Hell House, by Richard Matheson

Hell House, by Richard Matheson book coverGenre: Horror
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Published: 1999
Reviewer Rating: four and a half stars
Book Review by Jeff Edwards

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The Belasco house in Maine — Hell House — is regarded as the Mount Everest of haunted houses. Two previous expeditions into the empty mansion, first in 1931 and later in 1940, ended in tragedy. Thirty years later, Dr. Lionel Barrett is hired by a dying multi-millionaire to definitively prove or disprove life after death. Barrett and his wife, along with Florence Tanner (“an over- emotive Spiritualist medium”) and Ben Fischer (“the lone survivor of the 1940 debacle”) cross the threshold into Hell House to risk their lives — and their souls.

On the surface, Richard Matheson’s novel bears more than a passing resemblance to Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” but where “Hill House” was subtle, Hell House is graphic. “Hill House” featured odors, chills and thumping noises, and so does Hell House — before it launches into possession by spirits, sexual depravity, violence and death. Hell House’s previous occupants took part in all manner of debauchery (“They were at the bottom by 1928, delving into mutilation, murder, necrophilia, cannibalism”) and now, after death, their spirits seem to be continuing in the same vein.

Just as Matheson applied science and psychology to the vampire myth in his earlier novel “I Am Legend,” he does the same here to haunted houses. “[T]he psychic emanation which all living beings discharge is a field of electromagnetic radiation…In extremes of emotion, the field grows stronger, impressing itself on its environment with more force…Hell House is, in essence, a giant battery, the toxic power of which must, inevitably, be tapped by those who enter it.”

While Matheson offers a modern take on the haunted house tale, he also channels Edgar Allan Poe at times. Hell House boasts it own tarn (“The surface of the water looked like clouded gelatin…A miasma of decay hovered above it, and the stones which lined its shore were green with slime”), and this fetid body of water is surely meant to remind the reader of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where Poe’s narrator describes “an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees…and the silent tarn — a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernable, and leaden-hued.” Fischer’s heightened senses later in the book (“Every sound was heard exaggeratedly…The smell of the house became intense. The texture of his clothes felt rough against his skin”) mirror Roderick Usher’s condition (“He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses…he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive…and there were but peculiar sounds…which did not inspire him with horror”). When Fischer and Tanner find the mummified remains of a man behind a wall of brick and mortar, Barrett even murmurs, “Shades of Poe.”

Matheson intertwines sex and death in his claustrophobic tale of horror, and the early works of Clive Barker — his “Books of Blood” or “The Hellbound Heart” — seem to be the bastard offspring. Often frightening and always unpleasant, Hell House is described aptly by Stephen King as “the scariest haunted house novel ever written. It looms over the rest the way the mountains loom over the foothills.”

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