In which a family’s peace-of-mind while on holiday is thoroughly compromised by something green, wet, and ominous.
First published in 1928
Anthologized in They Return at Evening
- “No. 1 Branch Line: The Signalman,” by Charles Dickens (1866)
- “’Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’” by M. R. James (1904)
- “The Red Lodge,” by H. Russell Wakefield (1928)
On the basis of this little list, I’m confident that I could avoid being shot, bludgeoned, or skewered.
Together, these form the briefest conceivable crash course in classic English ghost fiction. They were part of a trend that lasted between approximately 1850 and 1930, which is an incredibly long time for a genre to be popular. My three examples represent the vogue at its beginning, middle, and end.
I discussed “’Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’” a few weeks back. Since I don’t enjoy doing things in their normal order (unless absolutely necessary), we’ll look at “The Red Lodge” now and “The Signalman” at some point in the near future.
In addition to being the last chronologically, “The Red Lodge” is the most unsettling. That’s a purely subjective judgment — after all, what’s disturbing to Person A may very well make Person B fall asleep head-first in the cheese dip — but I think that anyone who’s read all three will agree with me.
In “The Red Lodge,” an unnamed family rents “a medium-sized Queen Anne house” by the side of an unnamed river in an unnamed part of England. We learn hardly anything about the protagonists:
- Dad’s a 40-year-old painter who can afford the £168 rental fee, which in 1928 currency means that he is a very successful painter indeed.
- He is also a psychic, which rounds out a nice skill set, I think.
- Mom’s name is Mary; she’s 33.
- Their son is named Tim, and he’s 6-and-a-half.
- He likes swimming a great deal…usually.
C. S. Lewis commented in one of his essays that slight characterization is not necessarily false characterization, and that fully fleshed-out characters might actually be an impediment in a story where the focus is on the fantastic. Wakefield seems to have arrived at this on his own, since we learn only enough facts about these people to make them sympathetic. In any case, the Red Lodge is the most important character here.
Speaking of the Lodge, Dad picks up that there’s something wrong with the place almost immediately:
“My first vague, faint uncertainty came to me so soon as I had crossed the threshold. I am a painter by profession, and therefore sharply responsive to colour tone. Well, it was a brilliantly fine day, the hall of the Red Lodge was fully lighted, yet it seemed a shade off the key, as it were, as though I were regarding it through a pair of slightly darkened glasses. Only a painter would have noticed it, I fancy.”
Not long thereafter, he notices a splotch of river slime on a rug. Mary fingers young Tim as the culprit, but of course (anti-spoiler) we know he’s not. It should also not be a surprise that this will be the first splotch in an ongoing Splotchapalooza.
Soon thereafter, the family meets the neighbors: Sir William Prowse, his wife, and his daughter. Sir William seems to know something that he’s not saying outright:
“‘Well, if I can do anything for you I shall be delighted. If you are in any trouble, come straight to me.’ He slightly emphasised the last sentence.
“I rather wondered what sort of trouble Sir William envisaged for me. Probably he shared the general opinion that artists are quite mad at times, and that when I had one of my lapses I should destroy the peace in some manner. However, I was truly grateful.”
(Incidentally, if you haven’t picked up on this yet, THE MAIN CHARACTER IS AN ARTIST. I wanted to make sure you understood that.)
It’s after this that we get to the meat of the piece. “The Red Lodge” is told in the first person, and the best parts deal with Dad’s internal monologues as he’s forced into psychic combat with malevolent forces. His simple activities — reading, making a sketch — become hijacked, and he finds himself in nightmarish scenarios derived from innocent reveries.
“The Red Lodge” also features an intriguing window motif. In dreams or hallucinatory states, the characters are often:
- Looking out of windows at sinister activities below
- Observed by vague figures in the windows of the building’s upper stories
Speaking of the other characters, Dad isn’t the only one not getting his money’s worth out of his summer rental; the rest of the family is having an equally bad time of it. And when young Tim has a traumatic encounter with something he calls “the green monkey,” Dad knows that he has to ask his new neighbor Sir William for help…
Ultimately, the reason this story belongs on my tiny list is that, along with its two fellows, it fully captures what made classic English ghost stories so distinctive: a slow build-up from subtle initial clues, a quintessentially English period atmosphere which I’d describe as “Downton Abbey meets Charles Addams,” and a sense of real danger from something beyond normal human understanding.
There are hundreds of other great stories like this out there, awaiting your discovery. I’m betting you can’t just stop at these three.