Hell House (Richard Matheson)

Matheson really was a master of his craft. He took the conventional Gothic structure and threw it out of the window. Assaulting the reader with carnal, palpable terror, from its first page to the very end. Readers new to Hell House will be wondering how far are things going to go regarding the repulsive sexual shenanigans… What would have been shocking and new to audiences in 1971 has become a tad too familiar today, unfortunately. While this speaks volumes to the book’s cultural and literary impact – the fact that it has been copied and imitated by so many on film and on the page detracts from the book’s overall contemporary wow factor. I bet Stephen King used this as some inspiration for The Shining.

What’s not to love? The case for the defence: Matheson manages to accomplish a haunted house story that is not only supremely eerie and filled with a creepy atmosphere that’s sublime, but a full-on assault of the senses as well. This book does not pussy-foot around – it is in your face practically from page one all the way through to the end. Belasco House is absolutely sordid, and completely depraved. (Forget the Overlook Hotel, its too quiet) One of the most riveting scenes in the novel is when Fischer is describing the house’s past in gritty and illuminating detail. It created images in my mind I won’t ever be able to erase. Ever.

Obviously inspired by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Richard Matheson’s Hell House pays homage to Jackson by borrowing the basic crux of the plot – several characters gathering to investigate a seemingly haunted mansion – and making the story his own instead of merely copying the earlier novel. Perhaps the biggest advantage of the original Hill House was its ambiguity concerning the origin and source of the hauntings. In Hell House there is plenty of ambiguity, but it’s obvious that the hauntings and phenomena are real, and that the house fully deserves its hellish name. The novel is divided into short chapters – a bigger section for each day the characters spend in the house is divided into separate hours.

The perspective switches from character to character, giving the reader a sense of immediacy and relentless plugging forward, building suspense by using cliffhangers and shifting the perspective at the exact right moment. Matheson’s writing style here is “less is more”, and he writes in simple, detached language, describing the events with cold indifference. So, what’s not to love? Now I’ll have to state the case for the prosecution: Physical mediums like Fischer are all but extinct. It was also written at a time when parapsychology was actually working towards being a viable science. That lasted for about ten years. Basically, it’s a period piece.

The climax of the novel relies on gross sexual obscenity that turned my stomach. All the crudeness and vulgarity actually made me feel quite ill. Sexual obsession – to the point of insanity – is the fuel that keeps Hell House burning. The book doesn’t improve much on the film version either, other than to fill in the sexual perversions, and having seen the movie first I did not experience the suspense I should have. It felt like a second hand experience. I also found it hard to visualize this series of events happening in America because in the film it happens in cold, foggy England. I wonder how it would feel to read the novel first, then watch the movie to see if it lives up to or surpasses one’s imagination. But alas, its too late now!

(Still better than the book)

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Comments

  1. You’ve absolutely nailed it in this review, I too consider this one of the best haunted house stories ever written. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My pleasure…thank you for commenting! 🙂

    Like

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