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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