So I haven’t blogged in a while. I’ll admit: I downloaded an old computer game I used to play in high school, and I’m hooked all over again. This is my plug for RollerCoaster Park Tycoon: Once you start building virtual amusement parks, you’ll never stop. But I did read Hell House, by Richard Matheson, while I was on my blogging hiatus. Perhaps I seek to get in touch with my youth; I also flew through Hell House in high school and was mesmerized. I’ll admit, this time around, the story was less captivating. Maybe I’m old and jaded. But, the book is still a pretty good scare. As I sat alone downstairs at night reading it, I looked around anxiously lest any insidious spirits eye me up and prepare to pounce. As far as haunted house stories are concerned, Hell House provides an intricate plot with intense action and characters who are relatable, although some are more likable than others.
Appropriately, the book is written over a segment of seven days—beginning on December 18th, and ending on December 25th. In other words, as we sit here on December 22nd, (well, it will probably be the 23rd by the time I publish this) we are situated uncomfortably in Hell House territory. Realizing I’d chosen to read the book over the exact days it took place (I started on the 19th) augmented the already present creepiness of the story. However, the story took place 45 years ago, in 1970.
The whole story is a byproduct of a sick old man’s quest for immortality. The rich Mr. Deutsch, riddled with cancer, sends a group of psychics and parapsychologists to Hell House because he wants evidence that there is life after death, that we go on instead of, simply put, winking out. So he hires parapsychologist Lionel Barrett, mental medium Florence Tanner, and the only survivor of the 1940 investigation of Hell House, former all-star psychic Benjamin Fischer. He will give them each 100,000 dollars to investigate the house for a week and report back to him.
A red flag goes up with the discerning reader early in the text. When Benjamin Fischer went into the house in 1940, his comrades died and he ended up in a three-month coma. Matheson provides no real justification for Fischer’s desire to return to Hell House, aside from the money – a justification that does not work with Fischer’s character, who has depth and morality. One gets the sense that he might want to get even with the house, but when he gets there he guards himself and his powers so he’s not vulnerable to ghosts. In doing so, he initially achieves very little.
Fischer is a heavily guarded character, and the only one who realizes the danger and the power of the house. What’s compelling about his character is that as a reader, I felt like I knew him intimately through the brief details Matheson provided, though Matheson delves into his psyche far less than he does Florence or Barrett’s.
I found Fischer – and to a large degree, Florence – to be incredibly likeable characters. Edith and Lionel Barrett are harder to warm up to but ultimately endearing. Edith fits comfortably into the archetype of the meek, easy woman who the house preys on mercilessly. In the 1963 version of The Haunting this woman was the timid, easily manipulated, sensitive Eleanor. Edith is incredibly naïve. She blindly reveres her husband and takes his theory as fact. Her entire reason for going to Hell House, despite its purported danger, is her fear of being alone for any given amount of time. It would be interesting to survey haunted house books and movies and discern which of them have similarly meek female characters.
The way the characters talk about the house prior to their visit is fascinating. As is true of most haunted house stories, they invest the house with incredible power – except for Barrett, who’s unyieldingly skeptical of intelligent life beyond death existing. What fascinates me is the sheer “itness” of the haunted house, before the characters start to experience the house’s tricks and theorize who or what lies behind those tricks. I love a good “it” in horror, whether it’s “The Thing,” “It Follows,” or that horrendous clown movie, so-titled. When the group arrives at the house, Florence says “It knows we’re here.” Very odious, indeed.
What I’ll definitely credit Matheson with is his expediency; he jumps into the action quickly, and there are few if any significant lulls in the intensity. An occasional side-conversation between characters is almost always intercepted by some paranormal phenomena or like event. We get juicy bits and stories about the house right away. We know it belonged to an Emeric Belasco, who encouraged his guests to indulge in excess and perverseness. The bog outside the house is even called “Bastard Bog” because women used to get pregnant at his house and drown their babies in it.
One delightfully eerie scene happens early in the story. The group has just entered the house, and they’re standing around chatting when they hear a voice over the phonograph in the other room. The voice, which sounds like “the voice of a carefully disciplined madman,” croons: “Welcome to my house. I’m delighted you could come. I’m certain you will find your stay here most illuminating. It is regrettable that I cannot be with you, but I had to leave before your arrival. Do not let my physical absence disturb you, however. Think of me as your unseen host and believe that, during your stay here, I’ll be with you in spirit.” That’s the beginning of a recording that Emeric Belasco, the former house’s owner, used to play for his guests. Fischer tells the group that he would play the phonograph, hide out, and spy on his guests. He notes – in a move of excellent creepiness – the Belasco claimed he could make himself, and that perhaps Belasco walked by them all as they were staring, mesmerized, at the phonograph.
The description of the house and surrounding area is excellent, and Matheson’s style is fairly basic. It doesn’t unravel melodiously like some writers’ work does, but it makes for a quick, easy read. Matheson knows how to get a reader’s attention, through the aforementioned details and informational tidbits he drops about Emeric Belasco, who allegedly hung a cat when he was five to see if it really had nine lives, then chopped it to pieces when it didn’t come back to life.
He makes the interesting decision to delve deeply into the study of parapsychology, mostly through Barrett’s character, playing with a lot of definitions that will be unfamiliar to the reader. Barrett’s explanations can be dully scientific, and in general he can be a hard-headed, frustrating character. He frequently butts heads with Florence, who is far warmer and more likeable but a little sappy and, like Edith, a little naïve. If anything, Matheson could have constructed a stronger female character.
What is fascinating about Matheson is that he manages to depict evil, for the sake of evil. In previous writings, especially in “We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes” I reference Terry Eagleton’s definition of evil as doing malicious acts for no end, but for the sake of doing them. According to Belasco’s history, Belasco does this. One could even argue that the house – and whomever haunts it – is similarly insidious. True evil is hard to come by in books and movies – even horror books and movies – so I appreciated Matheson’s ability to construct Emeric Belasco’s character as someone who possesses true evil – by Eagleton’s narrow definition, and by any broader definition one could conjure.
I would have preferred to be more startled by the ending, but this book is a considerable page turner. If you’re a fan of haunted house books and movies, it’s a must read. And, as I understand it, the venerable Stephen King was heavily influenced by Matheson’s fiction, so he definitely goes down in the horror Canon as a master. Set aside a good few hours to delve deeply into the book, try reading it before the 25th, when the book ends, and, if you’re feeling really brave, read it at night. Alone.