Study Guide

The Red Room Genre

By H.G. Wells


Gothic/Horror, Psychological Thriller

"The Red Room" has all the basics of a work of horror: a plot revolving around the supernatural, an atmosphere of looming threat, a terror-filled narrator (whose case of the creeps is supposed to carry over to the reader), sharp contrasts between feeble light and ever-present darkness (think the candle imagery: "its germinating darkness. My candle was a little tongue of light in its vastness…" [31]).

But that’s not all. The story seems almost deliberately designed to include some attributes of 19th century Gothic fiction. You might recognize some of these characteristics; Gothic works still abide in pop culture today. Here we have: an old, abandoned mansion said to be haunted; the tragic history which is only barely hinted at; those ominous, old custodians with fire-lit faces who say things like "This night of all nights!" (16, 23); long moonlit hallways with weird statues that cast suggestive shadows; candles that blow out at exactly the wrong moment; need we continue?

Where Wells goes beyond the genre is in the psychological aspect of his work. The struggle of the hero and the "powers of darkness" are turned inward; the story becomes a conflict between the narrator’s reason, and a terror that threatens to overwhelm his intellect. You might even say Wells turns the Gothic genre on its head. Although Gothic stories deal often enough with the psychology of fear, the focus is usually on what causes the fear. More often than not, this turns out to be a supernatural element, which may or may not be real. If it is real, then we can heave a sigh of relief: there's no reason to have been afraid after all. Wells’s story implies that fear itself is what matters. If there is only fear, then there can be no relief; fear itself is an active, evil power that threatens to destroy human beings. It’s something we can’t control but must fight. From the experience of the narrator in the red room, we see that this fight is easily lost. Using a whole slew of the genre’s own classic images, Wells suggests that Gothic fiction may have missed the point and, overlooked the real "power of darkness," and the scariest thing of all.