The ‘Red Room’ was written by HG Wells in 1896. The Red Room, though features the common attributes of a horror story, such as the intent to unnerve the audience and the use of suspense, is considered a piece of gothic literature. The reason for bearing this classification lies within Wells choice to use a castle of gothic architecture and playing with the idea of supernatural existence. In this essay I aim to examine how H. G Wells builds atmosphere and how he changes the young man’s attitude from confidence and assurance to panic and hysteria as the short-story progresses. Straight away, the title ‘The Red Room’ looms.
I feel that in the title, the most suggestive word is the adjective ‘red’. Red is a colour associated with things such as passion and blood. This therefore establishes a sinister tone for the story because of the implications within the title. Wells cleverly opens the text mid-scene with the words ‘”I can assure you,” said I, “that it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me. “‘ Opening the text mid-scene works well to quickly draw the reader into the writing, which is crucial for an opening within a text. Wells has also established numerous things within the opening sentence.
He shows straight away that the story concerns ghosts as the man comments on a ‘ghost’. This sets the tone for the reader immediately and also sparks interest. The opening line shows that the story is written in the first person. I can see this from the narrator putting ‘said I’ at the end of a speech. The use of first person in a ghost story means that the rest of the story shall be seen from their perspective. This will mean that the reader shall only be informed what the protagonist sees, not therefore allowing a balanced opinion of a third person observer but the emotion and view of the first person.
Lastly, this opening sentence shows that the narrator is very confident. This is implied when the man say’s ‘I can assure you’. This confidence is implied through, ‘it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me,’ that he either is not scared of ghosts or that he does not believe he will see one. The latter is confirmed later in the text when he says that, ‘”eight and twenty year” said I, “I have lived and never have I seen as yet. “‘ Wells builds up tension in this first section through the description of characters the man encounters and also his interaction between them.
The reader finds that the three ‘old’ people believe in ghosts within the building. We can see this from when the man tells them “‘eight and twenty years’ said I ‘I have lived, and never a ghost have I seen as yet. ‘” The old woman replies “‘and eight and twenty years you have lived, and never have you seen the likes of this house. ‘” What she means is that it doesn’t matter how long one has lived, until they have been in this building, they can never rule out the possibility of ghosts. The woman whilst saying this is described to be ‘staring hard into the fire’.
Light is a reoccurring theme and a symbol of comfort and security. The woman may have been staring into the fire seeking comfort. The reader would then ask questions such as why does the woman need to seek comfort? What is it she is afraid of? The obvious conclusion for the audience would be to draw a connection between her staring into the fire, and the dialogue concerning ghosts which follows this description, and therefore believe that she is honestly scared of ghosts. If the reader feels that the characters are honestly convinced that ghosts exist within the house, tension is built.
Wells realises this so uses other techniques such as repetition to build up this genuine fear of a ghost. Repetition is used as the man ‘with the withered arm’ repeats on three occasions ‘it is your own choosing’. This implies that he wants to wash his hands of the matter. The audience gathers from this that the man with the withered arm seems to think if he goes to the room that night, something will surely happen to him. Once again, the reader becomes convinced from this fear that there is something to be scared of.
The audience has to ask more questions, when they find that one of the three old people has a ‘withered arm’. Why is the arm withered? Does this have anything to do with the ghost? The last character to be introduced is also deformed somewhat as he is described to have ‘yellow teeth’ and be ‘wrinkled’. Though these may just be characteristics of an elderly person, the audience, having already been told of the two other strange people, may not believe that it is a coincidence that they are all strange in appearance. This mysterious atmosphere brought upon the reader is continued as Wells describes the room.
The first person believes himself to have ‘abbreviated and broadened to an impossible sturdiness’ in the ‘queer old mirror’. It could be that the old people have unnerved him slightly. The mirror is described as ‘queer’. This means that he feels it is strange. Imperfections in the house as well as in the old people continue to build tension. Wells continues describing imperfections in the house to create suspense and make the reader ask more and more questions. He uses onomatopoeia when he describes that the ‘door creaked on its hinges’.
The word ‘creaked’ as the imperative creates a dramatic focus on the word, making the reader think of it’s meaning or purpose. The fact that the door creaked implies that it has been given a lack of attention. Could the rest of the house be deformed in such a way? The creak also creates a haunted atmosphere Wells however, in this section, shows the man still to be confident and reassured. He shows this on numerous occasions. This is the case when the first person describes the old people as talking with ‘droning insistence’. The word ‘droning’ makes us feel that someone is talking slowly, with a low dreary pitch.
This gives the reader the feeling that he is bored with the old people. I also get the feeling he is still relaxed with he prospect of going to the red room as he explains ‘I put down my empty glass on the table’ this shows that he is feeling casual and unaffected by the old people as he shows no signs of being nervous. This said, as the opening section progresses the confident man for the first time notices shadows. Wells describes the shadow as ‘monstrous’ and personifies the shadow as it ‘mocked’ the old man’s actions. The word monstrous implies that it is scary.
The fact that Wells personified the shadow makes the audience feel like it is a living presence, such as a ghost. This idea that shadows or, the absence of light, is what creates fear and therefore represents the ghost is developed by Wells through the text. Just before the man goes up to the red room, Wells reinforces many of the ideas in the opening section. For example, he still shows the man to be confident. This is shown when he said he would make himself ‘comfortable’ in the red room. This shows his disbelief of ghosts, as if he did believe there was one; he would not think that he would be comfortable.
This comment is ironucl for later in the story. Wells also reinforces the idea that the old people are genuinely scared of him going to the room. This is shown when the old man ‘jerks’ his head when hearing the young man ask to be shown to the room. The word ‘jerk’ implies that he is astonished and surprised that he really wants to go up to the room, further creating tension for the reader. When the confident man leaves the presence of the old people in search of the room, he walks upon a ‘chilly, echoing passage’.
The writer makes it clear to the reader from this that he his truly on his own, as there would be no sounds but the one’s made by the man. It is now, that the audience starts to feel the man’s confidence has been brushed. He admits that the old people and the castle have ‘affected’ him. He even begins to describe the furnishings as ‘ghostly’. The man starts to notice the ‘shadows cower’ and a ‘shadow sweeping after me’. The audience feels once again that there is a presence other than him from this personification. As it is in first person, the reader also gets the feeling that he himself may also feel a presence in the hall.
More and more the man notices shadows: ‘its shadow fell with marvellous distinction upon the white panelling, and gave me the impression of someone crouching to waylay me’, ‘shadowy corner’. The writer eventually shows the man to put his ‘hand in the pocket’ and hold his ‘revolver’. This shows that he is seeking comfort from his revolver. We can draw similarities here to the woman who stared into the fire to seek comfort. This section draws the reader to the conclusion that the man is no longer full of confidence. Wells makes this clear when he says that the man had a ‘sudden twinge of apprehension’.
The word ‘apprehension’ meaning the excitement and fear one gets before an event, implies the man no longer dismisses that there is nothing in the room. We can see further that the protagonist begins to expect something to happen because he says ‘I advanced, only to discover a Ganymede and Eagle glistening’. The fact he used the word ‘only’ implies that he felt there would be something there. This gives the audience the impression that something may be lurking around ever corner, bringing tensions as the audience is constantly vigil.
Wells reveals that the first person now acknowledges what the old people said. We can see this as he outlines the way the young duke had died in that room and then he describes this room as ‘sombre’ or sad. This shows he is thinking of the prince while in the room as he is connecting the tale with how he feels about the room. Wells further shows this by connecting the main characters own attempt to uncover the mystery of the red room and the Duke’s. We can therefore see that the man is now wary of his surroundings.
This can be seen from his detailed descriptions of the place around him such as him describing a ‘porcelain Chinaman on a Buhl table’. This sort of description implies he is keeping a lookout. The other things I have mentioned show the man is now wary of ghosts. At the beginning of the story however, he was depicted to be a confident man whom was bored by the ‘droning’ old people. This certainty shows that the things he has seen and the story of the duke has had an impression on him. The man, on entering the room even reveals to the audience that he could ‘well understand the legends that had sprouted’.
If we remember back however to the beginning of the story, in contrast to his current feelings, he did not understand, in fact he replied to the man repeating ‘it’s your own choosing’ on his final warning that ‘”It’s my own choosing”‘. This shows that the rooms are somewhat disturbing him. It seems again, the darkness of the red room is disturbing him as he notices the ‘candle was a little tongue of light’. This shows that he feels that the light is nothing in quantity compared to the dark. He even uses the metaphor ‘germinating darkness’. ‘Germinating’ implies that it is growing.
Though this is not possible, it shows that the man is increasingly aware of the darkness. Perhaps in the quote, Wells plays on the idea of darkness representing fear, therefore the man’s fear is actually growing, not the darkness. The reader at this point, having viewed the entire story from his perspective, would share in his fear. The fear drives the man to do strange things. This is seen as he describes himself pulling up an armchair which he said was like setting up a ‘barricade’. A ‘barricade’ is usually used in war. This shows that the first person is becoming so fearful he is sub-consciously preparing for a skirmish.
He becomes ever more wary of the possibility of a ghost as he mentions frequently not only the shadows of the room ‘shifting’ and ‘stirring’ (these are words which could be used to describe ghosts) but he also begins to think of actual ‘ghosts’. He explains that he tries to reassure himself of the ‘impossibility of ghosts’ and the ‘legend of the place’. This shows he is becoming paranoid of ghosts and the legend. His behaviour becomes more extreme as his belief in the ghosts does. He tries to rid the room of darkness, and so goes to get candles from the hall and ‘returned with as many as ten’.
This bizarre behaviour created by the writer builds up the reader to thinking: why is the character so intense that he needs to resolve to such behaviour? This is exactly what the woman was doing at the very beginning of the story: using the light of the fire as security. It could be argued the man would no longer feel the woman’s actions to be strange, but understandable. H. G Wells begins to build up to the climax when the first candle goes out. The first candle to go out was in the alcove: this would have confirmed to the audience and to the man that there was a ghost.
The reason for this being that there are references throughout the story of the darkness in the alcove of the red room. Wells confirms the reader’s suspicions. ‘I simply turned and saw that the darkness was there, as one might start and see the unexpected presence of a stranger’. The word ‘presence’ and ‘stranger’ shows that the man is thinking that there is a presence in the room. As another candle goes out, he describes it as a ‘companion’ of another candle which went out. This personification implies more than one ghost. The man becomes ever more scared as the candles all begin to go out.
This is seen as Wells describes him as talking ‘half-hysterical’. This shows he is no longer in control of himself. This is confirmed as the writer describes that his hands ‘trembled’ as trembling is an uncontrollable shake. The tremble also shows the level of fear as people tremble when they are scared. This builds up the tension as by this point, ghosts feel a certainty, and the reader is asking what will happen next. The man gets more and more ‘frantic’. He reveals that at that point, fear had overtaken him when he admits ‘self-possession deserted me’.
The reader would be wondering how he would cope without his control of himself at this point, building tension. The relaxed confident man originally seen has now left. Wells depicts him to be in a state of madness and that he is out of control. He explains that the man ‘sent a chair headlong’ ‘stumbled’. His madness is climaxed when he says ‘crushed the last vestige of reason’. This means he no longer had any reasoning with the “ghosts” anymore. The vestige of reason he lost must have made him lose memory also as he no longer recollects his exact movements.
He outlines ‘vague movements’ of what happened. These all involved him moving and then hurting himself. We can see an example of this when he said ‘I had forgotten the exact position of the door, and struck heavily against the corner of the bead’. The tension is increased further as Wells omits detailed description which up to this point, the story had been plentiful. The omission of description quickens the pace in which it is read, making the reader even tenser and wondering what will happen next. The only description seems to be of the man’s madness. These include ‘frantic’ ‘wild’ and ‘crying’.
Just when the audience feels that the man could go to the same ending the legend describes, as the tension is brought to a peak climax, Wells brings the story to a dramatic climax. He establishes that the man could ‘remember no more’ and then brings the story to his sick bed. The old people, having found him in a bad state, assume he would conclude the ghosts are real. The man however surmises that men fear nakedness – ‘fear that will not have light nor sound that will not bear reason’. This means that human’s imaginations may jump to conclusions when they fear.
Wells has used techniques of all descriptions: metaphors, similes, sentence structure and personification. All of which have proved successful to build up tension. Wells especially has created a sense of mystery, constantly making the reader ask themselves questions. I enjoyed the way he used short sentence structure to build up to the climax, making me read quicker and become even more enthralled with the story. I believe that Wells has successfully captivated the reader and built up tension through these techniques. He has also been successful in subtly and believably changing the protagonist from being confident and then reduced to panic.