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 artThe 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.