Hell House by Richard Matheson

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In my mind Hell House by Richard Matheson is one ghost story that delivers, and delivers it with a punch. We've got all the elements to set up one terrifying tale of the supernatural versus man:

·         the ghastly mansion surrounded by its decaying grounds

·         the sordid history of the activities that took place in the mansion in the 1920's culminating in the discovery of 27 dead people  in 1929 in various states of depravity - only the body of Emeric Belasco, the perverted owner and host, was missing and thereafter never found

·         a small group of people consisting of a physicist and his wife, and a mental medium (spiritualist) and a physical medium willingly entering the house on the promise of money (and on a deadline) for proving one way or another if there is life after death - even though they know that a previous similar expedition 30 years earlier culminated in the death, madness or incapacitation of the participants

Each of the four characters has their own problems and beliefs which only lend fuel to the fire. Lionel Barrett, a rationalist, is convinced that paranormal activity is grounded in the physical and therefore can be dealt with on that basis. He brings in a machine he has developed over the years that he believes can eradicate these forces on the assumption that they are electrically-charged fields. His timid wife is lonely and sex-starved due to her disabled husband's childhood polio and devotion to his experiments.  The spiritualist and mental medium, Florence, is convinced that spirits can be saved based upon her religious beliefs. The fourth member of the group, Ben Fischer, the only surviving member of the previous expedition, has become withdrawn and loath to use his powers due to the horror that happened to him at the time.

Matheson builds the rising events, each more violent and intense, around the weaknesses of these four characters. But it isn't a willy-nilly bunch of happenings to just horrify the reader - there is a method to the madness and the mystery of the tale. The entity in the house is playing with all of them according to a plan.

And what a plan it was! I loved the ending and finding out what drove the entity and the careful execution of his plan: ego. But then it was also ego and the belief system of both Barrett and Tanner that allowed the entity to exploit them and kill them.  Fischer fell somewhere in the middle of Barrett's and Tanner's beliefs - this is what enabled him to figure out the final clue to the mystery of Belasco and get rid of him. The ego of Belasco in the end proved to be his demise as well. On another note, I thought it pretty neat the way that Matheson brought the "good" spirit of Tanner back in to show Fischer the right direction.

I got the sense that Hell House was not only a story of supernatural versus man but also presented the conflict of the scientific/rational versus the mythical/spiritual through the characters. I bought the 1973 film adaptation "The Legend of Hell House" and gave it a whirl this week.  The screenplay was written by Matheson. It's a fine scary movie, faithful to the intent of the novel, but I have to say I like the depth, detail and ending of the book better.

On a final note, did the abundant use of the word "hiss" throughout the book stick out to anyone else?

3 Comments

Craig said:

I agree. I think the conflict of ideas about the haunting is one of the driving forces in the story. Another way to look at this conflict is science verses spiritualism. The doctor's insistence that the events are only form stored energy and the mediums belief in an actual entity work to create a sort of tension that runs through the story.

Although I did like the book I wasn't a big fan of the ending. Or the fact that it was Big Daddy Belasco trying to disguise himself as not being the haunter. My feeling is that since he was made to be this big bad voodoo daddy from the beginning then it would only make sense that he's haunting the place. So instead of trying to fake it then have Belasco just do some serious damage throughout the story to everyone. Matheson would've still been able to write the story as he did.

If Jason Vorhees is killing ppl at Camp Crystal Lake and we are given the story in the beginning that he's doing so, then have him kill! Don't try and fake the movie goer by acting like it's one of the camp counselors instead. And then at the end: Poof! Gotcha, it's been Jason the whole time. So to me the fact that it was Belasco and not his son wasn't a surprise because I figured it was him the whole time. He IS the bad guy after all.

What really stood out to me in your blog was your statement of 'there was a method to the madness.' That, to me, was what was so scary about the book because it wasn't flinging furniture at the characters, or leading them into creepy rooms where it was obvious bad things would happen to them--instead it was feeding off of their emotions and their own insecurities and the fact that it was attacking their vulnerabilities was what was so clever of Matheson's part.

Plus, I didn't find the book predictable at all. Hell I thought Daniel was real and him and Florence were going to fall in love (maybe that's my inner romantic coming out?) haha.

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