A Comparison of a Pre-Twentieth Century and Contemporary Horror Writing, Looking in Particular at Techniques for Building Tension and Suspense. We looked at an extract from the pre-twentieth century horror story ‘Dracula’, by Bram Stoker. Dracula is a traditional gothic horror story set in middle Europe. It is written in the style of Harker’s diary. We also looked at the contemporary writing ‘One for the Road’, by Stephen King. One for the Road is set in the United States of America and is written in the style of a personal conversation between the reader and the main character, Booth. Both stories deal with vampires and use similar methods of building tension and suspense.
In the first three paragraphs of Dracula, the Count is very courteous towards Harker and after opening the door to his castle in Transylvania, he even bows “in a courtly way”. He seems determined to help and insists on carrying Harker’s luggage. It could be considered strange that Dracula does not have any servants or butlers to open doors and see to guests, but he dismisses this by saying that “it is late, and my people are not available”. The way that Dracula introduces himself could also be considered bizarre as instead of saying, “Hello, my name is Count Dracula”, he says very deliberately “I am Dracula”. Dracula treats Harker to a lovely supper and has a warm room ready. It could be seen as unusual that Dracula does not eat or drink, but he dismisses this by telling Harker that he has already eaten. Harker has now been lulled into a false sense of security and writes in his diary “the light and warmth and the Count’s courteous manner seemed to have dissipated all my doubts and fears”.
The castle itself is described as a traditional old castle. Harker writes about passages, winding staircases, stone floors and raging log fires. The story says that Dracula “threw open a heavy door” and this could been seen as odd. The word threw suggests that the door was flung open with great ease. However, if the door was heavy, it should have taken more strength and effort to open it. It seems that Dracula opened the door with some unnatural force. By the end of the first page, Harker is relaxed and comfortable and uses words such as “charming” and “graceful” to describe his host. He does not seem to have noticed any of the unusual incidents such as the odd introduction, the lack of servants, the heavy door and the refusal to “sup”.
On the second page of the extract, Harker has had a chance to observe Dracula more closely and has noticed several odd things about his appearance. In Victorian times, when this story was written, people believed that you could judge a person’s character by the way that they look by a practice called physiognomy. Harker writes that he finds Dracula of a very “marked physiognomy. The story then goes into a description of Dracula, which starts off quaint, but quickly becomes sinister. Lots of adjectives such as “strong” and “peculiarly” are used and these help to convey a strong and ominous mental image of what Dracula looks like to the reader.
This mental representation helps to create tension and suspense, as it is the first idea that something is not right. The second paragraph of description confirms that something is amiss within Castle Dracula. It focuses greatly on Dracula’s hands, summarising them as being “rather coarse – broad with squat fingers” and more disturbingly that there were “hairs in the centre of the palm”. The excerpt “remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years” creates a picture of a man older than is natural but almost ageless, as if his red cheeks and lips are getting younger.
Harker also writes about Dracula’s teeth, describing them as “sharp”, “white” and “protuberant”. The word sharp is not usually used to describe human teeth, but more so carnivorous animals such as wolves and lions. Also, the teeth of a man as old as Dracula is portrayed to be would not have white teeth, but more of a yellow colour, if they had teeth at all. These add tension as they emphasise the unnatural things about Dracula.
The feeling of tension and suspense is built up when Harker himself becomes uncomfortable and scared as, being the hero, he shouldn’t really get scared. Harker writes that he can not “repress a shudder” and has a “horrible feeling of nausea”. Harker thinks that this feeling has been brought about by the Count’s “rank” breath, but it could also be as a result of nerves and anticipation.
More tension is created when Dracula speaks about the howling of the wolves. He personifies them, calling them the “children of the night” and refers to “the hunter”, which could be himself. He speaks as if he is telling Harker about the feelings of the hunter first-hand, in an almost animalistic way. When he leaves Harker, Dracula again bows, but this time it seems a little more threatening. At no time in the extract is the word vampires used, but the reader still feels unsettled and anxious to read on as a lot of tension and suspense is created by the way Dracula has tried to lure Harker into a false sense of security.
The story One for the Road by Stephen King is set initially in a bar, which makes the scene familiar and relaxed. A narrator, Booth, tells the story. This makes the story seem like a personal conversation between Booth and the reader. At the outset of the story, there is a false scare when a “stranger staggered in”. In the next paragraph, Booth says that he had “never seen a man who looked that scared”, which informs the reader that it is the stranger who has encountered something nasty outside.