Hell House, by Richard Matheson, is one of the best haunted house novels ever written. It takes the basic premise of The Haunting of Hill House – that there’s a scientist and his wife, and two people who have had prior experience with the paranormal; and that together they will spend a week in a very famous haunted house for the purpose of scientific research into the supernatural – and really takes it up several notches.
The first thing I noticed was an immediate build-up of tension. Matheson creates tension in Hell House in a couple of very effective ways: the book is broken into days, rather than chapters, which gives the feeling of time inexorably moving forward, no matter what; the time stamps introducing each scene are listed in a way that is somehow unnerving, such as 3:17 p.m., 11:47 a.m., 6:11 p.m.; as if we are always just missing the hands at three, or twelve, or six.
As far as the actual story goes, it has a classically ominous beginning to a haunted house tale. A dying billionaire, Rolf Rudolph Deutsch, hires Dr. Lionel Barrett, a physicist with an interest in parapsychology, along with two mediums: Florence Tanner, former Hollywood actress and now a mental medium and Spiritualist; and Benjamin Franklin Fisher, a physical medium and the only survivor of an earlier attempt to investigate Hell House in 1940. Deutsch is willing to pay them $100,000 each to bring him proof that the afterlife either exists or it doesn’t. He gives them one week to accomplish this. When Dr. Barrett asks Deutsch how he is supposed to do all that in a week, Deutsch tells him he has just purchased the Belasco House in Maine, and that’s where they will find their answers. “Hell House?” [Asked Barrett] Something glittered in the old man’s eyes. “Hell House,” he said (2). Barrett agrees, on one condition: Deutsch’s people have to build a special machine he needs, and deliver it to Hell House as soon as possible.
Before everyone meets at the Belasco House, we briefly meet each character and learn their reasons for taking on such a terrifying challenge. Florence needs the money to build a proper church for her Spiritualist congregation; Fisher feels like he’s finally ready to confront Hell House once again – he’s not a weak, gullible fifteen-year-old anymore; Barrett (who had polio as a child and still walks with a limp) wants his theory about the nature of psychic energy verified and recognized; Edith Barrett wants only to be allowed to stay by her husband’s side – they were apart once for three weeks because of his work and she nearly had a nervous breakdown.
Once everyone has gathered at the house, Dr. Barrett tells them what they’re in for, and why it’s called “Hell House”: the wealthy owner, Emeric Belasco, created his very own “Hell on Earth” where every blasphemy and perversion was not only encouraged among his guests, but enforced on them. Edith comes across Barrett’s list of all the phenomena observed in Hell House over the years – it has one hundred and six items on it, starting with “Apparitions” and ending with “Xenoglossy”. Edith is appalled. My God, she thought. What kind of a week was it going to be? (29)
Each character approaches Hell House in a different way. Florence Tanner roams the house “wide open” looking for poor, hurt souls she can save. Ben Fisher keeps himself, and his psychic abilities, locked down tight, so nothing can get in and hurt him. Dr. Barrett is appropriately skeptical and scientific – even though he acknowledges the mediums’ abilities, he disputes that they are actually doing what they think they’re doing. Edith Barrett never gets very far from her husband’s side; she is his own, personal ghost.
It’s not long before the house (or is it Belasco?) gets everyone’s measure. Florence becomes convinced that the poor, tortured soul of Belasco’s son, Daniel, is behind all the activity in the house. Dr. Barrett has a nasty encounter with something down in the basement pool and steam room that terrifies and weakens him. Edith starts sleepwalking through the house in search of carnal gratification, and Fisher’s psychic abilities are locked down tighter than ever: he won’t get fooled again.
As the week progresses, Hell House hits them with everything it’s got. Florence finds Daniel Belasco’s shackled, walled-up mummy in the basement. However, even when Daniel’s body is buried, the attacks and abuse of Florence continues. Goaded by Dr. Barrett, Fisher is frightened that he might really have lost his abilities so he lets down his guard momentarily; he is predictably attacked by sinister forces. Dr. Barrett’s machine finally arrives. At first it seems to work, and then it doesn’t.
By this time it has become obvious – Hell House has survived by feeding on the fears and insecurities of the people inside it, and with every person it corrupts, and every soul it devours, it grows stronger.
Matheson, Richard. Hell House. 1971. New York: Bantam Books, 1973. Print.