Saturday, July 30, 2011

"You're walking around this house like... open nerve."
~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.

Sleep well.

(Haunted House by Ashasylum @


  1. I love coming upon abandoned places and trying to think up stories as to why they're abandoned. It's interesting, reading the varying opinions on this book. It's one of my favorite books (it's actually one of the books that made me want to be a writer), but it just doesn't work for some folks. Glad you liked it.

  2. Scott, I can see that.

    I did enjoy the novel, but I have to say that the BEST for me so far has been "Ghost Story." The verbiage that Straub uses is poetic, and he weaves a twingey nerve pinging sensation throughout the prose. He's artful in his writing craft also. Not too much use of adverbs, no over-description...nothing excessively distracting. I'm halfway through it now, and I still can't get the vision of Gregory standing on the hill... out of my mind. I wrote Peter Straub and asked how much he researched on this novel (I was just curious) and he said the only thing he remembers really researching was the type of beer the locals drank. Weird right? :)

    For my own research "stompings", I tried finding "Scary Dairy" near Channel Islands University for my paper we have due to you later, but came up empty. Either it's been mowed over, or people aren't telling me straight how to get there. I'll try once more next week. This weekend it's off to Cemetery Park to see if I can walk over a few graves and explore the paradox of making a cemetery into a "park" for the living to recreate (and probably sometimes procreate)...

  3. I agree with you about the research also - I had to look up some terms after reading this story. However, this is probably one of my least favorite books, which is a pity because I love his short stories - and "I Am Legend" is a favorite. I never caught the "hissy" fits, though - isn't it funny how we all snag on different elements? (And I love that you wrote to Peter Straub and he wrote back. I met him and his wife several years ago at a conference; they're wonderful people).

  4. Great review Cin. I always felt that horror is primarily a small town/rural thing. I have lived in big cities all my life and we don't have isolated, abandoned homes out in the middle of nowhere. The isolation of the cities are emotional, not physical, and it has a different flavor. I tend to approach stories like Hell House different, but I find them no less rewarding. And, for the record, I didn't hate the book. I thought it was well-written and had a great protagonist/antagonist mix. The sex stuff didn't work for me.

  5. Thanks Gina and Joe.

    Gina, yes Peter was kind enough to respond which was awesome. I hope if ever my books sell, that I'll take time to mentor and teach, and respond to novice writers with thoughts, ideas and feedback. I'm really grateful for my critique partners and truly hope you guys are hard on me (cause I love the tough love), but something in me tells me you all won't hold back. I need to hear what's working and what isn't even if sometimes I choose to go my own way. The nice thing is I respect each of you as peer writers and readers after reading the excellent work you do, and I enjoy the collaboration.

    Joe, I hear what you are saying about the small town...rural, for ghost stories, but I wonder if it's really just 'small town'. Of course, Washington DC is nowhere near as large as NYC but it has it's ghosty spots in urban places. The O-Street sewer station was CREEEPY (built in the early 1900's) and there's a definite stinky vibe there that doesn't just come from human excrement. It's something sinister. Deeper. The sex scenes in Hell House only worked for me when I put myself back into the early 70's (remember I'm almost 49 y.o.). I grew up alongside both sexual repression and revolution. I can imagine my parents reading those scenes with rapt revulsion and secret admiration. Today, yes, you're right...there are sights on the streets, in plain view, that will make most people's hair drop out if they aren't prepared for them. For the average (dare I say 'Joe', okay, no...) homosapien they could be shocking, but for those exposed (pun intended) to the eclectic and voracious appetites of densely packed sexuality it's like "in your face horror." Just meh. Impress me with the story. :) Thanks guys.

  6. Cin,I think your point about the sexuality in this book is very interesting. Coming out of the "sexual revolution," it is interesting to think of what commentary Matheson might have been making about the new "free love." While I'm sure he included much of it for the shock factor (as many of us do in our writing), I think the subtext is interesting. It seems he may be in disagreement with the idea.