The Victorian Era was ostensibly one of confidence: confidence in queen and country, in God and duty, in science and virtue. But beneath the solid wainscoting crawled many rats. Wells, whose speculative fiction almost always had a social conscience hammering industriously behind the scenes, knew that the ghost story – a naturally subversive genre – had the potential to expose the vulnerability of British social and philosophical vulnerability, and in “The Red Room,” he does so with chilling skill.
This story – perhaps his most famous foray into the ghostly – is not explicitly horrifying, but it is terrifying, if somewhat understated. The ghosts that lurk in our nightmares are not rattling chains or wrapped in billowing shrouds; they are chaos, meaninglessness, and the futility of human aspirations. We begin with a story that rejects the very foundations of Victorian society, which saw itself as a bringer of light to a world in darkness. Wells doubts the ability of that light to keep the beast at bay.
This is unquestionably Wells’ most famous horror story, though be careful not to expect a hideous terror – the fear is more psychological than supernatural.
Lovecraft adored the story, and you can see its influence in many of his tales such as “The Unnamable.” A determined skeptic has agreed to spend the night in a haunted room, despite the warnings of the elderly housekeepers. He begins quite decently, but when candles begin snuffing at an alarming rate, he feels the noose tighten. He begins by spending the night huddled around the great hall fire with a cluster of ghostly care-takers – aged men and women who seem closer to the realm of the Beyond than the world of the living – who relate some of the famous incidents where the house’s infamous room claimed the lives or sanity of those sleeping there.
Unphased and unimpressed, he mounts the stairs, walks down the hall, and takes his place in the “Red Room” – a dark, drafty Jacobean bedchamber with crimson wallpaper and drapery standing out from the dark paneling and heavy furniture. Easing into the room, he watches the fire snap and waits for sleep to overtake him. But suddenly one of the many candles he has placed around the room is snuffed. He assumes it to be a draft, but can’t identify its location. Relighting it, he is surprised when another candle snuffs – while those around it remain untouched. Turning back to it, he is shocked to see the lights spontaneously extinguish from different sides of the room. Racing back and forth to keep the darkness at bay and fight against the encroaching void, he is overwhelmed by terror. He is too slow: the candles snuff one after another; the fire is smothered in darkness; the light is violently sucked from the room.
Finally, the shadows overtake the entire room, and his hands are too shaky to strike the matches. Overwhelmed with awe, he rushes for the door, charges into the hallway, and plunges into unconsciousness… The next morning he wakes up with a bandaged head, surrounded by the somber caretakers. Most of them gleefully probe him for a description of the ghost, but he must confess that he saw nothing – he was only aware of a suffocating, psychological presence of insidious oblivion. He claims that the ghost is not an old earl, a woman in white, or a former resident, but the elemental spirit of Fear itself. The oldest caretaker, who hadn’t bothered to question him, nods confidently at his report:
“I knew that was it. A power of darkness… It lurks there always. You can feel it even in the daytime, even of a bright summer’s day, in the hangings, in the curtains, keeping behind you however you face about. In the dusk it creeps along the corridor and follows you, so that you dare not turn. There is Fear in that room of hers — black Fear, and there will be — so long as this house of sin endures.”
The story really delves into fear of the dark – which more poignantly dips into the fear of the unknown, hence the subtitle “The Ghost of Fear.” The Victorian era was one of confidence, certainty, and resolution, and this ingenuous story is a systematic deconstruction of that cultural hubris. The horror is not conventional, but cosmic, not predictable, but indescribable – a portrait of generic terror that reaches into the soul of fear: loss of control.
“The Red Room” is a study in terror. Horror is the nauseating sense of repulsion and fear caused by a gruesome sight; terror is the grueling anxiety caused by anticipation of horror. Terror, Wells implies, is the heart of fear. It is not the graphic revelation, but the blind vulnerability that promotes our deepest human insecurities. When the narrator is interrogated by the pensioners after his recovery, he disappoints their thirst for a tangible, measurable horror (the old earl, the young countess…) and subsequently subverts the expectations of Victorian readers who were used to melodrama.
Instead, and far more existentially disturbing, the answer is terror: naked, indefinable, boundless, shapeless chaos – animal vulnerability in its most potent manifestations. Even in “the daytime, even of a bright summer’s day,” the old man observes – even when we are secure and comforted by denial – we “can feel it”: the heavy weight of naked terror – of death and insecurity, of the purposelessness of human existence in an illimitable and hostile cosmos – stalks our hearts. The “Red Room” in question is the universe that mankind inhabits, a universe that – in spite of all of our science and learning, and in spite of all our self-discipline and intellectual pride – reviles our intrusion and strikes back at our ambitions.
The conclusion of Wells’ story, in which he finds companionship and solace in the company of the primeval geriatrics – relics of a time of folklore and superstition – suggest the cynical cosmicism that H. P. Lovecraft would later hone: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”