H. G. Wells and 'The Red Room'
H. G. Wells. the scientific rationalist and author, famous for the novels The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Time Machine and many other works, ventured in 1894 into the realms of the gothic horror story, popular during the Victorian era, with ‘The Red Room’. The conclusions of the narrator to his tale (who could be Wells himself) are as predictable as the methodology he uses to attract and glue readers to its pages.
The narrator’s opening statement is something that Wells could have said himself, and gives us an immediate framework:
'I can assure you,' said I, 'that it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me.' And I stood up before the fire with my glass in my hand.
The idea is that this narrator will visit an allegedly haunted room in an effort to disgrace the rumours, something he does of his own free will, as another person in the room confirms for him several times:
'It is your own choosing,' said the man with the withered arm, and glanced at me askance.
In keeping with the broader traditions of the short story form, we as readers are plunged into a setting with little expository information: we are meant to paint a swift picture of what is happening from the sketchy details given, the kind of ‘connect the dots’ approach used by practitioners of this form of fiction out of necessity - they have to get on with the story and cannot spend time or words laying things out as they might in a longer tale. But, as anyone who has read the book How Stories Really Work will know, the same principles apply to this form of story-telling as apply to all forms of fiction: unless certain essential mechanisms are put into practice within the early stages of a story, the reader will ‘bounce off’ or only read on if they have been forced to invest attention in the thing. ‘The Red Room’ is often used as material for schools, and so has probably fallen into the category of ‘requiring forced attention’ at times, but the truth is that Wells is quick to utilise what he knows of story-telling to capture our interest in this opening exchange and throughout, as we shall see.
Four questions are at work in any successful story, and the story is successful to the degree that these questions are used effectively: the first is ‘What happens next?’ which gives the tale an inertia, carrying the reader forward; the second is ‘What is really going on?’ which sticks readers to the page; the third is ‘What is the right thing to do here?’ which adds meaning and depth to a tale, and the fourth is ‘What is this story really all about?’ which opens the door to the story’s intention and place in the world of fiction. All stories use the first to some extent in order to be stories at all; it is the second question which is used most frequently in stories of the horror genre.
Prior to the narrator even reaching the Red Room itself, Wells begins planting two kinds of seed which create mystery in the mind of the reader. The first is to do with the internal dynamics of the story: he has to deftly set the scene so that we understand enough about the Red Room to wonder about it. This he does with the dialogue between himself and the older people who are his welcomers, in which it is made plain that there is a difference opinion about ghosts between the youthful narrator and the more experienced and wizened generation he is talking with:
'Eight-and-twenty years,' said I, 'I have lived, and never a ghost have I seen as yet.'
The old woman sat staring hard into the fire, her pale eyes wide open. 'Ay,' she broke in; 'and eight-and-twenty years you have lived and never seen the likes of this house, I reckon. There’s a many things to see, when one’s still but eight-and-twenty.' She swayed her head slowly from side to side. 'A many things to see and sorrow for.'
But the second seed Wells is planting is much more subtle and can only be observed with any accuracy by stepping outside the story to some degree. Before we have reached the fifth paragraph, we have been shrewdly assaulted by Wells choice of language: words like ‘tangible, ‘ghost’ (repeated already), ‘withered’ and ‘askance’, as well as ‘pale’ and ‘sorrow’. So apart from what is being said, the word-choice means that images are being summoned to mind which create a dark mood, enhanced of course by the firelight. This technique continues in the following paragraph - note the words ‘spiritual’, ‘terrors’, droning’, ‘empty’, and the narrator’s glimpse of an unnatural view of himself in the ‘queer old mirror’ (a foreshadowing in physical terms of what is going to happen to him mentally later):
I half suspected the old people were trying to enhance the spiritual terrors of their house by their droning insistence. I put down my empty glass on the table and looked about the room, and caught a glimpse of myself, abbreviated and broadened to an impossible sturdiness, in the queer old mirror at the end of the room. 'Well,' I said, 'if I see anything to-night, I shall be so much the wiser. For I come to the business with an open mind.'
The point is that a lesser author would have used plainer language; nor would an unaccomplished author have had the repetition of the earlier line, ’”It’s your own choosing,”' said the man with the withered arm’ to echo the moral question ‘What is the right thing to do?’ - it is made clear that the narrator is doing this from his own free will, foolishly or not.
Again, a lesser author might have then plunged us immediately into the haunted room, but Wells spends a little more time creating a mood:
I heard the faint sound of a stick and a shambling step on the flags in the passage outside. The door creaked on its hinges as a second old man entered, more bent, more wrinkled, more aged even than the first. He supported himself by the help of a crutch, his eyes were covered by a shade, and his lower lip, half averted, hung pale and pink from his decaying yellow teeth. He made straight for an armchair on the opposite side of the table, sat down clumsily, and began to cough.
Word use again: ‘faint’, ‘shambling’, ‘creaked’, ‘bent’, ‘wrinkled’, ‘aged’, along with sentences designed to convey decrepitude: ’his lower lip, half averted, hung pale and pink from his decaying yellow teeth’. The relations between these people, Wells points out, is not congenial:
The man with the withered hand gave the newcomer a short glance of positive dislike; the old woman took no notice of his arrival, but remained with her eyes fixed steadily on the fire.
And then again we are reminded of the moral choice that the narrator is making:
’I said--it’s your own choosing,' said the man with the withered hand, when the coughing had ceased for a while.
'It’s my own choosing,' I answered.
All of this is intended to unsettle us as readers, in line with the genre of horror - but why does Wells make such a point of clarifying for the reader that the narrator is entering the Red Room self-determinedly? For two reasons: firstly, questions of moral choices engage readers in deeper levels: we wonder, in following the narrator, whether we would do the same as he, and we ponder the wisdom of his choices. Secondly, they amplify the mystery that is being investigated: why is there such a fuss about going into this room? There must be something of substance there for the ‘man with the withered arm’ to repeat his point, we think.
Wells keeps on punctuating the tale with grim images - ‘A monstrous shadow of him crouched upon the wall, and mocked his action as he poured and drank ‘- and with a vocabulary cloaked in gloom: ‘inhuman’, ‘crouching’, ‘atavistic’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘gaunt’, ‘bent’, all of which adds up to the narrator explicitly acknowledging them as indicators of what is to come: ‘I resolved to get away from their vague fore-shadowings of the evil things upstairs.’
When the narrator ask to be taken to the room at last, Wells continues with his imagery adding interrupted dialogue to further heighten tension:
The old woman stared like a dead body, glaring into the fire with lack-lustre eyes.
'If,' I said, a little louder, 'if you will show me to this haunted room of yours, I will relieve you from the task of entertaining me.'
'There’s a candle on the slab outside the door,' said the man with the withered hand, looking at my feet as he addressed me. 'But if you go to the Red Room to-night--'
'This night of all nights!' said the old woman, softly.
'--You go alone.'
In being given directions to the Red Room we see more evidence of Wells' story-telling expertise. The room is not simply through a nearby door, or even up a set of stairs, but is to be found after following a convoluted set of directions which the narrator has to clarify. Adding complexity like this adds suspense. What then follows is fairly standard gothic horror fare: the narrator goes ‘down the chilly, echoing passage’ pondering the custodians he has just met:
They seemed to belong to another age, an older age, an age when things spiritual were indeed to be feared, when common sense was uncommon, an age when omens and witches were credible, and ghosts beyond denying. Their very existence, thought I, is spectral; the cut of their clothing, fashions born in dead brains; the ornaments and conveniences in the room about them even are ghostly—the thoughts of vanished men, which still haunt rather than participate in the world of to-day.
These internal musings, designed to shift the reader into a fearful frame of mind, are reinforced by Wells’ description of the passages:
And the passage I was in, long and shadowy, with a film of moisture glistening on the wall, was as gaunt and cold as a thing that is dead and rigid. But with an effort I sent such thoughts to the right-about. The long, drafty subterranean passage was chilly and dusty, and my candle flared and made the shadows cower and quiver. The echoes rang up and down the spiral staircase, and a shadow came sweeping up after me, and another fled before me into the darkness overhead.
Having left the firelit warmth of the first room, our viewpoint is now focused on the subjective state of the narrator - what he relays to us as readers is partly what he imagines he sees or hears, rather than what is actually there:
I came to the wide landing and stopped there for a moment listening to a rustling that I fancied I heard creeping behind me, and then, satisfied of the absolute silence, pushed open the unwilling baize-covered door and stood in the silent corridor.
A bronze group stood upon the landing hidden from me by a corner of the wall; but its shadow fell with marvellous distinctness upon the white paneling, and gave me the impression of someone crouching to waylay me. The thing jumped upon my attention suddenly.
And a little later:
I moved my candle from side to side in order to see clearly the nature of the recess in which I stood, before opening the door. Here it was, thought I, that my predecessor was found, and the memory of that story gave me a sudden twinge of apprehension.
Entering the haunted room at last, the narrator muses over the stories that he has heard about it. We may not initially notice as readers that this is Wells consciously using the power of story-telling to enhance his own tale, for of course there are no earlier stories in truth, simply invented glimpses of imagined tales invented by Wells:
There were other and older stories that clung to the room, back to the half-incredible beginning of it all, the tale of a timid wife and the tragic end that came to her husband’s jest of frightening her.
He couples this with a description of his surroundings laden in the kind of vocabulary that we have already noted:
And looking round that huge shadowy room with its black window bays, its recesses and alcoves, its dusty brown-red hangings and dark gigantic furniture, one could well understand the legends that had sprouted in its black corners, its germinating darknesses.
‘Germinating darknesses’ is a particularly powerful instance of using words to impinge upon the reader’s consciousness, for that is precisely what Wells wants the darkness he is describing to do to us: to germinate fear. He lays on the gloom quite thickly:
My candle was a little tongue of light in the vastness of the chamber; its rays failed to pierce to the opposite end of the room, and left an ocean of dull red mystery and suggestion, sentinel shadows and watching darknesses beyond its island of light. And the stillness of desolation brooded over it all.
Wells’ narrator is not especially strong: we know virtually nothing about him and so have to simply go along with his subjective impressions while lacking in any understanding of a real internal motive. Contrast this with Dickens’ treatment of the also-nameless narrator in his ghost story ‘The Signalman’, in which the character is glimpsed in a few turns of phrase which have the effect of making us feel his experiences more sharply. Here, we are supposed to merely share the narrator’s emotions without that comprehension of his character: ‘I must confess some impalpable quality of that ancient room disturbed me. I tried to fight the feeling down.’
He makes a ‘systematic examination’ of the room but this only does him ‘a little good’:
I still found the remoter darkness of the place and its perfect stillness too stimulating for the imagination. The echoing of the stir and crackling of the fire was no sort of comfort to me. The shadow in the alcove at the end of the room began to display that undefinable quality of a presence, that odd suggestion of a lurking living thing that comes so easily in silence and solitude.
Because we have no real grasp of his inner motivations other than a bland scientific curiosity, his ‘considerable nervous tension’ requires an investment of belief from us as readers, but this is to some degree compensated for by Wells continuing use of a shadow-laden vocabulary. As he adorns the room with candlelight, though, and then as the candles progressively go out, our expectation based on the legacy of the genre of ghost stories, is that he will encounter something terrifyingly real in some way, but the closest we get is a subjective impression:
As I stood undecided, an invisible hand seemed to sweep out the two candles on the table.
All that happens in the end is that, in a self-induced panic, the narrator manages to knock himself unconscious. With daylight, everything changes: he recovers in the care of the elderly folk he met earlier and even they seem different:
The three of them in the daylight seemed commonplace old folk enough. The man with the green shade had his head bent as one who sleeps.
But this denouement is somewhat disappointing. Wells’ conclusion - that there is nothing to fear but fear itself - dispels the now-seemingly comic rumours and superstitious suppositions of the old people and almost acts against the enchantment of the story, stripping away the very spell with which Wells has wound us: