Dallas' Book Report: Hell House by Richard Matheson

Hell House (1971)
Richard Matheson

Hell House was a scary read, but not perfect. If the book were summed up in one statement, an apt description would have to be that Hell House is a gorier, in-your-face version of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. The former was twisted but lacked the staying power of the latter.

The story surrounds the exploits of four people who spend a week in the infamous Belasco House in Maine. Dr. Lionel Barrett—a physicist with interest in the paranormal; his wife, Edith; Florence Tanner, a mental medium and spiritualist; and a physical medium named Benjamin Franklin Fischer, who has been in the house before. One of the best things about this novel is the way these four interact with one another. Lionel is approaching the house with a skeptical eye, claiming that the nefarious goings-on in the haunt must be dissected with science. In contrast, Florence—being the devout spiritualist—believes that science does not explain everything and that there are, indeed, forces in the universe that cannot be explained. Faith is also a factor. The other two, Edith and Benjamin, are just along for the ride—at the beginning of the tale, at least.

Matheson has a sincere interest in never presenting one viewpoint as right/wrong, but merely as a different means of epistemology. Sometimes these discussions take up entire chapters, and, although an accurate depiction of how such musings can unfold in the real world, can be a bit much. But when Matheson delves into the unsettling doings of Hell House, it is a true-blue fright fest of poltergeists, possessions, blood, and murder. Hell House is creepy beyond all belief, and Matheson is a master at making the reader look over their shoulder. For anyone who has read this book before, tell me that you did not feel the slightest of shivers during the chapter when Benjamin was regaling the sordid history behind Hell House. The novel was not afraid to disclose the disquieting lore behind the imposing gothic mansion. Some stories only scratch the surface of a haunting by telling us; somebody died there. This story kicks such niceties to the curb! Hell House's walls tell a story of orgies and depravity, of cannibalism and tragedy. These musings, while not described to the utmost, still burrowed under my skin while reading it.

The writing is briskly paced, detailed with deft, and shows that Matheson truly knew how to spin a yarn of unease. Every character's fear and personal demons, put on full display like the house is preying upon their most inner fears and using it against them. The house is a soul-sucking scrying mirror that reflects only the darkest parts of one's psyche and seals their doom. That, and juxtaposing the physical brutality of the place, makes for some wonderous wicked reading.

It is Unfortunate, this is where the praise must end. Because with all of the fanfare of ferocity and fear, Hell House dropped the ball with its ending. Without giving anything away (since I do believe it is worth a read), most of the book, Emeric Belasco, is hoisted up as one of the evilest men in history. A monster with a man's mask on. His presence is known throughout the house and his exploits are legendary. His evil knows no bounds, and his sadism, seamlessly sewed into the very fabric of Hell House itself! So for all of this propping up, posturing, the ending was disappointing. And it was to be nothing more than primping and window dressing. I realize that that might have been the point that the author might have been going for, and Matheson fans will debate me on this issue, but I found the entire ending to be a letdown. I would be a bit more forgiving if the conclusion of this tale did not feel like it was put together in a rush. The end of Hell House lacked the care that Matheson put in the rest of the book.

Other than its weak villain reveal and slapdash ending, Hell House is a bonafide book about a bad house that will not let you leave. 

Try to survive your stay.


Popular Posts