~Hell House (1971)/ Richard Matheson
I'd never seen the film. I didn't even know there was a movie made from the story until I heard fellow students talking about it at SHU. In retrospect, I'm glad I read the book first. It was nice to live in 'suspense' and not know what happened at the end, although most every horror lover knows that the faithful outcome of horror means "almost everyone (if not everyone) dies" in the end.
I took to reading this novel before the 'scheduled' time to read it because my fall season is going to be unbearably busy. I wanted to devote time to enjoying the various stories on my reading list instead of plowing through them at breakneck speed (in addition to writing and rewriting my novel, and critiquing my partner's work).
Hell House starts out with a protagonist, Dr Lionel Barrett. Dr Barrett is described as a man in his middle fifties, and he is dead set on proving that phenomena (believed to be ghosts) have a physical/scientific explanation. I liked how Matheson set up the beginning of the story with Barrett being funded for his research by a wealthy man (Rolf Rudolf Deutsch) who is in search of the answer to the question, "Is there life after death?" Deutsch puts together what I consider a protagonist "group" (whose main protagonist is a man named Benjamin Franklin Fisher) with the purpose of achieving this goal. Each individual on the team possesses an expertise Deutsch feels is essential to discovering the workings within Hell House. Ben Fisher, a lone "sane" survivor of a previous excursion to Hell House (he was there in his teens), is requested to return once more (by the wealthy financial backer) because of his knowledge of the house and his extraordinary abilities as a physical medium.
Multiple POV lovers will enjoy this novel. I did. As I read, I studied how Matheson wrote from each character's head, yet linked them all with their common goal of staying in the house and discovering its secrets. In addition, the house and its possessing entity, Emeric Belasco, became the perfect horror antagonist. Belasco thwarts the paranormal team at every turn, out thinks them and preys on each of their fantasies and fears. The twists and turns in the novel are both predictable and surprising at various points, but allow for a fast paced and enjoyable read.
There were vile and suggestive themes in this novel, which in 1971 would have been quite shocking to older generations and probably very entertaining to the younger generations of the 60's and 70's. What I really enjoyed was how Matheson broke barriers with this book. In this novel he takes readers to places that many people of that time-period would be hesitant to go, and with a 'possessive' language he persuades them to keep on reading.
The blending of paranormal with science, religious with sacrilegious, sane with the insane and demure with scandalous sexuality... was thought provoking and darkly satisfying. I found myself analyzing passages the author had written, and looking at his word choices to discover "why" a certain word in a particular description was selected.
One thing that continually bothered me in the book was the frequent use of the word "hiss." People hissed with pain, hissed with cold, hissed with fear...there was an awful lot of hissing... and Matheson (and his editors) would have benefited from Microsoft Word and a word search of how many times "hiss" was used in the novel. I think a different bit of prose would have been selected if they'd had that option.
What (I believe) was convincing in this story was the detail concerning parapsychology. Matheson must have committed himself to some strong research in the subject of parapsychology, and the study of the paranormal, before completing this novel. Studies in this area were extremely popular in the 1970's, and many universities were dedicated to research in near death experiences and parapsychology at that time. There was even a Parapsychology Association (formed in 1957), which became a branch of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1969. Matheson's descriptions are believable because of his details, and he draws the reader in with what seems to be 'factual' information, in a setting that (particularly at the time) readers could relate to.
I say that readers could relate to the setting, because in my youth (I was born in 1962), I was exposed to abandoned houses which my friends and I (as pre-teens/teens) found in the backwoods of rural Virginia. We would walk through the houses, and discover old items (shoes, trunks filled with clothes, furniture, pots, ceramic bowls, axes and other tools) and scare ourselves half to death with tales of murder, ghosts and demonic reasons why belongings of former residents were left behind in the empty buildings. In some areas in Palmyra Virginia, a person could walk through the forest and find an entire ghost town grown over completely by wilderness (and still can). Why was the town abandoned? Who were the residents planted in the nearby graveyard...a scary place untended, overgrown, and decorated with broken headstones jutting haphazardly out of the ground? Such settings are perfect for fiction, and if one stays there long enough, perhaps for reality.
(Haunted House by Ashasylum @ DeviantArt.com)