Hell House by Richard Matheson
originally published 1971
Tor, 1st printing, 1999
Synopsis & Review: The Belasco House outside Caribou Springs, Maine is considered “the Everest of haunted houses.” In December 1971, parapsychologist and physicist Dr Lionel Barrett, his wife and assistant Edith, and two mediums, Florence Tanner and Benjamin Franklin Fischer, are to be paid one hundred thousand dollars each to investigate the Belasco House–now known as Hell House–and report back to millionaire Rolf Randolph Deutsch with any evidence they may find fo life after death. All other investigations into the house have ended in failure, madness, and death–and Fischer is the sole survivor of the 1941 investigation, which left him scarred for life.
As they begin the investigation, Fischer fills the participants in on Hell House’s infamous past: its founder, Eremic Belasco, and the decades-long debaucheries he created of seduction, perversion, madness, rape, murder, suicide, and even cannibalism. Florence soon becomes aware of a spirit she believes is Belasco’s son Daniel, a young man possibly murdered and immured within Hell House, and in need of relief. As Dr Barrett explores the possibilities in Hell House, his wife Edith quickly succumbs to the lure of alcohol and her own repressed fantasies, while Fischer blocks his psychic abilities, refusing to give in.
Whatever malignant power lies within Hell House has been waiting, and it will stop at nothing to use their weaknesses against them, to destroy them utterly.
Touted as one of the giants of the haunted house genre of horror, Hell House is typically rated with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which is why I was willing to read it when a Halloween-themed read-along was proposed by chums. I had read and enjoyed Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, and had high hopes for Hell House. Unfortunately, I was to be sadly disappointed.
Possibly one of the most important aspects of a haunted house story is the atmosphere, and Hell House has very little. Where other haunted house tales leave a great deal to the imagination (The Haunting of Hill House, even The Shining), Hell House is explicit right from the start, with plenty of showy manifestations, ectoplasm, and even the mildly interesting Belasco history. An over abundance of exposition dispels the atmosphere, and also slows the narrative down, such as in the long-winded explanations of pseudoscientific theory (generally a Dr Barrett lecture).
The characterizations were pretty weak, the plot contrived, the dialogue stilted, and the prose bogged down with excessive exposition, summarization, and description. It also has a weirdly cinematic feel, as though it were a hastily slapped together film treatment (and by many accounts, it did make a decent film). There’s also a good deal of gratuitous misogyny; the malignant spirit focused entirely on female sexuality, and both female characters are used and abused–including a painfully symbolic and altogether ludicrous death. (As a friend pointed out, the treatment of women in Hell House, coupled with the lascivious female vampires in I am Legend leads to speculation about Matheson’s possible fears of sexual inadequacy.) All the sexual subplots came across as being there simply for show, to be hip and swinging, giving the novel a dated feel.
On the whole, it was relentlessly mediocre, and very often silly–and not even slightly scary.
Read also: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Shining by Stephen King, I am Legend by Richard Matheson
Cover: Ominous and moody, and totally effective–UNLIKE THIS BOOK.
It had been raining hard since five o’clock that morning. Brontean weather, Dr. Barrett thought. He repressed a smile. He felt rather like a character in some latter-day Gothic romance. The driving rain, the cold, the two-hour ride from Manhattan in one of Deutsch’s long black leather-upholstered limousines. The interminable wait in this corridor while disconcerted-looking men and women hurried in and out of Deutsch’s bedroom, glancing at him occasionally.
He drew his watch from its vest pocket and raised the lid. He’d been here more than an hour now. What did Deutsch want of him? Something to do with parapsychology, most likely. The old man’s chain of newspapers and magazines were forever printing articles on the subject. “Return from the Grave” “The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die”—always sensational, rarely factual.
Wincing at the effort, Dr. Barrett lifted his right leg over his left. He was a tall, slightly overweight man in his middle fifties, his thinning blond hair unchanged in color, though his trimmed beard showed traces of white. He sat erect on the straight-back chair, staring at the door to Deutsch’s bedroom. Edith must be getting restless downstairs. He was sorry she’d come. Still, he’d had no way of knowing it would take this long.
13 October – 22 October