Study Guide

The Red Room Fear

By H.G. Wells


"I can assure you," said I, "that it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me." And I stood up before the fire with my glass in my hand. (1)

In the story’s opening line, the narrator boasts that he’s not easily frightened. That he says this as he is standing up, adds a bit of swagger. He’s either a genuinely confident soul, or a poser. This opening line immediately sets up the plot as a contest of the narrator against his himself. This opening line is also ironic: as it turns out, it won’t take anything "tangible" (that is, touchable) to frighten him at all.

A bronze group stood upon the landing, hidden from me by the corner of the wall, but its shadow fell with marvelous distinctness upon the white paneling, and gave me the impression of someone crouching to waylay me. I stood rigid for half a minute perhaps. Then, with my hand in the pocket that held my revolver, I advanced, only to discover a Ganymede and Eagle glistening in the moonlight. That incident for a time restored my nerve, and a porcelain Chinaman on a buhl table, whose head rocked silently as I passed him, scarcely startled me. (29)

We've already seen that the narrator is unnerved by the older people and the rustling he hears at the top of the stairs, but this is the first instance in which he’s genuinely scared. How do we know? He has to "recover his nerve." It starts to look as if our narrator might be more easily spooked than he originally reveals. And what scares him in this case? It’s the appearance of an everyday object as something threatening in the dark.

Here it was, thought I, that my predecessor was found, and the memory of that story gave me a sudden twinge of apprehension. (30)

The narrator admits to experiencing another pang of fear here, again before he enters the red room. This time what inspires his fear is not something he sees, but an association he has with the red room: it’s where someone died, and there’s a legend around it.

And there were other and older stories that clung to the room, back to the half-credible beginning of it all, the tale of a timid wife and the tragic end that came to her husband's jest of frightening her. (31)

More on the red room’s dark history. Its reputation is a large part of what makes it a place steeped in fear. What’s particularly interesting about this passage, however, is that we learn that the place first became cursed when the young countess came to a tragic end. And how did she come to a tragic end? She was frightened (though we don’t know how) by her husband. The old woman makes significant mention of her being frightened again at the end of the story (48). So at the very beginning of the red room’s black history, there’s fear.

I resolved to make a systematic examination of the place at once, and dispel the fanciful suggestions of its obscurity before they obtained a hold upon me. (32)

The narrator is worried about the "the fanciful suggestions of [the red room’s] obscurity." In other words, he’s worried that the suggestive figures taken by the shadows ("fanciful suggestions") and general surrounding darkness ("obscurity") will spook him. In this sense, we see an admission that his fear is within his control (i.e., it’s something that can "get a hold" of him). There’s also the suggestion that fear isn’t just something "in one’s head"; the fear in him is brought about by something out there, by the darkness of the room itself. So what threatens him is both "inside" and "outside" him.

By this time I was in a state of considerable nervous tension, although to my reason there was no adequate cause for the condition. My mind, however, was perfectly clear. I postulated quite unreservedly that nothing supernatural could happen, and to pass the time I began to string some rhymes together, Ingoldsby fashion, of the original legend of the place. A few I spoke aloud, but the echoes were not pleasant. (34)

Here the narrator admits that he’s starting to get nervous about the situation. Not only that, he also admits that there’s a separation between the state of his nerves and that of his mind. His "reason" is perfectly clear; there is nothing to fear rationally. His reason doesn't have an effect on his nerves, however, which are beginning to give way. He needs to find other measures of comforting himself.

"Steady on!" I said. "These candles are wanted," speaking with a half-hysterical facetiousness, and scratching away at a match the while for the mantel candlesticks. My hands trembled so much that twice I missed the rough paper of the matchbox. (42)

The narrator is "half-hysterical." He’s talking to himself, and starting to get funny ("facetious") in that odd way one does as one begins to lose it. He’s also having trouble controlling his body: his hands are trembling. Since he needs his hands to cooperate if he’s going to relight those candles, he's not in a good situation.

I was now almost frantic with the horror of the coming darkness, and my self-possession deserted me. (43)

Here we have it: the narrator’s lost control of himself because of his terror. Not only is that cool, rational approach gone, but he can't even control his body. He’s entering a frenzy, in which he’ll act without thinking. This raises an interesting question: when we say the narrator’s "losing control of himself," what exactly do we mean? Can we no longer hold him responsible for what he’s doing? Is he doing it?

…as I thrust the candle between the bars darkness closed upon me like the shutting of an eye, wrapped about me in a stifling embrace, sealed my vision, and crushed the last vestiges of reason from my brain. The candle fell from my hand. I flung out my arms in a vain effort to thrust that ponderous blackness away from me, and, lifting up my voice, screamed with all my might--once, twice, thrice. (45)

"Reason" has left the building at this point. The narrator has completely lost it. This is the moment when his terror is at its worst. He does what people often do in complete terror: he screams. We’ve come a long way from what he said at the beginning of the story, haven’t we.

"The worst of all the things that haunt poor mortal man," said I; "and that is, in all its nakedness--Fear that will not have light nor sound, that will not bear with reason, that deafens and darkens and overwhelms. It followed me through the corridor, it fought against me in the room----" (57)

Here we have the narrator’s dramatic announcement that Fear is what haunts the red room. Whereas before he was dismissive of fear, he is now terrified of it. He’s had a firsthand experience of its power. Fear has the power to make a person lose control of himself. It doesn’t respond to reason. It’s a real invisible enemy, just like a ghost would be (that’s part of what makes it so scary). The narrator even goes so far as to identify fear as an enemy of mankind.