Friday, October 31, 2014

Hell House by Richard Matheson

Title: Hell House
Author: Richard Matheson
Publisher:  Viking Press (1971)

I think this final title of our year might be the third Matheson book in our joint post series. A moment, please, while I do a quick search... For once, my memory serves me well. Here's the first we did and then another earlier this year for a second go. I was hoping third time's a charm for me and this author - who I don't click with - but, alas, it's clearly not meant to be. At least I know for sure now and can comfortably move on from Matheson's backlist.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here. 

Click here for Michael's film review of The Legend of Hell House
at It Rains... You Get Wet

Title rivals Florence for the best thing about the book. It sounds cool, it’s succinct and apt. (As you’ll see, I’m really reaching for anything positive to say about this book; don’t say I didn’t warn you, if this is a novel you like, you won’t like this review.)
Two mediums, a scientist, and an assistant have one week to take on the powerful, clever, cursed, and diabolically haunted Hell House.

What works: 
Florence. There are essentially 4 characters in this novel (not counting the house) but only one of them is well-characterized. When Florence first appears it seems like she’s going to play the ‘dippy sensitive’ role but she turns out to be a very well-rounded character. She is quite sensitive (she’s a medium so I’m using this word more in those terms) and very empathetic, both of which turn out to be great strengths and great weaknesses in her time in Hell House. It was also a cool feature of her character that her communion with the dead was intimately tied to her monotheistic faith.

The mystery-related dramatic tension. This story is a melding of a haunted house story and a mystery. The dramatic tension related to the mystery periodically created moments of tension and excitement.

What Doesn’t: 
So many things!!! The writing is poor, the dialogue is uneven, and the characterization is not well done (Florence excepted). It’s sexist, misogynist, and homophobic. One could argue that it is the characters/house who are these things but I could argue (and do!) that choices were made by the author that go beyond simply assigning characteristics. This not being my first Matheson book, I am seeing a definite pattern in his choices as an author and they’re a problem. (I’m also pretty sure he’s of the school of thought that says ‘but there’s no reason for it.’ Gross!) 

It features extreme sexual violence against women whilst the men are attacked in multiple, non-sexual ways and usually via their perceived mental faculties. 

ScienceFail: The scientist’s arguments are built upon completely unscientific reasoning. I’m not referencing the scientific reasoning of house hauntings (clearly I’m buying that conceit if I’m reading) but he’s supposed to be a physicist and he doesn’t even know how to build a case using the scientific method. 

The Ending [major spoiler to come, highlight if interested]: After spending the length of a book with a super powerful villain puppet mastering every single scene, he is defeated by what amounts to name calling. Seriously? Name calling? (And while we’re here, the villain’s motivation is that he’s short????)

Overall: Skip this one, it sucks.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 1 of 5 stars

Coming up next:  
Annual holiday break, see you next year!


  1. I had a feeling you'd not like this. Well, Hell House would be the capper that'd turn you totally off this writer. This, my second reading of the novel, did bring up aspects that were a bit off-putting this time around. You do bring up valid points. The extreme sexual violence against women specifically. Although, not to excuse it, but horror as a genre has a penchant for this. In the 60s-70s, for sure. You'd only have to look at THE EXORCIST for some of that.

    As I mentioned in my film review, this was Matheson’s “manly” take of Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. Certainly upping the blood and violence, to say nothing of the sexuality. This was pushing it for the 70s, and it was even a lot of those times. A great many antiquated sexist and homophobic views are on full display, but you can find evidence of that in a great many other novels of the period, and they don’t have to be horror.

    That said, it did keep my interest. I like another of Matheson’s take of the pseudo-scientific angle, even if it doesn’t exactly hold up. Even Stephen King (I’m re-reading his DANSE MACABRE non-fiction book) subscribed to the “haunted house as a battery” idea. Florence was the most interesting of the characters, though I enjoyed Fischer, too. Her destruction was pretty horrific, and certainly helped to bring the evil that was Belasco to full fruition. Wished the movie had used the tarn, though.

    Kinda sick Richard Matheson dedicated this novel to his daughters!

    Oh, well. I enjoyed the movie much more because if toned down, or eliminated much of the book’s excesses. I’m sure we can fill out our dance cards without more from this author. Another enjoyable review season, nevertheless. Thanks, Rachel :-)

    1. Ha! You know me so well. :)

      I, too, was blown away to see that dedication. Doh! I might have a few words with my dad if he dedicated a book like that to me. hehe

      Glad to hear the movie tones things down. I actually didn't watch it because I really didn't want to see the things my mind was having to edit. Now I'll go queue it up since I've got some more information.

      I would definitely agree that the faults of this novel are not horror specific. Sadly, all genres are equal opportunity offenders no matter what the decade. *sigh*

      I also really enjoyed another year of doing this series together. Here's to many more to come. Many thanks!

  2. Just read this for the first time and really enjoyed it. A classic ghost story. As for your complaint that only the women are attacked sexually while the men aren't, well, that's kind of to be expected considering the back story established for the spirit haunting the house. He was a man of great sexual depravity, so of course he would target the women in that way and not the men. I think there's a big difference between an author deliberately being sexist/misogynistic and depicting those traits in certain characters. What I look away from the story was that Emeric Belasco was a very dark, evil man, not Richard Matheson the author.

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I would agree that Matheson is very likely not a dark, evil man but, as I mentioned, this is not my first novel by him and he has a pattern to what he chooses to include in his stories and I think that does reflect on him personally not just artistically. But, obviously, I can just choose to read other things.

      Thanks again for leaving a comment!