For this week’s weird fiction, it’s a return to a story I read about eleven years ago.
I remembered the title – just not the details.
Review: “The Red Lodge”, H. R. Wakefield, 1928.
Wakefield’s story is a haunted house tale. But these aren’t the rattling chains sort of ghosts, but, “slimy aqueous evil” as H. P. Lovecraft noted in his Supernatural Horror in Literature.
It’s all told in a somewhat jaunty, 1920s style that doesn’t manage to convey much menace, and one wonders whether certain passages and references are there to pad out the word count or make some philosophical point lost to me.
Our narrator is a forty-year old artist, successful enough to rent himself a country house, The Red Lodge. With him, he brings his thirty-three year old wife and six-year old son.
On first arriving, the narrator notices that the red of the house is “a shade off the key” even in the summer light.
It’s a nice, medium-sized Queen Anne house with a perfect garden and beside a river.
Up front, the narrator says he’s writing the story because
The Red Lodge is a foul death-trap and utterly unfit to be a human habitation . . . its owner . . . an unspeakable blackguard to allow it so to be used for his financial advantage.
The narrator is very displeased his complaints about the place went unanswered and The Red Lodge is being advertised in an upscale magazine. Any one who rents it is going to get copy of this document warning about the place.
It’s an ususual opening. Lots of weird stories start with a “Things got strange and bad. Let me give you the details.” Not many, though, see the solution as a public consumer complaint.
From the first time he enters the house, the narrator sees strange green slime in patches on the floor. His wife tells him their son Tim tracked it in.
The artist claims enough psychic ability to get the sense of a house early, and The Red Lodge is the most “hostile, aloof, and secretive” place he’s encountered. He notes his son and wife are a bit subdued considering the outwardly pleasantness of the place.
Napping in the garden, he catches, out of the corner of his eye, strange faces out of the second floor windows of the house.
He meets the neighbor, Sir William Prowse, who guardedly mentions other tenants of The Red Lodge had problems and to call on him if he has anything comes up. Sir William thinks Wilkes, the owner of the house, a “blackguard”.
The unease in the household grows. Tim, who used to like going to the seashore, is reluctant to go down to the river. Returning to the house brings the narrator trepidation and unease. He thinks he’s being watched.
Then Wakefiled throws in a reference to “Sidgwick’s The Use of Words in Reasoning”. The narrator calls it an old favorite when he picks it up to read. This is an actual book, published in
The book, we are told, talks about the difference between a complete and incomplete description of something and how that can only be determined by how sufficient a description is to a particular purpose, sufficiency being the pragmatic equivalent of complete.
Whether this is just some fashionable name dropping on Wakefield’s part or relevant to the story, I’m not sure.
The narrator next gives us a section which is emotional, peculiar, and not what you would expect in a document ostensibly written to keep people from taking a bad rental.
He begins to see patches of green slime materialize, one by one, in the room. He perceives a threat — perhaps just perceptible to him “being half a Highlander”. On the other hand, he knows “one brings something of oneself to their materialisations”.
He thinks there is danger to his family. But leaving The Red Lodge means eating the “hundred and sixty-eight pounds” paid in rent. He’ll say nothing to Mary his wife or Tim. He assumes they don’t perceive the menace he does.
Turning his thoughts to “the myriad-sided, useless, consistently abused business of creating things, stories out of pen and ink and paper” as he lies in bed, the narrator talks about contemporary artistic movements. We get references to various Germanic art movements and, perhaps significantly, Futurism. It’s a rhyming, slangy section of the story that effectively creates something like a fever dream.
The narrator seems critical of the various movements:
Bunk without spunk, sauce without force, Futurism without a past, merely a Transition from one yelping pose to another.
From this state of semi-wakefulness, he descends into a dream. He stands by the rowan tree in The Red Lodge’s garden and sees a figure “horridly unlike anything I had seen before”.
Describing his state after waking, we get another interesting passage not, I think, terribly relevant to the story. The narrator says he would like to immediately leave The Red Lodge in “pure undiluted panic” but can’t because of his family. British folk, “despised and respected by all other tribes” don’t do that. He says his resolve to stay and protect his family is “Birkenhead stuff”. After all this “highly debatable jingoism” running through his mind, he takes his wife out in a car.
They return to find a highly frightened Tim who, according to his nurse, saw a “green monkey” in the house. His wife then fesses up that she and Tim have seen strange figures in the house. She has heard whispering.
After putting in a call to Sir William, who will see him the next day, the narrator goes to bed and spends a night under a sort of psychic assault by the “Permanent Occupants of the Red Lodge”. He feels the urge to lift up the blinds and looks outside but knows doing that will doom him and his family.
The urge is resisted though and, the next day, Sir William tells him of his 40-year acquaintance with The Red Lodge, his personal enemy.
As with most haunted house stories, there is the origin story of how evil and unrest entered this location. Here the house’s second owner, in the eighteenth century, schemed with his servants to frighten his wife to death and get her money. He was successful. His wife bolted from the house early one dawn and ran to the river to drown.
The husband installed “a small harem” in the house after that. Each member, like the wife, made a fatal rush to the river to be drowned at dawn.
Since then, with the exception of a couple who lived there for 15 years and had no problems, the house’s inhabitants have often killed themselves. In just the 40 years Sir William has kept track, there have been 20 suicides and the drowning of six children. The locals call those drownings “The Green Death” or “The Green Thing”.
Of course, that reminds the narrator of Tim’s “green monkey”.
After Sir William tells him to take his family out of The Red Lodge immediately, the narrator returns home to see a “green, thin, tall” figure and Tim bolting into the river.
Tim is saved, though, and the family does leave for London.
The final paragraph says “I shut the front door when I had packed them all into the car. As I took hold of the knob I felt a quick and powerful pressure from the other side, and it shut with a crash. The Permanent Occupants of the Red Lodge were in sole possession once more.”
Wakefield’s story does grow on you. Writing this, I came to appreciate its menace more and the novelty of his ghost story.
I don’t believe the word “ghost” is ever used. Perhaps that is because, as per Sidgwick, it is not precise enough to describe the “permanent occupants” in this context. They have faces. They seem to be clothed. But the final one has a face covered in slime. Tim calls it a “green monkey”.
Why call them ghosts when “green monkey” or “The Green Death” is sufficient their menace and appearance?
Clearly, Wakefield links the “green monkey” to someone from the house who died in the river whether it’s victim zero, the original woman driven to madness, or subsequent inhabitants presumably driven mad by her spirit. But he doesn’t describe his ghosts in any of the usual ways.
I don’t think this is a story of an evil place like Clark Ashton Smith’s “Genius Loci”. There are no legends about it before the second owner Sir William mentions. However, by setting part of the story in that perfect garden and by the river as well as in the house, Wakefield gives it the feel of such a story. This is a haunted place and not just a haunted house. Wakefield links his horror to a body of water, and that is done in the Smith story and, I would suspect, other tales of haunted places.