Richard Matheson’s Hell House may be the best haunted house story of all time. This is another horror novel which I’ve known about forever but for some reason just haven’t read. The premise of the novel is fairly straightforward: a rich dying business man offers a noted scientist, Dr. Barrett, an obscene sum of money to determine whether or not the spirit can linger by investigating the titular Hell House. Accompanying Dr. Barrett on this journey are his assistant and wife (Dr. Barrett had polio which has left him with a bum leg) Edith, a spiritual medium Florence Tanner, and the sole survivor of the previous excursion to Hell House (also a medium) Benjamin Franklin Fischer.
The real juiciest bits of Hell House, and where Matheson’s talent truly shines, is in the portrayal of the competing beliefs between the various individuals on the expedition. Dr. Barrett has very strong, deeply rooted beliefs in the science. His reliance on logic, reason, and the scientific method is as fervorous and nigh fanatical as Florence’s belief on the lingering presence of spirits and the power God. In the middle of this conflict between science and spirituality is Benjamin whose past experience’s with the house have left him shaken. He is skeptical of Dr. Barrett’s hypotheses but openly recognizes the dangerous nature of Florence’s openness towards whatever it is that inhabit’s Hell House. Last but not least is Edith, will to believe in her husband’s science but drawn like a moth to the flame of Florence’s spirituality.
A midst the complicated morass of competing ideas is Hell House, the former home of Emeric Belasco whose forceful personality drew people to him pulling them into an ever deepening spiral of hedonism and blasphemy that would put the Marquis de Sade to shame. The novel never disputes that something inhabits the walls and grounds of Belasco’s house. From the very moment the characters enter the house it begins working at their weak points; driving wedges into the already vast differences in opinions. Even the very architecture itself seeming to prey upon the psyche of the various characters.
Matheson strikes a masterful balance between the looming horror of the house itself and the complicated psyches of the four protagonists. It is this combination that elevates the novel to the status of classic. However, I will say that I was somewhat disappointed by the novel’s conclusion. The build up of fear and tension was so great during the novels middle section that the final chapters felt a bit weaker by the resolution of that fear. It isn’t something that ruins the novel but it definitely softens the impact of the fear quite a bit. I definitely prefer a touch of ambiguity in horror, just enough to leave me with that lingering sense of dread, and it is unfortunate that Matheson doesn’t really do that here.
Regardless of that minor issue Hell House is definitely a classic of the genre that despite its age holds up even today. While there are aspects of some of the technology used in the novel that might not jive with our more modern sensibilities this is really a minor issue and the strength of the prose easily overcomes any such difficulties. Fans of horror who’ve yet to give Matheson’s seminal haunted house tale a shot should definitely do so as soon as possible; I was definitely a bit of an idiot for waiting so long.