Novel November

Hell House

by Richard Matheson


Reading Review by Michael Channing

Hell House by Richard Matheson

Here's the setup: A dying millionaire hires a group of folks to find him proof that there either is or isn't an afterlife. He promises a big cash payoff if they can provide a real answer before he shuffles off this mortal coil. Where to find that answer? In the old Belasco house, the titular house of hell, known in the novel as the Mount Everest of haunted houses. The investigating team consists of a scientist and two mediums, one of whom is the only survivor of a group of paranormal researchers who entered the house thirty years ago. Along for the ride is the scientist's wife, who not only serves as an everywoman for the professionals to explain their differing opinions to, but also adds a nice layer of jealousy to the second half of the book.

The Belasco house was built by Emeric Belasco as a retreat and hideaway for those who desired more and more perverted and depraved experiences. Dr. Barrett, the scientist, believes that so many blasphemous and atrocious acts occurred in the house that the very walls have become stained and saturated with powerful electromagnetic energy. Note that he does not refute or disbelieve the reported psychic phenomena that others claim to have witnessed in the house. He just doesn't believe them to be the result of ghosts. The two mediums, on the other hand, do believe in spooks. One of them, Florence, attempts to contact the lingering souls directly and suffers Barrett's constant ridicule. Fischer, the medium who survived the last exploration of the house, though with a tapestry of mental scars, also believes the house to be haunted, he just doesn't care to do anything about it. He's only there to ride out the required inhabitancy and collect his money. Barrett and Florence clash over differing opinions while Fischer and Barrett's wife Edith share secrets and, later, sexual tension.

Near the start of the book, Dr. Barrett reads an exhaustive list of psychic phenomena that have been recorded in the Belasco house, and Fischer recounts the criminal and perverse history of Belasco and his followers. From these accounts, we know we're in for a dark and scary ride. But the events unfold slowly, which is the proper pacing for a horror novel, but after a time the reader can't help but wonder if they stumbled into Heck House by mistake. But rest assured, Hell awaits, and the explorers do indeed suffer Satanic torments. The physical attacks give way to mental onslaught as the house, or whatever it is, ramps up its attempts to subvert, divide, and conquer the four uninvited guests. Using their secret desires, the invading entity cranks the volume on Florence's religious beliefs and Edith's sexual frustrations and hidden lusts. It's at this point that the characters begin to use curse words. For the first half of the novel, their swears are of the PG-13 variety, but when the attacks turn carnal, the language becomes just as base. Edith tempts both Fischer and Florence, sending her husband into a jealous rage while Florence is seduced by a spirit in the absolute most disturbing scene of the book. Seriously, that scene is not for the squeamish. While a lesser book might treat the sexual encounters as one-handed reading material, Matheson refuses to titillate, choosing rather to reveal the violent and self-destructive side of wanton lechery.

I must confess that though I enjoyed the book, I was not satisfied with the ending. There is a revelation in the last few pages that seems to come out of nowhere. We find out some new information about Belasco, and all the blame for the previous tortures is shifted at the last minute to this left-field insight. But of course, since the book gives us two warring opinions on the true nature of the house then carefully loads each side of the scale with equal weight, the outcome is bound to be somewhat anticlimactic. Still, it's a good ride that I don't want to dissuade you from taking. You can make up your own mind if the ending works or not. Just be prepared. The first half of the book offers the usual haunted house scares and dread. The second half has teeth, and it sinks them in deep.

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