1-Minute Book Reviews: Hell House

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Hell House  (horror)
Richard Matheson, 1971
Recommended

I’m not sure about most people, but I’m willing to admit that I read reviews on Audible before I buy a book. Included in the reviews for Hell House were references to strong sexual content and unnecessary sexual content. The strength of the content depends on your individual experiences or preferences, but the necessity depends on what you conjure when faced with the thought of Hell.

William Reinhardt Deutsch, a millionaire on his deathbed, wants to know if spirits, ghosts, or other paranormal phenomena are real, and he knows the best place to find an answer – the Belasco House, aka Hell House. He’s willing to pay a heavy sum to members of a team that include physicist Lionel Barrett, his wife Edith, medium Florence Tanner. Completing the team is Benjamin Fischer, also a medium and the only survivor of a previous examination at that same house 30 years prior. Why Fischer would do this again isn’t acceptably explained because it makes no sense that someone would barely survive a haunted house and then attempt another visit.

Part of the agreement includes Deutsch paying for the construction of a fabulous machine designed by Dr. Barrett, whose demeanor is also rather machine-like. Contrary to his lack of warmth is Edith, who at times displays enough humanity and warmth for them both whether she wants to or not. In fairness to Barrett, his childhood bout with polio left him disabled in more ways than one. He walks with a cane and could have used a strong dose of Viagra had it existed. It was a mistake for her to join the party not because of her inability to do anything useful but because no caring husband would put his wife in harm’s way. If she were to be threatened, her presence should be not an asset but a distraction. Unless of course he just doesn’t really care about her.

Tanner and Fischer are at opposite ends of the medium spectrum. Tanner’s many senses and receptors are on full awareness as she seems in tune with the house’s every available vibe, both positive and negative. Fischer, however, is understandably at arm’s length from the alleged supernatural occupants. The previous time didn’t end well, but this time he knows what to expect.

Bad sign #1 – all windows are sealed. Bad sign #2 – generator is out. It takes a special combination of confidence and stupidity for four people to browse through Hell House with only one flashlight, but they persevere until finding enough candles to get through more than a full day until a new generator is delivered.

Each character has a distinct purpose. Barrett’s is to provide a logical explanation until his machine can do what it does. When a rocking chair starts on its own, it could be a breeze. When things are coming out of the medium’s nostrils during a séance, he writes it off as a manifestation of the medium’s internal energy or something like that. Edith’s purpose is little more than getting in the way and being a sounding board for Barrett’s exposition, often explained as if he’s speaking to a child. Tanner’s is to literally feel what’s going on the house. Fischer’s is to tell the others they’re wrong because he just knows things. Although this sounds predominately negative, I enjoyed the book more than it might seem but only slightly less than I had hoped.

Most haunted house stories have similar elements, and that includes Hell House. There’s a séance. There are things flying around the room. There are life-threatening moments for characters on their own that could be hallucinations because they end suddenly and leave little or no evidence. Their presence doesn’t diminish the story because they’re expected, but they’re not predictable. That’s what separates Hell House from most others in the genre.

Belasco was more than just eccentric. He ran an estate in which food, drink, and drugs were unlimited. There were zero boundaries. Whatever happened in Hell House, stayed in Hell House. Literally. Parties lasted days, weeks, months. Wine flowed. Lust flowed. Blood flowed. Guests were encouraged to explore not just every whim but every animal instinct. Once the alcohol and other substances released their inhibitions, nothing was off limits, not even murder. That brings us to the sexual content.

If you’re a ghost, and you’re a guy, and there are women in the house, you’re probably going to do more than just make the lights flicker. You’re going to tease, touch, maybe even taste someone or something. I’m not saying it’s okay. I’m just saying it makes the sexual content necessary. Libidinous men in life are going to be even more libidinous in death because there may be consequences in life.

There’s a scene in which Edith is checking Tanner for devices before a séance. Matheson spends what seems like an inordinate amount of time describing Tanner’s breasts and other curves. At first, I thought it was cheap exploitation, like softcore porn. As the story progressed, I realized why it was necessary, but there’s no reason to give that away here. The men who played in Hell House were hungry. They’re still hungry, making the sexual content perfectly appropriate for the characters involved.

Matheson has been accused of borrowing quite a bit from The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, one of my favorite authors. I can’t comment on that as I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my short list. Speaking of lists, Hell House should be on your list if you enjoy haunted house or any horror stories. I Am Legend should also be on your list. If you’re a Twilight Zone fan, you’ve likely seen a good number of episodes written by Matheson, which means you’re sure to like his novels as well.

It would be terrific to read Hell House while sitting by a blazing fireplace. Just keep your back to the wall and, if you have a rocking chair, either put yourself in it or put it in the garage until you finish the book.

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