Hell House by Richard Matheson
I originally read this book about eight years ago, before the advent of Netflix. I liked this book then, and I enjoyed it even more this time around, due to an interesting technological phenomenon. I began reading Hell House last week, and about fifty pages in, I decided, out of sheer curiosity, to see if it was available as a film to watch on Netflix. It was there and available on instant watch. So cool. It was a Saturday early evening, around 6 p.m. What followed was roughly eight hours (I’m a slow reader) of literary and cinematic shenanigans. I’d basically read about fifty pages into the book, then click play on Netflix and watch the film until I was all caught up to my current place in the book. Then I’d rush back and read another fifty pages, then watch another twenty minutes or so. The cool thing about the film adaptation of the book, is it follows the storyline of Matheson’s novel almost page for page. The dialogue, in particular, is lifted literally straight from the conversations within the book. The reason for this, is because Matheson himself wrote the screenplay adaptation of his novel for the film. You can tell, too. Every major point, argument and main, creepy concept from the book actually makes its way into the film. There are, of course, some sections of the book that are completely omitted from the film, for obvious reasons. While certain events in the book furthered the plot line and upped the creep factor, the film did not suffer for the lack of these aspects. As we all know, there are just some things that read better than they film. Some things are better left to the written word, and Matheson chose his battles very skillfully, in deciding what to keep and what not to include in the movie. This isn’t supposed to be a movie review, however.
Hell House was originally published in 1971 by Viking Press. That would be three years before the release of a little book called Carrie would turn King into a household name. King, in fact, has listed Richard Matheson as one of his all time favorite authors, as well as a major influence on his own voice, inspiration and style. Matheson is a classic horror writer, who penned several (14 in fact) of the scripts for the original 1960′s Twilight Zone series, including ‘Little Girl Lost‘, and the infamous ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet‘. He’s written teleplays for The Night Stalker, and his novels have been adapted to film countless times, including such classics as What Dreams May Come, Somewhere in Time, and I Am Legend, to name just a few.
Hell House is your classic haunted mansion type story, which delves deeply into the science of parapsychology, and the dueling worlds within this realm. Science versus mediumship is a constant struggle within this novel, one that at times can be maddening to read. There are many different angles of approach in dealing with the supernatural within this story, from the staunch Dr. Barrett (accompanied by his wife, Edith) who believes, perhaps to a fault, that all supernatural phenomenon can eventually be explained through simple laws of physics and the natural sciences, to the dueling worlds of mediumship between Florence Tanner, who is a mental medium and Ben Fischer, who is a physical medium. The differences are discussed at length within the novel, in a manner that is both informative and fascinating.
There are only four main characters in this novel, two male, two female. However, there are a plethora of other characters that come into play, including Emeric Belasco, the owner of Hell House, who is believed to be only one of many ghosts haunting the abode. In fact, there appear to be dozens of souls trapped within the Belasco house, including Emeric’s son, Daniel Belasco.
The sexual tension in this story can be cut with a knife, from the strained bedroom relations between the doctor and his wife, to the possessed-actions of both Edith Barrett and Florence Tanner, towards both living males in the house. There are sexual advances, innuendos, flagrant attacks, and even a depicted ghost-rape of one of the female guests in the house.
This story leaves you guessing as to just who is truly haunting the latest guests of Hell House, and what they really want. The science remains a mystery, all the way up until the end. It’s a who’s-who, and who-dunnit of the ghost variety, where the visions and hauntings suffered by the characters will leave you wondering just what has happened, what is real, what is hallucinated, imagined, or even faked.
If you get the chance, I highly recommend reading this book in segments, then watching the corresponding segments of the film. (Please note to look for “The Legend of Hell House, 1973 version, starring Roddy McDowell). The suspense it builds is incredible and heightens the enjoyment of both mediums, literary and cinematic, of this classic horror masterpiece.
Hell House is a ride. I also recommend reading it at night with all the lights out, save for the one you need to read the pages by. And see if you don’t jump at the sudden noises of your house’s walls settling, or the creaking of your roof in the wind; the light tap-tappings of your house’s foundation settling in for the evening…
Matheson knows how to spin a scary tale, and best of all, he really builds on the characters, making you care about each of them and their plights, as if they were your best friends. You’ll find yourself exclaiming out loud while reading this book, as if you were watching a film unfolding live before your eyes (this is Matheson’s cinematic, visual gift at work in his prose), saying things like, “No! Don’t have another drink!” or “Don’t go in there, and certainly not alone!”
If this book doesn’t entertain you, I’d be surprised. Everyone likes a classic horror spooky tale about a haunted mansion, don’t they? It’s a classic premise, told with no pretense toward the cliche. I assure you, Hell House will please, and scare you. If you’ve never visited this novel, do so soon. And read at your own risk….