The narrator begins the story by boldly announcing his disbelief in ghosts and his intention to stay in the haunted red room. His determination to prove that the red room isn't haunted sets up the story. The old custodians help create a sense of foreboding by repeatedly saying things like, "This night of all nights!" (16, 23) and "It’s of your own choosing!" (2, 6, 8, 26). The stage concludes when the narrator gets instructions to the red room, and sets off on his adventure.
No sooner is the narrator out of the housekeepers’ room than he begins to feel spooked in spite of himself. There’s the noise he thinks he hears on the staircase, and the episode with the Ganymede statue, which causes him to finger his revolver. He goes to the red room, and finds it dark. The narrator is unnerved by all the shadows, particularly in that nasty little alcove at one end of the room. He deals with the alcove by putting a candle in it, and then runs with the idea, filling the room with candles and seemingly settling into it. So far, so good.
The narrator’s outpost against the darkness is jeopardized when the candle in the alcove goes out after midnight. When the narrator goes to put it out, two more go out. Here begins a sharp upswing in the tension of the story. A real struggle ensues as the narrator tries to keep the candles lit in the face of some force that’s putting them out faster and faster. All the while, he’s growing more unhinged; things do not look good for his self-control. He stumbles and falls.
Once all the candles are out, the narrator’s last hope of keeping light in the room and calming his frayed nerves rests with the fire, which he approaches in desperation. But that "incontinent fire" is soon gone. And then "the last vestiges of reason" are "crushed" from his brain (45). The darkness has won, and the narrator fittingly screams wildly three time. There is nothing left to do but escape.
The narrator makes a run for the door, but stumbles all over the place. He gets "battered" (46). It’s not certain whether he’s just running into things or if something is actually battering him. Will he make it? Nope. He bumps his head, and goes out like a…light.
There’s a break in the story, because the narrator is unconscious. Everything resumes the next day. No more tension. The narrator is safe, out of the room, and being cared for by the old people (who look much better in the daylight). His memory’s gone, but it slowly recovers, and all is explained. The older people reveal the state he was in when they found him. The narrator reveals what it is that haunts the room: Fear!
The man with the shade gets the last word. He repeats what the narrator says, only more eloquently and with greater finality. What’s more, he undoubtedly does this in a deep and terrifying voice.