Richard Matheson’s Hell House is one of the finest haunted house books out there. If you’ve a passing interest in the genre, or specifically in the ‘houses-that-are-haunted’ sub-genre, then do yourself a favour and check this novel out.
It tells the story of Belasco House, or Hell House, which we learn early on to be the Mount Everest of haunted houses. In the past it has twisted, smashed and destroyed those souls who have sought to understand, control or even temper it. Even before it was haunted, for its former living inhabitants, it was a communal den of sin and iniquity the likes of which few civilised places know. Sounds like a good place for a party, then; just be sure not to advertise it on Facebook.
Into this breach three specialists are sent, each with unique gifts, to assist with their task of discovering for their immensely wealthy, sickened employer whether there is actual proof of life after death. Said employer, Deutsch, is close to death, and it seems he is more than a little keen to find out what’s exactly on the other side of this mortal coil. And he wants cold, hard facts.
The full party of explorers consists of physicist Barrett, his wife Edith, and two mediums, Tanner and Fischer, all who aim to stay in the house until they have an answer for their rich client’s ultimate question. Barrett, the sceptical scientist, seeks to offer logical explanations of paranormal phenomena, and with that provide a tool with which to disperse those paranormal aspects of Hell House which have been so troublesome.
For the remaining party however, his attempts at constantly bombarding them with logic and hard-scientific fact, not to mention a derisive attitude to the very nature of mediums, are small barriers compared to the threats, perceived and real, from the forces of the terrible supernatural construction the house appears to have built.
The novel focuses upon the structured decline into chaos of the various members of the party as they go about their tasks, with increasing difficulty and tension. Each of the party has their own crosses to bear, and each is so determined in their personal goals, based on their own perceptions to date, and personal experiences, that you find yourself sympathetic and allied with their success.
It is this strength of resolve and the manner in which it affects each character’s interactions with each other, and the house, that makes each of them, and ultimately Hell House, so interesting. But it is ultimately the house itself, as it crafts a malign influence upon the characters and in turn their actions toward each other and themselves that make this such a great and strong haunted house book.
Matheson knows how to write scary sentences and paragraphs with successful intent of sending shivers down spines. His ability to deliver a tale of the supernatural is matched by very few, given his ability to deliver fluid, highly-effective copy. Thus there is very little that could be done to improve Hell House, so read and enjoy. But don’t read it too far into those early hours, as this is one horror novel that really does do what it says on the label.