Please note that this review contains plot spoilers. If you don’t want to know what happens in the book, skip this review!
There’s a scene in Hell House where Dr. Lionel Barrett, who has built a machine called The Reversor that also serves as his surrogate penis, debates where to put the body of his deceased colleague, Florence Tanner, on the ride home. Dr. Barrett has supposedly exorcised Hell House with his Reversor, and he is feeling smug about the fact that he was right and Ms. Tanner was wrong. A little background, here: Ms. Tanner has just been sexually brutalized and murdered by a ghost, and Barrett spends most of the book telling her she’s making it all up to get attention.
Barrett doesn’t know where to put Florence’s body. Their third companion – a man named Fisher – would object to putting her in the trunk, and Barrett’s wife Edith would find it painful to ride in the back seat with a corpse. I am happy to report that Barrett meets his demise soon afterwards, and that Fisher stuffs his corpse into the trunk of the car without a hint of hesitation. Normally you don’t root for anyone’s corpse to get stuffed into the trunk of a car, but Barrett is such an asshole I’ll make an exception.
The plot of Hell House is threadbare, and I mean that in a good way. Four ghost-hunters come to the “Mount Everest of Haunted Houses” to – well, they all have different desire lines. Doc Barrett is a stone-cold atheist who believes in spiritual phenomena but not spirits, Edith Barrett is his loving wife, Benjamin Fisher is a physical medium who escaped Hell House thirty years ago and Florence Tanner is a spiritual medium who believes in the power of love.
Hell House is dominated by Doc Barrett. Think of him as an iron sphincter, unable to bend or yield, totally full of shit. His antagonist Florence Tanner believes that the patriarch ghost of Hell House, Emeric Belasco, had a bastard son who died there. Ghost and spiritual medium have a bizarre courtship of sorts, which leads to such passages as – she felt a stir of sensual awareness in her body.
Holy mackerel, turn up the air, it’s gettin’ hot in here!!!
Benjamin Fisher is the book’s wild card; keep an eye on that guy. Dr. Barrett brings his wife, Edith, to Hell House, despite the fact that she is a prime candidate for a nervous breakdown. Soon afterwards, Edith begins having naughty thoughts and starts doing things like trying to throw herself into tarns and taking her clothes off. Doc Lionel no doubt thinks she’s acting out for attention.
Hell House reads quickly. If you’ve read this book before, as I have, reading it again quickly becomes a slog. Matheson excels at writing toxic men but can’t write women. The female characters of Hell House are all a combination of weak, stupid and irrational. There is also an offensive passage about gay people. I understand that this book was a product of its time, but maybe this is something you might want to edit out of future editions?
I possess a copy of Hell House with an introduction wherein Matheson explains how he wrote this book in reaction to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and I don’t get why he just couldn’t leave it alone. This is the sort of thing you do in an undergrad Creative Writing Class and end up wanting to burn the manuscript when you find it thirty years later. In a way, Matheson’s actions mirror the actions of the characters of Hell House, who should have left it alone and never entered that house.
Unfortunately, what’s done is done. It’s obvious that the characters of Hell House are loosely based on the characters in Jackson’s novel. Since The Haunting of Hill House– warts and all – blows Hell House out of the water, I almost felt embarrassed for Matheson. Today The Haunting of Hill House is viewed as a classic and nobody but hardcore horror fans read Hell House, but that’s all right. We’ll always have that magical scene where Barrett debates where to put Florence’s corpse.
Here’s the tally of Liked/Disliked books so far. 1/1.