Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hell House by Richard Matheson (1971): Come On Up to the Devil's Whorehouse

Love this unlikely cover art for Hell House, the haunted house novel by the one and only Richard Matheson. Showcasing the classic Gothic romance elements that were then so popular in mass-market paperbacks, this 1972 Bantam paperback features a woman threatened and fearful of a house she cannot even see from the position she's standing in. Wonder how many old ladies picked this up thinking it was your standard Goth romance, but then ended up on a tour of real horror and perversion not even hinted at on the cover... Heh.

This edition from 1973 includes the two essential horror buzzwords of the era, "possession" and "occult" - and even by '73, two years after its original publication in hardcover, Hell House was considered a "classic novel." Oddly it doesn't mention either Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist! A horror fiction rarity indeed in those pre-King days.

Did you notice that all the women are in the exact same stance?! This Warner Books cover from '85 is a little too starkly blocky for my taste, and having King's and Straub's names above the author's must have stung Matheson a bit - but this had to really stand out on the paperback racks. And after actually reading Hell House I am not at all surprised to see their blurbs here.

The plot: four people enter the famously haunted Hell House and... well, not all of them leave. The original owner and occupant of the house, the legendary Emeric Belasco, got up to some pretty nasty stuff there, and it seems his negative vibes still permeate the place: no one ever saw him after a November night in 1929, when all his party guests ended up dead. Skeptic physicist/paranormal investigator Dr. Barrett brings his electronic ghost-detector called the Reversor, basically a framus that intersects with the ramistan approximately at the paternoster. Florence Tanner is a kind of Christian medium who can contact the spirit world. Ben Fischer was a child prodigy medium and a member of a previous and tragic endeavor into Hell House that left him the only survivor. Edith is Barrett's wife, prim, proper, unsure why she's along. Hired by the cranky old Rolf Deutsch, a rich eccentric man who wants them to determine if there is life after death, they plan to spend one week within its walls...

So, the good: early chapters include some tasty details about Belasco's predilections at home, which put him in a locus of Crowley, de Sade, and de Rais. Matheson strikes a somber and bleak tone throughout, hinting at times at a Gothic atmosphere - Hell House sits enshrouded in an eternal fog, its windows all bricked up, its rooms enormous and arrogant, the grounds a marshy, deadly tarn. Later, unfortunate characters pinball through this house of horrors, hit by wave after wave of fear and disbelief and pain in nightmarish collisions with their deepest repressions (revealing, I felt, where King and Straub got a lot of ideas for their own excesses). "It's me!" cries one character over and over again at the climax, maddening in idiocy, perhaps my favorite chilling moment in the whole book.

The bad: too much down-time and repetition in the week's activities and lots of bickering. Barrett's Reversor and his and the others' theories on psychic phenomena bore me silly and aren't scary at all. That "somber and bleak tone" becomes humorlessness; the book isn't really any fun in that "gotta keep turning the pages" way I like my vintage horror fiction. And the characters are virtually sympathy-free: Barrett's imperious, Florence a whiner, Fischer's generally out of sorts, and Edith's... well, her name's Edith, you can figure it out.

1999 cover art

The ugly: mostly the graphic sexual assaults, all originating in the rampant orgies of sex and death that were the norm during Belasco's reign in the house. One attack, on Florence, is lurid and somewhat ridiculous in its over-the-topness. Overall it's pretty baldly obvious that Matheson took The Haunting of Hill House and made it faster, cruder, meaner - but a lot shallower too, stuck in its '70s vibe of psychic/paranormal BS, which is my least favorite kind of horror fiction. The author bio states that Matheson is "a man who knows of what he writes, he is a long student of ESP and related psychic phenomena." Big whoop, honestly. Maybe in the stoned '70s that carried some cred, but not today. You might want to stop by Hell House for a visit, there's some really funky stuff going on there you'd like, but if you wanted to skip this tour and spend more quality time with, say, I Am Legend, I wouldn't blame you.

15 comments:

William Malmborg said...

Great post. I want to reread this novel since it has been so long. My second time around with I Am Legend several months ago caused me to dig out all my old Matheson books. Stir of Echoes is another that I read but can't remember much from.

Rob said...

I too was underwhelmed by Hell House. It's fine but but no classic in my book. Thanks for saying it, Will.

Mac Campbell said...

I've missed this but i'm going to give it a shot based on your lukewarm review. Despite the tedious bits you describe, that climax sounds intriguing.

Barrymore Tebbs said...

LOVE the Bantam '72 cover. Which proves a point, that the GRs in that era were in such heavy demand that MANY books were marketed as GR to fill the need. I've seen the movie twice and it has never compelled me to read the book. Gothic, yes. Gothic Romance, no.

Will Errickson said...

Is there a subgenre called Gothic Ghost-Rape? That would fit.

Jeff P said...

After seeing the movie as a teen (quite frightening at the time), I found the '73 edition at a local department store. I devoured it and was thrilled, not to mention titillated. I was 15, so the graphic sexual stuff was like reading a book I shouldn't have been reading. And, I don't remember, but it may have been my introduction to Matheson.

I've long considered it a classic, but can't remember the last time I read it. Maybe my 53 yr old self needs to re-read it and see if I agree w/ your evaluation.

Ron Clinton said...

I think the review's a little too harsh on it, but I do agree it's not the Matheson classic that many purport it to be. I think it's well worth reading, but only after one has read the dozen-plus Matheson novels that are considerably better (though he's written a number that are worse, certainly (e.g. HUNGER AND THIRST, WOMAN, THE LINK, et al))...I'd put HELL HOUSE somewhere in the middle of his body of work.

Luis said...

Haven't read Hell House but was surprised by your lukewarm review since it's considered such a classic and often ends up in "ten best" lists. Even so, I'll give it a try if I come across a vintage copy, especially if it's the '72 or '73 covers.

Barrymore Tebbs said...

Necrorotica?

Tim Mayer said...

Big fan of both the book and movie version. Yes the psuedo-scientific reverse overthruster stuff gets a little thick, but the rest of the book holds up.

highwayknees said...

I was a huge Matheson fan as a kid. I read Hell House when it came out in HB. Breathlessly, I might add. It scared me silly. Of course I was 15 or 16 at the time.

My best Matheson novel experience up until that time had been The Incredible Shrinking Man, which is a more complex read than the movie version- of course. And much more harrowing. I'd say it's his masterpiece.

But back to HH...I felt compelled to write Matheson a love/fan letter of sorts. I sent it through his publisher and mentioned my other favorite haunted house novel The Haunting of Hill House, which I said his book reminded me of and had he read it? (DUH!)
HE WROTE ME BACK!! Yup. And in a short and terse missive stated that "while he had read and enjoyed Ms. Jackson's novel, he did not enjoy the plot being so nebulous, or not fleshed-out..." or something to that effect. I have since LOST the letter .Grrrr. But the MAN himself shrunk a bit in my opinion after that! So much sour grapes masquerading for jealousy me thinks...

jmcozzoli said...

Great rundown on the covers and style changes! I first caught the movie version at a New Jersey drive-in. Fog ruined the second half of the movie enough for us to leave. I didn't catch the full movie until years later.

Will Errickson said...

Rereading the review I guess I do seem overly harsh on HH, so I will say there were lots of graphic horror aspects I liked about it, but they were pretty much overshadowed by the psychic phenom stuff. I also wish the book were simply more fun. It's so dour.

Rabid Fox said...

One of my all-time faves. I got the 99 cover art edition--or I used to. Might have to dig around for it and reread it.

Doug said...

This is a perfect example of that even if the movie is fine, the novel is soooo much better!