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Hell House by Richard Matheson




Hell House's ending totally surprised me. I wondered just how much Richard Matheson may have waffled with that black-and-white, cut-and-dried, definitive ending.  Because ghost stories generally don't end that well.  Though, granted, two of the four people who entered Belasco House lost their lives, but rarely have I ever read a "ghostly" novel that ended so unequivocally. In wondering if Matheson maybe was intentionally going against the grain of the ghost story genre, leaving it purposely free of ambiguity, free of any doubt, I found an interview in which Matheson indeed confessed how unsatisfied he was by two of the endings in classics of the genre -- Henry James' The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House -- and predetermined that Hell House's ending would be clear cut, devoid of equivocation.  Even with his ending finished before he began writing his book, I believe he pulled the ending off without it feeling contrived, but rather following its own unforgettable, frightening course to its utterly surprising climax that served also as kind of Matheson manifesto on the origins of evil.

First U.S. printing, Viking (1971)
Hell House is a first rate horror novel no matter how it ended.  It gave me the chills -- gave me goosebumps -- in a piping hot bathtub the night I finished it.  I enjoyed Hell House's pitting science versus faith (albeit faith in the paranormal/occult); empiricism versus mysticism; and how both science -- as evinced in the physicist Dr. Barrett's life's work, the "Reversor" -- and the supernatural, in the mediums Florence and Fischer, were instrumental in combatting the mansion's predilection for psychological torture and murder.

The Reversor was a clunky contraption of dials and knobs that must have resembled a large generator -- a large metaphysical generator.  Dr. Barrett believed the power it generated would produce enough negative electromagnetic radiation (EMR) to eliminate any residual energy, or "positive EMR", still inhabiting the house from its previous deceased occupants.  This positive EMR, in Dr. Barrett's strictly empirical eyes, was the real culprit for the mansion's unexplained paranormal activity.  I enjoyed how Matheson set Dr. Barrett's scientific worldview in sharp contrast against the frankly bizarre beliefs of the passionate proponents of the paranormal in the mediums Florence and Fischer.  Their snarky dialogue provided, at critical junctures of crises, fleeting doses of much needed relief from the nuclear cauldron of nearly constant intensifying pressure ongoing inside that hellacious house. Reading Hell House has made me want to read more haunted house/ghost stories, in order to see how they've evolved in literature over the years. I suspect few have relied as much on science as Hell House.

I suspect also, after reading Hell House, that some alleged "haunted houses" in literature are a trifle more haunted than others.  Belasco House, the "Hell House" of the novel's title, as it was commonly called by the mediums and other ghost-pros who dared entering it, was considered the "Mt. Everest of haunted mansions".  However, comparing Hell House to Mt. Everest doesn't do Hell House justice when one considers that of all the mountaineers who've ever attempted to climb Mt. Everest, only about ten percent have died; whereas, conversely, only ten percent of the people who've ever entered Hell House and spent the night there have left the house alive.  Exceedingly more deadly, based on the statistical rates of failure recounted in Hell House, spending the night there than attempting to climb Mt. Everest. I doubt even El Chapo could escape from Hell House alive.

TOR edition (1999) 
with Michael J Deas cover illustration
Hell House, if you'll pardon the momentary longeur, is so adept at sending anyone who'd spent a night there straight to an early, grisly grave, it's practically as effective an executioner as capital punishment is here in The States.  A pity that capital punishers could never be allowed to sentence its vilest criminal offenders to Hell House to die (assuming, of course, Hell House were real).  Such an unorthodox Hell House Death Sentence, unfortunately, would probably constitute cruel and unusual punishment; too cruel, no doubt, for even pedophiles and serial killers.  And too unusual because it usually took too long to die there, up to four days and nights in some instances, as was the case for one of the mediums who entered the house with Dr. Barrett.  And one of those nights was a gruesome night of necrophilia, and that's necrophilia of the unexpected reverse kind initiated by the dead upon the living.  Yuck!  Christ, even when an an execution goes awry in a state sanctioned house of horrors, as was recently the case in the botched lethal injection of Joseph R. Wood in Arizona, his death still lasted for only one hour and forty minutes. Hardly the type of slow tortuous death that goes on for days inside Hell House.

Richard Matheson
While Biblical passages loom large a couple times in Hell House, particularly Matthew 5:29 (though I think John 8:32 could've rung just as true in Matheson's narrative contexts as well), there's nary a hint of Catholic subtext in Hell House (thank God) until we enter its chapel and find a perverted (though not inverted), life-sized, and shall we say, wooden, crucifixion; the blasphemous imagery obviously borrowed from Anton LaVey's own borrowed depictions of the Black Mass then en vogue at the time of Hell House's 1971 publication.  The chapel gets more intriguing when its secret gothic chamber and the pathetic power for so long concealed there is revealed in a denouement that's more akin to Julien Gracq's stylized "Chapel of the Abyss" chapter in Chateau d'Argol than any of the lurid and absurd schlock ripped off by that carnival clown, Anton Lavey.  For the genesis of evil, as Richard Matheson envisioned it, and as he empowered it in Hell House, while allowing spacious room, yes, for the supernatural (or the paranormal or whatever the hell one might wish calling the eerie shit -- and forgive me if I momentarily risk giving away too much), was at least as much if not more the result of the malignant manifestation of a human ego gone superbad, a la Hitler, than that of lost or angry spirits, whom, being somehow stuck in their carryover of negative emotions after death, go berserk on the other side to such an extreme their unearthly echoes of outrage can be heard by those psychics attuned to hear them.  Even for the most gifted psychics, however, such as Florence or Fischer, opening themselves up to hear them doesn't always mean they'll automatically receive illumination, but rather madness, or much worse. . . .

Some novels can so possess you they literally scare the hell into you.  The Exorcist is one example. Hell House, another.

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