Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we’re reading Madeline Yale Wynne’s “The Little Room,” first published in the August 1895 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Spoilers ahead.
“That little room has always been there,” said Aunt Hannah, “ever since the house was built.”
Margaret and Roger Grant, married just this day, are traveling to Vermont to visit her aunts. Hannah and Maria have always lived on the old Keys farm, a mile from their nearest neighbors; Margaret relates a strange story about the ancestral house.
Hannah and Maria raised Margaret’s mother, their half-sister, until age ten, when she went to live with other relatives in Brooklyn. One of Mother’s strongest childhood memories was of a little room squeezed between the front parlor and dining room on the north side of the farmhouse. She remembered all the details, from the books on the shelves to the couch where she recovered from a long illness. Yet when she brought Father there to visit, they found only a shallow china closet where Mother remembered the little room. Hannah, ever Yankee-stoic, said they hadn’t altered the house. There’d never been a little room, only the closet. Maria, ever Hannah’s echo, said the same. The conclusion they all reached was that Mother had been a very imaginative child.
After Father died, Mother brought Margaret to the Keys farm for the summer. On the way, she told the story of the nonexistent room. It was so small they sometimes called it an entry, and there was indeed a green Dutch door to the outside. Opposite stood a couch covered in blue India chintz stamped with a peacock pattern; as a young schoolgirl in Salem, Hannah received the chintz from a sea captain suitor. Isn’t it odd Mother should have made up the room in such detail, right down to saying it was hired man Hiram who told her about the sea captain? On a bookshelf, on a red worsted mat, was a pink sea-shell Mother much admired. Once she was sick and lay on the couch for days, listening to the roar of waves in the shell. It was the first time she’d felt of importance to anyone, including herself, such a pleasant memory even though false.
The first thing Margaret did at her aunts’ house was to run look into the china closet. Except, as she ran back to report to Mother, it really was the little room! Mother, already pale from ill health, went paler. But Hannah and Maria calmly insisted there had always been a little room, never a china closet.
The little room preyed on Mother’s mind—often in the middle of the night she’d creep down to look at it. That autumn she died.
What an absurd tale, Roger says. Margaret agrees, but she asks Roger to hold her hand when they go to look for the little room. Which they do while Hannah and Maria are washing up after dinner. What they find, to Roger’s annoyance, is a china closet. Stung to realize he doesn’t believe she ever saw the room, Margaret quizzes her aunts about when they altered the house. Never, is their calm response. There’s never been a room there, only the china closet.
Eventually Roger accepts that Margaret really believed in the little room and that its “disappearance” is a genuine mystery. Five years after their Vermont visit, the couple and their children are moving to Europe. Margaret thinks of visiting her aunts first but puts off the trip due to “silly nerves.” Instead she asks her cousin Nan and Nan’s friend Rita to visit the Keys farm on the way to their summer camp in the Adirondacks.
Nan happens to go first. She telegraphs Rita that there is a little room, no closet. Suspecting a joke, Rita visits the farm herself and finds—a china closet. There was always a china closet there, the aunts say. Rita pushes further: Did they ever have a couch covered with blue peacock-stamped chintz, though? Given Hannah by a sea-captain? No, Hannah says. Maria flushes slightly, though her eyes remain “a stone wall.”
At the Adirondack camp, Rita and Nan argue all night about their different experiences. The next day, they decide to settle the matter by going back to the Keys farm together. At the train junction, they ask a farmer to drive them up to the place, claiming they want to visit the sisters and perhaps sketch the old farmhouse.
They’re too late, the farmer tells them. The farmhouse burned down the night before, along with everything in it.
What’s Cyclopean: The aunts are “stony,” “frigid,” and all manner of other inanimate adjectives.
The Degenerate Dutch: Hiram (who we never hear from directly) is “bound out” to Mrs. Grant’s grandfather, then “comes with” the farm “along ‘o the critters.”
Mythos Making: Houses transcend the subgenres of horror, from the cosmic to the tightly domestic.
Libronomicon: The little room (if it exists) contains a bright red copy of the Ladies’ Album along with various unnamed leatherbound volumes.
Madness Takes Its Toll: The tiniest contradictions can shake your sense of reality…
But in terms of things that keep you up at night, “The Little Room” cuts to the core: not being able to trust your own experiences. And, maybe worse, not being able to share your understanding of those experiences with the people you love most. The breaks in consensus reality don’t have to be big; a scrap of upholstery or a china plate can be an unsurpassable barrier. What we have here is not the failure to communicate, but the impossibility of doing so.
Foundations of Fear compares Wynne’s story to “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and they definitely feel like companion pieces. The claustrophobia, the sense of being isolated with your perceptions, are a lot alike. They also share disturbing houses, and husbands who really don’t help the situation at all. Margaret Grant’s in a more fortunate position than Jane, though, and her husband is kinder. Part of the disturbance, in fact, is the way the house raises conflict between them despite the friendly tenor of their relationship. Margaret isn’t helpless, or imprisoned… except that this sliver of the uncanny has crept into her otherwise-ordinary life, a crack through which discord and distrust may slip at any moment.
The earliest nightmare I can remember involves a monster—a goat-sized Seussian thing with a puff of fur atop its head—coming through our screen door while I tried to hold it closed. In the dream, I ran to tell my mom, who glanced up from her book to explain: “Those things get in the house sometimes, dear.” Decades later, the lesson in horror has stuck: scary things become a thousand times scarier when the people you depend on refuse to take them seriously.
Thus the terror of Margaret’s American Gothic aunts. Rigid, hard-working to a Puritan fault, and utterly incurious about the uncanny scrap at the center of their home. We have always been at war with Eastasia, and that door has always opened on a china cabinet. Maybe they even believe it. Or maybe they’re gaslighting, or refusing to acknowledge this un-rigid, un-Puritan crack in their staid world. Or… it’s pretty weird how they never travel. Are they sock puppets for the house itself? Ghosts? A haunted house doesn’t technically require actual spirits, but it doesn’t hurt anything. So to speak. [ETA: I’m ignoring the sequel; I like the mystery better.]
In reviewing Wynne’s story, I went back to my notes from the Renovating the Haunted House panel at this summer’s Readercon. I discovered—well, first I discovered that they’d recommended this very story, which I’d written down and promptly forgotten. But they also talked about the distinction between hungry houses, and houses that want you to go away. This house doesn’t seem to be either—its uncanniness only shows when you go away and then come back. It’s the eldritch version of returning to a neighborhood where you haven’t lived for a decade and seeing which stores have gone out of business, which lots have been overgrown by briars. The house changes to punish you for changing. Or maybe just to point out that you have changed—and that your changes may be no more sensible, when you stop and look at them, than its own.
After reading “The Little Room,” I wasn’t surprised to discover that Madeline Yale Wynne was a gifted metalsmith and one of the founders of the Deerfield (Massachusetts) Society of Arts and Crafts—her attention to detail is that of an artist and craftsperson. Take for example the mat that beautiful pink sea-shell sits upon. First, it does sit upon a mat, not just on a shelf; it’s a special object, deserving “staging” as a crown deserves a velvet cushion or an engagement ring a satin-lined box. Second, the mat’s made of red-shaded worsted balls, a piece of vivid color and texture one can imagine Hannah stitching together with defiance—she’s not trying to hide the shell!
Except that she is trying to hide it and everything else in the Little Room, including the Little Room itself. Sometimes. Other times the Little Room and its contents are brazenly there. They’ve always been there, far as Hannah knows.
Uncanny rooms are stock-in-trade for weird fiction. In general, the haunted house has a particularly haunted room where dastardly deeds were done and ghosts moan loudest. Wynne’s “little room” shakes up the trope. It isn’t haunted; it’s the haunter, itself the violation of natural order that defines the supernatural tale. Another stock-in-trade trope is the place of variable existence. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. The mystery centers then on what determines its “existential” state: the person perceiving it (or not), the time of year or aeon, the possession of a “key” object or spell, the intentions of a controlling magician, plain old Chance.
Today’s question isn’t whether Wynne’s “little room” exists. Of course it does, all its perceivers can’t be deceived, can they? Granted the first perceivers we read of are children who no longer perceive the room as adults. Write off their youthful experiences as youthful fantasy. What about Cousin Nan? We have no reason to dismiss her as fanciful. The opposite: Along with her friend Rita, she’s the very person to get to the bottom of the little room. Even pragmatic Roger Grant admits as much about Nan and Rita, as he’s earlier accepted there is a little room puzzle.
So, what rules does the little room play by? Who or what created it? Is it a horror simply because it shouldn’t be? Or is there a darker reason why it causes the breach of confidence between newlyweds Margaret and Roger, Margaret’s mother’s debilitating terror, Rita and Nan’s falling out? That’s presuming there can be a darker state than should-not-being.
Digressing to the shoggoth in the room, what’s even up with Wynne’s ending? Surely her manuscript arrived at Harper’s Magazine missing its last pages, because some old farmer can just tell our lady detectives the house burned down with everything in it, forget about solving the mystery? Come on, we don’t even hear what happened to Hannah and Maria! Or are they part of the everything that burned down? Talk about discounting the worth of older women!
Wait. There really is more. Perhaps because so many readers complained about the story’s abrupt close, Wynne wrote a sequel called, conveniently enough, “The Sequel to The Little Room.” I happened upon it in Project Gutenberg edition of Wynne’s collection, The Little Room and Other Stories. It’s worth reading in its own right, I think, and definitely if you weren’t content with the arguably elegant ambiguity of the original ending. Apart from its not accounting for the Keys sisters, I was okay with the ambiguity—“Little Room” on its own gives enough clues to figure out that two people are at the heart of its darkness, and they are Hannah Keys and the old sea captain she met while at school in Salem.
Salem, Massachusetts, I presume. Home of Joseph Curwen, among many other witches. Although there’s a Salem in New Hampshire, it’s not on the coast, where you’d expect sea captains to hang out. The little township of Salem, Vermont, is even deeper inland.
Here’s what we know happened between Hannah and Sea-Captain. He supposedly gave her the blue peacock chintz that covers the little room couch. She supposedly could have married him. Also, Maria blushes when Rita mentions Sea-Captain. Not much, right? The sequel tells a bit more, but not really anything crucial. That, we readers have to imagine on our own.
I, for one, can readily imagine that their relationship was profound enough for Hannah to psychically (sometimes actually!) create out of its thwarted potential her personal equivalent of Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own.” The “fiction” Hannah fashions in her room isn’t put down on a page, yet it’s a never-happened that she enshrines there, along with the chintz and that beautiful sea-shell—another gift from the captain, I bet, from shores as foreign to Hannah as India’s. Given how secretive the Keys are about the captain, a degree of sex unsuitable for a genuine Vermont-Yankee maiden must have been involved. That could range from, what, a kiss to an illegitimate child? Something scandalous, yes. Traumatic? Not abuse or rape, I think, or why would Hannah put the chintz on a couch? And make the couch the dominant feature of the room. Across from a door to outside the house. One that, Dutch-style, can be either half or fully opened. Oh, and isn’t a house a frequent metaphor for the human body? Logically, then, a room is a body part or organ; might not a little room, an entry and exit, be a womb? Whereas a china closet is properly closed off (closeted) and contains the most formal pieces of domestic ware, the properest so to speak: gilt-edged “company” dishes.
The sequel makes clear that the china closet was the original part of the house. It should be the only part of the house emblematic of maiden lady Hannah. But the little room will pop up, notably for little girls too innocent to comprehend its meaning. That the little room represents Hannah’s guiltily cherished secret—in a dream Margaret has after the fire (of which she’s still uninformed), Hannah appears in her Paris bedroom and tells her the little room never had anything to do with Margaret or her mother. It was all Hannah’s, that room. That room of her own. And now it will never trouble anyone else.
From which statement, as Margaret interprets her dream, poor aunt Hannah must be dead.
Next week, the stories about the piping at the center of the universe are true. Join us for S. L. Harris’ “Into the Eye.”
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.