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