Review: Hell House by Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson’s Hell House popped up in my Amazon recommendations after I browsed horror classics for my October reading. I dropped the others on my list in its favor because Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is, well, legendary. What Dreams May Come is also decent (don’t quote me; I read it too long ago to fully recommend now). As for Hell House… not what I expected. It’s suitably eerie, suspenseful, and intense, but it has a weird 1970’s pulp-porn component with an uncomfortable level of sexual violence and humiliation. It’s over the top in a way that verges on camp, but for something to be campy, it ought to be a little funny and this isn’t.

On to the good stuff. Like Hill House, Hell House features a scientific exploration into supernatural events. Dr. Barrett, along with his wife, Edith, and two mediums (one active, Florence; one repressed, Fischer) hopes to crack into and destroy the vicious power which animates Hell House. The house sports an impressive list of paranormal activities and an intense body count. The windows have been bricked over, the power is sporadic, and it’s populated by a cruel force which smashes furniture and possesses people. Or is it? Dr. Barrett intends to prove that the house is a maelstrom of energy which is only responding to the presence of the two mediums. To him, there are no ghosts, the violence is a product of Florence’s desire to prove herself as a medium and connect with an actual presence in the house.

It’s a great set up. There is a lot of supernatural…stuff, but the mystery of what’s fueling the madness is enough to keep the pages turning. Early on, Matheson has some tongue-in-cheek awareness when the power goes out (because the power has to go out):

“Obviously the generator is too old,” Barrett said.
“Generator?” Edith looked surprised again. “There’s no electrical service here?”
“There aren’t enough houses in the valley to make it worth the effort,” Barrett answered.
“How could they put in a telephone, then?”
“It’s a field telephone,” Barrett said. He looked into the house. “Well, Mr. Deutsch will have to provide us with a new generator, that’s all.”
“You think that’s the answer, do you?” Fischer sounded dubious. (31)

(I wouldn’t get my hopes up about that generator.)

Soon after, a phonograph goes off randomly with Belasco’s voice (Belasco was the house’s former insane owner) welcoming them to his home. The phonograph distracts the group long enough for Matheson to write this shiver-inducing passage:

“Then, again, maybe [Belasco] was invisible,” Fischer continued. “He claimed that power. Said that he could will the attention of a group of people to some particular object, and move among them unobserved.”
“I doubt that,” Barrett said.
“Do you?” Fischer’s smile was strange as he looked at the phonograph. “We all had our attention on that a few moments ago,” he said. “How do you know he didn’t walk right by us while we were listening?” (39)

As for how Belasco rotted the house so thoroughly, he encouraged people to follow their vices. It started with orgies, but moved on from there:

“Still, it wasn’t exclusively sex. The principle of excess was applied to every phase of life here. Dining became gluttony, drinking turned to drunkenness. Drug addiction mounted. And, as the physical spectrum of his guests was perverted, so, too, was their mental.”
“People stayed here months, then years. The house became their way of life. A way of life that grew a little more insane each day. Isolated from the contrast of normal society, the society in this house became the norm. Total self-indulgence became the norm. Debauchery became the norm. Brutality and carnage soon became the norm.” (58)

The house’s norm eventually included necrophilia and cannibalism—betcha didn’t see that coming! Needless to say, a very ill force haunts the house.

Altogether, I’d say this is a great read. Matheson’s writing is clear and powerful. He leans on a few clichés, but does so in a slightly self-aware way that prevents a reader from rolling their eyes too hard. The characters can be frustrating: Dr. Barrett is rigid in his belief that THERE ARE NO GHOSTS; Florence, the house’s plaything, is sweet and devout no matter what happens; Dr. Barrett’s wife is consistently devoted; and Fischer, who should be the most interesting, spends his time shrouding himself from the house’s influence. With Matheson’s flare for writing jump-scares and gore, the story feels like it can go anywhere; it’s not hemmed-in by a reader’s expectation for a happy ending.

HOWEVER, some of the sexual violence is unsettling. Really disturbing. So whatever this blog’s equivalent of a “parental warning” is should be slapped across the front of this book. By the end, Matheson is driving for sacrilegious shock value, so if you’re squeamish or prudish, I can’t recommend this book.

Overall: 4.4 It’s made unflinchingly intense with moments of ridiculous camp, but also with moments of sexual violence and humiliation that will cross a line for some readers. It’s the rest of the book that’s earning the 4.4 rating. If you take out the pulp-porn, this book is what I’d expected from The Haunting of Hill House.

Translation: Read it.

6 thoughts on “Review: Hell House by Richard Matheson”

    1. It’s hard to issue a blanket “warning,” since everyone has different ideas about what crosses the line, but I decided to flag Hell House because the graphic sex is non-consensual and is shocking/gratuitous. The tone of Hell House vascillates between “good scary” (curling up with a blanket and popcorn and sitting on the edge of your seat) to “bad scary” (feelings of revulsion).

      This aspect of the book steps up as it goes on: it starts with a ghost slapping a woman’s posterior which could be generously interpreted as playful/funny and moves to serious offenses. That said, even if a reader is bothered, it’s hard for me to imagine them them dropping the book because the core story is so intense. Unlike Hill House, Hell House presents itself as a solvable mystery from the beginning; there’s real incentive to keep reading.

      I wonder if a large part of my satisfaction in this book is that it ends with enough answers that Hill House’s ambiguity no longer bugs me. Ha!

      1. What always gets me is that warnings are ‘parental’ – in my experience I was much more open-minded as a child than I am now! I’ve turned into my mother and am well on the way to becoming my grandmother! If I live long enough, I shall doubtless turn into John Knox…!! 😉

        1. Ha! I didn’t even think of that. “Parental” and “Trigger” are the two words my brain associates with “Warning” when it comes to content. I feel that “trigger warning” is overused, so I went the other way.

          That said, I am entirely sure that if my parents saw me reading (as a kid) certain paragraphs of this book, they’d have taken it away from me.

          Come to think of it… I remember reading a (not very good) book which was confiscated on grounds of inappropriate content. I was very young at the time and very upset to not read the end of the book. Maybe I should go looking for it now… Hrm.

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