A Bare Bones Ghost Hunter: The Narrator of H.G. Wells’ “The Red Room”

Wells Wrote Ghost Stories, Too

In 2016, it was announced that a ghost story written by H.G. Wells — one never before published and virtually forgotten — was discovered at the University of Illinois. The story, “The Haunted Ceiling,” involves a man harassed by the vision of a woman with her throat slit, which appears on his ceiling. The creepy tale was (finally) published in an issue of The Strand.

When one thinks of H.G. Wells, one might think first of science fiction — or “scientific romance,” as Wells himself was wont to call it. He also wrote a fair amount of supernatural fiction. Perhaps not surprisingly given Wells’ level of creativity, a lot of this branch of his writing is not at all traditional supernatural fiction. I only know of two other works that can be called ghost stories (if, by that, we mean stories with right and proper ghostly entities in them): “The Red Room” (1896) and “The Inexperienced Ghost” (1902).

Herbert George Wells (1866-1946)

The title of “The Inexperienced Ghost” hints that it’s a humorous tale. “The Red Room,” though, is very serious, and it features a protagonist who qualifies as an occult detective character. The character also serves as narrator, and Wells only provides the bare bones of information about him. Perhaps tales of a skeptic hoping to debunk rumors of ghosts had become so routine by 1896 that the author didn’t feel the need to give much exposition.

Starting in the Middle

Exactly what motivated the narrator’s interest in the haunted “great red room of Lorraine Castle” and how he got permission to investigate it go unexplained. The narrator does mention an earlier investigation conducted by his “predecessor,” a young duke who died in the effort. Does this mean he inherited the house from the duke, or was that duke just the previous investigator of the strange room? Or is the narrator investigating the duke’s death? Again, unexplained.

Perhaps this absence of exposition helps explain why “The Red Room” jumps to a level of anxiety at the very start, when that narrator interviews the keepers of the castle. These residents, twisted and decrepit with age, become the first source of discomfort.

Well-Prepared, but Inexperienced

One thing we do know about our mysterious narrator is he’s armed, and his careful and “systematic investigation” of the Red Room make him, at least, a well-prepared novice detective. He certainly goes into that notorious room ready to do battle…

But he finds something very unpredictable once he enters the Red Room. Considering that candles were repeatedly extinguished, we know that the invisible culprit is both supernatural and downright unpleasant. But is it a ghost in the traditional sense? In a very basic way, Wells’ detective is like the more “fleshed-out” one in Rudyard Kipling’s “The House Surgeon” in that they both confront something other than a once-breathing, now-disembodied person. What both detectives find in their respective haunted rooms is something that very much bedevils us all.

Bibliography Banner

Go to the Chronological Bibliography
of Early Occult Detectives — 1800s page.

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