English author H.G. (that’s Herbert George) Wells is often called "the father of science fiction" (a title he shares with Jules Verne). As you'll soon see, there's a good reason for giving Wells this lofty title. Martian invasions of planet earth? That would be Wells’s idea – you might have seen it played out on the big screen in The War of the Worlds (based on Wells’s book of the same name). Time machines that travel back into the past or far into the future? Also Wells’s idea, which he put to fabulous use in The Time Machine. And besides those two books, Wells wrote several other often-imitated classics of sci-fi, including The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invisible Man, just to name a few. You might have heard of his numerous lesser-known novels and short stories as well.
In "The Red Room," an 1894 short story that ranks among his most popular, Wells took a break from sci-fi to foray into a genre already very popular in his day: the Gothic horror story. As he often did, Wells came up with a premise that influenced many later works of fiction, pulp fiction, and pop culture: a guy decides to spend the night in a haunted room to prove it’s not haunted. All of the staples and stereotypes of the genre are here. We have an abandoned mansion with a tragic history, creepy people uttering dire warnings, a big, dark, and foreboding room lit by candlelight that casts lifelike shadows, and even some literal "bumps in the night." If you want a scary story to tell in the dark, with all the Gothic bells and whistles, "The Red Room" would be a good pick.
But this isn’t your average piece of vintage Victorian horror. Though Wells uses the trappings of a ghost story, "The Red Room" is much less about ghosts than about human psychology. Wells himself had a pronounced skepticism about anything "supernatural." In many ways, he was like the narrator of this story. He’s not the type of guy to take any Gothic ghost stories seriously, and to some extent, you might even read "The Red Room" as a demolition job on the genre (or perhaps a satire). Wells does take one thing very seriously in the story, though: the great power of fear to overwhelm human reason and self-control, no matter how resolute it might be. As the story’s famous ending suggests, fear can haunt the human soul without the aid of any ghost.
"The Red Room" is about something we’ve all experienced: fear. Particularly, that nasty kind you can’t get rid of even when you know there’s supposedly nothing to fear. Perhaps you were once terrified of a monster under your bed. Maybe you were afraid of the dark, or still are. (Heck, the narrator of this story certainly is afraid of the dark and he's 28.) Maybe you’ve actually been dared to spend a night in a "haunted" room or an abandoned farmhouse before and were horribly spooked. Or perhaps more ordinary: that upcoming violin recital you’re dreading weeks in advance.
The point is we almost all have "irrational" fears, which still scare the pants off us. And that puts us in the shoes of this story’s narrator. He decides to spend the night in the haunted red room, because he knows there are no ghosts and wants to prove his point. In other words, he’s in a situation where his good-sense and his clear-headed reason tell him there’s nothing to fear. He believes he can confidently master any irrational fear he might feel. It turns out that he’s in for a surprise.
Is there really anything to be afraid of there in the red room? You should read the story and answer that for yourself. But what author H.G. Wells really wants to get us thinking about is what it means to be afraid. He reminds us that fear itself can be extremely dangerous. It won’t vanish in the face of reasoning or willpower, as we would like it to. Instead, it can make us lose control of ourselves, even hurt ourselves, and that’s legitimately scary. Which is why, as the story would have it, fear is not all that unlike a ghost, always threatening to overwhelm human beings’ rationality and crush their best-laid plans.
Anyway, that’s the serious side. For those of you who like a classic horror story and have read your Edgar Allan Poe cover to cover, it’s worth checking out "The Red Room." You've all the classic components of that genre right here, but with a twist. And it’ just plain fun, like any good spine-tingler.
"The Red Room"
A good online edition of the story.
H.G. Wells on BBC
A great Wells page about his origins.
Wells on Project Gutenberg
All of Wells’s works available for download on Project Gutenberg.
The Red Room Audiobook
Hear the story read aloud, and nicely, by Simon Teolis.
H.G. Wells meets Orson Welles
A great old radio clip with a meeting of the two great Wells. Hear H.G. Wells’ voice!
A classic photo of the author.
H.G. Wells in 1932
Another great Wells shot.