Review: ‘The Red Room’ by H. G. Wells

The Red Room’ is H. G. Wells’s finest take on the ghost story. The plot of ‘The Red Room’ can be summarised as follows. The narrator has gone to spend the night in the red room of Lorraine Castle, which, according to legend, is haunted. The castle is inhabited and curated by a number of elderly people. The narrator is twenty-eight years old and reassures them that it will take a ‘very tangible ghost’ to frighten him.

After enduring an uncomfortable time with his ageing hosts, who include an old man with a ‘withered arm’ (perhaps a nod to Thomas Hardy’s famous ghost story with that title), the narrator ascends the spiral staircase to the red room where he is to spend the night.

He recalls the stories involving the room: specifically, of a dying duke who fell to his death in an ‘apoplexy’ or fit, after he staggered out of the room and plummeted down the spiral staircase; but there is also an older story involving a timid wife whose husband came to a bad end after he played one too many tricks on her.

This is a nice red herring, since it leads us to assume that what happens to the narrator after this is the result either of genuine ghostly activity or one of the elderly curators of the castle playing similar tricks on him. He proudly announced himself to be a sceptic at the beginning of the story, after all.

As he settles down in the room for the night, strange things start to happen. Two candles he had lit are extinguished, and he wonders if he did it himself ‘in a flash of absent-mindedness’. No sooner has he relit one of the candles than other candles start going out, as though they have been put out between someone’s thumb and forefinger. Each time he relights a candle, it goes out again soon afterwards.

Growing desperate, he picks up the candlestick and sees that the only light still in the room is coming from the fire. So he resolves to thrust the candlestick through the grate of the fireplace and light it that way, rather than using his matches. But before he can do so, the fire goes out, too, and he is plunged into terrifying darkness. He runs for the door, intent on fleeing the room, but cannot locate the door in the darkness; after a desperate attempt to locate it, he apparently knocks things over and hits his head, knocking himself unconscious.

The next morning, he is bandaged and looked after by his elderly hosts, who tell him they found him lying unconscious, with blood on his forehead and lips, in the room. The old man asks the narrator if he now believes him that the Red Room is haunted. He agrees that it is – but by fear, rather than anything supernatural such as the ghost of an earl or a countess.

In other words, suggestion does all the work and leads anyone within the room to act in a paranoid and desperate fashion, because they’re primed to expect a ghost. Fear, the narrator says, ‘will not have light nor sound’: he was putting out the candles himself, because he could not bear to see the room and, thus, risk seeing the ghost that he expected to haunt it. Fear ‘fought against me in the room’, as he puts it.

‘The Red Room’ is a nice rational take on the ghost story, which enjoyed its peak popularity at the end of the nineteenth century. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Phantom Rickshaw’, Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Markheim’, and M. R. James’s earliest ghost stories date from this period.

Wells’s story was published in 1896, when the Victorian appetite for ghost stories was still seemingly insatiable. But in writing a story with a twist – in which there is no ghost, but only fear and suggestion which do the rest of the work without the aid of the supernatural – he overturned the conventions of the genre.

Some other ghost stories from the period, most notably The Turn of the Screw, remain ambiguous, in that we cannot be sure whether the governess and the children really did witness ghosts, but Wells goes further than this, and has his narrator remain a proud sceptic who now understands where the belief in ghosts comes from.

Wells was writing some of his best work at this period of his career: The Time Machine (which also plays brilliantly on the fear of the light going out and being plunged into darkness and the unknown) had been published just the year before, and The Island of Doctor Moreau appeared in the same year, with The Invisible Man following the year after. And Wells’s description of the narrator’s experience in the Red Room is a tour de force:

I turned to where the flames were still dancing between the glowing coals and splashing red reflections upon the furniture; made two steps toward the grate, and incontinently the flames dwindled and vanished, the glow vanished, the reflections rushed together and disappeared, and as I thrust the candle between the bars darkness closed upon me like the shutting of an eye, wrapped about me in a stifling embrace, sealed my vision, and crushed the last vestiges of self-possession from my brain.

That ‘self-possession’ is a masterstroke: the narrator has indeed become ‘possessed’ by his own fear, as he will confirm shortly after this moment.

One wonders whether a later science-fiction author, J. G. Ballard (1930-2009), was recalling ‘The Red Room’ when he wrote his short story ‘Motel Architecture’ in 1978. In that story, set in the near future, Pangborn, the protagonist, lives alone in a ‘solarium’, moving himself around in a wheelchair and never leaving the safety of his home. One day, he becomes aware of an intruder in the solarium, who eats his food and breathes heavily near him, but who never reveals himself.

It turns out (spoiler alert) that Pangborn has become so isolated from the outside world that he has externalised his own being, attributing his own breathing and behaviour to some other self. Ballard’s story reads like a modern take on the ghost story where the ghost turns out to be nothing but a product of Pangborn’s ‘fear’ (of himself and his own bodily reality). The twist is somewhat similar to the one we find at the end of ‘The Red Room’: in both cases, the ‘ghost’ inhabiting the same room as the protagonist turns out to be nobody but themselves.

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