I just finished Hell House
by Richard Matheson
and here is my review, which has spoilers.
I have been hungry for a genuinely scary haunted house tale these past few years after the lukewarm 'Apartment 16' and 'The Guardians', and Hell House has definitely satisfied me. Its easily the best haunted house book I have read, even eclipsing Shirley Jackson's seminal The Haunting of Hill House. Hell House is about the efforts of 4 people- a doctor of parapsychology, his wife, a medium and the survivor of a previous visit to the house which killed 3 other people, to prove the existence of ghosts within the infamous Hell House, owned by a madman, Emeric Belasco, who corrupted the house with depraved acts and murder over a 30 year period. I loved the backstory to the mansion; instead of the usual "several people commited suicide here", "built on an ancient Indian burial ground" or "voices drove the previous owner to kill his family" cliches that normally drive haunted house stories, Matheson has built up an intriguing and original backstory which starts with the birth of Belasco, his education, his disassociation from emotions and compassion, the building of a mansion which hosted depraved orgies, sexually explicit plays, drug-fuelled binges and eventually murder and death as Belasco lured people to an existence of carnal urges and animalistic behaviors until they died either of starvation or murdered by fellow inhabitants, all the while the evil and intelligent Belasco sat back in his room at the top of the mansion and delighted at the destruction he was responsible for.
Sex is a huge theme in the book, with a very sexually explicit (albeit intelligent) backstory which detail mixed orgies, animal sex and homosexuality. The doctor's wife Edith is repressed and the house works on her weakness by exposing her to old photos of lesbian orgies in the Grand Hall, stirring long-buried urges in her and forcing her to commit lesbian acts. The husband is impotent and the house exposes this and causes a rift with Edith over the lack of sex, the medium Florence is very sensitive and vulnerable to the evil forces in the house and she ends up having sex with a demon who she thinks is a long-dead young man begging to lose his virginity before he moves on! Breasts, phallic images and sex organs are referenced a lot in this book. The above reads as tawdry and explicit and it indeed is (Im amazed the book was deemed acceptable in 1970, its even more explicit than A Clockwork Orange), but it doesnt detract from the story at all, in fact it adds to it.
The house itself is a memorable character, from the swirling green mists that surround the marshes on the perimeter of the land, to the bricked-up windows and grand designs inside, all crushed red velvet in the theatre, sinister crucifixes in the chapel, a wine vault, a huge dining room with chandaliers, a spiral staircase and steam room. The first few chapters where the group explore the isolated house by candlelight is a masterpiece of mood-setting and atmosphere in my opinion, with Matheson hitting the ground running with his descriptions of large elongated shadows in the main hall and thumping angry hammer-type sounds during the first seance. Things start to kick off pretty soon into the story as a seance with Florence as lead starts to go wrong when the table starts to shake and an angry voice shouts out "Get the fu*k out of this house before i kill you all!".
What i love about this book is its relevance to modern day haunted house investigations and the age old "science vs religion" argument concering the existence of ghosts. This argument is represented by the conflict between the medium Florence and Lionel, the doctor. Florence is convinced the house is filled with tormented spirits controlled by the evil Belasco who instigates poltergeist activity, ectoplasm appearances, demonic posession and noises throughout the house. Lionel, on the other hand, dismisses her arguments as hogwash, convinced that the phenomena is nothing more than destructive electromagnetic radiation left over after decades of depravity and death within the walls of the mansion. Their clash is as relevant today as it ever was. Indeed, are we any further, in 2012, to understanding so called haunted houses than we were back then? All the equipment used in modern ghost hunts are featured in the book- thermometers, EMR readings, infared cameras and audio recorders to capture white noise. The book is a thoroughly researched story on hauntings and their investigations and is hugely intellligent in its presentation of the science vs religion argument which rages on. Tragically, in the end, Lionel and Florence are both correct in their views as they find our to their detriment and the reader is left on edge as the book hurtles towards its conclusion, with only the cautious Fisher and Edith able to unlock the secrets of Hell House, and what a brilliant and memorable ending the book has, my heart was racing. Truly, the last confrontation with Belasco is thrilling and unexpected, particularly as most of these books leave the demon to the reader's inagination, never really pulling up the curtain.
As for the characters, Florence and Lionel and Fisher are the strongest. Edith annoyed me somewhat as she was so mousy and unassertive and seemed to just follow her husband from one room to another and had no real opinions of her own. But then again she was very sexually repressed so that explained a lot of her actions. I wanted to scream at Lionel at times, his beliefs were so damn stubborn. Even when he was attacked by a ghost in the steam room, he still dismissed it as a natural occurance, absolutely unyielding in opening his mind to the existence of ghosts. Mind you, his demise was terrible, dragged through the house by Belasco and dumped in the swimming pool to drown. Florence made a lot of sense but was overly dramatic and hysterical so you had your doubts. Fischer was cool and collected and he alone put the pieces together to solve the mystery of Hell House. The book is also filled with set-pieces like the hammer attack on the table, the warped crucifix in the chapel, the final appearance of Belasco and the discovery of his grave, and countless other terrifying moments.
This is a brilliantly written and unforgettable book and already I know im going to be re-reading it a lot, if only for those first few chapters and the introduction to the Belasco mansion. Easily my favorite haunted house book. 9 out of 10
. Richard Matheson, you were one weird puppy, but i salute you!