Another of my assignments for my Readings in the Genre: The Haunted class to get my Masters of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University was Hell House (Horror 301 pages) by Richard Matheson.
As with most of the books for this class, I am likely to have a number of spoilers so if you haven’t read the novel and you want things to be something of a surprise, you’re probably better off not reading this review.
The tone of Hell House was completely different than that of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I found The Haunting of Hill House to be rather nostalgic and lonely whereas Hell House was aptly named and extremely violent on a variety of levels. And yet, both books did have some rather obvious similarities. I think the most common theme between both these novels was the mostly innocent female character. In The Haunting of Hill House, that character was Eleanor. In Hell House, that character was Edith. I was interested that both names also started with an “E” and I’m not sure that has any relevance or not, but it was something that I noticed. Both women seemed to be characters who did not fit into the societal norms of sexuality and both viewed their lack of those norms as something that made them less worthy of love and attention in their own minds. In a lot of ways, I think both women were actually Asexual and that was part of the way that both houses were able to form attacks against both women. This was seen in Eleanor as her mixed feelings towards Theo and in Edith as her actual repulsion of Florence, Lionel, and Ben. But the house was still able to use their confusion about their own sexual identities and the way they thought they should behave based on what their societies said they, as women, should want.
Meanwhile, one of the things that actually annoyed me throughout the entire novel was how the men were known by their last names and the women were known by their first names. This made things super confusing for me on a variety of levels because Edith and Lionel were both Barretts, but referring to Barrett as a character tended to mean Lionel and not Edith. And then Florence referred to Ben as Ben, but the author indicated Ben as Fischer. This seriously annoyed me to nearly the point of violence.
I thought that Hell House was definitely an engaging read because it built tension so well. I tend to have a very vivid and graphic imagination so I’m not usually so keen on horror novels that allow my over-active imagination to run wild with me, but this book did a great job of balancing just enough disgusting and graphic violence for me to get a good idea of what was going on, but not pushing so hard that I felt sick and put the novel down. I actually greatly appreciated that balance and thought that it really helped to build the tension throughout the story.
There were a lot of places that really helped to develop the setting as one filled with malice and violence, like early in the story on page 27 where the car drives through the greenish mist and then on page 29 where they find the concrete bridge and the tarn. All the windows in the house were boarded up and the very atmosphere says a combination of “toxic”, “go away”, and “gross death”. For horror world-building, it’s fantastic. If I ran into this place in real life? I’d probably add it to my “nope” list.
I really like how much faith Lionel had in his science, but there were a lot of times when I was frustrated by his sheer arrogance. Florence has a great case that both Lionel’s view of supernormal experiences and Florence’s view of mediums can both be correct, but Lionel rejects them out of hand. And then Lionel puts them all in serious danger by monologuing about exactly what his machine will accomplish and how on page 224. I wanted to jump inside the book and hit him with a frying pan or something to wake him up to the extremely bad idea of telling the house what he intended to do in order to purge it of the crappy things it did to people.
This is where I’m going to ruin the ending of the book, so if you haven’t read the book and you want to be surprised by what happens, you really, really should stop reading here.
The end of the book actually made me laugh because I kept thinking about that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the gang went to the frat party and it was taken over by a fear demon. When everyone finally faces their fears and they join together again to face the final demon, it turns out to be a tiny, miniature demon and Buffy just steps on it after Xander mocks it by saying, “Who’s a little fear demon?” So when I got to the end of the novel and it turns out that Belasco is a short ego-maniac, I burst out laughing. Ben got rid of the evil in Hell House by mocking it to death.
Overall, I think I’d probably rate this book as a solid two on my scale. It had great tension and a lot of wonderful development and I was highly amused by the way the book ended. But I’m not sure how likely I am to read it again for any other purpose than to learn how to write better horror.