An Anomalous Room

One of the stories included in H.P. Lovecraft Selects which Lovecraft did not talk about in his essay on supernatural horror is “The Southwest Chamber” by Mary E. Wilkins. He does talk about Wilkins, though, saying that her collection of stories, The Wind in the Rose-Bush, “contains a number of noteworthy achievements.” But he singles out the story “The Shadows on the Wall”, not “The Southwest Chamber”. I can only guess why the editors of H.P. Lovecraft Selects chose one over the other but “The Southwest Chamber” is a nice allegory of generational psychological influence in a family.

A pair of sisters, Amanda and Sophia, inherit a large house which they decide to let to boarders. Their aunt has recently died in the southwest chamber and the story begins as they’re making it ready for a new boarder, a school teacher named Louisa Stark who absolutely does not believe in the supernatural. Over the course of the story, four people try to sleep through the night in the room—each enters with very firm convictions on the non-existence of ghosts, and each is forced to admit they’re wrong. Stark goes in believing only in rational, empirical evidence.

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She was more credulous as to her own possible failings than she had ever been in her whole life. She was cold with horror and terror, and yet not so much horror and terror of the supernatural as of her own self. The weakness of belief in the supernatural was nearly impossible for this strong nature. She could more easily believe in her own failing powers.

“I don’t know but I’m going to be like Aunt Marcia,” she said to herself, and her fat face took on a long rigidity of fear.

It’s the peculiar response exhibited by each subject to the haunted room that makes the story fascinating, disturbing, and amusing. Is Louisa’s belief in her own madness really no worse than belief in ghosts?

More in the amusing category is the next wouldbe lodger, the widow Elvira Simmons, who figures even ghosts would be preferable to her previous room which gets too hot in the summer. The evidence of haunting that succeeds in terrifying her is as appropriately trivial.

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The final person to attempt sleeping in the room connects the story back to psychological compulsions connected with physical inheritance. Sophia starts finding herself thinking the thoughts of her aunt, a sort of haunting many people might well attest to having experienced.

I find myself intrigued by the idea that a story like this might have influenced Lovecraft. The heart of the story is certainly very different than what he normally produced though arguably The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is just as much about an involuntary psychological inheritance.

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