In late 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 will finally be published in an upcoming issue of The Strand.
Now, when one thinks of H.G. Wells, one probably thinks next of science fiction (or “scientific romance,” as Wells himself was wont to call it). He also wrote a fair amount of what can be called 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 come within the range of what can be called ghost stories: “The Red Room” (1896) and “The Inexperienced Ghost” (1902).
That later story is a humorous one. The earlier one 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.
Exactly what motivated the narrator’s interest in the haunted “great red room of Lorraine Castle” and how he got permission to investigate it are never explained. 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? 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. It’s these residents, twisted and decrepit with age, who become a source of fear.
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.
Naturally, I’m not about to tell you what the narrator discovers is haunting the Red Room. A ghost or something else? Rest assured, Wells does not give a traditional explanation. Considering that candles were repeatedly extinguished, though, we know that the invisible culprit is both supernatural — and downright unpleasant. In a very basic way, Wells’ “The Red Room” is like Rudyard Kipling’s “The House Surgeon.” Though Kipling’s narrator is more fleshed out, what both detectives find in their respective haunted rooms is something that very much bedevils us all.