Hell House

Please note that this review contains plot spoilers. If you don’t want to know what happens in the book, skip this review!

SPOILER ALERT

SPOILER ALERT

SPOILER ALERT

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.

 

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Short Story Review: Richard Matheson’s The Funeral

Best of Richard Matheson

Please note that this review contains SPOILERS. Also: if anyone is interested in reading more of Richard Matheson’s fiction, a short story collection called The Best of Richard Matheson (pictured above) came out a few months ago.

Richard Matheson’s short story The Funeral tells the tale of a greedy funeral director who receives a visit from a man who wants to hold a funeral – for himself. This man hates mirrors and can transform into a bat. His friends include a hunchback, a witch, a group of pointy-toothed gentlemen and a man with hairy palms, er, hands. Mayhem ensues.

I don’t have a lot to say about this short story, a 2,499-word horror/humor mash-up that hasn’t aged well. However, in the interests of thoroughness and five hundred words here is my take. I found The Funeral’s humor to be dated, its use of alliteration distracting and its word choices irritating. I am sure the elevated vocabulary is intentional, a way to poke fun at the pomposity of the funeral business, but making your reader refer to a dictionary while perusing a story is never a good idea. I didn’t know the meaning of two of the words in the first sentence, but can take comfort in the fact that Ygor and old Jenny of Boston had trouble understanding what the hell people in this story were talking about, also. They are salt of the earth types, just like me.

The Funeral is interesting in that it is a horror/humor hybrid, which brings up the question of influences. Matheson is by no means the first person to combine horror and humor. I can think of two possible contemporary influences. The first is Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, which I loved as a kid. Indeed, The Funeral’s slapstick humor reminded me of this movie.

The second influence is EC Comics, publisher of fine horror comics in the late 40’s and early 50’s. The title I am thinking of is Tales from the Crypt, immortalized by the HBO series. I was struck by the fact that The Funeral could be an episode of Tales from the Crypt, except it wouldn’t be a very good episode. If this was an EC comic the funeral director wouldn’t know they were all vampires until the end, when they turned around and ate him, and then he would rise from the grave and cater exclusively to the undead. Matheson’s twist has the deceased recommending the funeral director’s business to all his monster friends.

Final point: cats don’t sit on people’s shoulders. I suppose it’s possible to train a cat to do so, but it would take serious bribes and I’d suggest wearing shoulder pads and a hockey mask. Ask any cat owner if you don’t believe me. Okay…that final point is a total nitpick, but I didn’t like this story.

Humor is subjective, and my review came down to whether or not this short story tickled my funny bone. As it happens, it did not. The biggest reason I didn’t like The Funeral is that I didn’t think it was very funny. To me, the veneer of sophistication shellacked onto this short story backfires, big-time, and The Funeral reads as phony and forced as the funeral business it is mocking.

Book Review: Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend

Legend

Please note that this review contains SPOILERS.

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is a groundbreaking novel for its time (1954). It is the granddaddy of at least three different popular fiction (sub-) genres, zombie, post-apocalyptic and medical/science thriller. Mr. Matheson’s description of the ‘vampire bacillus’ echoes modern thinking on the complex behavior of parasites, as illustrated in books such as Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex (2000). The scientific explanation of vampirism means that I Am Legend can be read as science fiction, and such a reading would be perfectly legitimate. What makes this book horror is the protagonist’s utter helplessness, self-loathing and psychic ennui.

Mr. Matheson does many things well in I Am Legend, which is a fast read. I have mixed feelings about his writing style. He uses a lot of action verbs but is a bit sparse on description for my personal tastes. This book had more than enough material to engage me, but I recall reading his novel Stir of Echoes (1958) in about a half-hour and thinking it was written for a sixth grader.

I am assuming leaving brand names off everything was a conscious choice on the author’s part, since the action takes place in the far-flung year of 1978. This was a good choice, since one of the things that makes old science fiction so dated is its use of awful futuristic jargon (the vidscreen!). Mr. Matheson does make a reference to Oliver Hardy, a comedian many people today have probably never heard of.

The other thing Matheson does well as a writer is anticipate questions that might arise in his reader’s mind and ask them. Such as: why doesn’t Robert kill himself? Why are Robert’s ‘experiments’ always on women? Why don’t the vampires burn his house down? Note that Matheson never answers these questions, but in a way raising them is enough to satisfy the reader. It’s a great writers’ trick.

The other trick Matheson pulls off involves his protagonist. Robert Neville is not a likable man. Robert Neville is an unpleasant man. It’s a good thing I Am Legend is a short novel, because it would be tough spending a long novel in Mr. Neville’s company. Yes, he’s been through hell. Yes, the trauma of his wife rising from the dead might have unhinged him.

Still: I was struck by the fact that everything Robert touches dies, his wife (twice), his daughter, the dog. He has violent, misogynistic thoughts and impulses towards women which he acts out, at one point dragging a woman around by her hair. Many of his actions make no sense. He kills an infected woman by leaving her in the sun, and then decides to get his car and go back for her to see if she reanimates, seemingly unaware that he can replicate his experiment at any time without risking the sun setting.

Most tellingly, Mr. Neville is a murderer. Many of the vampires he kills are still alive. They are infected, but they are still living beings. Mr. Neville knows but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t wonder how they can still be alive, because he goes through life in a state of ignorance. Yes, he discovers the source of the vampire plague – which anyone with access to a microscope could do – but he doesn’t come close to discovering a cure. The society that arises post-humanity is brutal, but it is a society that he helped create. Mr. Neville did it unknowingly, but since he spends the entire book unaware of the consequences of his own actions that comes as no surprise. The fact that I read and enjoyed a book with such an unlikable protagonist is testimony to Mr. Matheson’s skills as a writer.

You may ask, could I do any better in Robert Neville’s situation? I would have killed myself, and to me the question as to why the protagonist doesn’t end his own life is one of the biggest mysteries of I Am Legend. Mr. Neville has nothing left to live for, clinging to alcohol, ancient records and his enmity with Ben Cortman, whom he seems to view as an old friend by the book’s end.

Did I enjoy Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend? Yes, I admired this book, but must confess to enjoying the author’s short stories more than his novels. To me, Mr. Matheson’s style seems better suited to short fiction. Still, while reading I Am Legend I saw echoes of Richard Matheson in genre greats Stephen King, Michael Crichton and George Romero. He is legend, indeed!