Saturday, 1 November 2014

Hell House: A Hellish Good Time… For a Little While at Least

A Review By: Amelia
Ghost stories are my all my favourite. The Haunting of Hill House is my favourite ghost story ever and since reading it I’ve been searching for another ghost story that will match this truly terrifying book. When I came to Hell House on my ghostly reading list, I was pretty sure I’d found a new favourite. It seemed right up my alley and the author is more or less the defining movement in sci-fi/horror so what’s not to get excited about? Well, as it turns out–wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning with a synopsis of the story!

Can any soul survive? Regarded as the Mount Everest of haunted houses, Belasco House has witnessed scenes of almost unimaginable horror and depravity. But when Deutsch, a wealthy magazine and newspaper publisher, starts thinking seriously about his impending death, he offers to pay a physicist and two mediums $100,000 each to establish the facts of life after death. The group travel to the Belasco House in Maine, which has been abandoned and sealed since 1949 after a decade of drug addiction, sadism, and debauchery and discover exactly why the town folks refer to it as the Hell House.

Above, I mentioned the author being a defining force, and he is! Richard Matheson has been a power house in horror for as long as he was writing. His first short story, Born of Man and Woman immediately made Matheson famous. Between 1950 and 1971, Matheson produced dozens of stories, frequently blending elements of the science fiction, horror and fantasy genres. At the time of his death he’d written well over a hundred works including novels, short stories, and films. Arguably, his most commercially successful work is I Am Legend.

The story of Hell House is, as stated above, the often seen ‘people investigating a haunted house’ story. There’s nothing wrong with taking this angle as long as you’ve got good characters to back it up and Matheson does. The main characters of the piece are four people: Dr. Lionel Barrett, a physicist with an interest in parapsychology, his wife Edith, and two mediums, Florence Tanner, a Spiritualist and mental medium, and Benjamin Franklin Fischer, a physical medium. Fischer is the only survivor of a failed investigation thirty years before and because of this, he’s very closed off and unwilling to use his medium powers. He understands Hell House better than anyone and there’s a great line where he comments to the others: “the Belasco House has never minded having guests” (or something like that, I’m paraphrasing). He knows the house won’t go after him unless he goes after it so he pours himself a drink whenever he can and ignores what’s going on. Of course, that hardly means that he’s being ignored and his deliberate inaction is, of course, his downfall.

Florence, the other medium, is quite the opposite of Fischer. She’s the very definition of eager and seeks to help the spirits trapped in the house and send them to the afterlife. She’s very religious but also very sensual–an interesting mix for a medium/pastor at a church! Of course her over-eagerness is her biggest weakness and, in trying so hard to be right about the hauntings and righteous in her actions, she allows in some very sadistic evil indeed.

The last two characters are Dr. Barrett and his wife Edith. Dr. Barrett is a scientist through-and-through and is arrogant in his disbelief/disregard for spiritualism. He was mostly crippled by polio as a child and the evil in the house plays on not only his physical condition but his staunch scientific belief. Edith, emotionally, is very weak and is prone to anxiety about being alone, ridiculous personal fears and insecurities, and many pent-up desires (all of them sexual since her crippled husband is more or less unable to have sex). She’s toyed with by–you guessed it–all these sexual overtones you keep hearing about. All the characters are pretty fleshed out and seem like real people. They do come off rather exaggerated at times thought but I could never tell if it was just flashy writing or it was because of what the house was doing to them, but honestly, it wasn’t really that big a deal and it certainly doesn’t take anything away from the overall experience.

The location was by far the best part of this novel for me. Matheson creates a dreadful and foreboding location right off the bat with a house that’s seen the absolute worst of the worst, including but not limited to: deviant sex, copious drug consumption, necrophilia, gluttony, cannibalism, disease outbreaks, sadism, murder-for-the-fun-of-it, etc., etc. The windows are bricked up, the power doesn’t work, there’s a church with stained glass depicting nuns being raped and a crucifix with an erect phalli. It’s just a nasty place full of nasty things. What makes the house so very creepy is its ability to corrupt before it destroys. It gets into the minds of those who enter and makes them think and see things to suit its evil needs. The house breaks those who dare enter it by subtly undermining their sanity and that’s always an interesting take on the haunted house genre I find. But where does all this supernatural potency come from? Well, I can’t say without ruining the ending, but it’s a very interesting source indeed. My one qualm with this subtle undermining is that a lot of this evil trickery has strong sexual overtones and, while it makes sense considering the history of the house, after a while it just becomes a bore. There’s only so many times you can see the pure and innocent Edith try and have lesbian sex with Florence before you begin skimming through those parts looking for a scary bit!
Now, all that having been said, the most disappointing thing about Hell House is that it’s ending doesn’t work. I loved the location, the characters all had their place, and the history given about the house is still enough to give me chills. Then the ending comes along. I can’t say too much without giving it all away, but I can say that it gets hectic, crazy, and disgusting near the end but then–after all that setup–the climax isn’t very climactic at all! There’s also a very cringe worthy, put-the-book-down-and-think-about-puppies-to-keep-from-fainting bit near the end involving Florence and that crucifix I mentioned earlier… Normally, I can handle gore in books but that scene… it is just deeply disturbing. Especially for women.

My final thoughts on Hell House are that it’s not the best ghost story, but it is still very much worth a read. It is an expertly crafted and atmospheric location. The characters were also pretty good, albeit a little predictable. What didn’t work for me–and apparently a lot of readers of this book according to other reviews–are the sexual overtones. The house had a history of deviant sexual behaviour, but having every ‘possession’ that happens be about sex? It’s just overkill to me; especially considering how it’s not scary even once! Shocking? Sure, it could be to the right reader. But scary? Pardon the pun, but I’m afraid not. Read Hell House if you’re looking for shock value but look elsewhere if you want genuine scares.

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