Monday, February 15, 2010

Hell House by Richard Matheson

I have to say I don’t get it. Stephen King calls this book “the scariest haunted house book ever written.” What did I miss? It was a cold day, and I settled down in front of a nice fire hoping to be creeped out, and I was just bored.

I think the book had shallow, undeveloped characters. The ghosts were stock--cut-outs from a Hollywood special effects department. The plot was predictable, there was nothing especially surprising. It should have been scary when they had to stay in the house at first with no electricity, but it wasn’t.

The core of the novel is about Dr. Lionel Barrett’s purely scientific take on hauntings versus Florence Tanner’s more spiritual approach.

Barrett is such a purely unlikeable jerk from the very beginning of the book, it’s hard to care about him at all. He has a condescending outlook toward everyone, particularly his wife. Edith, his wife, is just plain annoying. Fischer is ineffectual as a psychic. Florence is the most interesting character, but you know she has to get the axe because whe’s the one sexy woman in the story.

Matheson’s attempts to be daring with the sexual perversion that went on in the house during its heyday is kind of laughable. Maybe it was a shocker in the seventies, but the titillating sexually oriented scenes now just seem campy, for example, Barrett’s wife, Edith, giving the buxom Florence a full body search, and the lesbian “sex scenes” are just plain dumb, not at all believable.

The characters didn’t act realistically. When Florence first sees Belasco’s son’s ghost in her room, she talks to it like it was her long-lost brother who had wandered in. She's not even startled. After the house has tried to kill them, they’re sitting around eating sandwiches rather than getting the hell out of there.

The book is hopelessly dated. I sometimes try to put my finger on why some books seem that way when others hold up well over time. (One book that has held up really well is Rosemary’s Baby.) I think it is because the characters are affected and stereotypical. Matheson doesn’t get into the minds of his characters and tell us what’s going on there. The emotions aren’t genuine, they're a parody of sixties and seventies-era people.

The ending is laughable. Fischer, who didn’t do very much throughout the course of the novel, saves the day by, in essence, calling Belasco a short wimp. At that point the ghost caves and gives up.

I had the feeling that Matheson was making it up as he went along. The last chapter has Fischer explaining the inconsistencies in the plot. For example, why did Belasco allow Barrett to use the Reversor when he knew it would weaken him? Because it would have been an admission to Barrett that he was right. Pretty weak.

One thing that Matheson does well is his descriptions of the house. He describes the house in great visual detail to the point that you can actually see the place. Also the descriptions of the Belasco parties are very vivid and well thought-out. The house functions as a separate character in the book. Unfortunately it’s the only one Matheson has developed to any extent.


  1. I very much agree with you, though I think I liked the book a bit more. Your complaints are right up the same alley as mine, and the issue of characterization really kind of ruined this experience for me.

  2. I also had a huge problem with the ending - I felt the wrap up was contrived.

    I much prefer Rosemary Jackson's take on almost the same setting - I think its definately scarier because she isn't as overt with the horror and doesn't go for the gross out.

    I'm not knocking Matheson. I love his work and find some of his short stories to be the best in the genre - and Hell House is a classic - just one I couldn't engage in as much as I wanted. Sad to say, I really think part of my problem was a sympathetic female protagonist. Apparently I like those more than I realized...


  3. All very valid points. Personally, I believe that, if I had a friend like Barrett, I'd smack him silly at least a couple of times a day, just to get him off his high-horse and out of his stuffed shirt. The man was a bore.