Rating: 4.5 of 5
Hell House is built on a classic framework and then filled with modern sensibilities and indulgences; it’s basically an R-rated version of the Haunting of Hill House.
Here’s the lowdown:
Dr. Lionel Barrett, a physicist who’s studied parapsychology for twenty years, doesn’t believe in ghosts. He just needs the chance – and the financial support – to show the world what he already knows. Enter Rolf Rudolph Deutsch, a dying millionaire, who offers Dr. Barrett $100,000 if he can provide definitive evidence about survival after death. Obviously it is an offer Barrett cannot refuse.
Also along for the investigation are Dr. Barrett’s wife, Edith; Reverend Florence Tanner, a spiritualist and mental medium; and Ben Fischer, who was once considered the country’s most powerful physical medium. The object of their investigation? Why, the world’s most infamous haunted house, of course. The Belasco house, named after its owner, Emeric Belasco, came to be known as Hell House because Belasco “created a private hell there.” Previous investigations were unsuccessful, to say the least, resulting in eight people’s deaths, suicide or insanity.
The house’s history and notoriety only encourages Dr. Barrett. He is determined to debunk Hell House as haunted and he means to rid the house of its disturbances using science. Meanwhile, Florence intends to set free the spirits she knows are trapped there; Ben Fischer just wants to make it to the $100,000 payday; and Edith, well, she believes in her husband and supports him as best she can.
But once they enter Hell House their focus should only be on one thing:
Getting back out … sane and alive.
Here are my two cents:
Right away there was a strong Hill House vibe. There were also the typical haunted house devices: dying rich person, dense fog, a tarn, an abandoned mansion in a secluded location, no electricity despite newly repaired wiring and a generator.
The story was structured around the investigation’s timeline, which created a sense of doom from the get-go. A clock counting down to their deadline but also, perhaps, to their ruin. The plot was fast-paced with little filler. The scientific explanations felt somewhat dated and dry, but those weren’t prominent enough to distract from the story. Additionally, any lack in character development was more than made up for with atmosphere, tension, and suspense.
Florence turned her head. The door to the corridor had just been opened. She looked across the darkness of the room. The door closed quietly.
Footsteps started toward her.
“Yes?” she said.
The footsteps kept approaching, muffled on the rug. Florence started reaching for the candle, then withdrew her hand, knowing it was not one of the other three. “All right,” she murmured.
The footsteps halted…[t]here was a sound of breathing at the foot of the bed (pp. 72-73).
There was a considerable amount of disturbing imagery, though. And Matheson didn’t have to describe every detail for my imagination to pick up what he was laying down.
The figures vanished as she reached the chapel door. A man was crouched in front of it. His face was white, his expression drugged. He held a severed human hand to his lips, sucking on one of the fingers. She bit into her hand. The figure vanished (p. 244).
The overarching mystery surrounding the “truth” of Hell House was expertly written. Barrett and Tanner’s back and forth debates throughout the investigation were presented in such a way that both theories seemed plausible. Plus, I wasn’t 100% sure what was really going on until close to the big reveal.
When the story ended, it felt rushed. The whole “Reversor” thingy a bit too convenient. And I couldn’t quite suspend my disbelief for the characters’ decisions in those final hours.
Here’s what you might not like:
- Plot-focused with minimal character development
- Graphic violence with blood and/or gore
- Sexual situations including sexual assault
- Science-y discussions and descriptions
Touted on numerous lists as a “must read” for all horror fans, I was pleasantly surprised Hell House lived up to its hype. As soon as I finished, I rated it 5 stars. Only after further evaluation did I recognize that it wasn’t a flawless book. But those flaws are few and forgivable, especially considering how much I was scared whilst reading. I’d definitely recommend you give it a read if you’re into haunted house stories with a moderate amount of violence and blood.
[Side note: I watched the movie adaptation, The Legend of Hell House, on April 20th, and it was just meh for me. I can't believe Matheson wrote the screenplay because it seemed so ... watered down and, well, boring. The atmosphere and underlying tension that I loved in the book were completely absent from the movie.]