Genesis of a Villain: Harnessing the Subconscious in Paul Bowles’ “In the Red Room”

The narrator of “In the Red Room” is a Bowlesian expatriate living in Sri Lanka, whose parents come to visit him for an extended sojourn. On an excursion to a local botanical gardens, they meet a Sinhalese man who turns out to be a bad actor. 

As he does in much of his fiction, Bowles uses descriptions of the characters’ surroundings to create an abiding sense of dread, and this in turn endows the story with deep suspense and an admirable propulsive energy. Reading “In the Red Room,” I became interested in how Bowles introduced or “created” the vivid and utterly evil character who becomes the story’s principal subject.

Consider the first description we have of this character:

The Sinhalese beamed triumphantly. He wore white flannels and a crimson blazer, and his sleek black hair gave off a metallic blue glint in the sunlight.

We have our first hint of something wrong, particularly evident in Bowles’ description of the man’s hair. It’s like the carapace of a beetle, or the body of a fly – alien, insect-like, possibly poisonous. And then:

We sat and looked out at the lush greenness. The young man's conversation leapt from one subject to another; he seemed unable to follow any train of thought further than its inception. I put this down as a bad sign, and tried to tell from the inflections of Hannah's voice whether she found him as disconcerting as I did.

Here the narrator is articulating to himself that’s something wrong with this man. He finds him disconcerting, which means that so should we. In concert with the subconscious impressions that linger on from the physical description, Bowles has begun to use overt narration to steer us toward a simple, unmistakable judgment.

Then we have this:

Thinking I might cover up the young man's chatter, I turned to Dodd and began to talk about whatever came into my head: the resurgence of mask-making in Ambalangoda, devil-dancing, the high incidence of crime among the fishermen converted to Catholicism.

Look what Bowles is doing here. We’re back in the subconscious realm, where the Sinhalese’s disconcerting presence has sparked a helplessly troubling stream of thought in the narrator, images of masks and devils and passionate crime. This is Bowles’ genius. I doubt most people notice it in a first reading, but because for both the narrator and the reader the effects of these thoughts are in the subconscious, they carry tremendous resonance.

Now, with characteristically devastating understatement, Bowles shows us his narrator becoming increasingly troubled by the villain’s presence:

His smile, which was not a smile at all, gave me an unpleasant physical sensation.

The Sinhalese zeroes in on narrator’s mother; he offers her a house; insists on giving her a signed book of his poems. It turns out he knows more about the family than they might have thought, which is creepy, and as if that weren’t enough he now starts to badmouth the locals:

"These people are impossible scoundrels. Every one of the blighters has a knife in his belt, guaranteed."

We read this second sentence with a prickling at our shoulders. Does this Sinhalese have a knife in his belt as well?

So Bowles has given us, in a most economical way, an evil-seeming and unquestionably dangerous character. And he has done it, for the most part, indirectly, in the course of a conversation that is by all external evidence exactly the sort of friendly exchange between visitors and a local that often occurs when one is traveling. The Sinhalese makes no overt threats, and the only clues that he is a villain come to us filtered through the conscious and subconscious thinking of the narrator. Yet we are convinced that something is wrong. Brilliant.

Without revealing any spoilers (because I hope you will read the whole story, which is only 3600 words), I leave you with a few passages that illustrate Bowles’ genius for creating an atmosphere of dread, and therefore of suspense.

"We are going, then? Come." With the empty glass still in his hand he turned off the lights, shut the door behind us, opened another, and led us quickly through a sumptuous room furnished with large divans, coromandel screens, and bronze Buddhas. We had no time to do more than glance from side to side as we followed him. As we went out through the front door, he called one peremptory word back into the house, presumably to the caretaker. There was a wide unkempt lawn on this side, where a few clumps of high areca palms were being slowly strangled by the sheaths of philodendron roots and leaves that encased their trunks. Creepers had spread themselves unpleasantly over the tops of shrubs like the meshes of gigantic cobwebs. I knew that Hannah was thinking of snakes. She kept her eyes on the ground, stepping carefully from flagstone to flagstone as we followed the exterior of the house around to the stables, and thence out into the lane.