Who doesn’t like a good haunted house story? Well, I suppose some don’t (who are you people?) but given the enduring popularity of the genre, there must a be a sizeable chunk of readers out there who like reading about things that go bump in the night. In my experience it is more difficult to sustain a haunted house story for a whole novel, especially when you compare that to how effective short stories can be. How well does Richard Matheson do in Hell House? Read further if you’re ok with spoilers (though the book was published in 1971, so it’s not exactly hot off the presses.)
Let’s go right for the jugular. Is it worth reading? Depends on who you are and what you’re willing to put up with. I came to Matheson because of reading I am Legend years ago and thinking it was outstanding. That said, this guy is not going to wow you with an extended plot or draw characters you’re going to miss after the book is over. What is his talent? Set up. And grabbing hold of you quick. And ratcheting up the tension. That’s what worked in his seminal vampire book.
Matheson does a great job on set up and grabbing the reader. A wealthy, unlikeable old coot wants to know if there is any proof of the afterlife and wants Dr. Lionel Barrett, a physicist interested in the actual scientific manifestation of the paranormal, to lead a team proving whether there is life after death one way or the other. The millionaire is willing to put a lot of money on the line to establish this (well, at least for the 70s. It’s 100 grand or something for each of the participants. Ha! I sneeze at your 100 grand!)
Barrett brings along his wife Edith, who seems to be teetering on the edge of sanity right from the get go, and two mediums – Florence Tanner and Benjamin Fischer – who are there to test for the presence of spirits in the atmosphere before and after Barrett uses a piece of equipment he’s developed to rid Hell House, the most notorious haunted house in the world, of all of its nefarious spiritual occupants.
The plot crackles along as it gets the characters into the house. Thirty pages in, I was excited and texted my friend to let her know about the “find” I’d made in the haunted house oeuvre. Alas, I didn’t continue to feel such unmitigated enthusiasm, but more on that later.
Matheson exposes the house’s back story and shows off his mastery in this regard. Hell House is the former residence of a man, Emeric Belasco, who was like a magnet for perversion and evil. He lured people into his home for years, corrupted them, and then they along with him became trapped in the ether of the place. The description of the depravity engaged in is subtle – just enough is told for the reader to be engaged, disgusted and wanting to know more. Belasco is a man not to be trifled with.
Benjamin – the physical medium – is the real hero of the story. He has been to Hell House twenty years before, and is the only person to ever survive an experience there since Belasco began haunting the joint. The tension for him revolves around whether he will expose himself to the house and solve the haunting. We root for Ben, but he is not a wholly likeable or interesting character.
The central tension of the story is whether there is a scientific or purely spiritual reason for any haunting. Dr. Barrett represents the scientific side of the argument, while Florence is the purely spiritual side. Ben represents the middle ground and Edith is along for the lesbian jokes.
No really. Though they’re not jokes. They’re more like bad seventies commentary on the sexual revolution. To put it another way, there’s a healthy amount of sex in this story, but none of the sex is healthy. Dr. Barrett and Edith have an asexual relationship that erupts now and again in feelings of inadequacy and (did I mention) latent lesbianism. The old doc is her senior by a good number of years and appears to be impotent though it’s never explicitly stated. He’s devoted himself to his work, and can’t be bothered with his young (boyish – good grief) wife. Then, there’s Florence, who is the object of most of the sexual and physical abuse in the book. If I had to hear about her ghost bit nipples one more time…well, let’s just say that I could have done with less.
The sex is overwrought, and instead of being terrifying, comes off as merely tawdry. I’m not alone in thinking this. I scanned through a few more reviews on Amazon and many felt the same way. Ok, can you look past this? I could, but just barely. Some images I just didn’t need, and most of those involved Florence.
Is the book scary? Yes, but I would call it more creepy than scary. The first seance where Dr. Barrett is injured by poltergeist phenomena is quite good. And the ghost Belasco keeps mystifying people and leading them down to the “tarn” (the swampy water surrounding the place) to drown them. These scenes are where the book is most effective. Actually, the scariest sequence in the book involves Barrett being trapped in a sauna – and is all the more impactful because the physicist is the one who refuses to believe in the spiritual.
The book passes the basic test of horror (be scary), and also has a bit of mystery to carry it along. The resolution on who is “right” between Barrett and Florence is handled simply (though it is all too pat and Scooby Doo feeling). So, partial endorsement. Matheson invites you to Hell House. Weigh the invitation carefully.