Mood was Blackwood’s primary medium. He was a master of the slow-developing atmosphere which blooms in front of us like a black and white photo negative gradually warming to sepia, then glowing in glorious color. His writing – the best of it, at any rate – does not rely on horror. Rather, it finds its stride in building terror and psychological unease in the readers’ minds. Mood pervades his masterpieces, and while he augments them with touches of the macabre, his greatest strength lies in his ability to reproduce the emotions that he inscribes in the imaginations of his readership.
“The Occupant of the Room” revisits a motif used in several of his most famous ghost stories, like “The Listener” and “A Case of Eavesdropping”: the psychological panic and paranoia caused by a perceived, otherly presence. Voyeurism is rampant in Blackwood – his greatest works achieve their power through the sense of covert observation that they generate – and “Occupant of the Room” is no different. It produces a pulsating sense of antagonistic depression and possession that increases in rhythm, crescendoing as if in slow motion as the horror is exposed.
Late a night, an English schoolmaster arrives at a remote Swiss village where he is excited to start a much needed holiday in the Alps. Exhausted from travel by delighted at the prospect of peace and quiet, but is startled to hear that the inn is completely booked. Even the couches are occupied. The porter tries to direct him to alternative lodgings in different towns, and the schoolmaster is sent out into the cold to try his options.
However, not long after, he is intercepted by the breathless porter: there is a room, after all, although it is “in a sense ‘engaged’” but not presently in use. The schoolmaster refuses to dig into the details and hastily agrees. The nervous porter accompanies him up, and in broken English suggests that the room is available only because of some kind of recent tragedy.
The schoolmaster is not surprised to hear this: the Alps are desolate and savage, and clouded with a “dark terror” that is impossible to miss. The prospect that a guest may have come upon an accident is not surprising. The porter explains that the original occupant was – or is – an Engliswoman, an experienced mountaineer, who had been missing for two days after leaving on a dangerous hike by herself. The woman – not unlike the schoolmaster – was “self-willed, careless of advice, [and] bored by warnings… she kept entirely to herself.” Indeed, she was known to stay alone in her room for days at a time, never having company, and was considered a loner and a bit of a “crank.”
At this moment, the search party which had gone out to find her was due to return, but – at the risk of being evicted at a moment’s notice – the schoolmaster is happy to take her spot until she is rescued.
Left alone, he begins to unpack, and is surprised to find himself very uncomfortable with the feeling of trespassing in another person’s private quarters. He kept finding himself peering into the corners – certain that he was being watched – or eyeing the door, afraid that at any moment this intense, stalwart woman stomping through the door and staring at him in rage: “What are you doing in my room?!”
However, this was unlikely: he shivered, as he settled into her warm bed, at the thought that her body was probably “broken and cold upon those awful heights, the wind of snow playing over her hair, her glazed eyes staring sightless up to the stars… It made him shudder. The sense of this woman whom he had never seen, whose name even he did not know, became extraordinarily real. Almost he could imagine that she was somewhere in the room with him, hidden, observing all he did.”
In spite of his earlier sangfroid, he now found that the room was repulsing him: everything from the faint smell of perfume coming from one of her bottles on the table, to a massive, ugly wardrobe which he knew to be filled with her limp, hanging clothes. He had tossed his raincoat over it, hoping to shield it from his view.
Sleep, however, proved impossible, and he noticed that his hands were shaking as his imagination continued to run roughshod over him. He tries counting all the object in the room (declaring, perhaps hopefully, “that’s all the room contains! I’ve counted every single thing”), but still finds sleep elusive.
Now a new feeling began to steal over him, replacing the fear: a paralyzing, numbing “spiritual inertia.” It was a “sudden consciousness of the foolishness, the crass futility of life, of effort, of fighting – of all that makes life worth living, oozed into every fibre of his being, and left him utterly weak.
A spirit of black pessimism, that was not even vigorous enough to assert itself, invaded the secret chambers of his heart. . .” He begins to ponder the pointlessness of his career, his hobbies, even this vacation. Depression hung over him in heavy clouds, and he became stunned with the idiocy of all human hopes and aspirations. They all seemed like childish toys – decoys for “the only real thing”: death. “The happiest people,” he thought, “were those who found it soonest. Then why wait for it?”
These intrusive thoughts terrified him, for they were entirely unlike him, almost as if they belonged to another mind. He bounded out of bed and turned on the light. His eyes were immediately drawn to the cupboard. Convinced now, in his heart, that the woman is unquestionably dead – “frost on her cheeks … her broken limbs pushing against the lumps of ice” – he was overwhelmed by a need to force open the wardrobe and lay eyes on the dead woman’s clothes.
His depression evaporated at this thought, and he flew towards the bureau – only to be once again hit by a wave of despair and terror. Still resolved to see, he reached toward the handle, but knocked before he did anything else, though he wasn’t sure why (“It was an instinctive movement, probably. Something in his deepest self dictated it – ordered it”). The sound fills him with horror: he feels her presence near him, and half expects something to knock back. He tries the door, but it is locked, and after a search, the key is not to be found.
Suddenly, he finds himself unconsciously ringing for a servant and backing away from the wardrobe, directed, he believed, by “an internal voice.” A young maid comes, but he sends her away and requests that a man come instead. The porter appears with a skeleton key and servants crowd around the door, uneasy about the implications. Indeed, when the porter inserts the key, they all catch their breath when the missing key is heard falling to the floor – from where it had been left inside the wardrobe.
The door swings open and the maid – who refused to leave – faints with a shriek at the sight of the dead woman rotating from the rod where she had hanged herself two days ago. Pinned to the door was a suicide note:
“Tired – unhappy – hopelessly depressed... I cannot face life any longer... All is black. I must put an end to it.... I meant to do it on the mountains, but was afraid. I slipped back to my room unobserved. This way is easiest and best... .”
(NOTE: Before we continue, I want to be sure not to make light of the tragic nature of this story. Blackwood -- a lifelong sufferer of depression -- was correct in depicting the insidiousness of suicidal feelings: how in a moment it can transport a person full of hope and happiness to a sudden cliff's edge where death seems to be the only remedy and all the joys and passions of life are inexplicably eclipsed. My family has been touched by this tragedy, and I myself have wrestled with it from time to time. If you are experiencing these feelings, please know that you are not alone and that your life is precious and worthwhile. For U.S. residents, please consider contacting the 988 Lifeline if you are having emotional distress or thoughts of hurting yourself. You can also contact the 988 Lifeline if you are worried about a loved one who may need crisis support.)
Depression stalks Blackwood’s entire oeuvre. “The Man Who Found Out” and “The Listener” are perhaps the most famous instances of this, but “The Occupant of the Room” delves deeply into a snapshot examination of the fragile nature of human contentment. Without any specific reason, the protagonist finds himself smothered by psychic despair that borders on a revulsion of life. Like a poisonous gas, the horror in the cupboard silently infects those in its vicinity, transforming a happy, rollicking school teacher into a self-doubting misanthrope in a matter of hours.
Perhaps the true terror of this story lies in the success of the schoolteacher’s transformation. The infectious mood drains color from his life and lures him repeatedly towards the cupboard and its gruesome secret. It is important to note that he no longer attempts to hide it with his coat or to avoid its potent gaze: by the conclusion of the tale, he is earnestly rapping on its surface and trying keys in the lock. Although he has been alerted to the noxious energies billowing from its depths, he has succumbed to its hideous truths, and seeks to acquaint himself with and join whatever lurks within.
As an aside, this tale pairs brilliantly with E. F. Benson’s splendid piece “The Other Bed,” (an unsettling tale of suicide in an alpine hotel which is a clever conglomeration of elements from “Occupant”) and M. R. James’ masterpiece, “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” another story about an unwanted roomate who gradually encroaches upon a hapless vacationer. All three stories are excellent studies in the psychology of loneliness.