BOOK REVIEW: HELL HOUSE, by Richard Matheson

 

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.

BOOK REVIEW: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

book cover Haunting Hill House_

The Haunting of Hill House is one of those classic tales that every horror fan reads, or at least knows they should read.  This story, written in 1959, is the foundation for much of the haunted house fiction that exists today.  It inspired two movies: “The Haunting”, made in 1963, and the remake, also called “The Haunting,” made in 1999. It also established the premise for all the modern ghost hunting TV shows, like “Ghost Hunters”, “Ghost Adventures”, “The Dead Files”, etc. – a group of people gather at a site reported to be haunted and try to gather evidence of paranormal activity. No less a horror fan than Stephen King used the whole first paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s novel to kick off one of his own haunted house stories, ‘Salem’s Lot (King, 1).

So what is it about, this story? It’s about a very informal, by today’s standards, ghost hunt. Dr. Montague, an anthropologist with a secret passion for the supernatural, invites a group of people with prior paranormal experience to spend the summer at a large, country mansion he has rented. The mansion, Hill House, has been empty for some time and is reputed to be haunted. By summer’s end, Montague hopes to be able to bring back irrefutable, scientific proof of the existence of ghosts.  With him are his two assistants, Eleanor, who had a poltergeist experience as a child, and Theodora, who astounded the college psychical research lab with her card-guessing abilities. Also along for the ride is Luke, a “liar” and a “thief” (Jackson 9). He is also heir to Hill House, and sent by his aunt to keep an eye on the property. Mr. and Mrs. Dudley (the granite-faced caretaker and his equally dour housekeeper/cook wife) round out the cast for most of the book. Then when the story is almost over, the doctor’s wife, Mrs. Montague, and her boy toy … er assistant, Arthur show up.

The story is told from Eleanor’s point of view, and it’s often difficult to tell what is real and what is imagined. Despite her initial impression: “Hill House is vile, it is diseased” (33), Eleanor changes her mind once Theodora shows up. “Theo” is everything Eleanor, “Nell,” is not: confident, pretty, playful, and flirtatious. Theo also has a mysterious roommate waiting back at her very own apartment. Eleanor, on the other hand, is lonely, awkward, repressed, and basically homeless. The two strike up the kind of “summer fling” friendship that often occurs during cruises, vacations, or similar ordeals.

The two men, Dr. Montague and Luke, take turns answering the women’s questions, and fulfilling at various times the roles of father/mentor/big brother/love interest. This was, after all, written in the Fifties when men were men, and women were neurotic.

The actual supernatural events that occur in this book are few, but well portrayed. I especially liked the scene where Eleanor and Theo are in Theo’s room on her bed, clinging to each other as a crashing BOOM, BOOM,BOOM attacks the bedroom door.  The other chilling bit of scariness occurs when the Thing in the Hall returns and Eleanor sits terrified in the dark for a long time, Theo clutching her hand so tightly it hurts. Then suddenly the light is on, and Theo is sitting up, half asleep, all the way across the room.  Freaked, Eleanor says, “Good God – whose hand was I holding?” (163). Good stuff.

However, except for the paranormal elements in Hill House there is not much for a modern reader to like about this ghost story. In many ways it’s dated: the dialogue consists of a lot of “witty” Fifties-style banter, favored by the middle class; the characters have become stereotypes, and even the most thoroughly fleshed-out character, Eleanor, can be seen as a stereotype –just another repressed, neurotic female; a thirty-two year old virgin; and even Dr. Montague’s “man of science” act is lame by today’s standards. Where are his EVP recorders, his K2 meters, or MEL meters, or Ghost Boxes, or IR lights, or even his Laser Grid Scope?!

Despite these flaws, Jackson has written a remarkably unique ghost story. Love her or hate her, Eleanor’s vulnerability, loneliness, and fear do make her sympathetically human. So when the house singles her out for special treatment and mockingly dangles before her the one thing she wants more than anything else – someplace she belongs, a home – you hurt for her. At least a little.  And that is why The Haunting of Hill House has managed to retain its place of honor in horror fiction after all these years.

 

 

Jackson, Shirley, The Haunting of Hill House. New York: Penguin Books, 1984. Print.

King, Stephen, ‘Salem’s Lot. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1975. Print.