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We jump right into the story as the narrator assures someone that "it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten" him (1). He stands up (in front of a fire) to prove his point.
"The man with the withered arm," an older guy, is apparently one of the people our narrator is attempting to convince. The man tells the narrator that it’s his own choice.
The narrator responds that he’s twenty years old and never seen a ghost. (So we learn that he’s a skeptic.)
There’s also an old woman in the room, staring into the fire. She tells the narrator he’s "never seen the likes of this house" either (4), and that there’s still much in the world for him to see, especially given his young age. She sounds as if she’s seen some freaky things in her day.
The narrator assures them that he is approaching the evening with an "open mind" (5), and the man with the withered arm ominously warns him that it's his own choosing again.
Another elderly man comes in, more ominous looking than the first guy. He has yellow teeth, a crutch, and a cough. He also has a shade over his eyes, and so will be known from now on as "the man with the shade."
The man with the withered arm gives the man with the shade a nasty look as he sits down at a table.
The narrator has another exchange with the man with the withered arm and which leads the man with the shade (who hadn’t seen him) to notice his presence.
The man with the shade is coughing all over the place. The narrator is rather disgusted by all of these.
The narrator announces that he will happily make himself comfortable in "the haunted room" (12) if someone shows him to it. No one says anything, and the man with the shades just coughs some more.
The narrator repeats himself.
The man with the withered arm tells him there’s a candle sitting outside the door. But, he says, if the narrator wants to go to "the red room" tonight, he’s going to have to go alone.
The old woman even throws in a "This night of all nights!" (16, 23) to make this scene even more terrifying and dramatic.
The narrator has no problem with going alone, and asks for directions to the red room, which the man with the withered arm gives. The directions involve a spiral staircase and a long corridor, which, as we all know, are both extraordinarily creepy.
The old woman again exclaims, "This night of all nights!" and the man with the shade asks the narrator if he’s really going.
Yes, the narrator is really going, even "this night of all nights." It’s why he came here. He bids them good-bye and walks out the door, taking the candle.
The narrator walks to the spiral staircase, and goes up the stairs. All the while he’s thinking about how creepy and otherworldly the older people are. They freak him out, in spite of himself.
As the narrator ascends the spiral staircase, we learn that we’re in a castle, left behind by "her ladyship" (28).
The narrator enters the long corridor, lit by the moonlight. Everything’s just where it was left when it was deserted eighteen months before. Hmm…
Seeing what looks like a person up ahead in the dark, the narrator grips the revolver in his pocket. But the person turns out to be a statue.
Going up a short set of stairs at the end of the hallway, the narrator arrives at the door of the red room. He enters.
We get some more back-story: the narrator is in the Lorraine Castle, and a young duke recently died in the red room. He opened the door and fell down the steps. Apparently, the duke was trying to do what the narrator is doing now. Gulp.
That’s not the only frightening story about the room. There are older and creepier tales too.
We get some vague mention of a "timid wife" whose husband’s joke intended to spook her came to a "tragic end" (31).
That was how the red room supposedly got its reputation.
The red room is big, dark, and creepy. It has "shadowy window bays" and "black corners" with "germinating darkness" (31).
The narrator starts to walk around and check out the room with only his solitary candle to light the way.
As the narrator makes his "systematic examination" (i.e., walks around and checks out the room), he lights the various candles he finds in front of the room’s two big mirrors and on the mantelshelf. The fireplace has been prepared, so he lights that too.
The narrator sets up a chair and a table before the fireplace and surveys the room with his back to the fire.
It’s better lit now, but the "shadow in the alcove at the end of the room" (33) still makes him nervous. He has the uneasy feeling that there’s some "living, lurking thing" (33) in the alcove, so he walks over with his candle and leaves his candle there.
The narrator admits his nerves are on edge, but also assures us that he is clear-headed and aware that nothing supernatural is going to happen. Nonetheless, he says little rhymes to himself to get over his nerves. It doesn’t seem to work.
Even with seven candles set up, the shifting shadows of the room are still making the narrator nervous, so he goes out into the hallway and rounds up ten more candles. He then sets them up so that every part of the room is illuminated by at least one candle. He is reassured.
Sometime past midnight, the candle in the dark alcove of possibly "living, lurking things" goes out suddenly.
Surprised, the narrator gets up from the table where he’s been sitting and goes over to the candle to relight it with his matches.
As he does, the two candles on the fireplace are extinguished.
As the narrator goes to attend to them with his matches, the candles in front of one of the mirrors go out, "as if the wicks had been suddenly nipped between a finger and a thumb" (39).
The candle at the foot of the bed follows suit, as does another candle on the mantelshelf.
Getting a little hysterical and hand-shaky now (which interferes with his match lighting abilities), the narrator tries to relight the candles as others get extinguished.
It looks like he’s making gains when four more candles suddenly wink out on their own.
The two candles on the table go out as the narrator stands aghast. He cries out in terror.
Since those matches aren’t working so well, the narrator drops them and takes up a candlestick, so he can relight the candles without worrying about striking a match each time.
But the candles keep getting extinguished.
Running from one candle to another frantically, the narrator tries to resist the "remorseless advance" (43) of darkness. He becomes disheveled, starts panting, and loses his self-possession in the process.
The narrator bruises himself on the table, stumbles to the ground, and drops his candle. He picks up another, but it is blown out as well. The last two candles in the room are extinguished.
There’s still one last hope – the fire.
The narrator approaches the fireplace and thrusts his candle in the grill…but the flames vanish.
The room is completely dark, and the narrator has become irrational with fear.
He makes a run for the door, but slams into the corner of the bed, and then gets more and more battered in the darkness, crying wildly all the while.
A heavy blow on the narrator’s forehead knocks him out cold.
He falls, and then "remembers no more" (46).
The narrator awakens to find that it is day, and that his head is bandaged.
The man with the withered arm is watching him, and the old woman is pouring out some medicine for him. He tells them he can’t remember who they are.
The other two tell him of the red room. They’d found him at dawn, with blood on his forehead.
The narrator begins to recover his memory, and the man with the withered arm asks him if he now believes that the room is haunted.
Yes, the narrator does believe the room is haunted.
The man with the withered arm admits that he wants to know who haunts it, since none of them have ever dared to see for themselves.
The narrator says that neither the earl nor his countess – the suggestions of the man with the withered arm and the old woman – haunt the room. It isn't haunted by any ghost at all.
It is something "worse, far worse" (55).
What is it? Everyone wants to know.
Fear, says the narrator. Dramatic silence ensues.
The man with the shade then sighs and speaks up to say that he knew it. "There is Fear in that room of hers – black Fear, and there will be – so long as this house of sin endures" (60).