the reader, such as “the cutting was extremely deep and unusually precipitous” and “massive architecture, there was a barbarous, depressing and forbidding air” in ‘The Signalman’ and McGrath writes “it stank in there, my god it stank, such a sick, sweet stink” in ‘The Smell’.
This draws the reader into the story, so he can imagine he is really there and then feel the terror and horror for him or herself, which makes the story more gripping and compelling. The two settings of the railway cutting and the chimney can also be interpreted as symbolic. The railway cutting is a man made; un-natural creation full of the horror of the train crashes and is described as a “great dungeon”. This could symbolise fears of the 19th Century people about railways, that they should not be built because of the belief that man would die if he went faster than running pace and it was the work of the devil.
This can be seen when Dickens writes that it “had an earthly, deadly smell” and the wind “struck to chill me, as if I had left the natural world. ” For the 19th Century reader this would make the story scarier and create suspense because they would anticipate something evil or bad to happen in there because it’s a railway cutting. The chimney in ‘The Smell’ is described as being a “foetid blackness” meaning it stinks, but the word foetid can be likened to ‘foetus’.
This could be symbolic of the narrator returning to the womb, or loosing his life in the chimney which can be seen as a passage way to death and this is backed up when he describes how he could “press my back against one wall and get the soles of my shoes hard against the other, legs bent double” which is the shape of a foetus in the womb. This is a terrifying thought and creates horror for the reader. Both the authors use suspense in their stories, which creates mystery and draws the reader on and makes him or her continue the story in anticipation of what’s going to happen.
They both do this by not letting the reader know what’s going to happen next or what happens at all sometimes in ‘The Smell’. In ‘The Signalman’ the mystery starts immediately when the narrator cries, “Halloa, below there! ” and the other man below is startled and “instead of looking to where I stood…. he turned and looked down the line”. Then when asked if he will tell the narrator what troubles him, the signalman says, “If you ever make another visit, I will try to tell you. ” This builds the suspense as the reader anticipates what it is that troubles the man and means we have to read on to find out what it is.
Dickens has used this technique a lot such as when the narrator says, “I cannot describe the thrill that seized upon me” when he comes back the third day and it builds up a very mysterious and terrifying story, which interests the reader from start to finish. In ‘The Smell’ McGrath has also used this technique of keeping the reader guessing what’s going to happen, but we also sometimes don’t even know what has actually happened, which is very frightening because we as readers imagine all sorts of terrible possibilities.
The narrator tells how he “punished” his family for wanting to keep the dog but does not expand on this, so it could be anything. The suspense gets greater later when he tells how he felt sad “that it should come to this”. We do not know what “this” is and so it is very frightening and also it builds up the suspense so we have to read on to find out what he did. Even when we’ve read on we still don’t know what exactly he does because he just describes it as “horror” which means again we are left guessing making the story even more frightening.
The Narrators contribute greatly to the mystery and suspense of the stories but each in a different way. They are similar in that they both are first person narratives and this adds to the mystery and suspense because they tell the story from a limited point of view and cannot see or tell everything that is going on, which can be frightening for the reader. However two differences between the two stories is the reliability of the narrators and how central they are to the story.
In ‘The Signalman’ the narrator seems to be reliable and tells the story truthfully but in ‘The Smell’ the narrator does and says odd things that lead the reader to question his reliability and consider the possibility that he has the mental illness paranoid schizophrenia. He acts oddly early on when he says “We observed Christmas with the solemnity appropriate to the holiday” which seems strange because Christmas is meant to be a happy joyous time and then he reveals, “I punished them of course” for wanting to keep the stray dog which is also very strict and strange.
Then when he says “I and I alone … detected the odour” it suggests that something may be wrong in his mind because if there were a smell then everyone would smell it. The first sign that he might be paranoid is when he says “I heard them on the roof” which is highly unlikely and he says that he found no one when he looked shows that it might all be made up in his mind. Then he shows insecurity, which is a typical sign of being paranoid when he begins asking the reader “You do see that I had to do it? ” which is also very chilling because again we do not know what “it” is.
Then later when punishing the children he describes how he has “the milky feeling” which is very ambiguous and strange which again gives a big clue to the reader that the man is not mentally stable. All this makes the story very ironic because the reader knows that the events told by the narrator could be warped due to his apparent illness. This makes the story very mysterious because we cannot be sure what really is happening and also very scary because we realise that the man’s actions of punishing his family could be terrible although he seems to think that they are acceptable.
The narrator is also central to the story which enhances the horror of the story because the reader can see the story from the view of the troubled man and see what he is experiencing which makes it seem more real to the reader. In Dickens’ tale the narrator isn’t central to the story but an onlooker who sees the horror unfold for the signalman. This adds mystery and suspense to the story because the narrator does not know at first what is going on and has to come back the next two days which leads the readers to read on and find out about the signalman.
However the signalman himself in Dickens’ story is the character central to the story and the one who draws most of the reader’s attention. He is a very mysterious character who the narrator and we the readers sympathise with. His behaviour is particularly mysterious when he does such things as “turned his head towards the bell when it did not ring”. Dickens’ use of capitol letters here highlights the strangeness of the signalman’s actions. Then later, very mysteriously he asks the narrator if he felt that the words he used to call down to the signalman “were conveyed to you in any supernatural way? which is very unexpected and quite chilling.
Another strange and rather chilling thing he says is “don’t call out! ” when telling the narrator to come back the next day. The narrator points this out as well when he says “His manner… ” made “the place strike colder to me”. Another strange thing about the signalman is that he is “educated above that station” meaning he should have a better job because he was once a “student of natural philosophy”. This shows that he is not a stupid man and so makes the story he tells of the spectre more frightening because we cannot dismiss him as a fool or question his education.
Because of this education we also sympathise with him, because he has a job “in a solitary and dismal place” and his post is very “lonesome” which the narrator points out. Both these things make the signalman mysterious and add a lot of mystery to the story and the events surrounding the man. The other characters in ‘The Smell’ apart from the narrator are also similar to the signalman because they have a lot of mystery surrounding them. The man’s family members are not described in any detail at all.
He just says he has “a wife and children” and his wife’s younger sister who he describes as a “disorganised woman”. We never learn how many children he has or what genders any of them are. Even when he describes punishing his children he just refers to them as “it” or “them”, which adds a lot of mystery and also horror because he doesn’t seem to regard them as human beings with feelings and so again the actions he takes on them could be terrible. The narrators in both stories react to events and convey the horror of them very well.
For instance in ‘The Signalman’ the narrator tells how “a disagreeable shudder crept over me” and how he felt “the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine” when told about the spectre the signalman had been seeing. He also describes, “The nameless horror that oppressed” him when he saw the scene of the railway cutting on the third day. These detailed descriptions show how the narrator felt frightened and unnerved by the story, which passes to the reader and conveys the horror to us, so we feel the same sensations.
In ‘The Smell’ the descriptions of the narrators feelings are perhaps more chilling such as when he describes how “a light cold trickle of sweat broke out onto my skin and I was barely able to control the impulse to retch,” and in particular, when he describes punishing one of his children as “the sudden loss of clarity, the rapid shift into a sort of pale sunless liquid mist, the numbness, watching the horror from somewhere outside ones own body”. This is an extremely chilling and terrifying description that again conveys the horror very well.
The strange events in each of the stories can be explained by supernatural and psychological ideas. As pointed out in the introduction ‘The Smell’ involves psychological ideas and the mans actions can be owed to a mental illness such as paranoid schizophrenia. However Horror stories usually revolve around the conflict between the logical or scientific and the irrational and ‘The Smell’ is no different. It is possible as pointed out earlier that the man has clairvoyance, which is quite irrational and seems highly unlikely.
However in the last paragraph of the story the man realises that he “was indeed the source… the smell… the thing that dripped and stank. ” He believes that he has been sensing his death all along, and the smell was a precognition, an odour of his death that would come to him soon. ‘The Signalman’ revolves around different ideas to McGrath’s story and involves aspects of the supernatural. The Spectre seen by the signalman can be seen as a premonition or prophecy of his death. Again there is a conflict between the explainable and the unexplainable.
The sightings and hearings can, as the narrator tells him, be explained by “the wind in this unnatural valley” and tricks of the eye. However the terrible happenings after the sightings are too much of a coincidence and the only explanation is that it was a ghost warning the man in advance. The endings of both of the stories seem to have a hidden moral meaning. In ‘The Smell’ the strict father is punished for his evil acts of punishing the children for something they don’t seem to have done.
However it is ironic because he only punished them severely because he thought they were causing the smell that was actually the odour of his future death, which can be seen as a punishment for killing his children! He describes himself as being “suffocated… like a dirty cork in a bottle of rancid milk” at the end of the story and this can be seen as severe punishment for his actions. In Dickens’ story the death of the signalman is not so much a punishment for evil deeds because he is a good man and does not deserve his fate.
Usually stories with a didactic meaning involve reward for good but in this story the man dies and so it shows that Dickens has quite a pessimistic ‘world- view’. He believes that innocent people die in the world when they cannot do anything about it and this may be inspired by his experience of the fatal train crash a year before he wrote the story, when he tended to the dead and dying passengers that were on the train with him. He may of felt angry or disappointed with the world for taking those innocent lives.
Overall the two stories contain much mystery, suspense and horror that manages to enthral the reader while chilling them and conveying the terror of the men’s situations. The two Authors have used many ways to create all this in the stories and they both full fill the expectations of the readers from the different centuries they were wrote. ‘The Signalman’ is a story that would chill the 19th Century reader because of their expectations of the supernatural in horror stories.
It is a very mysterious and suspense filled story that has many hidden meanings and that’s what makes it very popular, not only when it was written but nowadays as well. ‘The Smell’ is also a story that manages to frighten the modern day reader. It has the psychological aspect and that’s what makes it scarier to readers of our time. We know that the story told could well happen in real life and this makes it very frightening. The story contains much mystery and horror and also uses a lot of irony to make it enthralling and popular.